Russia in Search of Itself

In This Review

Russia in Search of Itself

By James H. Billington
Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004
256 pp. $24.95
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In the 1950s, the United States created a commission to define national goals. Russia, amid the rubble of its past, cannot get to that point before sorting out the more fundamental issue of national identity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's scholars, pundits, and politicians have agonized over the content of the "Russian idea"; Yeltsin even appointed a committee to define it. No one has explored the rush of cacophonous notions that has filled this space more succinctly or elegantly than Billington. From the neoimperial isolationism of the latter-day Eurasianists to the spiritual metaphysics of Russian traditionalists and the ambivalence of modern democrats, he assesses each with remarkable erudition and sympathy. The contradictions, he argues, are as strong within individuals as among them-and, worryingly, if there is an equilibrium point, surveys show it is a kind of nihilism. Nevertheless, Billington is optimistic that something creative and distinctive will come out of the dissonance.