The Agony of the Russian Idea

In This Review

The Agony of the Russian Idea

By Tim McDaniel
Princeton University Press, 1996
201 pp. $24.95
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One might think that a book about the philosophical and socio-psychological underpinnings of Russia would be rather remote from, indeed downright irrelevant to, current U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, Russia's pained struggle to sort out its identity does not churn in the background. If anything, politicians and policymakers fuss over the question in their daily memoranda, speeches, and articles with increasing intensity. Readers seeking to understand Russia's identity crisis and how it relates to the underlying consequences of Yeltsin's efforts to change the country have in this book a succinct, elegant, historically sensitive guide. McDaniel argues, like major nineteenth-century Russian thinkers, that there is a Russian Idea, albeit not as coherent, sui generis, or unchallenged as might be expected, and that when it is battered, as it has been in recent years, the disarray that follows creates peril for Russians and the rest of the world. The trouble, although McDaniel does not dwell on the theme, is that the Russia Idea in its various incarnations always seems to incorporate either resentment of the West or a sense of exceptionalism vis-‡-vis the West. Thus, restoring the Idea brings its own "agony." Particularly so, as McDaniel does stress, when Russia's new rulers have done little to create a healthier synthesis, uniting traditional Russian values with Western virtue.