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

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.

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.

Russians' hankering for superpower status has little to do with any urge to reimpose the "evil empire," or with Moscow's age-old habit of making itself a fortress against the world, to judge by the answers that pollsters gather.

"We used to be respected for our science, our writers, our Russian soul, and we were feared for our great Army," Volkenstein recalls. "People would feel OK if we were respected for the attributes of an educated society; then the Army wouldn't matter so much."

And for younger, forward-looking businesspeople, making Russia a great power means "joining in world business," Oslon says. "For them the symbols of great powerdom are characteristic of the West - high-tech manufacturing, transnational corporations, information links."

Restoring Russia's superpower status is not high on many people's agendas, especially not if it means fighting for it. Nearly half of the electorate would be happy to give up the rebellious republic of Chechnya. Peace and quiet comes higher even than their country's territorial integrity.

The former Soviet republics that have gone their own way register hardly a blip on the ordinary Russian citizen's radar screen. The only lost possession that still jangles nerves is the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where the Soviet Black Sea fleet was based and now sits rusting and unused. Sevastopol, founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century, is now in Ukraine because Premier Nikita Khruschev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1956. But the city is almost wholly inhabited by Russians. Russia's shrunken status "is a problem for voters, but not a very big one. It comes ninth or 10th on their list of worries," points out Sergei Kolmakov, a political consultant.

The blow has been softened somewhat, even in the midst of economic hardship, by the knowledge that Russia - which subsidized the other Soviet republics - is materially better off than almost all its neighbors and is making the transition away from communism better than most.

Russia's relative wealth means that migrant workers from places like Ukraine flock here in search of jobs. This tide helps Russians feel superior and salves their pride a little. "All the little republics have one or two resources - we have everything," says Larissa Mukrova, who teaches Russian to foreign students at a Moscow business school.

Russia's wealth also makes the country a more profitable market for traders from neighboring republics, who bring their exotic fruit, vegetables, and other goods from warmer climates such as Azerbaijan or Georgia in quantities that Soviet shoppers never enjoyed.

Not to mention the foreign goods that were unavailable before. The fall of the Soviet empire has opened Russia to a flood of material goods that have helped ease the transition.

For those who cannot afford such luxuries as Japanese televisions - and they are still a large majority - material hardships have buried any anger at the end of empire. Either way, Dr. Kolmakov says, the "trauma of losing superpower status was painful, but the initial shock is over now."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Russians Struggle to Find Post-Soviet Identity
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today