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Ivan Timofeev

RIAC Director of Programs

There is hardly a country in the world that could boast a firmly established identity. Any immaterial substance is volatile and prone to change. Just recently perceived as bulwarks of stability and possessors of an unshakeable political culture, Western countries are facing grave challenges to their worldview. The Russian identity against this background looks completely stable.

As if by default, many in Russia and elsewhere believe that Russia has finally reached an equilibrium and has made its choice. This means that the identity problem is, as it were, solved. Nevertheless, Russia’s key dilemmas are here to stay and will yet make themselves felt at strategic forks in the road.


There is hardly a country in the world that could boast a firmly established identity. Any immaterial substance is volatile and prone to change. Just recently perceived as bulwarks of stability and possessors of an unshakeable political culture, Western countries are facing grave challenges to their worldview. The Russian identity against this background looks completely stable.

As if by default, many in Russia and elsewhere believe that Russia has finally reached an equilibrium and has made its choice. This means that the identity problem is, as it were, solved. Nevertheless, Russia’s key dilemmas are here to stay and will yet make themselves felt at strategic forks in the road.

The January issue of Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn magazine ran an article, entitled “Russia’s Foreign Policy: Looking for an Identity,” [1] by the veteran Russian diplomat and politician Vladimir Lukin. The publication made a splash, because no one outside the academic community had discussed Russia’s foreign policy identity in earnest during the last few years, despite the tectonic shifts that occurred in its foreign policy. This could be attributed to the fact that professional discourse on identity issues requires a rare combination of scientific depth, a mind with a philosophic cast and considerable political experience. Today, however, these issues are discussed much less frequently than in the 1990s and 2000s. As if by default, many in Russia and elsewhere believe that Russia has finally reached an equilibrium and has made its choice. This means that the identity problem is, as it were, solved. But Vladimir Lukin painted a totally different picture and the points he raised demand further explication.

There is hardly a country in the world that could boast a firmly established identity. Any immaterial substance is volatile and prone to change. Only recently perceived as bulwarks of stability and possessors of an unshakeable political culture, Western countries are facing grave challenges to their worldview. The United States is being torn apart by fervor: its role and mission in the world – universalism, Messianism and global aspirations – are under unprecedented pressure from pragmatic nationalism. Britain is drifting away from the “European” identity as it seeks to reformat its international role. Change is underway in Germany under the impact of domestic political realities and its leading role in the EU. The Central and Eastern European countries, once fervent advocates of Western values, are demonstrating non-linear dynamics. Poland is now well-nigh the leading Eurosceptic. Hungary has long been perceived as a very particular EU member. Even in the Baltic countries, there are many open issues of political history behind the official façade.

Of course, these changes can be seen as dictated by the shifting political situation, whereas identity, as everyone knows, is something much more stable. Identity is a cultural and historical constant, rooted in the public consciousness, which is extremely difficult to change overnight. But it directly influences foreign policy. According to Vladimir Lukin, “Any country’s identity is the foundation upon which anything like a sound national strategy can only crystallize and be formulated. In the absence of such strategy, any tactical or operational foreign policy moves are tactically ineffective and (in most cases) strategically futile.” [2]

Serving as a lens, a model of the world, a system for interpreting oneself and others, identity is highly resistant to political influences. At the same time, the intellectual and political elites are quite capable of manipulating cultural and historical material and modifying it in their interests. Their behavior as they do this may be both utterly cynical (identity is used to legitimize a political course or strategy) and totally sincere (identity is used to set the vector of a foreign policy strategy).

Add to this yet another element that is often overlooked: any identity includes a set of basic contradictions and dilemmas characteristic of each particular country. These are of both a worldview and a strategic nature. Conflicts and opposite views enshrined in an identity are inevitably displayed in a state’s strategies, and determine the cyclical nature of its policies. A strategy is a method of reconciling extremes or a radical choice in favor of one of them. Of course, Russia is not an exception in this regard. Against the European background, Russian identity today looks completely stable. Nevertheless, Russia’s key dilemmas are here to stay and will yet make themselves felt as the country approaches strategic forks in the road.

Lukin names several such dilemmas. One is the everlasting problem of choosing between modes of development for the country in terms of “breadth” or “depth.” Another is reconciling certain episodes of Russian history, choosing some historical event or another as “golden” or “black” legends and incorporating them into visions of the future. There is also the need to choose between Russian national interests and global problems which Russia can help to solve. An inevitable Russian dilemma is one between the ethnic and civic dimensions of identity. We could also reach a higher level of generalization, and the following intellectual experiment will help us to do this.

Let us ask ourselves, what country could serve as an example for Russia? In Russia, studying foreign experience is almost a national sport. In itself, it is a useful occupation because no one would doubt that it is necessary to have an idea of foreign experience. But a highly contradictory picture emerges, when it comes to comparing assessments of foreign experience offered by professionals from different areas. The military point to the strength of the military machine and the revolution in military affairs abroad. The economists praise prosperous states with a high quality of life and advanced industries. The secret services warn of the danger of “color revolutions” and the need for effective control. But the business community and civil society are no less justified in citing examples of flexible statehood, where order does not suppress freedom as well as business and civic initiatives. Thus, at the far end we have numerous pieces of a mosaic and we know that it will be extremely difficult to put them together. It is anything but simple to be simultaneously a major military power and a country with a high quality of life. Such examples are few and far between. Much art is needed to combine strong statehood and democracy that would not degenerate into despotism or a corrupt and shaken political system.

The bottom line is that we would like to be strong like the United States and have a quality of life and a social state like the Scandinavian countries, democracy like Canada, industry like Japan, growth rates like China and so on. A clash of these good wishes that refuse to hang together generates frustration. And this frustration runs like a red thread through the entire Russian political tradition. And we can say that this contradictoriness is an intrinsic feature of our identity.

Not so long ago, Andrei Melvil supervised a large-scale research project, A Political Atlas of the Modern Times [2]. Based on a large amount of quantitative and qualitative data, his team compiled a multi-dimensional typology of world countries. It proved easy to include the overwhelming majority of countries in this or that category or cluster. There were countries with a high quality of life and low threat level due to an external “security umbrella”; states with a low quality of life and a high level of threat; crisis-ridden, disintegrating corrupt democracies; and strong and stable autocracies that lacked freedom. Only a few countries defied the general logic and proved fundamentally different: Britain, India, China, the United States and Russia, with the latter three demonstrating the most distinctions. They were also fundamentally different from each other. Russia in this lineup is perhaps the most controversial country, where an extremely high threat level is combined with mid-level quality of life, a relatively weak economy with impressive military might, and a high level of statehood with a controversial, non-linear and incomplete democratic transit.

Should we, in this context, be surprised by the contradictoriness of Russian identity? No. Are our dilemmas preordained and determined once and for all? No again. While recognizing our uniqueness as the norm, we should consistently work to emerge from the most acute contradictions. One of the most important of these, as I see it, is the opposition of security and sovereignty, on the one hand, and globalization and openness to the world, on the other. In seeking to choose one of these opposites, we are driving ourselves into a corner. Today security is hardly possible in isolation from the rest of the world. Nor is it possible to become a major player in the global world without a sufficient level of security, independence and freedom in decision-making. In the long term, Russia will have to reconcile these two opposites, to make the impossible possible and to retain independence and room to maneuver while benefitting from globalization and integration in the global world. This will require shifts in both strategy and identity. “…All of us jointly should adapt the unique gift this country has inherited from the previous generations, its space, to the imperatives of fast-flowing time. …For Europe, Eurasia and the world as a whole, this vector of Russia’s national identity is not fraught with confrontation. It is not a challenge for our external environment. It is a challenge for ourselves. Patriotism today is about giving a fitting response to this challenge." [4]

Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

1. Vladimir. Lukin. “Post-Soviet Russia’s Foreign Policy: Looking for an Identity,” Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn No1, 2017.

2. Vladimir Lukin, Op. cit., p. 44.

3. A. Melvil, M. Ilyin, Yu. Polunin, E. Meleshkina, M. Mironyuk, Ya. Vaslavsky, I. Timofeyev. “A Political Atlas of the Modern Times. The Experience of Multi-Dimensional Statistical Analysis of the Political Systems of Modern States.” Moscow: Moscow State Institute of International Relations under the MFA, 2007.

4. Vladimir Lukin, Op. cit., p. 62.

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