University of Rochester

Study Tracks Identity in New Russia

April 1, 2003

A major report exploring the emergence of a national Russian identity in the post-Soviet era can now be accessed on the worldwide web.

"The Search for a New Russian National Identity: Russian Perspectives" is a transcription and analysis of in-depth meetings with high-level Russian politicians and thinkers that were conducted by James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and Kathleen Parthé, professor of Russian and director of the Russian Studies program at the University of Rochester. It can be found on the website of the Library of Congress at

The meetings were held at the New Jerusalem Monastery in Istra, at the American Center and Tomsk State University in Siberia, and at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1998 and 1999. Approximately 30 Russian editors, scholars, and government officials participated, including Grigory Yavlinsky, a former deputy prime minister of the Russian Soviet republic and currently a leader of the reformist Yabloko Party, and Aleksandr Yakovlev, former Soviet ambassador to Canada and a member of the Politburo who, as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's chief ideologist, was known as the "godfather of glasnost." James Collins, who was then American ambassador to the Russian federation, took part in the Istra and Moscow meetings.

The report reveals intense discussions about Russia's future that at times foreshadow later developments. A participant's view that the oligarchs-individuals who became immensely rich and powerful during privatization of the Soviet system-would want a better world for their own children, for example, was realized within three years as the oligarchs began investing more monies inside Russia and contributing to social and cultural projects.

Colloquium participants assessed political, economic, and cultural changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991; touched on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in reform; discussed Russian cultural and spiritual heritage as well as national ideas such as self-reliance and service to country; and offered their predictions as well as their ideal visions for Russia 20 years hence.

"The Russians who participated in these conversations generally shared two basic beliefs: that Russia's painful transition from Communism to democracy was worth supporting, but that, at the same time, Russia could and should sustain its own uniqueness," Billington notes in his introduction to the report. "As the discussions clearly reveal, it is very difficult to say either how this transition will work out or what remains unique about Russia. Just as Soviet totalitarianism was in many ways an unprecedented phenomenon in human history, so is the decompression from it."

The project was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to Billington, an internationally respected scholar of Russian culture. He is the author of The Icon and the Axe; Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope; and the companion book to The Face of Russia series on PBS. His book on Russia in search of itself will be published later this year. Copies of the reports were sent to policymakers in the State Department, Congress, and the White House.

Parthé specializes in courses in Russian national identity and cultural history at the University of Rochester where, among other new courses, she introduced "Russia Now," in which students in small discussion groups analyze the day-to-day unfolding of events in Russia using print and electronic resources. She has served on the Advisory Council for the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and as vice president of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages. Parthé worked on the study of Russian national identity at the invitation of James Billington.