Political myths about Russia are incredibly stable. Like myths about "Peggy," stupid Negroes, and cruel Indians, this complex of myths supposedly relates different aspects of the life of the nation and its people, but in reality shapes a definite and unified picture. It can be described approximately like this:Every year or two, my grandfather sends me books like this. He doesn't necessarily agree with them--especially since they're often vaguely anti-Semitic, and he's a Jew--but he wants to know what I think. In this particular book, the author, a deputy in the Duma, attempts to skewer various harmful myths about Russian history--particularly the ones that hold that Russians are inherently drunken and cruel and lazy. The general explanation he adduces is that these myths are generated by Europeans jealous of Russia's status as a competitor, and are then appropriated by the Europeanizing [read: treasonous] Russian intelligentsia. In his specifics, though, he relies on the fairly tiring technique of listing a harmful myth and then providing endless rosy-hued counterexamples for it. Of course, the ultimate moral objective of his book is to generate a positive myth, which ends up being something like a patriarchal Orthodox moral order where everyone is hard-working, teetotal, and duly obedient to the kind and just ruler.
1. Russians are a people whose psychology is devoid of the desire to work regularly, achieve results, and properly organize their labor. That is why there are no clean bathrooms or decent roads in Russia, why poverty and wretchedness reign everywhere. They have reigned, reign, and will reign--because Russians enjoy that very much.
2. Russians are direct and happy children whose play easily becomes rude and cruel, as with all children and savages. They are unable to rule themselves, they need a strict but fair master--a "father" who would give orders, govern, lead, punish.
In this schema, the use of the chronicles' Rurik myth is typical. Here, supposedly, is an example of how only foreigners could bring order and government to Russia.
- Vladimir Medinsky, On the Laziness, Drunkenness, and Cruelty of Russians
Medinsky's historical work is quite sloppy, so much so that it's not worth getting into the details. But his ideas about myths are interesting. The myth, for him, is more than a stereotype. It is complex, and provides an entire structure of interaction. The way that foreigners treat Russia, the way they communicate with it, is always filtered through an entire pre-given system of impressions and interpretations. The more interesting thing is that, save for a vanishing few exceptions, any thinking young Russian person develops with this politicized structure already embedded and pre-given. So any thinking Russia does about itself is already infected. There are more explanations for this phenomenon than Medinsky's rather paranoid style takes into account; one is Russian cynicism and self-deprecation, which somehow seem to run deeper than the corruption of the organic intelligentsia. The question, though, remains the same: how did a series of travel narratives evolve into an entire structure of national identity?
I think this has less to do with Russia specifically than with the dynamics of a generalized historical process. In England in the eighteenth century, we see a series of identity-constituting myths come into sharp focus: the Scots are cheap and ignorant, the Americans are provincial boors, the Turks are the epitome of a populace eternally under the thumb of Oriental despotism. Notice the two commonalities between these stereotypes. The first is that they are created by representatives of the center about representatives of the periphery. The second is that they all boil down to the same thing: those peripherals are uncultivated, politically undeveloped barbaroi who live either in grinding poverty or in gluttonous excess. Similar stories, of course, were told by the Greeks and Romans. But the context of the eighteenth century, they found a new significance: they played into the development of the public sphere and they formed an integral part of the ideological climate of the time.
The barbarian from the periphery is, first of all, someone who cannot smoothly and elegantly transition from his embodied real-life identity to the abstract one of the bourgeois homme. (I've got Habermas on my mind.) Second, he possesses an ideological duality. He can either represent the incarnation of civic virtue, an image only helped along by his rude manners, or the collapse of virtue into slavery. (The version that's used depends on the rhetorical needs of the user.) As the periphery develops a civil society of its own--as it approaches the center, as happened in Scotland and America--the myth recedes further and further out. But it also experiences a certain process of recuperation, especially with the rise of nationalism--not coincidentally, beginning on the periphery itself, as Benedict Anderson discovered and Bernard Baylin's recent To Create the World Anew illustrates in practice.
In Russia this kind of civil, and civilizing, society was available only to an elite clustered around the capital city. That had very specific consequences. Both the development of the public sphere and republican or nationalist ideology require that the People--not the people doing the discussing, but the people being spoken for--present some kind of activity, riot or outcry or voting, that would allow them to appear as the subject of history, and hence as the foundation of the public sphere's claims. No such activity, to the extent required by the eighteenth-century political imagination, was to be found in Russia. (Timeless agrarian revolts in the style of Pugachev did not fit into this framework at all.) So the myth of the boorish provincial could never be recuperated, since the public sphere existed in a state of complete separation from its theoretically universal public.
The rest is Medinsky's history. A myth that has an important enough structural role, and survives for long enough, becomes indispensable. Even today you find few intellectuals willing to disagree with the classic national self-definitions--"The trouble here is always with fools and with roads"; "We are lazy and uncurious"; "There are only three questions: 'What is to be done?','Whose fault is it?', and 'Who can live well in Russia?'"