by Kathleen Parthé
This condensed transcript of the meetings held in Russia preserves all the significant lines of discussion of the three original reports. I will comment briefly on the essential ideas that emerged from each colloquium, and, from the vantage-point of fall 2002, offer a preliminary evaluation of the predictions that were made in Istra, Tomsk, and Moscow.
I. The View From Istra
The June 1998 meeting at the New Jerusalem Monastery outside Moscow brought together ten Russians in leadership positions for an intense discussion of their country's future. Acknowledged experts in their fields, they were, like all Russians, coping with frequent changes in the circumstances of their professional and personal lives. Thoughtful analysis was at times punctuated by a telling anecdote from their own experience. Much was at stake, and they took our questions seriously.
The Russians who came to Istra were living solidly in the present, neither brooding about the past nor fantasizing about the future. They placed great emphasis on personal responsibility (otvetstvennost', lit. 'answerability') and demanded it not only of themselves and their fellow citizens, but also from the government and from those outside Russia who wished to positively influence its development.
In reviewing the first post-Soviet decade the word zazor (a decisive moment) came up repeatedly. The window of opportunity in the early 1990s had been largely squandered by Russian leaders and their Western advisors, with "shabby criminal means . . . being used to bring about an absolutely noble goal" (Nikolai Shmelev). Alexander Rubtsov asked with great feeling: "Could things have gone differently? . . . What did we want to have happen?" Viktor Aksiuchits felt that at the time the system could not have produced any other kinds of reformers, but for oligarchs to appear before a middle class had been created was obviously absurd.
Contemplating the difficult times that lay ahead, Grigory Yavlinsky referred to the Russian fairy tale about Ilya Muromets and the Dragon. Setting out on a quest, the hero rides up a steep mountain only to find at the top a sign pointing in three directions. The first way promised food for Ilya but not for his horse, taking the second meant that the horse would eat but not its rider, and the third warned that the champion would die. Strangely enough, Ilya "followed the third road, although the inscription said that on this road he would be slain; for he had confidence in himself.22 Confidence pays off as Ilya survives an encounter with Baba Yaga, slays a dragon, saves one princess and marries another. The refusal to be satisfied with a vastly unequal distribution of wealth, and the willingness to take great risks for a heroic deed (podvig) reflect values articulated at Istra.
In listening to the music of the revolution surrounding them-as the poet Blok did in 1918-what did these Russians hear? Alexander Yakovlev claimed that history was moving so fast that it was impossible to say what would happen that fall, and Lev Anninsky added that Russians had no idea what was going on and were just acting instinctively. Rubtsov described a particular kind of prediction called a black box. "It's not clear what's going on inside, and in principle it is impossible to say. . . . Much depends on the spiritual state of society, on its consciousness. What is important is the interrelationship with reality: do we understand and correctly assess what is happening around us?"
Despite all the caveats, colloquium participants saw a great deal. The low-key authoritarianism (miagkii avtoritarizm) identified by Aksiuchits and Shmelev as the best of two possible outcomes (the other option was close to fascism) turns out to be an apt description of the Putin regime, which is often referred to as a "managed" democracy. Aksiuchits believed that with such a government structure, Russia could experience a genuine revival by 2020. Speculating about who would govern Russia after Yeltsin, Georgy Satarov suggested that "maybe a new figure from the provinces, someone we don't know yet, will appear on the scene." In the end, the little-known successor came from St. Petersburg.
The Orthodox Church was said to need another generation before leadership was in place that was not tainted by some level of cooperation with the Soviet state (Ivanova, Tishkov). Eighteen months later, at the Moscow meeting, Aksiuchits stated in even plainer terms that while there was healthy growth at the level of parishes and monasteries, the still-Soviet church hierarchy was trying to slow down reform by refusing to convene the scheduled sobor (periodic assembly). In 2002 the same church leaders seem to be spending a great deal of energy keeping other religions from practicing freely, especially in the regions.
Rubtsov and Aksiuchits predicted that the new rich would eventually want a more civilized state for their children, with lower profits but a greater chance of living to enjoy them. By 2002 some of the oligarchs-and other prosperous individuals and companies-have begun to act less like predators and more like citizens, investing in Russia, conducting business in a more transparent manner, and contributing significant amounts of money to social and cultural projects. Shmelev stressed how important it was to make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to operate, and, several years later, the situation is demonstrably better, if far from perfect. Valerii Tishkov's assertion that a majority of the population feel some level of xenophobia has been borne out by subsequent polls. Lastly, we have Yavlinsky's observation that Russia no longer has permanent enemies and friends and will pursue its own interests. In 2002 it is obvious that like Ilya Muromets in the fairy-tale Yavlinsky cited, the country has greater confidence in itself.
II. Siberia's Map of Russia
The second colloquium took place five months later and four time zones to the east in Tomsk, where both time and distance contributed to a meeting that was markedly different from the first. While Moscow was still in the early stages of recovery after the August 1998 economic free-fall, this southern Siberian city of graceful churches and elaborately carved wooden houses was remarkably calm. Self-reliance is a habit Siberians had learned centuries before and, as one university official remarked, you cannot miss a BMW that you never had to begin with.
If the country's past experience had been taken into account, said Vladimir Alekseev, the upheaval in Moscow could have been avoided and change could have proceeded at a slower pace and in a more civilized fashion. On the other hand, Nikolai Rozov reminded us, reinforcing former imperial, military, and authoritarian values was hardly desirable. Alexander Kazarkin dismissed the idea of a "rebirth" of Russia. "Just like Tatar Muscovy could not be the same as Kievan Rus [and] post-Petrine Russia could not be just like pre-Petrine Muscovy, so post-Soviet Russia cannot be like pre-Soviet Russia-it's moved even further away." Instead of depending on a restoration of the old Russia, Siberia, with its natural wealth and resourcefulness, would produce a "new variant of Russian culture." The Tomsk group seemed comfortable with a "symbiosis from different systems," which was reflected in the city itself, where pre-revolutionary architecture shares space with Soviet-era buildings and street names, and post-Soviet stores and restaurants.
In assessing the region's potential at the beginning of 1881, Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed that Siberia could "restore and resurrect" European Russia and show it the path to follow.23 In the works of Valentin Rasputin, Siberia is the Great City of Kitezh, a traditional emblem of Holy Russia's glorious past, suffering present, and promising future. The Tomsk group saw Siberia as Russia's zapas (reserve supply) of more than just raw materials. It was the place where Russian culture could get its "second breath" (vtoroe dykhanie). Small, positive changes would accumulate over a long period of time, and not as the result of directives from Moscow.
Viktor Rozov felt strongly that service to the country (sluzhenie) was an important if little-discussed national idea that had originated among the gentry. The lives of members of the regional intelligentsia we met in Tomsk illustrate the value placed on service to something larger than themselves: they run research institutes, publishing houses, journals, newspapers, libraries, and a very active branch of the Memorial movement, putting in long hours to stretch the limited resources at their disposal. They are building post-Soviet society and demonstrating civic virtue and even civic heroism every day. The descendants of pioneers and exiles do not take freedom lightly; it is conceived of as freedom to do something worthwhile.
Vladimir Alekseev insisted that if we call the 1990s a transitional period, we must ask the question: a transition from what and to what? Although the future role of Siberia is not yet clear, our participants identified a number of positive tendencies that have since been confirmed. Fall 1998 the distance between the government and both private life and the life of society was beginning to grow, and Mikhail Kaluzhskii spoke of the emergence of the "private believer in a strong central government (chastnyi gosudarstvennik). . . . Basically, it amounts to a belief that the government should be left to fulfill its functions, while individuals take care of their business."
Nikolai Rozov observed a nascent tendency towards political compromise and away from confrontation, especially between the Duma and the presidential administration. In 2002, it is generally believed that as long as the state creates conditions for economic growth-and does not interfere where it is not needed-Putin's ratings will be high and Russia will remain relatively calm. In Father Leonid Kharaim's opinion, political ideas appear to be having little impact on people and on the formation of national identity. Viktor Muchnik reiterated the importance of retreating from the search for big ideas in favor of work on smaller projects in the areas of culture and daily life, including improving ones surroundings. Dramatic scenarios of Russia's demise were dismissed by Andrei Sagalaev, who instead saw a civil society developing around him. Not all the lines of development were clear, but "maybe the solution we need is not self-evident, not trite. . . this isn't a cosmos where all lines intersect." Eleonora Lvova agreed that it was difficult to imagine what would result from the combination of forces and factors in play. The results might be completely unexpected.
III. Russia, On the Eve …
At the beginning of December 1999, Moscow had an air of nervous anticipation, like the feeling conveyed by Ivan Turgenev's novel On the Eve (Nakanune), published the year before the first of the great reforms. Many were asking once again, as the critic Dobrolyubov did in 1860: "When will the real day come?" The second Yeltsin term was winding down-as it turned out, he resigned just four weeks later-and change was palpable. The era of a virtual president managing a virtual economy was largely over, but what next? And what better time to ask a distinguished panel of experts to envision Russia's future.
Participants in this colloquium chose three questions from our list on which to focus the most attention: the Europeanness of Russia, continuity in Russian history, and whether binary contrasts made Russian identity dangerously unstable or uniquely strong. And, to a greater extent than in Istra and Tomsk, participants took charge of the discussion. The largely self-generated recovery from the August 1998 crash and negative reactions to the spring 1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia were two of the factors that led to greater confidence on their part that Russia would find its own way to not just muddle through, but perhaps even to grow strong again.
Igor Chubais believed that Russia is Europe "and Germany is Europe, and France is Europe, but these are all different kinds of Europe." Alexei Kara-Murza sketched out mutually exclusive conceptions of Russia as Europe, as Eurasia, and as the North. According to Kara-Murza, those who agree that Russia is Europe still differ on what kind of Europe it is: underdeveloped, sick, failed, just-born-but-already-corrupted, or the best Europe of them all (luchshaia Evropa).
Viktor Kuvaldin traced a continuous path from tsarist to Soviet times while others saw a stark contrast between these two Russias. In defending the latter view, Viktor Aksiuchits insisted that "the anti-Christ is not a further development of Christ," but its direct antithesis. Among those gathered at the Institute there was a consensus about the presence of binary opposites in the structure of Russian identity, but disagreement over whether this has strengthened or weakened the nation. Aksiuchits found the synthesis of unlike elements a source of creative tension: having both a strong center and a tradition of fleeing that center gave Russia great energy and a safety valve. For Sergei Chugrov, the Russian openness to a variety of forms, values, and types of behavior was praiseworthy, but he worried about a nation that lurched between contradictory impulses, moving from one unfinished project to another.
Chubais felt uncomfortable with a national identity cobbled together in the 1990s from Russian traditions, Soviet elements, and entirely new phenomena. "So there is the official burial of the remains of Nicholas II and the hospitably open doors of the Lenin Mausoleum, when the latter is responsible for killing the former." Vladimir Baranovsky asked whether this could be seen as an example of things "that are completely incompatible and yet coexist," to which Chubais replied that "there is a difference between having hot and cold water, and having hot water and an old boot."
Arguments continue about the bizarre tsarist/Soviet/post-Soviet combinations possible in Russia today-what Chubais called the "mixed-salad alternative" (put' vinegreta). In early fall 2002 the focus was on the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky near the Lubyanka, taken down in August 1991 and replaced with a boulder from Solovki, where so many suffered under the secret police. Mayor Luzhkov proposed to restore the statue to its original location because of its aesthetic value, others spoke of Dzerzhinsky's kindness to orphans and his skilled management of the railroads, and polls show substantial public support for the statue's return. In trying to explain this "conceptual chaos," one analyst cited a passage from Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin in which an emigre couple's ideal Russia included the Holy Tsar, the Orthodox Church and anthroposophy, along with the Red Army, collective farms, and hydroelectric dams.24
At Istra, we heard forthright admissions of Russian passivity throughout the nation's history and the terrible consequences of having allowed themselves "to be led through history by whoever had power" (Alexander Yakovlev). In both Istra and Tomsk, there was a plea for joint Russian-American projects that individuals and private groups could work on while the government did its job. Russia was no longer concentrating on the quantitative growth that had so marked earlier centuries; now was the time to look inward, and focus on the quality of life. Kara-Murza spoke eloquently of Russians taking charge of their destiny:
- We are trying out a mass of different strategies, and we don't need utopias or radiant futures-they're very dangerous things. It's like a pupil who wants to read the solution at the end of the book right away to find out who the murderer was. We need to read precisely, seriously, thoughtfully and every day make small choices, and a variety of these small decisions will lead us along a positive developmental path. The theme of choice is key here. We don't want to narrow our choices, but to choose our future.
The Search for Russian Identity
How is Russian national identity shaping change, and to what extent is identity itself being reshaped by the transformation of life in Russia since 1991? In reviewing the transcripts of the three identity meetings, I was struck by the extent to which the twenty-seven Russians who took part in our deliberations all share fundamentally the same cultural information. A participant only had to mention a name, the first lines of a song or poem, or the beginning of an anecdote for it to be clear to everyone present which people, texts, ideas, and attitudes were being brought to the discussion. The existence of a common cultural base may change over the next generation or two, but it still can be observed among educated Russians today, and it would be difficult to read Russia accurately without an appreciation of this fact.
Russia is drawing on a vast cultural and spiritual heritage, if not to solve problems, then at least to offer comfort. While the designation of a patron saint for the tax police may seem an odd move (although tax collections rose significantly afterwards), the canonization-on the first anniversary of the Kursk disaster-of Admiral Fedor Ushakov (1744-1817) as patron and intercessor for the Russian navy was a moving gesture. The icon and relics of the admiral who never lost a battle were taken around the Russian fleet, and copies of his image were set up in shipboard icon-corners. The admiral's message (about not despairing because everything they do will be for the glory of Russia), written on the icon's scroll, is said to have been echoed by one of the Kursk's officers in a final note found in the wreckage. There is, on the whole, considerable interest in Russia's podvizhniki (heroes displaying both spiritual strength and a love of country), whose ranks are said to include such secular figures as General Kutuzov, the historian Karamzin, and the brothers who founded the Tretyakov Gallery.25
Beginning in the late 1980s, regrets were frequently expressed for a lost Russia, and the centenary of Vladimir Nabokov's birth elicited the poignant comment that Nabokov was "what we did not become because of the Bolsheviks."26 By now, however, there is a growing sense that at least some portion of this past Russia can be recovered, not simply as a series of museum pieces but as a source of wisdom, beauty, and spiritual depth. One example of the way that older cultural streams are feeding into contemporary Russian identity involves the use of Tolstoy's legacy. The major literary works are, naturally, still a source of national pride, and some of them have been reworked for opera, stage, and even comic books. But the later Tolstoy, who renounced earthly pleasures and denounced both church and government, has retreated into the background, as the worldly Count Leo Tolstoy emerges. Tolstoy's provincial estate-once again linked to Moscow by a direct train on weekends-is promoted to the Russian public as an example of good taste and a genteel, dignified way of life, and his widely-scattered relatives are invited back to celebrate their ancestor and Russian family traditions.
Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov's celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg, uses a daring cinematic technique-96 minutes of non-stop filming-to convey the continuity of Russian imperial history in all its variety and excess. A character based on the Marquis de Custine, Russia's most articulate nineteenth-century visitor, and a contemporary artist wander through the Hermitage past 2,000 actors who present episodes that, while seemingly random, still make up a whole. The Marquis is horrified by a preview of Russia's twentieth century and charmed by the final tableau, the 1913 ball celebrating a Romanov dynasty that was, in retrospect, living out its final years.
This phenomenal cinematic achievement is no surprise to those of us who study Russian national identity from the vantage-point of cultural history. While the three meetings convened by James Billington provide ample evidence of the uneven pace of change, the mixed record of help from abroad, and formidable problems still awaiting solutions, what remains with me, after listening to tapes of the discussions a dozen times, are the energy and intelligence that these Russians bring to the challenges their country faces. Yavlinsky cautioned Americans who follow events in Russia not to be overly influenced by anxious comments, complaints, and dire predictions, and to keep in mind that "in our thinking process we are pessimists, but in the way we act freely we are optimists."
Participants at all three meetings remarked that what would once have been extraordinary-Americans, including the Ambassador and the Librarian of Congress, engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with Russians about the country's future-was now a wonderfully normal event. The move of serious and frank talk out of the cramped-but secure-intelligentsia kitchens of the Soviet era into more public arenas has added a measure of tolerance, a capacity for compromise, and a much-needed reality-check, without a noticeable loss in the intensity and quality of what is said. What we observed in these colloquia is no longer simply post-Soviet Russian identity, but the beginning of something new, whose exact contours are still taking shape.