It may not seem remarkable for an authoritarian such as Russian President Vladimir Putin to identify patriotism as his country’s “national idea,” as he did to a group of Russian entrepreneurs earlier this month. “There can be no other,” he said of the collective identity Russians have long sought to define. “We need to talk about it constantly, at all levels.”
Putin’s exhortation is notable, however, because it taps into a long-standing debate in his country’s intellectual history over how to develop a coherent and specifically Russian collective consciousness. Given Moscow’s involvement in many of the conflicts the West seeks to settle, assessing the Kremlin’s potential for cooperation requires understanding not only the Russian president’s immediate motivations but also the political culture behind them—one that Putin has exploited to serve his own ambitions.
LOOKING WEST, LOOKING EAST
The search for a unifying concept is hardly unique to Russia, but it has had a particularly strong hold on the country. Russian thinkers have traditionally defined Russian national identity in relation to the West, approaching European culture either as a model or as a foil. That pattern began in the second half of the fifteenth century, when Tsar Ivan III consolidated power in the principality of Muscovy and renounced allegiance to the Tatar rulers of the Golden Horde, a remnant of the Mongol Empire to which Muscovy had previously paid tribute. As the late historian Edward Keenan has argued, Muscovy’s growing wealth and power prompted Ivan’s court to search for an imperial style befitting its new status.
Putin appears to have condensed Russia's national idea into a single, nebulous word.
Elite Muscovites first looked to the culture of the Tatars, dressing in Turkic robes and calling themselves “white khans.” When that failed to impress European leaders, Ivan began copying European princes instead, hiring Italian architects, for example, to rebuild the Kremlin. Over the following three centuries, Russia played catch-up to the West, sometimes prompted
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