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Russian National Identity Lost?

The end to the United States Space Shuttle Program on the 21st of July 2011, with the return of space shuttle Atlantis, brought with it nostalgic recollections of past space endeavors and ambitions – not the least of which was the USA vs. USSR space race.  As the ability of the United States to send astronauts into space ceases, old thoughts come to mind including the competitiveness of the space race, as Russia (former and present space race competitor) becomes the United States’ only means for human space travel.  This causes questions to arise, including: does this mean the United States has lost the race?  Americans seem disheartened by the notion that their former foe will now be their only means of getting into space and wince at the thought of losing the space race, or possibly falling behind the Russians.  With the last landing of space shuttle Atlantis recently accomplished, one commenter states:

 arguably, the leader in space flight will, for now, be Russia. American astronauts will rely solely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach orbit. After years of space rivalry between the two sides, this might seem like a time for Russians to feel pride. But not all Russians see it that way (Greene 1).

This would suggest that a predominant feeling among Russians is that of forlorn past pride and lost national identity, not that of a victor in any race including that of the space race.

During the Soviet era, Soviet national identity was continually cultivated and even controlled through Politburo government mechanisms that emphasized the importance of a national identity through conflict with the West and attempted to triumph wherever and whenever possible.  This was never more apparent than with the space race. The space contest with the US was considered of high national importance in terms of outmaneuvering, outthinking and thoroughly besting any technological efforts that were or could possibly be made by the United States.  Through Sputnik on the 4th of October 1957 (the first orbiting manmade satellite) and Yuri Gagarin with Vostok 1 on the 12th of April 1961 (the first man in space) the Soviet Union was able to proclaim national victories by advancing ahead of the West, especially over the United States, and was able to rally its national pride for the state’s great endeavors.  Yuri Karash, an academic and contributing author to the Russian space policy…

remembers how Gagarin’s adventure gave citizens a feeling that their sacrifice for the state was worth it… Karash says, ‘America could not do it, OK? Western Europe could not do it. No other country in the world could do it.  But the Soviet state could’ (Greene 3). 

Early on, it was the Soviet Union that had bested everyone else in the space race and as such contributed to a national identity of unity and pride in an adversarial world of Cold War antics and aggression. As became clear soon enough, Soviet technological superiority would not last.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet national identity was lost as “the entire communist universe, like a Soviet Atlantis, disappeared from the map of the world and sank into oblivion. We are no longer sure what country under the name of Russia we are dealing with” (Kuzio, 2002) and have no sense of what a Russian national identity should be – “Russians don’t know any longer who and what they are and therefore they are resentful of any attempt to define them” (Vision, 2).  This loss of national identity has ultimately brought with it a loss of confidence in the Russian people regarding the Russian state’s ability to facilitate progress and innovations . Simultaneously, the loss is promoting a general sense of apathy amongst the Russian population in other aspects as well.

The Russia of today feels different from the Soviet Union of yesterday; “yes, the U.S. shuttle program is ending and Americans will depend on Russian technology. But many Russians sound melancholy. They believe it won’t be long before the U.S. develops a new spacecraft that will beat anything Russia has” (Greene 3).  For 38 year-old Russian Igor Malashkevich, Russia is weaker than it was during the Soviet era, lacking the deserved respect from the United States.  Malashkevich says that even with transporting Americans into space, “I don’t think there is something we can be proud of about it, because we are dependent on the States in many other ways and many respects” (Greene 4).  It  would seem that many Russians perceive their part in the space race now as merely a taxi cab for a privileged fare that will be off at some point to bigger and better things. 

The lack of a Russian national identity and pride has been influenced by and has contributed to a chaotic state.  Powerful criminal networks influence Russian politics, government, commerce and everyday activities, while the Russian state lacks a functioning infrastructure for the Russian people.  As a result of this chaos, the younger generation contemplates the perceived stability of the former Soviet Union “a culture they never truly experienced—with affection” (Kuzio 3). Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, former Moscow bureau chiefs for the Washington Post, demonstrate the nostalgic youth in their book Kremlin Rising, by citing Russian teenager Tanya Levina.

[L]ike most of her classmates she tottered between the propaganda of two very different eras. Embracing idealized views of the past and critical of the corruption under her nation’s experiment in democracy, she confidently told her history teacher that Bolshevism ‘was the best choice for Russia. . . . They had concrete ideas, concrete goals, and concrete plans for the development of this society.’ And Tanya is not alone in her belief (Kuzio 3).

It is not uncommon in Russia today to find those lacking in pride for their country, a disenfranchised youth longing for a nostalgic, perceivably more stable past of technologically more superior Soviet times.

Russia, of course, is not alone in its struggle for identity. Ex-imperialist powers, notably France and Britain, are still coming to terms with the mixed legacy of their empires, while many in the postwar generations of the German people have tried to understand and explain an earlier generation’s complicity with Adolf Hitler (Vision 8).

Russia simply represents a particularly interesting example for the world’s “collective search for a fulfilling identity” (8).

Russia is now a reliable ride into space for the United States and both sides no longer have to fear the fierce rivalry of the past that brought fear to Russians, Americans and the world alike. This brutal competition and the fear that was generated by it no longer exist.  As such, the future national identity of Russians will not be defined as it was in the past, from the fierce rivalry with the West, nor will it be defined by the fear that surrounded it.   Rather, through questioning themselves as a people, they will find the answers through time and much struggle, ultimately defining who they are as a nation and forming a contemporary national Russian identity.

References

Greene, David. In Russia, Space Ride For U.S. Spur Nostalgia, Hope. 15 July 2011. 07 August 2011. NPR, http://www.npr.org/2011/07/15/137843724/in-russia-space-ride-for-u-s-spurs-nostalgia-hope.

Kuzio, Taras. “Russian National Identity and Foreign Policy Toward the ‘Near Abroad’.” April 2002. http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%D=20285&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=224.

Vision. “Russia’s Identity Crisis.” Summer 2008. http://www.vision.org. 7 August 2011 http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=5814. 

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One Response to “Russian National Identity Lost?”

  1. Excellent work Britten. Your analysis of Russia’s identity today as compared to its identity shortly after sputnik makes a a lot of sense. I wonder though, given Russia’s aggressive behavior concerning Georgia and Chechnya over the past decade, do you think that their loss of national identity has something to do with it?

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