Need for a Narrative

Look at Britain and Spain. Both lost enormous empires and both got over it. OK, Spain had to fight a civil war to figure out its post-imperial identity. But Britain is amazing. Shed the empire, shrank to a small island, but still a clear leader in the world.

Russia never found a way to explain its history to itself in a productive way. After the fall of the USSR, people were desperate for an explanation of what happened. Why has our history been so shitty? Why are we in such deep excrement while everybody else who matters is doing great? There needed to be a story, a narrative explaining things.

It was easier for Ukraine and the Baltics because they could always say, “we were conquered and dominated. This is not our fault.” But Russia couldn’t say that.

The explanation that arose in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse was “we are bad, we are inferior, that’s why we are in this bad place.” But that’s unsustainable. Nobody can live with the consciousness of inferiority and feelings of irredeemable guilt. In the absence of a future-oriented, positive narrative, Russia slid into the persecution fantasy of “the West keeps us down on purpose because it hates us.” And that led where we all can see right now.

This is an enormous failure of the Russian cultural elites. It’s their job to come up with stories that are palatable to the people. In Spain there was a whole cultural movement trying to figure out the post-imperial identity after the disaster of 1898. In Ukraine right now, the leading thinkers, philosophers, professors get together to figure out an identity for Ukraine that’s not rooted in victimhood. Yes, we all wish they’d done it back in 1991 but these people were all in high school back then. And those who were of age snoozed on the job.

Germany after WWII, the same thing. Writers, philosophers, thinkers coming up with a narrative that doesn’t deny responsibility but helps people look forward in positive ways. Obviously, Germany has problems but they are in a different galaxy from Russia’s. It’s doable. But only when somebody stops pouting and starts doing.


15 thoughts on “Need for a Narrative

  1. BTW This is the way you are changing a knee-jerk prejudice into understanding.

    I should note for the modern- and post-modernist, that understanding, excusing, and forgiving are three separate and not necessarily connected things.


        1. Are you aware that my husband is Russian? And that my child is consequently half-Russian? That I’m a native speaker of Russian? That I published a series of posts on contemporary Russian literature last year?

          This is typical leftism. Everybody is a bigot, everybody is prejudiced, phobic, racist, etc. Cori Bush is on social media, telling a black politician he’s not really black because he holds opinions she doesn’t share.


            1. One of his grandfathers was from Belarus. But he’s Russian, grew up in the greater Moscow region. He hasn’t been back since 2003 and now will probably never go after making pro-Ukrainian statements on LinkedIn.

              A Ukrainian-Russian marriage is not an easy proposition but our relationship survived worse things.


              1. It would be a lot harder with a Belarusian husband, by the way. They are used to meek, compliant women, which Ukrainian women are definitely not.


              2. My maternal grandmother was at least partially (half, I think) Belarusian and was a very strong-willed woman, if you are curious. But she did live in Russia rather than in Belarus for her entire life.


    1. I love this account.

      Baltics are usually great. Of course, give it to me to be the only idiot to find probably a single Baltic friend in the US who’s pro-Russian. She doesn’t even speak Russian! Her family was repressed during the USSR. Where’s the logic?

      People are weird.


  2. In theory, Russians could blame the Bolsheviks for Russia’s poor condition during the 20th century. The Russian people did not elect the Bolsheviks; rather, the Bolsheviks just seized power:

    Things were looking up for Russia before the Bolshevik coup. The US had entered WWI, thus ensuring that the Entente (or Allies) would ultimately win it. All Russia needed to do was just hold on a little bit longer. But it couldn’t do that due to Bolshevik subversion and also Bolshevik agitation spreading defeatist views among Russian troops, thus demoralizing them and causing them to lose their will to fight at a time when the war was already relatively close to being won.

    Russia’s problem post-1991 is that it didn’t really have any inspiring statesmen who could lead the country towards something better. One could say that the 1990s were a type of Weimar period for Russia, with Putin being the strongman to reassert order in Russia after a period of significant economic collapse and depression. But someone better than Putin would have been nicer had they been available: Someone who didn’t invade other countries, who didn’t have massive corruption in his country, and who didn’t aggressively murder his critics and dissidents.

    As you said, there is also a problem in that Russia refused to let go of its imperial identity. This might be similar to some extent to how even Weimar Germany hoped for eventual border revision in the interwar era and even waged an almost decade-long trade war against Poland in an unsuccessful attempt to bully Poland to agree to territorial revisions:

    I hope that losing the current war with Ukraine will inspire some serious soul-searching in Russia, along with war crimes trials for any Russian war criminals whom the international community can catch, ideally including the Russian leadership, but I wonder if I might be asking for too much here. The Russian people appear to be notoriously passive and not exactly eager to engage in revolution. I’m not even sure if they will change their mind about revolution if Ukraine will ever succeed in retaking Crimea and the Donbass.


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