Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


Above I used the image of a teddy bear to clarify how one needs to respond to Tiutchev's poem about the specialness of Russia. Russia is like a teddy bear. Of course the bear is the Russian national mammal, as I observed earlier, so I suppose a teddy bear is appropriate here. But a teddy bear is also an illusion in the mind of the developing child, just as Russia is an illusion for those who feel obliged to "believe in" her (Tiutchev, Il'in, Ziuganov, etc.). This illusiveness is where the analogy lies.
Objectively, the child's teddy bear is not really a live person, for it is just a stuffed, smelly piece of cloth (at a slightly earlier stage of development the child's "security blanket" is sufficient by itself, and does not even need to have the form of an animate being). Eventually the teddy bear can be discarded in some closet or attic, for even the child comes to recognize its illusiveness. In the meantime, however, there is something magical and comforting about it which means everything to the child as it makes a transition from almost symbiotic dependency on the mother to relative independence, and the loving parent dares not take it away. When the child is feeling lonely or distressed, this transitional object (as Donald Winnicott termed it in a famous 1953 paper) seems to have the power of making an absent mother present, of actually comforting and soothing the child as a mother would. The transitional object has the softness of a loving mother, but it is obviously not a mother, and will not substitute for a real mother when the child is in need of real mothering. But it is a very good second best when the mother is absent or in some way inadequate. Its maternal significance is crucial, as Phyllis Greenacre observes:
. . . the transitional object may represent the most ideal mother imaginable - one who is constantly on call, is intuitively and almost omnisciently aware of and faithful to the infant's needs. In a sense, no mother can be that good. Winnicott indicates that there is a fairly wide range of good-enough mothers, on whose model the transitional object is based. That it should be an improved, magically idealized inner representation of the mother which is materialized is to be understood by the fact that the infant now needs to separate himself from the actual mother. So he creates this extra-good mother representative who will always be on duty whenever the outer world becomes too strange.
At one level, then, the transitional object is "transitional" because it facilitates the infant's transition away from total dependence on the mother. This shift can occur only after the infant has realized it is not in control of its mother, that the mother cannot always be there for the child, that the mother is, in effect, "bad" at least some of the time (see discussion of the Kleinian "good" vs. "bad" mother, below, 000). In other words, the exclusively "good" transitional object facilitates the move away from a mother who is ambivalently experienced.
But the transitional object is "transitional" for another reason as well. The plush softness of the transitional object is not the object itself. The teddy bear is not merely the physical object in external reality, for in an important sense the child creates the teddy bear. The 'location' of the teddy bear is difficult to specify, for it is both 'inside' and 'outside' the child's primitive psyche. It is not objectively real, but it is not altogether subjective either. It is in some intermediate, transitional area between the subjective and the objective, what Winnicott call a "potential space." Winnicott writes: "Of the transitional object it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: 'Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?' The important point is that no decision on this point is expected." The mother thus collaborates with the child in making the teddy bear seem both invented and real for the child. The mothering person facilitates the child's creativity. This process is the prototype of all later forms of adult collaboration which create and sustain cultural realities, i.e., illusions. Winnicott is concerned with "that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion, and yet becomes the hallmark of madness when an adult puts too powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to acknowledge a sharing of illusion that is not their own."
To Winnicott's reference to the illusions permitted in art and religion, I would add (ethno)national illusions, including "Russia." Winnicott himself says: "We can share a respect for illusory experience, and if we wish we may collect together and form a group on the basis of the similarity of our illusory experiences. This is a natural root of grouping among human beings."
Ethnic Russians comprise a group with shared illusory experiences, and one of these is Russia herself. To the extent that the (ethno)national entity termed "Russia" is a collaborative mental artifact creatively superimposed upon the physical reality of a population of human organisms occupying a certain geographic area, it may be said to be a transitional object or an illusion in the Winnicottian sense.
Russia is an illusion. At a certain level she is not available to the senses. She occupies a Winnicottian potential space, not only real space. One cannot see her - unless one believes that the very earth enclosed within the borders of Russia is Russia, or that the birch tree standing before ones eyes is Russia, or that the tricolor flag of white, blue and red is Russia.
One may have strong feelings about these things, for example a Russian may literally kiss the earth upon return from a trip abroad (as did Solzhenitsyn when he landed in Magadan after twenty years of living in the West), or a Russian may take along a handful of native earth encased in an amulet ("ladanka") when leaving the native village or when leaving Russia. The feelings for these objects, moreover, are usually positive rather than negative - as are the child's feelings for the transitional object. The Russian does not hate Russia, any more than the child hates its teddy bear. At most the Russian may neglect and perhaps even discard patriotism, as the child often neglects and eventually discards the teddy bear. And of course Mother Russia is maternal in essence, just as is the child's transitional object (the "extra-good mother representative," as Greenacre says).
Earth, birch trees, the tricolor flag - these are just physical objects at one level. But they can function as what Vamik Volkan terms "reservoirs" or "suitable targets of externalization" of one's feelings. Insofar as such targets are shared by large numbers of people they give the impression of having a life of their own, of having their meanings built-in, so to speak. The feelings people have about these targets, however, are not inherent in the targets, but are projected there in accordance with archaic personal needs. The importance of the targets resides in the minds of their beholders.
Or more presicely, the importance of the targets resides in a collective of beholders, if they are going to have any significance beyond individual pathology. A man who is in the habit of talking to a lamp posts is viewed as mentally ill. But the American who raises his arm to pledge allegiance a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it, or the Russian who gets down to kiss the earth - is perfectly normal. We must not be misled by the fact that the theoreticians of transitional objects and targets of externalization have tended to be specialists in treating mental illness. The individual in these cases has learned a socially-acceptable, that is, a normal way of beholding and addressing the targets in question, of externalizing certain feelings.
"Mother Russia" herself is the most important target for feelings ethnic Russians have about their nation. One "believes in" her (Tiutchev sincerely, Ziuganov opportunistically), one "imagines" her (as Anderson would say), one even "creates" her (as Winnicott would say). At the most illusory extreme she is utterly internalized, and there are few if any visible external manifestations of her. Philosopher Ivan Il'in spoke of an "internal Holy Rus'" ("vnutrenniaia sviataia Rus'"). This magical object, as Parthé observes, travels with "true Russians" wherever they go. This is the Russia which nostalgic emigres speak of when they refer to the "Russia in our heart," or the "new Russia" within themselves, or when they declare "I carried Russia out [with me]."
But Russia is rarely so completely internalized and subjective an entity. When it is, the subject is in denial - as Il'in obviously was when he repeatedly denied the existence of an external Russia within Soviet territory after his exile from Russia. Russia is not only an illusion. She exists in the external, physical realm as well. Even a teddy bear has physical properties. Russia is no more merely subjective than she is merely objective. She exemplifies E. J. Hobsbawm's general premise that neither subjective nor objective definitions of a nation can ever suffice, or Ladis Kristof's more specific contention that any image of Russia "mixe[s] reality with idealization." One has to be tolerant of this basic national paradox. Like a teddy bear, Russia is located 'outside' as well as 'inside' the psyche. Even emigres who never will return did experience something physically real before they emigrated, and in many cases they brought out physically real objects such as a lump of Russian earth, or photographs of Russian summer scenes.
Russia is also real beyond the realistic aspect of the targeted fetish. Anyone who has passed in through Russian customs knows that immediate feeling of being in a place that is physically, tangibly real, very altogether outside oneself. At this level Russia is very much available to the senses, she occupies a real space. Not only do you hear the Russian language spoken all around, you smell the human sweat and the unregulated exhaust emissions, you taste the firey vodka, you feel the penetrating steam of the bania, you see the endless forests and fields. These are real sensations, or at least they are as real as sensations ever get. They can later be semiotized as components of the illusion of Russia that Russians have for themselves (and that some of us, non-Russians, have for ourselves).
Also real - but on a different level of reality - are various social, social-psychological, economic, and political facts. One cannot touch a short life expectancy, or a high alcoholism rate, or an authoritarian and corrupt political structure. On the other hand, these things can touch you in specific, individual cases. As abstractions, sociopolitical facts can also be recruited and semiotized as components of the illusion of Russia.
For example, Russia is often represented as being victimized by her authoritarian leaders, from Peter the Great to Boris Eltsin, from Ivan the Terrible to Iosif Stalin. It seems there will never be an end to the "Russian tragedy" - as it is called in an interesting recent book by Hugh Ragsdale. I believe, however, that there will be an end to the tragic victimization, as long as Russians are not again closed off from the rest of the world by forces that invite them back to masochistic submission, as long as individual Russians can freely select from a wide menu of illusions, including the consumerist illusions offered by the West.
In time, old masochists do die off, and unswaddled youth wants new illusions (Juhani Ihanus says that post-Soviet Russians are moving toward a "post-swaddled society"; Mikhail Guboglo speaks of their "deinfantilization" ["deinfantilizatsiia"] ). Nationalistic activities should become less interesting to the children of Mother Russia - as they were already becoming less interesting just before war broke out in 1914. With time, in all likelihood, the Russian teddy bear will be voluntarily consigned to the attic - not stolen and hidden there by some new Bolsheviks. Collectivism will gradually fade, Russians will be called upon less and less often to imagine their national collective. Russians will mature politically, will abandon their teddy bear - bringing it out only on certain national holidays, then putting it away again in order to get on with life in the - relatively - real world.

Imagining Russia     Previous Chapter     Next Chapter     "Panorama"

InterReklama advertising
InterReklama Advertising Network