Moscow — She had just turned 18. She was a freshman at a small American college. In flawless English, she explained that she was home for Christmas, visiting her family in Moscow. We spoke about how much her city had changed in the past decade, about the new shops, about how many Muscovites now travel abroad. Then, because we were stuck in Moscow traffic and had run out of small talk, I asked her what she thought about recent events in Ukraine. “We’re really upset about it,” she said. At first I thought she meant that she and her family were upset because the Russian government had helped the Ukrainian government try to steal the election. But in fact, they were upset because they thought Ukraine might leave Russia’s sphere of influence. “If all of these countries around us join NATO and the European Union, Russia will be isolated,” she said. “We must prevent that from happening.”
These were casual comments, and they came from someone who was in no way a typical Russian. But that was precisely the oddness of it: A young woman, educated in the West, felt affronted because Russia’s neighbors want to join Western institutions. And compared with the views of some others, who are not educated in the West, hers are relatively mild. A few days later, at a seminar for high school teachers on “civic education,” I was angrily asked why the U.S. government funds Chechen terrorism and why the American government wants to destroy Russia. Certainly not everyone in Moscow labors under the belief, which my companion in the car also expressed, that Russia will never — can never — join any Western institutions, or that Russia must make a “last stand” against Western encroachment, or that Russia must, at all costs, defend the last redoubt of its empire. Last weekend, at a somewhat ramshackle congress of Russian democratic and human rights activists, I listened to a handful of them argue passionately about the nature of Russian xenophobia and how to stop it.
Nevertheless, the belief that Russia has a right to an empire, and that Russia will be “isolated” without a buffer zone of compliant neighbors, remains widespread, and not by accident. At least in part, this belief — which is growing — is the result of decisions made by the current Russian administration. Russian television, which is state-controlled, pays continuous homage to the KGB and the army. The Russian president has revived the Soviet national anthem and talks tough about Chechnya and Ukraine. All of this is accepted as natural.
But there is nothing inevitable about the current wave of Russian imperial nostalgia, no reason why it has to be this way. National symbols can and do change over time. German national identity nowadays has far more to do with economic achievement than with Prussian military virtues; British identity, whatever it is, has little to do with empire. Last week in Stockholm I watched Swedish television’s reverent broadcast of the Nobel Prize award ceremony — a deeply archaic event, complete with royalty, the national anthem, gentlemen in white ties and ladies in ball gowns — and realized that awards for scientific genius, even when presented to foreigners, can become a vital source of national identity. Yet only a century ago, Sweden had colonies, too.
Indeed, as the case of the United States well demonstrates, any country’s history contains possible sources of national pride and possible sources of embarrassment. Americans do identify with their country’s military prowess but are not proud of the damage their Army did to Vietnamese villages. Americans brag about their traditions of civil liberties but are embarrassed by the Japanese internment camps during World War II. However much distaste you may have for some of the excesses of American nationalism or some of the ugly things that have happened in American history, imagine what the United States would be like if those preferences were reversed. And in Russia, they are in effect reversed. Instead of promoting pride in the bravery of Soviet human rights activists, or recalling the pre-revolutionary tradition of Russian liberalism, President Vladimir Putin continues to identify himself as a “chekist,” using Lenin’s word for the secret police.
As a result of these very deliberate decisions, Russia is now almost the only Eastern European country that does not perceive NATO and the European Union as forces for stability and prosperity, and the first that does not welcome the prospect of having longer borders with countries that are members. When Germany was reunited and the borders of “Western” Europe moved closer, Poles were delighted. When the Poles started negotiating with the European Union, the Baltic states agitated to be let in, too. In large part, the demonstrators on the streets of Kiev are motivated by their desire to join these same Western clubs. Only Russians, trapped in their belief that Western civilization poses a threat to their own, persist in believing otherwise.