Putin’s and Russia’s Quest for Identity and Belonging

How withholding respect for Russia could lead to war.

Will Americans ever feel the pain – of other nations? We Americans tend to see ourselves as above such sentimentality. Yet, perhaps we might make an exception for Russia. To see why, let us reflect on our responsibility for its desert wandering since 1991.

History shows how banishing a celebrated power to the wilderness can be like stripping that people of their identity. Russians do not wish to return there. And we Americans should not wish Russians to see us as the main agent of their exile.

Identity in world context

National identity does not exist in isolation. Identity is all about belonging. And a nation’s standing within the larger community of nations is what belonging is all about.

For 500 years, Russia has been in an in-between space, struggling to form cultural communities of kinship and identity with others. It has longed to join such cultural communities (Western Europe) or to recreate them (Byzantine Commonwealth).

Irrespective of one’s politics and historical viewpoint, what stands out is how happily tone-deaf the West has been to the needs of Russian identity. At the drop of a hat, circa 1948, the Soviets – so elemental in the defeat of Hitler — were at once reduced again to the Russian Bear: Vicious, clawing, unreasoning – and yet also slothful, dolorous and dirty.

The West embraced its own stage-managed Cold War with real zest, making of Russians exactly what Russia had always feared: a cartoon of evil. That served the West’s purposes well – a Russia that was conveniently distant, always appropriately threatening, yet never truly out-of-line.

Playing by the rules

We Westerners never even asked ourselves why the Soviets played by the traditional rules of diplomacy and war? The Soviets were no Islamic State or DPRK assassins.

Americans always assured themselves that this was because the Soviets were cowed by the U.S.’s strength. But were they really?

Today’s parasite killers have no respect even for overwhelming power — so why then would the Soviet Union?

Perhaps we should consider why the Soviets wanted, even needed, to play by our rules. Might they have been trying to tell us something?

Maybe the Cold War shows our own deeper prejudice. In iconographic terms, it was an almost perfect re-run of Britain’s Crimean War fantasies, spun out frame-for-frame, but on America’s time, from 1950 to 1990.

Tony Richardson’s 1968 film Charge of the Light Brigade lays bare all the Western — and mainly, Anglo-American — prejudice against Russia.

It is almost as if the seduction of mid-Victorian cartoons, in which Russia is bear-baited for the entertainment of the 19th century superpower Great Britain, reaches from a century past to seize American consciousness.

Objectifying Russia is a truly longstanding U.S.-UK joint enterprise. Our animus against Russia as the other, the alien, the stranger became a self-defeating cultural filter.

Is the Russia we see today, to an appreciable extent, not the product of our prejudicial wish fulfillment and our bullying over these post-1991 decades?

The lost U.S.-Russian alliance

Truth is, we Americans treated Russia (née Soviet Union) like a defeated power in 1991 – as if it had been some kind of junior Third Reich righteously vanquished. It was never seen as the ally we had known so long, finally come to its senses and having seen the light.

There is a big difference between the defeated power and an ally. Americans have never fought Russians. Russia was the ally of the United States in its civil war with the Confederacy (unlike faithless Britain and France).

American foreign policy in the 1930s leaned pro-Soviet — premiere ship designers Gibbs and Cox even designed super-battleships for Stalin. Then we were allies in the Good War against Nazism.

Can we not see now how NATO enlargement (pushed too far) was – in Russian eyes – no different from the grand sweep of historical contempt the West has shown Russian identity?

Redefining identity

If Germany and Italy, after deep defeat, could be allowed to rediscover themselves and make their identities whole again, why not Russia? We have never allowed Russia – always banished to in-between realms of identity – to find its own place of honor in our own halls.

If Russia seeks acknowledgment, why should we always, reflexively, deny them? Is Russia not, after all, a great civilization and a great nation? Can we not embrace them as such?

It seems not. We forget that Putin represents the Russian people, and our cartoonish renditions of him inevitably become the most inflammatory caricatures of them.

Four misconceptions underlie our enduring prejudice.

1. Putin as “Hitler returned” – so alien and evil that there is nothing we can do but get ready for the fight to come.

2. Putin as a brat and bully spoiler – Russians are all criminals, natural-born racketeers everywhere they go – and Putin is just the worst.

3. Putin as the Pied Piper – Svengali or even more darkly, Rasputin, weaving a web to ensnare a benighted Rus, who cannot resist him.

4. Russians make Putin happen – they thus show themselves to all be stupid fools just as primitive and savage as we always thought.

All this is from a very old playbook:

First, we still treat Russia as a defeated power – forever. 

Second, we still slather on triumphalism from the Crimean War to the Cold War

Third, we still harp on their “creepy” ways (meaning, Orthodox ways).

Fourth, we withhold respect until they reform their evil ways.

Yet our judgment should remind us that the United States and Russia have a very old, co-dependent relationship. How we regard Russian identity is in many ways more important than what we do to Russia.

We have become the judges of their identity, which is all any of us have. Moreover, their identity today is fragile, desperate and aggressive. Our active prejudice is a negatively charged force multiplier. Proud nations like Russia act badly when slighted.

How do we disentangle deliberate bad behavior (their responsibility) from centuries’ accumulation of Western contempt (our responsibility)? Is Russia wholly without democratic expression?

The democratic experience

We might remember that Soviet Communism lasted a lifetime in Russia itself, while it held sway for only a couple of generations in Central Europe. Very few Russians alive when communism ended could recall the pre-communist days (which themselves were not democratic).

In contrast, in a country such as Czechoslovakia, where communism’s duration was shorter and wedged between democratic periods, a new generation of democrats could still reach out to an older generation of democrats for guidance and inspiration. For example, Havel could call on Dubček and claim the stainless memory of Beneš.

Russia cannot rebuild such institutions, but will have to create a world wholly alien to their top-down traditions.

The U.S. government makes “rule of law” central to its promotion of “American democratic values.” But it does so explicitly as part of a media-showcased program of political conversion (much ballyhooed in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-5).

The United States wields its color revolutions like acts of public submission. “Do the ritual” we demand, or the United States will simply withhold its respect – or worse.

As we can see from the color revolutions early this century, the real purpose is to generate good feeling in the American electorate and to put in pliant regimes. The democracy rhetoric is all window-dressing for political self-interest. Pushing this on the Russian Commonwealth is a very high-risk proposition.

What are our actual choices? Let’s start with this insight: Russians – Russia, Putin, it is all the same – will never submit. Americans are setting them up for failure by insisting that the only path to a better society lies through public submission to the United States.

Americans trumpet how well this worked in Germany and Japan. But Germany managed to reanimate deep, native democratic traditions. And Japan never truly submitted, but found ways to keep the old weave of institutional identities alive.

With Russia, demanding submission to “the American way” goes too far – and is just plain wrong. It is wrong to withhold respect if disrespect means risking a war — hot or cold.

American treatment of Russia since the Cold War has been an historical mistake – and though doubtless too late now, such a course is still ours to unmake before it is too late.

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs.