Cultural Isolationism Has Prevailed.

An interview with Lev Gudkov by Filip Memches

In the past, the world was afraid of Russia and today the Russians are afraid of the world. In 1989 13% of the society said “yes” to the question if Russia had enemies. Today 78% of Russians believe so. This is an incredible change—says Lev Gudkov in conversation with Filip Memches.

Does the Soviet past have any meaning for Russians 23 years after the collapse of the USSR, does it define their identity?

There is a strong nostalgia for this era. The Brezhnev period is often perceived as the most prosperous time in our 20th-century history. But most Russians also believe that there is no return there. For the USSR does not exist anymore, which means that Soviet Russia also does not exist.

Does this nostalgia breed social divisions?

Of course. There are two factors defining the divisions: the first is generational, the second is connected with where you live and hence to which social group you belong. Market-based infrastructures have emerged in big cities. A new of literature, ethnic relations and problems of political and economic transition in the post-Soviet society class has appeared…

The middle class?

The description “urban class” is more adequate. It is to a lesser degree dependent on govern-Soviet economy, such as the military-industrial ment and to a greater degree oriented towards complex. In such places there is a demand for European values, democracy, political reforms. state paternalism, economic planning, social In contrast to that, the countryside and small-security. Among older or less educated people town Russia preserved relics of uncompetitive there is a pronounced desire for social privileges from the Soviet era. Such people believe that market reforms destroy the foundations of their existence. And for that reason they are susceptible to conservative, anti-Western sentiments and form the social basis of the authoritarian regime—Putinism.

That would mean that the majority of Russian population is like that, for inhabitants of big cities are in a minority…

This is the dramatic reason for the absence of democratic and modernizing changes in Russia.

Does the post-Soviet nostalgia encompass only the Brezhnev period or does it extend to earlier decades?

The situation is of course quite complex. The Brezhnev period was different from the Stalinist period. Repressions were not on such a massive scale. They generally assumed the form of pre-emptive measures targeted at specific groups, such as dissidents, nationalists, some religious communities. But the basic material needs were satisfied, which was an effect of a kind of Gleichschaltung. But it does not mean a genuine nostalgia for the Brezhnev past. We are rather dealing with using the past as an argument against the present, mainly against social contrasts. In this sense people have forgotten the Soviet epoch, characterized by shortages of goods, lack of prospects, a sense of stagnation. And now an idealized picture of this era serves the inhabitants of conservative peripheries as a source of accusations against the current regime. As for the Stalinist period, in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was subjected to a sharp although superficial criticism, which did not touch upon the essence of the totalitarian Soviet system. The whole problem was reduced to mass murders. In fact Stalin ceased to be a significant figure for Russians. But with Vladimir Putin becoming president in 2000 and starting to build an authoritarian system, the dictator gained in importance. For authoritarian regimes need models of executing power provided by great leaders. The very greatness of such a ruler absolves the governing elite from responsibility for the crimes they commit.

So against the official position of the Russian state a vindication of Stalin took place?

It could be noticed in the media, especially in television. First of all, an image of Stalin as the victor in the Great Patriotic War was created. This is why two contradictory pictures of this politician appeared in the social awareness. On the one hand, 65–68% of the population believes that Stalin is responsible for mass repressions, which they find completely unjustifiable. On the other hand, a similar number of people perceive this dictator as a great leader, without whom the Soviet Union would not have won the war. And such contradictions in the social awareness cannot be successfully resolved. For there are no authorities and bodies which could adequately interpret the Stalinist period. As a result, there is no moral reflection on the Soviet past. It is telling that during the twelve years of historical policy promoted by the Kremlin there has been an increase in the number of people who are simply not interested in such issues and choose forgetting— this percentage rose to almost 50%. And for me this is the fundamental problem—I call it the lack of moral independence of Russian society.

So the Soviet superpower status is being separated from communist ideology, Putin’s regime tries to associate it with right-wing, conservative values…

In this case, Western political categories may be of no use, for in the 1990s liberal reformers such as Yegor Gaidar regarded themselves as right-wingers. To be more precise, today the government is promoting a kind of Orthodox- nationalist fundamentalism. It is a completely artificial neo-traditionalism, invoking something, which has never existed. We are dealing with an imitation of the glorious past but only the style or form of this past is important rather than its essence or content.

But is there no conflict between the imperial discourse and nationalism? You can often hear that there is no room for nationalism in Russia, as it used to be an empire, that is a multinational polity.

The imperial identity is slowly ceasing to be relevant. And Russian nationalism, in contrast to Central European nationalism, has a defensive and compensatory character. It is suffused with the trauma of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It is accompanied by frustration and a collective inferiority complex. This favors shaping identity on the basis of defining and pinpointing an enemy rather than invoking, also in historical terms, a positive image of ourselves. The sense of national pride is supposed to compensate for poverty and the chronic feeling of humiliation provoked by illegal actions of the government. The following notion was present in the Soviet mass consciousness: we are poor but respected and feared in the world. And now Russia is not a great power, so there is a resentment against immigrants, especially from the Caucasus, the neighboring countries, the USA, and there are expressions of xenophobia, both inward and outward-looking. In 1989, 13% of the society said “yes” to the question whether Russia had enemies, and the majority—47%—held the opposite opinion, so the sources of our problems should be sought in ourselves, in Russians, in our past, in our lifestyle. Today, 78% of the population believe that Russia has enemies. And this leap took place mostly in the period after Putin first became president.

Is this hostility spread only by the regime? Such politicians from the anti-systemic opposition as Alexei Navalny or Eduard Limonov also do not shrink from nationalist rhetoric and use anti-immigrant slogans…

This is true, the problem also regards the opposition. But xenophobic feelings are incited by the regime, which provokes the opposition to use them for its own purposes. The government scares the public with immigrants, whom it accuses of taking jobs away from native Russians. And the public is alarmed with such messages. At the same time the government understands that without immigrants, Russian economy could not function. Because for various reasons—including demographic ones—there is a shortage of labor in Russia. So we are seeing an ambiguity in the government’s behavior. And in the sphere of ideology nationalism itself is the only theme in Russian politics. Of course, we have various nationalist tendencies, from the liberal current, opting for the creation of a nation state and civil society based on the Western model, through Russian communism to Russian Nazism or Orthodox fundamentalism, which is almost Medieval in its nature. This broad spectrum of conservative, dark concepts will affect social awareness in the coming years.

Is there a tension within the ruling elite between perceiving Russia as a European country and perceiving it as a separate civilization? One of the key projects of Putin’s third presidential term is to create a Eurasian union, a form of reintegrating Soviet space. It harks back to the concept of Eurasianism, where Russia appears as a “Eurasian civilization” different from the West.

If we look at the public opinion, we will observe that all these discussions on Eurasianism and friendship of nations do not fall on fertile ground. These are conservative projects of the highest echelons of power—they are an unproductive response of Putin’s regime to the problem of not being approved by the West. Hence the reorientation towards China and other Asian countries. But all these tendencies have a slightly phantom nature. They do not influence the collective awareness. The majority of Russians want to live a normal and quiet life, they do not want to make sacrifices for the sake of restoring the empire. This breeds divisions between the society, forced to listen to swaggering pronouncements by politicians, and the feelings within the regime.

Does the society identify itself with Europe?

It did in the period of Perestroika and the early years of Yeltsin’s presidency. Russians believed then that the history of their country had come to a dead end and they felt the need to integrate with Europe. However, the hardships of economic transition and falling standards of living caused a reaction. Today less and less Russians consider themselves Europeans. On the other hand it does not mean that a growing number of people consider themselves “Eurasians.”There is a common belief that Russia has its own, separate— but only vaguely defined—development path. We are dealing here with a kind of cultural isolationism.

On the one hand, the Russian political elite scares the people with the West and on the other hand it enters into various forms of cooperation with the same West…

In Russian foreign policy pragmatism trumps over other considerations. Putin’s bureaucracy is aware that its current strong domestic position is not guaranteed to last forever. So to maintain it, the regime requires legitimization from the West. And this calls for a certain caution and restraining from brandishing conspiracy theories.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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