Crisis of Identity?

Soviet symbolism is everywhere in Russia today, but the Soviet Union is gone. The more official monuments we visited, the more I became aware of the challenge this poses for national identity.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs down the street from our Moscow apartment is decorated all over with hammer and sickle medallions and stars — no one is scraping them off or covering them. Some of the stars on the Kremlin have been replaced by two-headed eagles from the Romanov dynasty, but a lot of them haven’t. The Stalin-era decorations of workers, peasants, soldiers, and partisans in the Moscow subway give it a heavy red vibe. Official buildings say Russian Federation, but monuments and plaques still say USSR.

In other words, the USSR is the “nation” for the purposes of collective memory. As an example, the monument to the defenders of Leningrad defines the survival of the city as an achievement of the USSR — neither the monument nor the museum of the siege mentions Russia. The State Museum of Russian Political History in St. Petersburg (formerly the Museum of the Revolution) currently has an exhibit called “The Collapse of the USSR: Historical Inevitability or Criminal Conspiracy?”

The more I thought about this, the more I realized what a dilemma Russians face. The USSR was communist, and that’s passe, but it was also an empire, and that’s something Russians can get behind. They think of their country as large and diverse, and there are lots of non-Europeans living in Moscow whose presence reinforces that appearance. To define Russia in terms of a particular ethnicity represents a diminution of the nation, which is not something people seem ready to embrace.

Also, as critical as Russians are of the Soviet leadership, in many ways the USSR is the hero of Russian history. After my second major church, even before I’d visited any of the myriad palaces in St. Petersburg, I could see why Russia had a revolution. The czars and nobility were unbelievably exploitative — the wealth they squeezed out of a poor country is staggering. So while there is an attempt underway to rehabilitate the czarist era and encourage Russians to remember the Romanov dynasty as a golden age, I’m not sure it’s going to work.

The Soviets made Russia really powerful for the first time, and they expanded its territory to include a lot of people who were not part of old Russia. The impression I got from my admittedly very short trip was that Russians are happy to leave the Soviet Socialist part of USSR behind, but they would love to hang onto the Union of Republics. As a policy matter that manifests as enthusiasm for the annexation of Crimea, but as a social psychological matter, it manifests as a significant identity crisis.

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