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History Repeating Itself: Russian Popular Perception of "Russian-ness"

by Annika Hvithamar, University of Copenhagen, Institute for the History of Religion. A paper presented at the CESNUR 14th International Conference in Riga, August 29-31 2000. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author

What does it mean to be Russian? Danish history-books from the beginning of the century would often include a generalised description of different nationalities teaching the readers that Russians were: heavy drinkers, tough, insensitive to pain and backwards. Such descriptions often tell more about the people who wrote the history-books, than the people mentioned. Today such unsophisticated statements, are by and large rejected. But anyway, I think most of us at informal meetings have heard -- or told - stories about how much the Russians drink, how prude the English are or how impulsive the Italians are. Maybe because such stereotypes function as a way to cope with different cultures, and as a way to reconfirm ourselves about how well-balanced we are.[1]

In the following I want, however, to understand how the Russians look upon themselves. Which symbols and stereotypes do the Russians use when they describe Russian-nesss. And, what doesn’t fit the category: what is not Russian?

Popular Russian films are one of the sources available . If "the broad masses" are supposed to understand the symbolic of a film, these symbols cannot be too subtle, but more a kind of the above-mentioned stereotypes. And if the masses agree in such stereotypes, it could be because they are of a common value.

One of the recently most seen film in Russia was Nikita Mikhalkov’s The Siberian Barber, released in 1998. Nikita Mikhalkov is well known as a "lover of Russia". Some people would even call him a nationalist. The Siberian Barber does certainly not contradict this opinion.[2] I think, the way The Siberian Barber describes Russia is an example of how popular culture supports and reproduces national myths by using stereotypes. I will use The Siberian Barber as an example of how especially history is used in modern Russian society as a way to determinate what is Russian.

The film is about an English adventuress in Russia, who in the 1880ies falls in love with a Russian cadet. They cannot have each other, but, without him knowing that, she has become pregnant. 20 years later, in America, she confesses it all to her son --who is a cadet in the American army- . The film is interesting for various points of view: The first noticeably element is the historical frame: The promotion-material explains:

"the movie is set in the époque of Emperor Alexander III, an époque rare for Russia, yes and for the whole of Europe, without revolutions, wars and losses." [3]

The material does not mention, that it was also the époque of extreme anti-Semitism, xenophobia, censorship and a country stiffened in a backward belief in autocracy. No, the Russia of Mikhalkov is a paradise. I have never seen so much caviar, bubliki, coloured scarves, overwhelmingly beautiful Siberian plains, impressive palaces and civility.

Secondly, the Russians in the film are a homogeneously well-fed, well-dressed wealthy population, - even the prison-ward speaks English. The main character, the cadet Andrei Tolstoy is chaste, self-sacrificing and impulsive. At the same time he is a true friend, brave, devoted, good-humoured and civilised, and he has an impeccable English and a great opera-talent. He loves his mother, his country and his tsar. However, he is a soldier above all. The Siberian Barber is dedicated to the Russian soldier, which is described as the exponent of Russianness. At the video-cover a line is printed:

"The Russian soldier is brave, strong and patient, therefore he is unbeatable. Take care of the Russian soldier, love him. He will not let you down."

The person who deliver these words is the Tsar, Alexander III. In the film he is portrayed as the good Tsar, a noble being, who is the divinely elected guarantor for a righteous Russia.

The Siberian Barber is not a religious film, it is a spiritual, a dukhovnyj film. The Orthodox church plays a natural part in it, as an integrated element of every-day life: Naturally the soldiers go to mass, naturally the church is present at the inauguration of the officers, naturally there are gold cupolas everywhere. And, there is not a single Jew, not a single Muslim and not a single sectarian. The film is casted with a homogeneous group of "orthodox" Russians.

This is the third interesting point of the movie. Religion is seen as a part of the Russian civilisation, rather than individual belief. And the Russian, Orthodox civilisation is seen as spiritually superior to differing civilisations. This is especially evident, compared to the North American one: The setting of the film is a conflict between the son of Andrei Tolstoy and his American sergeant, who happens to be a fat, stupid, uncultured character, wearing a Texas-hat.

The conflict is about Mozart, whose picture the sergeant, under a drill, discovers above Tolstoy juniors bed. The American first reaction is to call Mozart a girl (probably because of the wig) and when he is told about him he declares that he doesn’t "give a shit about Mozart." The sergeant tells all the cadets to repeat this sentence, before he will end the drill and allow them to take their gas-masks off -- and they all do, except the young Russian. Throughout the rest of film we see clips with Tolstoy walking, talking and sleeping with his gas-mask on, until at last the American is beaten by this manifestation of endurance. In the very last scene, he is shown a picture of the young soldier’s father, and he exclaims: "Oh, he’s Russian. That explains a lot." The sentence which is also the epitome of the film.

In my opinion The Siberian Barber shows an ideal picture of an imaginary golden age, meant for people of today.[4]

There were two different receptions of the film after its release. The critic’s agreed, that the plot was simple, there were historical inconsistencies and Russia was referred to in a tourist-pamphlet-like way: Therefore, they argued, the film must had been tailored for a foreign, primarily the American, market. [5] In my opinion Mikhalkov’s aim was exactly the Russian people. And if the critics and the intellectuals disliked the film, the Russian people loved it. The Siberian Barber was a blockbuster both in the cinemas and on video. I translate from a Russian chat-line:

"The Siberian Barber" is a very deep film. True, I think, that everybody will not like it. It’s a film for truly Russian people, because only they can fully understand, what happens in it, feel it."

"All that I have seen in the movie has shaken my soul. I think, that our society have lost the need for such healthy, strong and deep feelings like: love, devotedness and self-sacrifice. In the film the best characters of the Russian people are vividly expressed. I am grateful to Mikhalkov for the present he has brought the destroyed Russian people. For me personally it was like a grasp of fresh air." [6]

I think that The Siberian Barber has managed to express what many Russians feel is Russian. Russia is imagined as civilised, wealthy and great; and to be Russian means to be self-sacrificing, impulsive and chaste. Religion, -i.e. the Orthodox Church - is a natural part of everyday-life. It is not something, which needs to be vividly displayed, but an inseparable feature of Russian identity.

History as a Marker of Identity

History plays an important role in the self-understanding of many Eastern Europeans. It has been argued already by Hans Kohn, that Western Europe consist of state-nations, which are based on political institutions, whereas Eastern Europe have culture-nations, which are founded on cultural markers like language, religion and history. [7] I agree, however, with Anthony Smith, that being occupied with history is not solely a Eastern European phenomenon, but a common trait for cultures, who seek cohesion during crisis. [8] But right now, such an orientation towards history in Russia is obvious. And one of the classical historical institutions -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- is one of the important contributors to this discussion.

Perception of History in the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church has a long tradition of orientation towards the past; in fact it is the very essence of Orthodoxy to look towards the church fathers and to the tradition and history of the church in order to understand the present day. Inside the church, there is today a growing demand for accept of this so-called traditionalism of Russian culture, directed towards secular world-society (e.g. the UN). Traditionalism is supposed to be a marked trait of Russian identity, distinctly different from the Western liberal-democratic values.

The problem seen from a Western, liberal-democratic point of view is not that tradition is used to determine what it means to be Russian. The problem is that it is used to determine what is not Russian. Listen for instance to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external contacts, Metropolitan Kirill. His solution of the problem with newcomers, who want to turn, nominally Orthodox, Russians away from their mother church sounds like this:

"Throughout practically the entire history of our country […] religious and cultural interactions [with other confessions] have never had a destructive character […] The exceptions were only those circumstances when an alien faith and alien standards of life were imposed on our people by force or by means of proselytism. Then the people rose up in defence of their own faith and that manner of life that they had embraced as a norm which was threatened with destruction […] Thus all of our history was marked by a struggle […] for the preservation of native traditions, standards of faith, and the manner of life associated with it." [9]

In the world-view of Metropolitan Kirill, religion is an almost genetic trait, inseparable from national identity. Russia is historically an Orthodox country. That is why it is an Orthodox country today. During the history, Orthodox Russians have lived peacefully together with people from other religions, but as soon as they started to mix, problems arise. This means, following his line of thought, that today Russians have to repeat the traditional history and remain untouched by the rest of the world in order to preserve their autonomy, spiritual health, and national greatness. In such a world view religious minorities of course cannot be accepted as something positive.

In Metropolitan Kirill’s statement he argues that especially the Western civilisation is threatening the Russian way of life. He is of the opinion that international treaties, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were made without reference to other worldviews than the one represented by Western liberal way of life. And this particular worldview, he argues, is rooted in "pagan anthropocentrism, Protestant theology and Jewish philosophical thought".[10] In other words, he argues, it is rooted -- not in one distinctly visible tradition, but in a mixture of different cultures. This is seen in opposition to the, in his opinion, distinct "traditionalism" of the Russian way of thinking. [11] The superiority and the spiritual values of Russian culture are contrasted with the inferior Western civilisation, just as we have seen it in The Siberian Barber. [12] And because of the church’s presence in Russian history he sees Orthodoxy as a part of being Russian, not as an individual belief, which you can choose or not.

Perception of History in Russian Society

It is not only the representatives of the popular culture and the church, that use history to determine what it means to be Russian. The theme is a vital part of the political discourse in Russia. A well-known example is the 1997 Law on Religious Associations. In the preamble "the special role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and in the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture" is recognised

And also president Putin, in his inaugural-speech on the 7th of May this year, made use of history.

He said:

"Because of today’s solemn event we are gathered here, in the Kremlin. In a for our people holy place. Here, at the Kremlin our national memory is concentrated […] We must not forget anything. We must know our history, know it like it is. Draw out lessons from it, always remember those, who created the Russian state, left it its dignity, made it great, powerful, mighty. We protect this memory and we protect this connection to time. And all the best of our history […] we will pass on to our descendants.

Honoured citizens of Russia! We believe in our power […] We have common goals, we want our Russia to be a free, blossoming, rich, strong, civilised country. A country, which is proud of its citizens and which is respected in the world." [13]

It is remarkable how close the picture Putin paints of Russia is to the one made in The Siberian Barber: Russia is a great, powerful, mighty country. And it is imagined as rich and civilised.

The Kremlin is the symbol of the "national memory" and it is, in Putin’s words, a holy place. Likewise he sees it as his "sacred duty" to bring its people together. There is not one word about Orthodoxy, but the vocabulary is full of associations leading to the Russian national myths: the greatness of the people, the wealth of the countryside, the importance of history and tradition wrapped in religious terms like "holy" and "sacred".

The same theme is present in Putin’s Easter-greeting to the Patriarch two days after his inauguration. Here he pictures the Orthodox church as the spiritual guarantor for the sacredness of history:

"The […] extensive celebration of Easter is a vivid example of the rebirth of the moral foundation of our society. I wish to express to you my deep acknowledgement for the invaluable tribute, which you, […] as the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, has brought to the sacred course of bringing back the peoples of Russia to their historical roots, to our spiritual and cultural values." [14]

In Putin’s statements history, spirituality and moral are elements closely connected. Maybe Putin personally is a religious man, but it seems as if the Orthodox Church to him is a kind of a ministry of moral education. The church’s role is to enlighten the people about their great history, more than it is an institution for the saving of souls. [15]

Perception of History and the new Religious Movements

Russian popular culture, the Russian Church and the Russian politicians are trying to define positive values for post-communist Russia. History and tradition are used to define what it means to be Russian. But it also works the other way around. This become evident when New Religious Movements are considered.

The perception of NRMs in Russia has been negative, even hostile. The mainstream religious societies may not have succeeded in making the Russian citizen familiar with the main religious dogmas. But everybody is aware that sects are a devastating threat against Russian society. In a recently conducted poll by the Centre of Education Sociology, which involved 1,600 Moscow school students opinion on which groups that ought to be banned, "religious sects" were placed as a number two with 35.9%. Number one was pro-fascist groups and organisations with 45.9 %.[16] Therefore, NRMs certainly have difficulties finding their place in Russia. Or more precisely, as Eileen Barker has described it with Mary Douglas famous phrase: Sects are out of place. NRMs are neither really Christian nor really indigenous and therefore cross boundaries. [17]

In the following I wish to elaborate on Barkers analysis by focussing on why sects are seen as out of place. In my opinion, NRMs in Russia have another problem besides not being genuinely Christian, Muslim or Jewish. In Russia they are also not genuinely historical or, to use the popular Russian term: They are ne-traditionye, non-traditional. Therefore, they are not a part of Russian national identity, and therefore they are not seen as genuinely Russian. If the history is considered as a "manual", it adds to the strangeness of Jehovas Witnesses, that they will not serve in the army or see the ruler as the God given authority. Because exactly army and the Tsar are, as we have seen important national symbols. It is non-understandable that American Evangelists regard Russia as a Godless country, which is supposed to be christened, because Christianity is imagined as the very foundation of Russian-ness. And any religion, who is not Orthodox, was simply not present in the never-never land of Russian historical imagination.

History as a National Myth

"The Siberian Barber" and Kirill and Putin’s statements can be used to sketch -- a very sketchy - outline of a Russian national self-understanding. The keywords of a national epitome for Russia would be: The army as the symbol of the strength of the country and of the moral qualities of its population. The ruler as the guarantor of a worthy life, embedded in a holy connection to the Russian people. Finally the spirituality, dukhovnost, of the Russian people, because of their self-sacrifiction, chastity, cultural superiority and orthodoxy.

Russian self-understanding parallel Meredith McGuire’s thoughts about civil religion as a way to define the boundaries between people and a way for the individual to determine his or her relationship to the society. [18] As we have seen above, this is what Metropolitan Kirill does in his explanation of what constitutes Russian civilisation compared to the Western one, and this is what Putin does when he talks about the historical role of the Orthodox church in the moral rebirth of the country. The term "historical", in the present political discussion, is used as a key to determine whether an occurrence, a way of life -- or a religion is "good for Russia" or not.

If this discourse gains more power, history is sadly repeating itself. But not in the "golden age"-like way of the Siberian Barber. More like the xenophobia of the 1880ies. And then certainly minority religions are not only out of place. Then they will have no place.

(Pictures from the film)

From: http://mikhalkov.comstar.ru/media/photo/index.html

From: http://mikhalkov.comstar.ru/media/photo/index.html

From: http://shop.cdru.com/info/sc/


  1. [back] See Peter Ulf Møller: "Hvordan russerne er. Et stykke dansk mentalitetshistorie". In: Svend Aage Christensen & Henning Gottlieb (ed.): Danmark og Rusland i 500 år. Det Sikkerheds- og Nedrustingspolitiske Udvalg, København, 1993, pp.104-131.
  2. [back] The film was shown at the Kremlin for a closed audience, consisting of celebrities from all over the world, including presidents from Russia and the CIS and politicians from Zjirinovskij to Yavlinskij. The Siberian Barber had a budget on 45 million US$ of which the Russian Government paid the 11 million $, because of the "national value" of the film.
  3. [back] http://shop.cdru.com/info/sc/
  4. [back] The above-mentioned promotion-material concludes: "The Siberian Barber" is a film for a public, who live in the 21st century. It is not about the past, but about the Eternal for everyone of the public: about Life and Death, about Love and Faith in the triumph of Good. In this matter "The Siberian Barber" is a reminder about what is to come." (op.cit).
  5. [back] E.g. http://www.aist.com.ua/~donkr/0016p6_3.htm, http://hifi.obozrenie.ru/print-version_887.html.
  6. [back] http://www.videonyanya.ru/guest/00837.htm
  7. [back] Hans Kohn: The Idea of Nationalism. A Study in Its Origins and Background, New York, 1961. Peter Sugar and Anthony Smith are modern representatives of this point of view, see: Peter Sugar, "External and Domestic Roots of Eastern European Nationalism". In: Peter Sugar & I. Lederer: Nationalism in Eastern Europe. Seattle & London, 1969. Anthony D. Smith: The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford, 1986.
  8. [back] See Anthony Smith: "’The Golden Age’ and National Renewal", In: Geoffrey Hosking & George Schöpflin (ed.) Myths and Nationhood, Routledge, New York, 1997.
  9. [back] Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad: "Norma very kak norma zjizni". In: Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 16. February 2000.
  10. [back] (op.cit.)
  11. [back] The much argued thesis of Samuel Huntington about The Clash of Civilisations is deductible here and it is interesting to notice, that his theory is very much used by the more nationalistic part of the Russian opinion. The idea of being a distinct civilisation in opposition to other civilisations is seemingly very logical, when history is used as a reference.
  12. [back] In the film-festival "The Golden Knight (Zolotoj Vityaz’) co-organised by the Russian Orthodox Church. under the slogan: "For chaste Christian Ideals. For the rising of the human soul" The Siberian Barber won the Grand Prix. The film-festival took place in Moscow from the 24th of May to the 1st of June 2000.
  13. [back] http://president.kremlin.ru/events/30.html (Home-page of the Russian President).
  14. [http://press.maindir.gov.ru/press/messages.asp?yy=2000&mm=4&dd=29&nn=6 (home-page of the Russian President).
  15. [back] President Putin awarded Nikita Mikhalkov and his co-producers the state prize in 1999 for The Siberian Barber (http://lenta.krasnet.ru/russia/2000/06/10/prize/_Printed.htm).
  16. [back] Anna Fenko: "Teenagers want the Empire Back". In: Kommersant- Vlast, Nr. 13. (Cited from http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews).
  17. [back] [back] Eileen Barker: "But is it a Genuine Religion?" In: A. Greil & T. Robbins:: Between Sacred and Secular: Research and Theory on Quasi-religion. Religion and the Social Order, vol. 4. Greenwich & London, 1994.
  18. [back] Meredith B. McGuire: Religion. The Social Context. Belmont, 1997.

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