Russian National Identity Roundtable

Valdai Club Roundtable on the Topic of the 10th Meeting,

“Identity in a Changing World”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mortara Center, Georgetown University

Dr. Angela Stent of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies opened the roundtable by welcoming Valery Fyodorov, director of the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project and Pavel Andreev, Executive Director of the Valdai Club Foundation along with other discussants from Georgetown University.

To introduce the subject of Russian national identity, Dr. Stent briefly noted three points for comparison of Russian and American national self-perceptions.

First, as multiethnic and multiconfessional societies, the United States and Russia must confront many of the same issues in attempting to define national identity.  Second, American self-perception is rooted in the belief that Americans are the bearers of universal values, whereas modern Russian identity is based on the premise that Russian civilization is unique and that its values are equally legitimate, but distinct from those of the West.  Third, Russia and the United States alike are struggling to adjust their identities to incorporate the growing Islamic populations in both countries.

Pavel Andreev introduced the topic and the origins of the roundtable.  Valdai participants believe that it is impossible to generate scenarios for Russia’s development without a clear understanding of the shared vision and values that form the basis of national goals.  To stimulate discussion of national identity, the Valdai Club has previously organized roundtables in China and Germany, and the current forum is a continuation of this effort.

Valery Fyodorov opened his presentation by outlining his approach to the concept of national identity.  Identity, Fyodorov observed, is constantly in flux, and multiple identities typically coincide in one and the same individual.  Identities tend to weaken during times of peace and to strengthen – or on the contrary, to collapse – during periods of war and crisis.

Having elaborated this conceptual framework, Fyodorov proceeded to discuss four aspects of modern Russian identity in turn: state (national) identity, ideological identity, territorial identity, and religious identity.

In terms of national identity, Fyodorov made reference to several competing views of modern Russian statehood, including the ethnonationalist view, the neo-Soviet approach, and the centrist view advocated by President Putin and United Russia, which accepts Russia’s current borders and recognizes it as a multinational state and the legal successor to both the Russian Empire and the U.S.S.R.  Territorial identity, in turn, is constructed around the idea of Moscow as a sacred center of the Russian lands.  Regional separatism, in Fyodorov’s view, is the greatest threat to Russian territorial identity.

The religious identity of Russians is inextricably bound up with the Russian Orthodox Church.  Although in recent years cooperation between the religious and civil authorities has become far closer, Fyodorov contended that Russian Orthodoxy is actually quite weak, subject to growing criticism from the liberal camp, and unable to compete with other religious denominations, whether Protestant or Islamic.

Finally, the ideological aspect of Russian national identity has evolved rapidly since the society’s brief infatuation with liberal democracy during the early 1990s.  Vladislav Surkov’s notion of sovereign democracy, which argues that Russian democracy cannot be held to the same standards as Western democracy, has been the most influential ideological construction of the Putin decade.  Fyodorov concluded by noting that Russian identity does not contain the values on whose basis the country’s modernization could be carried out, since Russians look primarily to the past, not to the future, for inspiration and pride.

Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, focused on two aspects of American national identity: first, the traits and characteristics that Americans consider typical of their fellow citizens, and second, the values that make Americans exceptional vis-à-vis other advanced democracies.  Wike discussed four dimensions of American exceptionalism in terms of value orientations: religiosity, individualism, tolerance, and attitudes toward foreign policy.

Wike first cited data from a recent Pew survey that asked respondents to state whether they believed various traits were characteristic of Americans.  Majorities of U.S. respondents believed that Americans were competitive, modern, inventive, hardworking, generous, and tolerant, but also greedy, arrogant, aggressive and rude.  Similarly, most Americans believe that the country’s success is not accidental, but rather a consequence of our political and economic institutions, not to mention God’s will.

In terms of value orientations, Wike presented survey data showing that Americans tend to be significantly more individualistic, tolerant of cultural and religious diversity, and supportive of the unilateral use of military force in international affairs than their counterparts in other wealthy democracies.

Perhaps the most dramatic dimension of value exceptionalism is religiosity: more than twice as many Americans as West Europeans agree that religion plays a very important role in their daily life.  The U.S. appears to defy the secularization thesis, which holds that levels of religiosity decline as per capita incomes in a country rise.  However, generational turnover may be driving a gradual convergence between the U.S. and other advanced democracies.

Generational change may also be the cause of a shift toward more isolationalist sentiment among Americans in recent years, though support for isolationism fluctuates dramatically based on the state of U.S. foreign policy commitments.

Wike distinguished among three varieties of American exceptionalism as it relates to shared value orientations.  Misunderstood exceptionalism refers to the role of religion and nationalism in American life: non-Americans tend to overestimate the importance of both factors, for instance, in shaping U.S. foreign policy.  Conditional exceptionalism refers to American attitudes that vary from case to case and are exceptional only in some contexts.  Problematic exceptionalism refers to basic, consistent value differences between Americans and others, such as the unusual importance that Americans assign to individualism.

While the United States is not the only exceptional country, Wike concluded, American exceptionalism stands out as particularly noteworthy due to the role of American power in the world.


Responding to a question from Pavel Andreev, Wike observed that the effect of generational turnover on value change in the U.S. is inconsistent.  Some value orientations, such as individualism, appear to be relatively consistent across generations.  On the other hand, generational change is clearly driving the declining level of religiosity in American society, as well as lower levels of belief in American cultural superiority.

Valery Fyodorov disputed the claim that there were major intergenerational differences in value orientations in Russian society.  According to Fedorov, the generation of Russians that has matured after the Soviet period is only slightly more liberal and Westernized than previous generations, although they are more individualistic.  Fyodorov repeatedly stressed the relatively minor scale of interregional, rural-urban, educational, and other demographic divides in values, identity, and public opinion.

Asked to explain the growing popularity of Protestantism among Russians, Fyodorov pointed to the attractiveness of the ethical codes associated with Protestant denominations and noted that they emphasize a consistent ethical system to a greater degree than has traditionally been the case in Russian Orthodoxy.  Others stressed the anti-intellectualism of the Russian Orthodox Church as a cause of defection to other churches.

Fyodorov also noted the competing views toward Ukrainian national identity within Russian society: while some regard Ukraine as a constituent part of Great Russia, others have become habituated to the idea that Ukrainians are a distinctive nation.

Wike and Fyodorov, as well as other participants, reaffirmed that periods of crisis – such as the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in the United States – often serve to reinvigorate national identities.

Contemporary Russia has no ideologically inspired mission in world affairs, according to Fyodorov, only interests that must be protected.  Likewise, Russians favor the preservation of the status quo in international politics and are thus hostile to revolutions – any revolutions, regardless of where they occur or what grievances on which they are based.  However, Fedorov also observed that Putin has recently begun to promote a new state ideology of official patriotism.

Contrary to the suggestions of some discussants, Andreev and Fyodorov argued that the identity debate in contemporary Russia is not entirely top-down, but also reflects a bottom-up response to the increasing social and ideological fragmentation of Russian society.  Andreev referred to sociologist Natalya Zubarevich’s concept of “four Russias” that are growing ever further apart in terms of development, social structure, lifestyle, consumption patterns, identity, and values.

Asked to define the principal elements of the modern Russian national idea, Fyodorov referred to patriotism, economic well-being, and the rule of law.  As a symbol of the modern Russian state, President Putin remains by far the most popular figure, even though his popularity has declined in recent years.