Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


Part of the problem of Russian identity is the somewhat indefinable or indistinct nature of Russianness ("russkost'," "russkoe"). There is something indeterminate, mysterious, even irrational about Russia and Russian identity - or so many have said. Various poets and philosophers since about the middle of the ninetenth century have characterized Russia as a "Sphinx." For many Russia has also been a "riddle" ("zagadka"). The young Nikolai Berdiaev began his 1915 article on "The Soul of Russia" by speaking of the need to "solve the riddle of Russia" ("razgadat' zagadku Rossii"). For Berdiaev, Russia was a "riddle," an "unsolved mystery" ("nerazgadannaia taina"). A decade later Georgii Fedotov characterized the Petersburg intelligentsia as working on the Russian "riddle" ("reshaet ee zagadku"). More recently philosopher E. V. Barabanov characterizes Russia as a "problem-riddle" ("problema-zagadka"). The word "zagadka" is applied to Russia again and again from the beginnings of Russian philosophy down to the present day. Sometimes, as well, Russian thinkers make sarcastic reference to the "enigmatic soul" ("zagadochnaia dusha") of Russia. And all this is quite apart from the fact that Western observers too speak of "the riddle of Russian identity." Most famous of course is Sir Winston Churchill's characterization of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
Boris Grois has developed a philosophically sophisticated version of the Russian "riddle." Grois shows that Russian thinkers, obsessed with the contrast between Russia and the West, and having nothing truly original to offer the West, tend to represent Russia as a kind of radical "Other" ("Inoe") with respect to the West. Russia is a place where Western discourses about this mysterious "Other" get materialized or realized by Russian themselves. All thinking Russians are themselves split into a "European consciousness" and a "Russian Other." According to Grois, the Russian "Other" sometimes takes on features of "the subconscious" or "the unconscious." For example: "The Russian cultural tradition . . . understands Russia herself as the subconscious: Russia cannot have a subconscious because she herself is the subconscious." Or: "The Russia of Chaadaev and the Slavophiles may . . . be viewed as yet another name for the post-Idealist unconscious." The terminology here looks psychoanalytic, or at least somewhat Jungian, but for Grois it means that Russia is represented as outside of history, outside of space (neither West nor East), distant from unattainable Western ideals, and as various other negations of presence. The terminology also suggests, however, that notions about Russia are literally unavailable to consciousness, are difficult to express by means of Western discourse, in short, that Russian identity is essentially ineffable.
One factor that places Russia and the Russians "outside" of discursive possibility - and a factor that Grois does not consider - is moral masochism. This phenomenon has been affirmed in one way or another by most Russian philosophers, yet at the same time it has also been denied by them because of its radical implications. The personal identity of a masochist can be very difficult to determine. It is a mystery, a riddle. The masochist by definition submits to some aggrandized other, be that other the collective, political authority, fate, or whatever. As a result, the masochist's sense of self is rather circumstantial and indefinite. In the Russian case the self is spread around in the collective, as it were, it is difficult to locate. The collective, in turn, is as overpersonified as the individual is underpersonified, as I observed earlier. Or to speak in more properly Russian terms, the collective gains a soul, while the soul of the individual submerged in this collective is lessened, humbled, eliminated even. The one who utters the words "enigmatic Russian soul" ("zagadochnaia russkaia dusha") is not speaking about any particular Russian. This is a problem, since properly speaking only particular Russians have souls. Where there is personification in one place, there is depersonification in another. Personification of the collective is all too often theft of the individual's identity.
The process begins in early ontogeny, when the individual is tied up by an all-powerful mother in the infamous Russian practice of swaddling. It continues in adulthood when the peasant commune, the party, or some other collective takes over the function of the restraining/rewarding mother. In all of this the collective seems to possess magical power over the individual, who obligingly vanishes. This is a mysterious process. The Russian soul is an enigma, in part, because it is a displaced or misplaced soul. Russia cannot, properly speaking, have a soul. If it did, it has to have gotten it from somewhere else. But the question of where raises the issue of masochism, an unpleasant topic, a scary word even. Better to leave the question alone. Let the Russian soul continue to be an enigma. Mystery is better than analysis.
Yet another aspect of the indefiniteness of Russian identity is strictly linguistic. In the Russian language both individual Russians and things Russian may be said to be "Russian." This terribly obvious fact is linguistically more subtle and interesting in Russian than in English, for the Russian noun for a Russian happens to be exactly the same as the adjective describing the quality of being Russian, i.e., both meanings are represented by the word "russkii." Such cannot be said of most other nationalities in Russian, say, "Frenchman" ("frantsuz") vs. "French" ("frantsuzskii"), or "Englishman" ("anglichanin") vs. "English" ("angliiskii"). In Russian, because of this accident of linguistic history, there is thus something slightly indefinite or incomplete about being a "russkii," as opposed to being some other nationality. Russians are aware if this, and like to joke that their ethnonym is merely an "adjective" ("prilagatel'noe"), saying - untranslatably - that "Russkii sam sebe ne prinadlezhit, a vsegda prilagaetsia k tsariu, k partii, k gosudarstvu, i t. d." Such a self-deprecating utterance is, moreover, another way of recognizing the morally masochistic tendencies of Russians. Russia ("Rossiia"), as opposed to Russians ("russkie"), has the advantage of being signified by a noun of its own. With this linguistic advantage, it can also easily be personified ("Mother Russia," "Holy Russia," etc.), whereas merely "adjectival" Russians are somewhat depersonified.
Sometimes Russia is personified to such an extent that she begins to take on sacred features. Understandably, this process did not begin until nationalism was well under way in Russia. According to Michael Cherniavsky, the very specific and concrete myths circulating about the tsars - Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander I, etc. - overwhelmed or absorbed any incipient myths about Russia and her people. As a result, significant mythical representations of Russia herself came late, for the most part starting in the first half of the nineteenth century. They were, moreover, full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and outright mystery. For many, Russia was incomprehensible by Western cognitive standards. The most appropriate approach to her was to believe in her, as one would believe in God. This was an essentially religious attitude, and it persisted well into the twentieth century. In 1911 Petr Stolypin, Russia's reformist premier and interior minister under the last tsar, declared: "I believe in Russia. If I did not have this belief, I would be in no condition to do anything." Similarly, religious thinker Georgii Fedotov wrote in 1931: "We must believe in Russia. Otherwise, is it worth living?" "Now, more than ever, we should believe in Russia. . . ," wrote philosopher Ivan Il'in in 1948. I Believe in Russia, announced Communist leader Gennadii Ziuganov in the title of his 1995 book. The consistency of the imagery is remarkable. Influential Russians continue essentially to worship Russia (or claim that they worship Russia).
Russia had long been, after all, "Holy Russia" ("sviataia Rus'," not "sviataia Rossiia"), and the "Russian God" ("russkii Bog," not "rossiiskii Bog") protected her, pervaded her even. It made sense to believe in, to venerate something holy. But the nature of the holiness was itself not easy to define. For philosopher Vladimir Soloviev Russia was holy because she was called upon to mediate between East and West, or more specifically, to reconcile Orthodoxy with Catholicism in a spirit of universal Christianity. To accomplish this union would be to offer to the world "the fullest expression, implementation, and perfection of Christianity" - as opposed to acting in the narrow national interests of Russia. For nationalist Fedor Dostoevsky, on the other hand, Russia was holy because Russians were the world's only "'God-bearing' people" ("narod 'bogonosets,'" as Shatov says in The Possessed), and this people bore God within itself out of a "need to suffer" - as Christ suffered. The "Russian God" was specifically Jesus Christ, and Russia was "holy" because her sufferings were Christ-like. To "believe in" Russia was essentially a Christian attitude. For poet Viacheslav Ivanov the words "imitation of Christ" ("upodoblenie Khristu") seemed to be inscribed on the forehead of the Russian nation. For the late Nikolai Triapkin Russia was Christ: "O Rus' of mine, is that not you there, crucified?" Nationalist painter Il'ia Glazunov titled his memoir "Russia Crucified" ("Rossiia raspiataia"). For composer Modest Musorgsky Russia was even a holy-fool ("iurodivyi") in gullibly submitting to tyrannical tsars.
So, Russia was "holy" for various reasons, mostly incomprehensible. A nation of people who seemed to crucify themselves as Christ did, to play the holy-fool, and to act against their own interests generally - confounded reason. There was nothing left but to turn away in disgust (as some of the intelligentsia have periodically done) - or simply to accept Russia for what she was and to believe in her religiously.
In 1886 Fedor Tiutchev wrote his famous quatrain on the need to believe in Russia:

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать -
В Россию можно только верить.

Russia cannot be understood with the mind,
Nor can she be measured with the ordinary yardstick.
There is in her a special stature:
You can only believe in Russia.

To say that Russia cannot be understood with the mind ("umom") is something like saying that God, or women as a class, or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - cannot be understood in a rational way. That is, Tiutchev's statement is religious and ideological, insofar as it defies the possibility of rational thinking about its object. As Viacheslav Ushakov puts it in his contribution to the recent Inoe collection, Russia is basically inconceivable ("nemyslimaia") to ordinary consciousness. Russia cannot be successfully defined utilizing the Russian language (or, apparently, any other language).

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