How Important Has the West Been In Processes of Post-Soviet Russian identity formation?

John Harrison

This is a really complex issue that I have been trying to come to terms with for decades. I cannot say that I have solved this issue; the following represents a rough outline of what I have realised so far. I may well be wrong, but nevertheless, here goes.

The way that Russia views the ‘West’ has clearly changed since December 1991. Russia herself seems to have changed, and simultaneously, so has the West. The task of understanding what is going on is not simplified by the fact that Russia has a long and meaningful cultural history which is not simple to understand in western terms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all Russians think alike, and at any one time, there may co-exist sharply different views of the West, and what it is to be a Russian (1). At this point it is important to consider some background information.

Some western observers who have taken Russia to be a western nation whose ties to the West were interrupted by communism (2), were particularly happy to see western culture being adopted on a grass roots level in Russia. Alec Nove described the period up to 1989 as one of a ‘cultural renaissance in Russia’ (3). It came as something of a disappointment for many to realise that by as early as 1996, that many Russians did not consider themselves to be a natural ‘peripheral receivers’ of Western cultural messages (4).

I propose that from roughly 1996 onwards, Russia moved to establish a national identity based on a mixture of different aspects of traditional Russian philosophic schools. This is nothing new, as Rosalind Marsh points out: ‘In contrast to western politicians, Russian political figures have been constantly engaged in a re-evaluation of Russian history in order to search for previous historical models as a guide to the future’ (5). If this analysis is correct, it is possible to consider that Russian leaders consider themselves able to determine the future by referring to past models, and using the past for the future also implies that Russia’s politics, even her culture, can be driven from above.

Views of the West have varied in Russia, depending on whether the abovementioned model applied at any one time was pro- or anti- western. In the 19th century, Russian intellectuals identified radically different views of the west, such as those held by ‘westernisers’, ‘Slavophiles’ and ‘Eurasianists’ (6). Evidence for the existence of such different approaches to the West can be seen from looking at what has happened in Russia over the past 27 years when the country has clearly swung from one model to another. A ‘binary’, ‘either/or’ nature of Russian culture as identified by Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky (7) can go a long way to explain pro- or anti- western shifts in post-Soviet identity, in that moving from one approaietch to another, which also entails shifting one set of values with another, has occurred in Russia before.

Russian culture would thus seem to have a built-in experience in accomplishing such switches, or, Russian culture itself operates at a deeper level than that level where the switch occurs. An argument to support the latter view can be found in the fact that whilst Russian writers and philosophers identified and debated the aforementioned schools, the majority of the Russian population did not enjoy the opportunity to conduct such negotiations about their own identity (5). To them, crucially, the official view of the West at the time, was – simply speaking – of limited importance. A simple comparison would be to consider an electric switch on a wall in a rooom, where the casing and the wiring for the switch, indeed the room itself is the deep culture.

Such a stratification of Russian culture into a deep unchanging foundation and a fluctuating surface layer could correspond with the view that ‘identity’ in Russia is changeable and often charged with political nuisances. Michael Urban points out: ‘politics in post-communist societies is in large measures a politics of identity’  (8). Such a view, regards ‘national cultures, ethnic cultures, and religious cultures as finished objects’ (9). The formation of the identity of human beings can be seen to occur through a process of comparisons, and the identity of peoples would seem to follow that general process. Some academics have suggested that identity is formed by depicting what one is not – the ‘other’ (10). Thus the West, from the point of view of Russians, can be said to have been viewed as an ‘other,’ a ‘social construct’ (to use another much hackneyed phrase from academia); something that can and does change depending on the perspective of the viewer, and also, crucially, on how it is presented (11).

What does post-Soviet history teach us in this context? Motivations for Perestroika can be debated, there were clearly political as well as cultural drivers. The ‘neo-Stalinist compromise’ played a significant role, as it became necessary to cooperate with the West for economic reasons. Codifying the West and Western culture in terms of ‘decadence, imperialism, reaction, aggression and greed’ (11), no longer became possible as by the latter half of the 1980s, a large section of the Soviet population simply did not agree. The difference between the official line (backed by an official version of history), which still appeared to be anti-western (5), and the existential consciousness of western-looking young Soviets, made it possible for western radio stations and the culture that they broadcast to find a receptive, mass audience inside the Soviet Union. Young Russians turned on the Soviet Union itself, which they alienated to such a degree that it became an ‘other’ country for them, even though they were still living in it (8). Soviet filmmakers were now able to create anti-Stalinist films, which were shown to a wide audience such as ‘Pokoyania’ (Repentance) and ‘Kholodnoe Leto Pyat’des’yat Tret’ego’ (The Cold Summer of ’53). The Russian underground thrived, with new music from groups such as ‘Zvuki My’ and ‘Akvarium’ whose lyrics espoused a new sense of freedom. Russians’ identity seemed to latch onto the West as being desirable, exotic and interesting. These young people effectively deconstructed Soviet ideology from within using what they perceived to be the West as a model.

It is possible that General Secretary of the Soviet Union Gorbachev did not fully understand that western culture and ideology could destroy massive chunks of Soviet mythology faster than it would take to re-create and adapt its vital institutions. Gorbachev’s soviet strategy of separating western Europe from the United States, ‘Europe our common home’ (11), went unnoticed in the West. Such subtleties along with voices of dissent were swept aside by President Boris Yeltsin when he came to power in 1991. America soon became the western country most loved by Russian youth, signifying an authentic culture of ‘space, speed, cinema, technology.’ At the same time, for another section of the Russian population, America was the most hated, since it appeared banal, vulgar, and most frequently, rootless, as ‘the neutralisation of values, of the death of culture’ (12).

With the benefit of hindsight, there was considerably naivety involved when one considers the practicalities of Russia becoming similar to, or even a part of the West. A study of political discourses of the time clearly shows Yeltsin using the West to advance his own political agenda, as his popularity in 1991 very much depended on deconstructing communism and associated ‘myths’ faster and more decisively than Gorbachev who was seen as acting ambiguously in this context.

Gorbachev, Yeltsin and leading members of Yeltsin’s cabinet met with western politicians including Margaret Thatcher in the mid 1980s , Russia and America reached arms agreements, and western culture flooded into Russia. Russians came over to believing that by switching over to a western mind set, Russia’s problems would be solved. In fact, as the new Russia struggled for its survival against a resurgent hard left (ex-communists), political identities became confused. As Urban points out, at that time identities had not stabilised, and communist parties often borrowed religious messianistic messages, whilst democrats included a fascist element in 1993 (8).

Historians can read parallels between the 1990’s westernising drive and episodes in Russian history such as during Peter the Great and Catherine The Great’s reigns, in that in both periods, an aspect of ‘vne vremennosti’ (out of time) (5), has been present, when Russia attempted to jump to another stage of development without necessarily evolving to that stage. Unregulated, primitive capitalism in the early 1990s was partially responsible for bringing large sections of the Russian population to their knees. Two-fifths of the population lived in poverty in 1999, and a new super rich who enjoyed personal fortunes not seen in Russia since Tsarist times, whilst targeting Russia like a colony. This enraged the poor; many of whom had enjoyed at least a feeling of security concerning their own futures whilst living the Soviet Union. An atomisation of society occurred rapidly and dramatically. In the 1980s and 1990s, prostitution which was present in the Soviet Union flourished, as did the sale if illicit drugs (14). Rampant corruption created a self-perpetuating system. All of these factors created a major identity crisis and a nostalgia for the oviet past amongst those sections of the population who had lost out most from the collapse of the Soviet societal structures. These people saw Russian being marginalised on the international stage, and within Russia criticism arose of ‘blind imitation of western models’ (6). In the light of this situation, a resurgence of anti-western neo-Slavophil ideas cannot be seen as surprising, particularly when one considers, as Roslalind March points out, that the neo-westernising political and philosophical current in Russia has always been a minority (5).

By 1996, when Yeltsin came close to losing the election to the communists, Russians did not have to be told that they now lived in a country 25% smaller than that of the Soviet Union. In 1997, only 1 per cent of Russians considered themselves to be European, compared to 12.9 per cent who still considered themselves to be ‘Soviet’ (12). By the late 1990s, this led to Russians of the younger generation, those people who had helped to demolish the credibility of Soviet ideology, to renegotiate their attitudes to the West in a negative manner (5).

Writers and film makers responded. In 1994, film director Nikita Mikhalkov’s well-known film ‘Utomlennye solntsem’ (Burnt by the Sun), casts the devious villain Mitia, who betrays the film’s hero, an Old Bolshevik hero, as a foreigner. Mikhalkov’s later film ‘Sibirskii tsiriul’nik’ (the Barber of Siberia, 1998) released four years later is even more explicit in its anti-Western bias. The film reportedly received $10 million dollars in sponsorship from the Russian government (5). However searches for a new Russian ‘national idea’ instigated by Russian President Yeltsin were finally abandoned in 1997 partly because the Yeltsin government, which came to power by brandishing a flag of westernisation against a background of the disintegration of the previous system, was itself fighting for ideological and political survival.

When Vladimir Putin became the President of Russia in May 2000, he was able to leverage nationalistic goals in his short pre-election campaign to win over the hearts and minds of Russians. It is important to note that nationalism in Russia does not carry a negative connotation. Against such a resurgence of conservative public opinion, (when conservatism means a regeneration of Soviet attitudes), the passing of a new information security doctrine in Sept 2000 which effectively created the legislative base for government control of the Russian electronic mass media did not cause the public concern that it would have done in western countries.

Putin’s reassurance to the Russian population when he was elected president in 2001 that there will be ‘no more revolutions or counter-revolutions’ (11) seemed by most to mean that he supported the idea that Russia had accepted Western modernity. Only four years later he said that the downfall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy (16). A turnaround in the formation of identity was occurring. It was not difficult to blame the West for ruining Russia’s economy when Yeltsin’s teams of westernising reformers simply failed. Saying the West was a scapegoat can be said to be simplistic because  it tends to ignore the input of the Russian people themselves, but they, in turn, cannot be solely held responsible as they viewed western capitalism through the prism of Russian and Soviet cultural experience (no experience).

But economics were only one aspect of the arguments presented to Russians. In the early 2000s. Putin attempted to revive national pride as is shown by, for example, the restoration of the army’s red banner, the designation of February 23rd as ‘The Defenders of the fatherland Day’, and the adoption of the Soviet national anthem with Aleksandr Aleksandrov’s music, complete with words formulated by Sergei Mikhailkov, who had been a favourite of Stalin (6). A sense of nostalgia for the greatness of the lost past and future, all worked together to weld support for the idea of a new, strong, non-western Russia. However, as Svetlana Boym noted: ‘post-Soviet nostalgia is not the same thing as nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ (5). The nostalgia that Russians in Yeltsin’s Russian experienced was a nostalgia for the dreams of a secure childhood not necessarily to a return of the political, economic and cultural realities of the non-capitalist Soviet Union.

Some of Russia’s avant-garde writers reflected an anti-western point of view, despite the fact that Russian post modernism grew out of the ‘shestidesyatniki’ (1960s school), a school which was inherently anti-Soviet. The non-conformist novelist Eduard Limonov formed his own National Bolshevik Party (5), post-modernist writer Victor Erofeev, said he was that fed up with the West in 1999.

When discussing nationalism in Russia, it is perhaps necessary to mention that nationalism has been utilised in Europe throughout its history. The ability of the nation state to identify and categorise aspects of culture, as Foucault has indicated, is at the core of what makes a state ‘governable’ (15). When it comes to recovering a nation’s identity, nationalism can be an extremely useful tool, and has been sued by all countries. A key device for constructing the national imaginary is the conceptual triad identities-borders-orders (16). The concept of IBO necessitates the existence of an ‘other’, and according to this theory, the reinforcement of Russia’s borders both actual and imagined through various wars since 1991 has played a major part in constructing Russians’ post-Soviet identity. Russian foreign policy directed towards these goals enjoyed (and enjoys) tremendous popularity. Semi-accurate reports in western news media about Russia, were and are seen as being orientalist by Russians, and have in general bolstered Russians’ attitude to the West as being distant, uncaring and condescending towards their motherland.

I consider that there seems to be an awareness that the West cannot be the enemy for ever, and it is significant that in the midst of anti-Western feelings, Putin (alone) continues to use the words ‘western partners’ to describe western countries, for which he has been criticised for, by more right wing Russian politicians and journalists.


It is possible to suggest that the West has played a vital role in the processes of post-Soviet identity formation – either as an example to be emulated or a constructed enemy to consolidate public opinion against, by utilising additional props including nationalism and an updated version of Slavophil thinking.

We may use terms such as ‘other’ to analyse the situation, however it is perhaps because of the unproven gap between deep unchanging Russian cultural foundations and the flexible surface level of Russians’ identity, the importance of the West is indeed limited only to a proposed surface level. None of the above in any way justifies either westernising or Slavophil tendencies in Russia, not do I wish to justify or criticise the behaviour of western individuals or institutions in Russia. As to the discussion as to whether cultural changes are occurring – it seems to me that surface level changes are taking place and they are the result of both top-down and grass roots movements, perhaps it is possible to argue that more of the former is taking place in comparison to the latter, perhaps not. I would argue that more surface level changes are taking place in Russia than in western countries because the surface layer is more unstable than of many other countries world wide; I do not think that such an argument is particularly new. I do wish, however to stress the importance of studying what Russian culture is before casting judgements about Russia, just as it is vital for Russians to study western culture. I am still learning about both and admit my ignorance.



(5). Marsh, R.J. (2007) Literature, history and identity in post-soviet Russia, 1991-2006. New York: Peter Lang AG.

(6). Bove, R. (2003) Russia and western Civilization: Historical and cultural encounters. Edited by Russell Bova. United States: Sharpe, M. E.

(7). Buckler, J.A. (2009) ‘What comes after “Post-Soviet” in Russian studies?’,PMLA, 124. doi: 10.1632/pmla.2009.124.1.251.

(8). Urban, M. (1994) ‘The politics of identity in Russia’s Postcommunist transition: The nation against itself’, Slavic Review, 53(3), p. 733. doi: 10.2307/2501518.

(9). Baumann, G. (1999) The multicultural riddle: Rethinking national, ethnic, and religious identities. New York: Routledge

(10). Said, E.W. (1995) Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient (Penguin history). 5th edn. New York: Penguin Books.

(11). Bonnett, A. (2004) The idea of the west: Culture, politics and history. United States: Palgrave Macmillan.

(12). Pilkington, H., al, et, Omel’chenko, E., Bliudina, U. and Flynn, M. (2003) Looking west ? Cultural globalization and Russian youth cultures. United States: Pennsylvania State university press.

(13). Hosking, G. and Service, R. (eds.) (1999) Re-interpreting Russia. United Kingdom: Hodder Arnold.

(14). Service, R. (2003) Russia: Experiment with a people. London: Pan Macmillan.

(16). Sinyakov, D. and Images, A.G.- (2005) Putin: Soviet collapse a ‘genuine tragedy’. Available at: (Accessed: 17 April 2016).

© John Harrison 10.3.18.