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Russians Struggle to Find Post-Soviet Identity

Words for a new national anthem can wait; a better standard of living and peace top the wish list of citizens

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1997



MOSCOW

Whenever Andrei Zolotov Sr., a deputy culture minister in the last Soviet government, traveled abroad, he always felt comforted by the Soviet passport he carried. It gave him the security, he recalls, of knowing he had a great country behind him.

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Andrei Zolotov Jr., his son, feels no such need when he goes abroad: "I feel more comfortable with a Russian passport and a Visa credit card in my wallet."

More than just a generation lies between these two ways of seeing the world beyond Russia's borders. Viewing a Visa card as more prestigious than citizenship of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics takes a revolution in personal outlook that may have swept the Zolotov family, but is nonetheless rare in most Russian households.

Russians may be growing used to their loss of the Soviet Union. But most of them still regret its demise - often bitterly. And they have formed only the haziest notions of the new country they suddenly find themselves living in, what it stands for, or the role it might play in the world.

Symbolic of the uncertainty that pervades life here today: The Russian national anthem has a tune (borrowed from a 19th-century opera), but no words yet. Nobody is sure enough of what they should say to write them.

"Russia is undergoing its deepest- ever identity crisis," says Alexei Kara-Murza, a Moscow-based historian and philosopher. As Russia seeks to modernize and find a new place in the world, "the challenge before us is how to transform a mammoth into an elephant."

Just as deep as the nation's identity crisis, for most people, is their economic crisis. And as ordinary Russians struggle day by day to get by, they appear to have little time for dreams of past - or future - imperial glories.

Western fears of "Weimar Russia" - a humiliated people easily whipped into a nationalist fury of revenge, as Germans were between the two world wars - are unfounded, according to Masha Volkenstein, a pollster who spent hundreds of hours in recent months running focus groups around Russia to gauge the country's mood. "The main thing is that people do not want any shocks, any war, any conflict," she says.

Alexander Oslon, whose public opinion polls Boris Yeltsin relied upon during his presidential campaign last year, has noted the same mood.

"You have to divide the problems that worry people into the real and the symbolic," he argues. "Today, real problems take up most of people's minds. Symbolic issues such as Russia as a great power ... are all in the background."

Not to say that people no longer care about the loss of their status in the world. As distance lends enchantment to the view, more and more Russians say they are sorry that the Soviet Union disappeared - 84 percent of them in a poll Mr. Oslon conducted in January.

Much of this nostalgia is for steady living standards and a sense of security. But the figures also reflect Russians' sorrow at the way in which their country has lost the respect it once commanded in the world.

"Russians want to be strong and important to the world - ours is the biggest country on earth," Ms. Volkenstein says.