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“Russia is a puzzling unknown country. It has turned out that we know nothing about it. Therefore it is probably why we have lived with such difficulty and so stupidly. Where is the path to the renaissance? A people without its own clan, without tribes, without parents, without history, without historical experience, will never be able to get onto that path. Thus, we have to remember who we are, who are our parents, who is the mother of our land…Russia.”

Stanislav Govorukhin, The Russia We Lost

I. Introduction:

Russia has had to redefine its identity after the breakdown of the Soviet Union1, but actually even since the pre-revolutionary times, in mz point of view Russian identity has not changed that much. It has since then defined itself in opposition to the West. For me Russian identity has always been hard to grasp, so I was happy to find out that my Russian host family that I used to live with would refer to Europe as to Western Europe, not including Russia. Therefore I thought everything was clear: Russia did at least not belong to the West, to Europe. Did it then belong to the East? But now especially since September 11 everything has changed again. Russia is turning itself more and more towards the West. It is about to become part of NATO or as Putin formulated it part of a new alliance that would include NATO, as well as Russia.

II. Main Part:

I like Groys’ approach of saying that Russia has actually a tradition of re-defining itself. I think this is true. If one follows up this notion even further, one comes to the result, that even though Russia kept re-defining itself during its history, the outcome was always pretty much the same, it was the other West, something that could only be defined in opposition to the West2.

Identity during Soviet Times

Groys says that Russia after the breakdown of the Soviet Union had to re-define everything. I do not totally agree. What at least already existed were those attitudes looking towards the West as a role model. Instead I would like to argue that this process was not that hard for Russia, on the one hand because it was used re-defining its identity and on the other hand because all its institutions and its culture in general, were “constructed”. They were something that had been forced upon those living in the Soviet Union. Therefore it was easier to tear them down than something that grew out of history and therefore would have been much more rooted within the society. Of course, especially during Soviet times art was instrumentalized to its highest extent in order to construct a Soviet identity. But it never actually worked. A Soviet identity did never emerge. When somebody would go to the West, let us say an artist and he would be asked: ”So who are you?” He would not say: “I am a Soviet artist”, but he would answer: “I am Russian.” He would probably even have said this, if he was Tartar. Because outside of the Soviet Union, they were all perceived as Russians. Inside the Soviet Union there was a different picture, here: Russians stayed Russians and, for example, Caucasians were always Caucasians marked by stereotypes that had existed for decades. The homo sovieticus was never born. Actually he could never have existed in his pure form because problems existed like, for example, which language would he have spoken? Sovietish ?

For art in those times it was hard to find its own identity. But to some extent Russian or I should better say Soviet art found its own identity which was later expressed by, for example, the rejection of a market in art. Something like this never occurred in the Western art scene. It was special, it was something that Soviet art had for its own, that it could identify itself with and that it in my eyes could also be proud of.

What could help in the process of re-definition?

If one focuses on what could help Russia in this transition period to re-define itself, it is not only its own experience of re-defining and re-inventing itself, but maybe also the re-definition of others in the West, for example ( I am thinking about Germany after the World War II). Russia has always been copying the West and using this for itself, why not this time? As another model could serve the GDR or eastern Germany since the reunification of Germany, but maybe it would be more appropriate to argue that the process of reunification was more one of a process of annexation and therefore a comparison to Russia would not be valuable. But actually this would not have been the first time that Russia would use means from the West to eventually get to its own ends3.

Russia’s History as a Continuum

In my opinion Groys’ notion that Russia’s historical continuity has always been interrupted by some kind of breakdown is arguable. This is not really anything that makes Russia special. Empires have come to an end, new states have developed. This is how history usually goes. A continuous process of beginning and ending, splitting up and re-unifying. I see more of a continuity in Russia’s history than Groys does. The element that has been continuous throughout time is the fact that Russia used the same method to invent its own identity, which was not only opposing itself to the West, but also to the Orient, the Muslim and Confucian world. It is hard to eventually decide whether Russia is neither part of the West nor of the East or whether it’s the other West. Maybe Russia is Russia, making up its own category because it does not fit into either one of the conventional categories. Even Huntington could not really find a civilization that Russia could fit into and he had to admit that Russia was something in between.

A Common Identity for the Whole of Russia?

I would like to argue that it is in general hard for me to imagine that a common Russian identity exists. How can there be a common Russian identity for people from the Baltic sea to the Kamchatka? Does not a person from St.Petersburg or even Kaliningrad identify herself as somebody totally different from somebody who lived in Chabarovsk, for example, all his life, for whom Japan, China and Korea were always much closer than any other states.

One could argue though that the isolation that was created by the Soviet regime made the people grow together, but on the other hand people even during Soviet times were always very much aware of their ethnic or regional identity.

Russia -the Other West and the Closest Other

To some extent Russia’s strategy is deceitful. It takes elements from the West eventually using these against the West4. What is interesting about this fact is that this does not make Russia be more open to the West even though it is itself to some extent part of the West. What makes Russia’s process of re-definition even more interesting is that the same means are used under different headlines, communist as well as democratic ones, both times taking something from the West, using it eventually against the West. The communist ideology itself was invented in the West (in Germany mainly) by Marx and Engels5, it was then adapted by Russia in order to eventually instrumentalize against the West becoming part of Russia’s constructed identity. Russia is the other West on the one hand and the closest other on the other hand. This makes Russia especially threatening to the West. The notion of the closest other has its origin in constructivist international relations theory, but in my opinion this notion does also fit very well into this context.

Claim of Universality and Self-Resolution

The question that emerges then is, if Russia was so threatening for the West why did it eventually resolve itself? Groy’s argument here is that Russia’s claim of universality led to self-resolution and I agree with him. The Soviet Union and its all- including communism claimed even more universality than the West and its capitalism and democracy did. The Soviet Union wanted the whole world to become communist. At the same time making this claim, it made itself obsolete. Leontjev said that only the lack of freedom and surpression, which the Russians experienced during Tsarist times as well as communist times can, make a human being or culture become special or original due to the fact that it sets up certain borders6.

Russia in the same time became a victim of the overall process of globalization of which the result was that nothing was left which could not have been deconstructed7.

Russian Artists Deconstructing Sovietness: Kabakov

Therefore Soviet identity or Sovietness as far as it existed, was itself deconstructed. In my point of view Russian artists, such as Kabakov, for example had a great impact on deconstructing the Soviet Union. By his installations of “комуналка“ (communal appartment) in the late period of the Soviet Union Kabakov critisized the communist system. In general his installations are complex constructions of Soviet spaces, they showed or recreated environments such as communal apartments, mental hospitals or depressing workplaces and classrooms. These so-called total installations were metaphers for a dissatisfying and often absurd way of life under brain-washing mechanisms of Soviet mass culture.8 These installations were Kabakov’s reaction to having the identity of a “relocated person“: grown up in the East and having lived in the West for a long time. Today the number of such people (relocated persons) grows and in my point of view do those people partly change the relationship between the East and the West.

Kabakov once said during a speech: “First we shall touch upon the situation when the ‘relocated person’ has not yet begun his ‘relocation‘, but when he already has an ‘Image of the West‘ and when that set of ‘expectations‘ and claims he is leaving with and which he will present to that ‘west‘ has already been formed.“ This shows that even if there is no interaction, images about each other already exist.

Astonishingly, during Soviet times somebody who would have been too western or in general to alien to the Russian culture, was also right away perceived as a threat, as a threat to Soviet or Russian identity. Kabakov in his books describes the visit of some kind of commission to his atelier. The commission de facto simply wants to make sure that he fits into the social pattern, that he is normal. In order to be perceived as normal by them, he cannot play the role of an artist, as being critique about society, for example. He has to play another role. Kabakov in this case decided to play somebody who is needed by the community. He pretended that in his atelier he thought about how to organise the emptying of the garbage buckets. The commission liked that because it fitted into the pattern that they had been willing to see. He had turned into a socially graspable appearance for the commission and the whole outside world. By that he had found his own spot in the Soviet world that was common to both of them.9

It is an interesting question whether this will eventually also happen to the West and its ideology as they become more and more universal due to the third wave of democratization and more and more states becoming democratic and their economic systems turning into market economies. Maybe this is why the West started building the new European identity in order not to become to universal, but have something on its own, something new to focus on.

Ideologies turn into a threat as they become territorialized. But in my point of view Russia will probably always resemble a threat to some extent to the West because it will always be hard to grasp for the rest of the world, what Russia really is. Is it West or East? Is it still a superpower or not? As a consequence out of this ambiguous relationship between Russia and the West, they both have become very vulnerable to each others critique.

Russia is now experiencing its first period of nation-building. As this concept is quite alien to Russia, out of the defension of Russian nationalism grows the defension of nationalism in general10 and this is where it becomes difficult because, of course, nationalism does also have its negatives features that can easily be critisized. Russia’s overall identity has changed significantly though. It has gone from a closed space to a mixed space and eventually it will probably change into an open space.

“But being left in the open spaces, the people get more interested in the closed spaces - in getting the insight, discovering the hidden, getting the access to the forbidden. Closed spaces are the space of curiosity directed to the outside. The open spaces are the spaces of suspicion directed to the hidden inside. The insider is curious, the outsider is suspicious. In our mixed reality, we are, of course, both because we are always insiders as well as outsiders.”

I want to argue that before Russia’s change in identity or before the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Russia was only one or the other, but did not actually play both roles at the same time. Russia has always been and wanted to be different, but, of course it was never that different to the West as, for example, China.

Russia -the Irrational…

Russia intentionally has always wanted to be different. In this different way it even wanted to be better than the West. It did not want to be so rational, it wanted to have a heart and a soul and be more emotional. I have never heard anybody talk about the let us say American or German soul, but the notion of the Russian soul is mentioned all the time, it is a term, it is all over! The Russians have felt themselves comfortable playing those roles. Russia stayed a creature which was always closer to nature, but in that sense it was kind of unconscious, more the dreamer kind. In this sense Russia is being perceived as a writing and reading country being the homeland for characters like the main character in Dostojevskij’s “White Nights”.

Russia had not awoken yet and had therefore not yet had the chance to show its real potentials. Into this natural identity fits also the notion of Russia being and hibernating bear. Russia emphasized, was proud of and does so until now, its strong family bonds and other traditional social patterns.

One could argue that nowadays Russia is more and more pressed into the role of a beggar’s identity, asking for money everywhere. In all this discussion about Russian identity one often forgets that there is really no Russian ethnic identity. The problem is probably that Russia still is a very huge and diverse country consisting out of many ethnic groups11. “The West has rallied to support all forms of nationalist movements within the former republics of the Soviet Union with the explicit exception of Russia. These movements for local control coincided with the West’s desire to break up the Soviet Union.”12 Destruction of the other that had been threatening for so long. “Ignoring the need for national renewal and a strengthened Russian national identity, the West has opposed growing Russian nationalism for fear that it represents a return to a Moscow-centered empire.” One could argue that Aleksandr Solshenitsyn got the stone rolling with his article “How Are We to Structure Russia? -A Modest Contribution”13 because it marked the beginning of a debate in the mainstream media on Russia’s new identity in the post-Soviet world. Even though a re-evaluation of the Soviet Union’s global role had began already several years before during glasnost and perestroika. Solzhenitsyn’s article for the first time exclusively focused on Russia and the Russians. ” What exactly is Russia? Today, and tomorrow (even more importantly).”14 But as Groys correctly noted, in my opinion this is not the question anymore. The question today is, is Russia Western (in some sense European) or is it Eastern or simply something in between? Russian identity today (that is in 1994, things might also have changed since then) is a paradox of power and the powerlessness engendered by the dissolution of this power.15 And this is also what is being expressed in the big debate in political science about Russia being a superpower or not.

What Russian Identity Could be Based on

Hypothetically, one should ask oneself what Russian identity could be based on. It could be based on geographic or geopolitical capacity, on history (including religion, language, traditions) and some kind of Russian pride. At the same time looking at Russia’s geographic location and capacity, this position itself defines many of its strengths and weaknesses16. It is located there in between Europe, China and the United States, simplified speaking. On the one hand Russia has great resources, but on the other hand much of its territory is uninhabitable and the soil is infertile or climate conditions do simply not allow a lot of crops to grow.

Why Russia could build its identity on its history, is obvious because Russia has been a huge and important empire throughout history, it was one of the two great superpowers during the Cold War. In my point of view this historical pillar that Russia could be based on, should also include the Russian Orthodox Church on the one hand but also Islam on the other hand. Right now Muslim believers in Russia resemble only a small minority, but there are estimations that their numbers will grow immensely in the future. Some Russians are converting and the birth rate among Muslim citizens of the Russian Federation is much higher than of the others.

Throughout history Islam has played a role in Russia that should not be neglected. Many policies during Tsarist and also communist times were carried out in reaction Islamic forces in the country. But, of course, this should also not be over-estimated. The third component that I mentioned previously that Russian identity could be based on is Russian pride which “has developed over the thousand-year history of the people. It is the product of the great military victories won over the centuries. Russian pride is cultivated by its cultural heroes, its composers, its writers, its painters.

III. Conclusion:

Russian artists had a great impact on deconstruction of Soviet identity and have a great impact on the re-definition or re-invention of Russian identity nowadays. What makes their role so very interesting, is that it is two-folded: On the one hand those artists play an active role of influencing those two mentioned processes and on the other hand they also react to both of them. To certain extent their works resemble the reflection of society in a mirror. The artists are the ones who are holding the mirror in front of Russia, so that it can see its own reflection. Russia’s identity until today is hard to grasp and it will probably stay this way in the future. In order to make its own identity emerge, it takes time, it should not be artificially constructed, but it should grow from inside in order to be stable. Russia is neither East nor West, it stays the other West.

«Умом Россию не понять, аршином общим не измерить, у ней особенная стать, в Россию можно только верить.»

IV. Literature:

Groys, Boris: Einfuehrung; In: Die Erfindung Russlands, Muenchen 1995

Guroff, Gregory and Alexander: The Paradox of Russian National Identity; In: Szporluk, Roman: National Identity and Ethnicity in Russia and the New States of Eurasia, New York 1994

Interview with Boris Groys, German Art Critic and Media Theorist; On:, 23.11.01

Kabakov, Ilya: Der Text als Grundlage des Visuellen, Koeln 2000

Kabakov, Ilya; On:


1 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

2 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

3 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

4 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

5 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

6 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

7 Interview with Boris Groys, German Art Critic and Media Theorist; On:

8 Kabakov, Ilya; On:

9 Kabakov, Ilya: Der Text als Grundlage des Visuellen, page 55-57

10 Groys, Boris: Erfindung Russlands. Introduction

11 Besides Russians there are Tartars, Ukrainians, Tshuwashi, Bashkirs, Belorussians, Mordvines, Germans, etc.

12 Guroff, Gregory and Alexander: The Paradox of Russian National Identity, page 78

13 …which was published in the Konsomol’skaia Pravda in September 1990

14 Guroff, Gregory and Alexander: The Paradox of Russian National Identity, page 79

15 Guroff, Gregory and Alexander: The Paradox of Russian National Identity, page 80

16 Guroff, Gregory and Alexander: The Paradox of Russian National Identity, page 80


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Institution / Hochschule
European University at St. Petersburg
Russian Identity




Titel: Russian Identity