NOVGOROD, RUSSIA — As post-communist Russia flails its way through a moral and ethical vacuum, its citizens struggling to orient themselves in the absence of yesterday's certainties, President Boris Yeltsin thinks he can see the way ahead.
What Russians need, he says, is a "national idea," a core of common values that would define them as Russian, motivate them, and give new coherence.
And so a team of philosophers, political scientists, and other thinkers has been appointed to come up with a "Russian idea." As a new century dawns, they hope, they will discover the themes that will help the nation reinvent itself.
This is not a venture that enjoys universal support among Russian intellectuals, especially among liberal democrats who are concerned that the country will be plunged into another messianic experiment such as communism. But the team has found that a tradition of democracy is present in Russia's own history, based on the city of Novgorod.
"We have a very heavy burden of old national ideas that have absolutely no relevance for us today," acknowledges Leonid Smirnyagin, who chairs the group of thinkers. But the search is on for a new, more modern, idea because "our people often need to feel part of something big, a great process, the country itself."
And as liberal democrats themselves, Mr. Smirnyagin's colleagues are seeking a fresh approach, focusing on the individual rather than on the collective, in order to capture the intellectual field from the Communists and Nationalists whose national patriotic movement is also seeking to spread its version of a Russian idea.
And this is where Novgorod's history fits in. As they cast around for some way out of Russia's autocratic, centralizing, collectivist traditions, some democratic eyes are lighting upon this ancient town in northwestern Russia. The city fathers here are drawing purposefully on Novgorod's medieval history in order to construct a new model of local self-government, where the individual comes first.
If they can find inspiration in their past for democratic and free-market structures, says Nicolai Petro, an American scholar teaching at the local university, "it means we are not talking about the hopeless task of importing Western institutions and ideas wholesale into Russia."
"It would be more a question of grafting Western institutions onto existing, living indigenous ideas, and that would be much more manageable," Professor Petro suggests. Novgorod, a mercantile republic in medieval times, "has always stood for the road not taken in Russian history," he adds.
But only recently, as a result of archaeological discoveries, has its importance to the emergence of the Russian state become clear. "Rus began here," says Valentin Yanin, the world's foremost expert on Novgorodian archaeology, referring to Russia's earliest origins and using its old name. "But Novgorod has not been given sufficient weight in Russian history."
Instead, Kiev has always been seen as the cradle of Russia, and this has done much to shape the perceptions of the past that color prospects for the future.
IN contrast to the centralized form of government that Muscovy inherited from Kievan Rus, to which it added aggressive and absolutist tendencies, Novgorod developed a more open and democratic system. They did without a king, and decisions were reached in public forums known as vetches.
Local legend has it that when the Muscovite Czar Ivan the Terrible subjugated Novgorod, he ordered that the "vetche bell" - which any citizen could ring to summon a meeting - should be brought to Moscow. But en route, the bell broke into thousands of pieces, each of which was carried into a peasant's house. Thus did the spirit of democracy survive in Novgorod.
Historians dispute just how democratic the vetches were, or how open to the populace. But digging through the waterlogged soil that has preserved artifacts remarkably well, archaeologists have found clear evidence of meeting places for street and neighborhood vetches.
Novgorod's leaders have taken this grass-roots democracy as a model for their efforts to decentralize authority.
"We can represent everyone properly only when we give local levels more authority," says the region's deputy governor, Vladimir Trofimov. "If they can't handle it, then they pass it back to us, but the main idea is that the authority would come from them, not from us."
At the same time, from the ground up, apartment dwellers are beginning to create condominiums and neighborhood associations, in conscious imitation of the property-based democracy their ancestors devised.
"So as not to reinvent the wheel," as city councillor Sergei Bessonov puts it, a new law to encourage such groups is seeking to foster street-level community building. Everybody can be a property owner because the city is giving each tenant his or her apartment, so they will have a vote in the neighborhood self-government councils that are being set up.
These councils - administered by local residents who are now being trained in condominium management - will provide the services now controlled by monopolists, such as heating, repair services, elevator maintenance and so on. They will also take care of the common areas surrounding their buildings, such as playgrounds, and as a result, hopes Mr. Bessonov, "we will have a normal self-governing community based on a number of apartment blocks, where the motivation will be to maintain or increase the value of your home. At the same time, each individual will know that he or she can personally make a difference to the city, to how it looks, to how it works."
This is the sort of experience that Smirnyagin's team is looking for as they hunt for new organizing principles for Russian society. "At the moment in Russia, at the intellectual level, ideas and words tend to separate people," explains Alexander Rubtsov, a philosopher working with Smirnyagin. "Society is much more united at the level of everyday life, and we are sure there are many examples of people living and acting in ways that exemplify this idea, without formulating it verbally," he adds.
"The idea should be a way to hold us together, it must be optimistic and creative, and it must be devoted to the person, not to the state," insists Smirnyagin.
"We are talking about something private. We are tired of loud slogans and ideological pressure," he adds. "How to improve your apartment block entryway or your street is the real Russian idea; it is important to turn people's attention to private life, how to create social life from many private lives."
This is a slow process, admit the people trying to foster it. "In practice it is impossible to make the switch from paternalistic relations between the state and the individual to democratic relations in a single step," says Sergei Fabrichny, a senior official in the Novgorod governor's office.
Taking responsibility for one's own life "is out of sync with the last 70 years of our history, and it's a terrible problem breaking this stereotype," adds Bessonov. "But people have to understand now that they have to help themselves."