The Search for "the Russian Idea"
Boris Yeltsin Launches a National Debate
Yeltsins most loyal newspaper, the official Rossiskaya Gazeta, jump-started the search by offering its readers a 10-million ruble ($2,000) prize for the best "unifying national idea" submitted in seven typewritten pages or less. The newspaper invited "all who believe in the renaissance of Russia to participate."
For Yeltsin, this challenge is an open admission that his country desperately needs an ideology which would allow Russia to consolidate its fractured society after a tumultuous transformation of its political, economic and social order. The euphoria of 1989-1993, a period of fascination with Western democracy, is largely over, but there is little agreement on what lies ahead. Yeltsin is hoping that the formulation of a national ideology will give sense and meaning both to the government and to many of its citizens, who are presently lost and disoriented and who see no inspiring prospects for their countrys future.
Historic Roots of the Debate and the Communist
From the beginning, the term has carried distinctively anti-Western connotations. In Dostoevskys writings, his animosity toward Western Europe was clear: he loathed the French and despised the Poles. He viewed Western culture as shallow, legalistic, unchristian and inhumane. In his judgment, Russians have traits which distinguish them from others -- in fact, they are superior to other nationalities. One facet of this superiority is their lofty spirituality, reminiscent of the doctrine of "Moscow as the Third Rome." A second is the "remarkable universalism" which is uniquely part of the "Russian soul" (James Scanlan, "The Russian Idea from Dostoevskii to Ziuganov," Problems of Post-Communism, July/August 1996).
For Communists and nationalists, this public debate is just what they want. Zyuganov never tires of telling his listeners that "Russia is a special world.... a special type of civilization." It is "hostile in its soul to the West" because of the Wests "extreme individualism, militant soullessness, religious indifference [and] adherence to mass culture." ("Russian Exceptionalism: Is Russia Different?" The Economist, June 15, 1996). Arguing for the need to "update" Marxist-Leninist theory to fit the Russian context, Zyuganov has offered his version of the "Russian idea," which blends spirituality, ethnic chauvinism, and communitarianism into an aggressively anti-Western popular philosophy. In his view, capitalism is doomed and a strong Russian state is needed to save the world from disaster.
Other Voices in Russia
A leading reformer in Russia, Galina Starovoitova, offered this sober judgment: "We are in a very natural, slow process of growing our values. It cant be ordered up immediately by the state.... The solution is not building an official idea, but in continuing to build a civil society that will generate [its own ideas]" (James Rupert, "In Search of the Russian Meaning of Life," The Washington Post, August 4, 1996).
Building Open Societies
Dr. John A. Bernbaum