The identity crisis

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Countries, just like people, suffer from identity crises, which I would define as inability to fully comprehend their worldwide raison d’être (known, for example, in Russia as “the national idea”), their true values and aspirations, and, most importantly, their vision for the future. The identity crisis also often involves a gap between ordinary citizens and the country’s leadership as well as discontent between different social groups.

There is every reason to believe that a hundred-plus days into Vladimir Putin’s third presidency, Russia finds itself in the identity crisis of sorts. The situation was somewhat different even four years ago, when a young and energetic president, Dmitry Medvedev, began promoting his modernization agenda. Everyone would agree today that Medvedev’s attempts to reform the country’s outdated economic model and authoritarian political system did not yield much. Yet his efforts and, equally importantly, refreshing rhetoric helped usher in an image of Russia as a country aspiring to become better home for its own citizens, an image that was welcomed both in Russia and around the world.

Medvedev isn’t president anymore, but he’s still around and still pretends being a modernizer. These days, he runs a cabinet staffed with young technocrats with undeniably liberal credentials. The problem is that from the very beginning, Medvedev’s team has been suspiciously quiet, and its impact on the situation in the country is far from clear. The last thing I personally heard about the cabinet was the news that the government was spending $730,000 dollars on new furniture for the young modernizers’ offices.

For his part, since his inauguration in May, President Putin has made no attempts to articulate any coherent strategic vision of the country’s future. Having tacitly rejected his predecessor’s idea of “modernization” and having completely exhausted his own promise of “stability” – the term he struggled to define during the last presidential campaign – Putin has offered virtually nothing in their place. The country’s problems are real – the economy is still humiliatingly dependent on oil prices and corruption is out of control – but the top Russian officials have spent the whole summer in a childish play of counting medals that Russia won or lost during the Olympic Games in London. It would appear that the only “national idea” the Russian political class can come up with would be winning the gold medal competition during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Ah, by the way, the Sochi Olympiad is shaping up as the most expensive sports event in history; just don’t ask what all this money ($45 billion and counting) is going to buy.

And then, there was the verdict in the Pussy Riot case. It’s bad enough that a minor disturbance of public order has been allowed to reach the proportions of the major political and cultural event in the modern Russian history – all due to petty vindictiveness of Russia’s political and, much more disturbingly, spiritual leaders. It’s equally bad that at the time when unity must become Russia’s true “national idea,” yet another divisive factor that splits the country along ideological lines has been created out of nowhere – as if Russia hasn’t got plenty of those already. Worse, by igniting widespread protests and condemnations all around the world, Russia yet again lost the chance to define its identity on its own terms. Now, this will be done by others, and the Kremlin may not like the result.

One could argue, of course, that so far, the identity crisis hasn’t killed any single individual. Nor is there any history of countries collapsing under the weight of such a crisis. And this is true. Yet, identity crises must not be taken lightly, and the reason is simple: they are usually closely followed by other, much more damaging, crises.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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18 Responses to The identity crisis

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    I saw a not very flattering comment about this publication on twitter.
    I remember that when I defended my PhD thesis, I had “drawn” one “black” ball from the committee of probably 10.Later I was told that this “black ball” was a classic proof that the work was original and interesting research :).


  2. Eugene says:

    Hi Alex,

    I had one too. After defense, the lady approached me and told that she actually liked me and my work, but voted against because she hated my boss.

    Another incarnation of the same: I didn’t watch the Pussy Riot performance, but I feel offended and can’t sleep.


  3. Alex says:

    .or maybe it is a general Anglo-Saxon characteristic – eg. look at US attitudes on who is permitted to solve Syrian crisis. Perhaps, the latter stems from their general foreign policy mistake – they always assume that it is a specific single person & few supporters who create the environment forgetting that more often it is a much broader & diffuse environment which \”selects\” the person.To think of the Russians – slogan \”Putin must go\” belongs to the same category 🙂

    Re: your original topic, I am afraid that the Russian \”national idea\” is to always resist the authorities while fully expecting the authority\’s help in this.

    • Eugene says:

      I personally think that Russia doesn’t need any particular “national idea;” decent and responsible government would be quite enough for starters.

      As for the “hybrid” approach to government, it occurs here too. My son loves quoting a Tea Party activist he once saw on FOX: Where was government when I was sitting on food stamps?

  4. Dear Eugene,

    I think you seriously overstate and perhaps overdramatise the position here.

    First of all Putin did set out his vision for Russia’s future in a lengthy series of articles he wrote during the election campaign. As I said previously this is an astonishingly ambitious even grandiose programme, which even in ideal conditions would take at least a decade to see through if it is achievable at all. It is impossible to see how such a programme could be significantly advanced in a mere 100 days but nonetheless some progress has been made on some fronts. Russia has joined WTO and the ambitious (perhaps over ambitious) plans to increase defence spending and to use the increase in defence spending to rebuild the country’s manufacturing base are still being pursued. At the same time wages and incomes continue to grow, the underlying inflation remains down (which does not of course mean that there are not from time to time upward ticks) whilst the budget and balance of payments remain in surplus. For the rest whilst I am obviously not party to Putin’s inner thoughts or to those of the Russian government, I would have thought the priority at the moment must be to shore up Russia’s economic defences in preparation for the likely recurrence of the world economic crisis in the autumn. Given the very difficult international environment and the immense uncertainty forward planning must at the moment be extremely difficult (who for example can confidently say whether the euro will still be around by Christmas?) but overall one gets no sense in Russia of the confusion and malaise about how to handle economic questions that one sees at the moment elsewhere in Europe or even in the US.

    As for Pussy Riot, as you know I too think this was a relatively minor case involving a public order matter. Where I take the diametrically opposite view to yours is that in my opinion the fault for the totally disproportionate amount of attention this case has received lies not with the authorities but with the defendants’ supporters both in Russia and in the west who have once again because of their loathing of Putin and of the Russian authorities fallen into the trap of countenancing what is by any measure straightforward criminal behaviour whilst in the case of many western reporters of the case being seemingly oblivious to the fact that the case would have been handled in almost exactly the same way if it happened in their own countries as it was in Russia. There are now by the way clear signs of a reaction against the disproportionate amount of reporting this case has received at least in Britain with some starting to question whether the case merited the amount of reporting it has received. As for Russia I understand that the latest Levada polls shows that the extent of support or sympathy for Pussy Riot stands at somewhere between 1% and 6%, which if true suggests that this case is not in fact an important divisive issue within Russian society. This does not surprise me because at the end of the day unlike say Alfred Dreyfus the Pussy Riot defendants are not innocent.

    Having made these points, you are of course up to a point right when you say that Russia has issues of identity (I think the word “crisis” is too strong). These issues have however existed in one form or another since at least the late nineteenth century though they have obviously become especially acute since the Soviet collapse in 1991. They are however hardly of Putin’s making and it does seem to me rather unfair to blame him for them.

    • Dear Eugene,

      By the way are you sure that the cost of the Winter Olympics in Sochi is $45 billion and counting? This recent article in the Wall Street Journal puts the figure at $18 billion.

      This would be rather higher than the cost of the summer Olympics in Athens and London (though not by much) but significantly lower than the cost of the summer Olympics in Beijing (estimated at $40-44 billion). Bear in mind that Athens, Beijing and London are world capitals with well established international transport links whilst a large part of the cost for the Olympics in Sochi appears to be explained by the building of transport links. Whether $10-18 billion is a good price for staging an international jamboree that lasts all of 2 weeks is another matter. I would say not but judging by the mood here in London most people don’t agree with me.

      • Eugene says:

        Dear Alexander,

        All I can do is to provide the link I used as a reference:

        One source of the discrepancy could be what to count as expense. There are massive infrastructure projects going on in Sochi triggered by the Games. Whether you include them in the budget or not may affect the total cost.

        I any case, even $18 billion is a lot of money for a winter event. And remember: the original budget was $12 billion.


        • Joo says:

          Hey Val, I’m not to familiar with kale, but I did see how you can make kale chips by lainyg out the clean kale on a baking sheet and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper and bake them in the oven until crisp. My guess would be to set your oven to 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Another way I would try kale is to chopped it up finely and steam it with garlic and lots of butter, salt and pepper. I’ve never tried it that way but it might be good! Good Luck with your kale!! Take care

  5. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Thank you very much for your as usually thoughtful comment. I was pleased that you reminded me of Putin’s 7(?) election campaign papers because I completely forgot about them – and in doing so, I’m joined I guess by 99.99% of all Russia watchers:) I’m not sure that Putin himself can recall their titles at this point. I think that Putin’s election rhetoric has the same relevance to Russia’s future as, say, Obama’s bashing Romney to the American.

    Obviously, joining WTO after 18 years of attempts can’t be ascribed to Putin’s vision – nor is his attempts to solidify his standing with the captains of the Russian MIC and the military by irresponsibly increasing military spending. For the former, he isn’t responsible; the latter doesn’t represent vision, IMHO.

    There is one obvious issue that goes to the core of Russian problems and is the core Russian problem in itself – corruption. Even Medvedev tried to address this issue, and Putin is obviously aware of that. What is his vision of approaches to fight corruption in Russia? The latest I heard from him – in response to an open letter from a famous musician – is an advice to businesses to stop giving bribes. Is this vision? Is tactical re-allocation of budget funds to minimize worsening economic situation in Europe vision? Is total silence on the problem of disappearing Pension Fund vision? Is introduction of a number of laws restricting political and civil space vision vision? Then what else?

    Sure, I fully realize that I’m asking way too much of Putin. As great manager as he is, he never was a visionary – otherwise The Family would have never offered him to Yeltsin. And for about 10 years it’s been enough: to boast how he saved the country from the catastrophe. And please note: I was an ardent Putin’s supporter back then. But at some point, crisis managers must step down and let visionaries take their places. Putin obviously doesn’t understand it. And he lost me:)

    As for PR, I feel that I’m done with the discussion of the merits of their trial. Let’s face the consequences now. For about 6-7 years, Khodorkovsky has been beautifully playing the role of the major victim of Putin’s “brutality.” But his allure had tapered off, so Magnitsky was introduced instead. Now, it appears that he may have stolen money – and, IMHO, this is the real reason behind the “stalled” Magnitsky bill. So here comes the PR: new attractive faces with a flare of artistic expression – and, more importantly, without any real crime committed. It’d be extremely difficult for the Kremlin to fight this perception. If the Kremlin had a vision of creating a “perfect victim,” this vision has indeed been realized.


  6. gweccles says:

    Medvedev’s time in charge was just a smokescreen. It was inevitable that things would revert to type as soon as Putin forced his way to a third term of office. As my new novel ‘The Oligarch: A Thriller’ takes as its starting point, the Russian leaders are in the process of strengthening their hold over business life and wresting power from the hands of the businessmen.

    • Eugene says:

      I agree with you that in today’s Russia, being in power is the best way to make money. However, I would disagree that Medvedev’s demise was inevitable. As far as I know, he had a chance to run for the second term, but the Kremlin hawks persuaded Putin to damp him and get back to presidency himself.

  7. Pingback: Russia’s Bizarre Preoccupation With The Idea Of The “National Idea”

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