What does it mean to be Russian?

What is the point of being Italian, French or Russian? Hard to tell. And it is certainly not enough to have a given passport. In Europe, France was for centuries the largest nation by land area and by population. Having natural boundaries (the Pyrenees, the Rhine, the Alps and the sea), it has had a strong identity for many centuries. The French spend their time badmouthing France but at the first flutter of leaves they realize they are profoundly and fiercely French. Woe to anyone who touches their country. In fact, that of 1940 was not only a military defeat: it was the collapse of an intimate myth from which, after all, the nation has never fully recovered. But France remains France and the French are still French.

Italy’s story is a completely different story. Here, since the most remote antiquity, there has been an incurable rift between nationality understood in the political sense and nationality in the cultural sense. The peninsula has long been divided into many weak and quarrelsome states, ready to ally with the foreigner in order to go against the Italian neighbor, and the human one has been added to the political fragmentation: between the different regions of the North there was mutual contempt and they agreed only in the passionate contempt of the whole South. Things that have shattered the country even more than historical and military events have done. Our political nationality was not established even with the unification of Italy and has remained very weak. As Massimo d’Azeglio said: “After Italy is made, Italians must be made”.

The cultural picture is completely opposite. In fact, alongside this political collapse there was an incompressible unity from a linguistic and artistic point of view. For a long time only the local dialect was spoken everywhere, but the language of the «koinè» (also «foreign»), was always felt to be essential. With it, Italians have remained acutely aware of their cultural superiority: our literature begins in the thirteenth century, the French one in the sixteenth century, the German one in the eighteenth century and the Russian one in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Italy has, so to speak, created the music and painting of the world. How can we not be proud of these legacies? The French, Spanish and English identities are fundamentally political, the Italian identity is fundamentally cultural and of “civilization”: the Medicis taught Europe how to sit at the table, and Baldassarre Castiglione how to behave in good society. And in good taste we are still an authority.

In this context, how can Russian identity be perceived and defined? I state that I am not sufficiently educated on the matter and I write on the basis of a general impression. Others could justify themselves with the saying that: “Culture is what remains when everything is forgotten” but I, indeed, have little to forget. Russia can probably be defined by reversing the French and Italian characteristics. That unfortunate country has an infamous climate and a stingy territory (except for forest and mineral resources) which make great economic development difficult. Above all, it has neither natural borders, like France, nor a culturally glorious history like Italy. In relatively recent times it has managed to establish itself in a state characterized by a strong central power (including military) and by the identity given by the Russian language, but these characteristics have created an indigestible mixture.

Having suffered several invasions, that immense nation lives in anguish of aggression from others, and that would be understandable. Unfortunately, it reacts to it with its own aggressiveness and tendency to annex everything around it. Endlessly. Perhaps she would only feel safe if her eastern borders met those of the west. So dreams of universal glory and many complexes towards the rest of the world coexist in the Russian spirit.

Even technological and economic development (as Peter the Great acutely perceived) are inferior to Western ones. Russia is still largely backward compared to the more advanced western nations and consequently the Russian soul has at the same time opposite and irreconcilable drives: a feeling of superiority compared to neighboring peoples and in the meantime the awareness of one’s own inferiority even compared to the (politically) derelict Italians.

The Russian does not know whether he should be proud of being Russian or ashamed of it. He would like everyone to believe that he is proud of it, but reality insinuates insurmountable doubts in his soul. In addition (perhaps for reasons of retaliation and security) governments have passionately cultivated the “consciousness of Russian superiority,” making national arrogance all but obligatory. But a Russian car will always be inferior to a German car. Even the Russian armament, of which Moscow boasts so much, is inferior to the British or French. Not to mention American technology. Disasters like the Russo-Japanese War remain unforgettable.

In the course of time, many countries have been labeled the “greatly ill man of Europe”. Perhaps Russia, even when in good health, will remain a great complex.


What does it mean to be Russian?