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Putin’s and Russia’s Quest for Identity and Belonging

How withholding respect for Russia could lead to war.

Credit: Mark Rain -


  • The West made of Russians exactly what it wished and had always imagined: A cartoon of evil.
  • Objectifying Russia is a truly longstanding US-UK joint enterprise.
  • We never asked ourselves why Soviets always played by the rules. Soviets were no Islamic State or DPRK assassins.
  • Putin represents the Russian people. Our cartoonish renditions of him inevitably become caricatures of them.
  • Is Russia without democratic expression? Is it worse than Saudi Arabia – the US ally that shares an ideology with IS?
  • Demanding submission to “the American way” goes too far with Russia – and is just plain wrong.
  • American treatment of Russia since the Cold War has been an historical mistake.

Will Americans ever feel the pain – of other nations? We Americans tend to see ourselves as above such sentimentality. Yet, perhaps we might make an exception for Russia. To see why, let us reflect on our responsibility for its desert wandering since 1991.

History shows how banishing a celebrated power to the wilderness can be like stripping that people of their identity. Russians do not wish to return there. And we Americans should not wish Russians to see us as the main agent of their exile.

Identity in world context

National identity does not exist in isolation. Identity is all about belonging. And a nation’s standing within the larger community of nations is what belonging is all about.

For 500 years, Russia has been in an in-between space, struggling to form cultural communities of kinship and identity with others. It has longed to join such cultural communities (Western Europe) or to recreate them (Byzantine Commonwealth).

Irrespective of one’s politics and historical viewpoint, what stands out is how happily tone-deaf the West has been to the needs of Russian identity. At the drop of a hat, circa 1948, the Soviets – so elemental in the defeat of Hitler — were at once reduced again to the Russian Bear: Vicious, clawing, unreasoning – and yet also slothful, dolorous and dirty.

The West embraced its own stage-managed Cold War with real zest, making of Russians exactly what Russia had always feared: a cartoon of evil. That served the West’s purposes well – a Russia that was conveniently distant, always appropriately threatening, yet never truly out-of-line.

Playing by the rules

We Westerners never even asked ourselves why the Soviets played by the traditional rules of diplomacy and war? The Soviets were no Islamic State or DPRK assassins.

Americans always assured themselves that this was because the Soviets were cowed by the U.S.’s strength. But were they really?

Today’s parasite killers have no respect even for overwhelming power — so why then would the Soviet Union?

Perhaps we should consider why the Soviets wanted, even needed, to play by our rules. Might they have been trying to tell us something?

Maybe the Cold War shows our own deeper prejudice. In iconographic terms, it was an almost perfect re-run of Britain’s Crimean War fantasies, spun out frame-for-frame, but on America’s time, from 1950 to 1990.

Tony Richardson’s 1968 film Charge of the Light Brigade lays bare all the Western — and mainly, Anglo-American — prejudice against Russia.

It is almost as if the seduction of mid-Victorian cartoons, in which Russia is bear-baited for the entertainment of the 19th century superpower Great Britain, reaches from a century past to seize American consciousness.

Objectifying Russia is a truly longstanding U.S.-UK joint enterprise. Our animus against Russia as the other, the alien, the stranger became a self-defeating cultural filter.

Is the Russia we see today, to an appreciable extent, not the product of our prejudicial wish fulfillment and our bullying over these post-1991 decades?

The lost U.S.-Russian alliance

Truth is, we Americans treated Russia (née Soviet Union) like a defeated power in 1991 – as if it had been some kind of junior Third Reich righteously vanquished. It was never seen as the ally we had known so long, finally come to its senses and having seen the light.

There is a big difference between the defeated power and an ally. Americans have never fought Russians. Russia was the ally of the United States in its civil war with the Confederacy (unlike faithless Britain and France).

American foreign policy in the 1930s leaned pro-Soviet — premiere ship designers Gibbs and Cox even designed super-battleships for Stalin. Then we were allies in the Good War against Nazism.

Can we not see now how NATO enlargement (pushed too far) was – in Russian eyes – no different from the grand sweep of historical contempt the West has shown Russian identity?

Redefining identity

If Germany and Italy, after deep defeat, could be allowed to rediscover themselves and make their identities whole again, why not Russia? We have never allowed Russia – always banished to in-between realms of identity – to find its own place of honor in our own halls.

If Russia seeks acknowledgment, why should we always, reflexively, deny them? Is Russia not, after all, a great civilization and a great nation? Can we not embrace them as such?

It seems not. We forget that Putin represents the Russian people, and our cartoonish renditions of him inevitably become the most inflammatory caricatures of them.

Four misconceptions underlie our enduring prejudice.

1. Putin as “Hitler returned” – so alien and evil that there is nothing we can do but get ready for the fight to come.

2. Putin as a brat and bully spoiler – Russians are all criminals, natural-born racketeers everywhere they go – and Putin is just the worst.

3. Putin as the Pied PiperSvengali or even more darkly, Rasputin, weaving a web to ensnare a benighted Rus, who cannot resist him.

4. Russians make Putin happen – they thus show themselves to all be stupid fools just as primitive and savage as we always thought.

All this is from a very old playbook:

First, we still treat Russia as a defeated power – forever. 

Second, we still slather on triumphalism from the Crimean War to the Cold War

Third, we still harp on their “creepy” ways (meaning, Orthodox ways).

Fourth, we withhold respect until they reform their evil ways.

Yet our judgment should remind us that the United States and Russia have a very old, co-dependent relationship. How we regard Russian identity is in many ways more important than what we do to Russia.

We have become the judges of their identity, which is all any of us have. Moreover, their identity today is fragile, desperate and aggressive. Our active prejudice is a negatively charged force multiplier. Proud nations like Russia act badly when slighted.

How do we disentangle deliberate bad behavior (their responsibility) from centuries’ accumulation of Western contempt (our responsibility)? Is Russia wholly without democratic expression?

The democratic experience

We might remember that Soviet Communism lasted a lifetime in Russia itself, while it held sway for only a couple of generations in Central Europe. Very few Russians alive when communism ended could recall the pre-communist days (which themselves were not democratic).

In contrast, in a country such as Czechoslovakia, where communism’s duration was shorter and wedged between democratic periods, a new generation of democrats could still reach out to an older generation of democrats for guidance and inspiration. For example, Havel could call on Dubček and claim the stainless memory of Beneš.

Russia cannot rebuild such institutions, but will have to create a world wholly alien to their top-down traditions.

The U.S. government makes “rule of law” central to its promotion of “American democratic values.” But it does so explicitly as part of a media-showcased program of political conversion (much ballyhooed in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-5).

The United States wields its color revolutions like acts of public submission. “Do the ritual” we demand, or the United States will simply withhold its respect – or worse.

As we can see from the color revolutions early this century, the real purpose is to generate good feeling in the American electorate and to put in pliant regimes. The democracy rhetoric is all window-dressing for political self-interest. Pushing this on the Russian Commonwealth is a very high-risk proposition.

What are our actual choices? Let’s start with this insight: Russians – Russia, Putin, it is all the same – will never submit. Americans are setting them up for failure by insisting that the only path to a better society lies through public submission to the United States.

Americans trumpet how well this worked in Germany and Japan. But Germany managed to reanimate deep, native democratic traditions. And Japan never truly submitted, but found ways to keep the old weave of institutional identities alive.

With Russia, demanding submission to “the American way” goes too far – and is just plain wrong. It is wrong to withhold respect if disrespect means risking a war — hot or cold.

American treatment of Russia since the Cold War has been an historical mistake – and though doubtless too late now, such a course is still ours to unmake before it is too late.

Read Part II:
Why Putin Misses the Soviet Union So Much

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About Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs.

Responses to “Putin’s and Russia’s Quest for Identity and Belonging”

Archived Comments.

  1. On February 16, 2015 at 10:13 pm future_doc responded with... #

    Finally an article written by a human being and not a snarling animal.

  2. On February 17, 2015 at 12:44 am James Wottle responded with... #

    Well articulated, sir.
    You seem to understand what those in the marble halls of power do not, or will not.

  3. On February 17, 2015 at 3:06 am Terry Washington responded with... #

    I am not convicned by this argument- Putin-like Stalin before him in 1945(in the conclusion of WWII)could have chosen to live in peace with the West- and if either refused to do so then it seems only fair that they suffer the consequences of this refusal!

  4. On February 17, 2015 at 5:08 am Canberra_Alex responded with... #

    I did not like the article. Why, because it operates by idealistic almost naive notions. The world of anglo-american politics does not operate with such notions.
    But regardless, it WAS a epochal mistake not to engage Russia in the way Germany and Japan were engaged. If Russia was engaged and happy we would not have the mess we have now, European and the world security would be infinitely better.

  5. On February 17, 2015 at 7:01 am walkergw responded with... #

    Neither Germany nor Japan were treated the way Russia was. The people of Germany and Japan were given a scapegoat. Germans were allowed to blame it on the Nazis and no personal blame for any support of the Nazis was required. Japan was allowed to blame it on the cult of the Emperor and all they had to do was admit that the Emperor was not a god, which was easy as he himself was able to do that for them. Russians were expected to admit that they lost. That they had to accept the forcing of Communism on all their neighbors.

    This was wrong and not helpful, but this does not excuse Putins actions to attempt to rewrite history and over ride other countries sovereignty. Putin must be stopped and this time the people should be apologized to and welcomed unconditionally, if they will accept this time after being spat on not so long ago.

  6. On February 17, 2015 at 8:17 am G. responded with... #

    “it WAS a epochal mistake not to engage Russia in the way Germany and Japan were engaged…If Russia was engaged and happy …”
    And what was stopping Russia from being “engaged and happy”, hah?
    Whose fault is it that Russia between building own economy and infrastructure and seeding destruction always prefers the latter?
    After WW2 Germany was totally destroyed, divided and 1/3+ of it remained under Soviet occupation for 50 (fifty) more years.
    In 70 years after WW2 Germany with population 80 Mil has economy $3.15 Tn, and Russia – “the winner” – with population 143 Mil has economy $1 Tn.
    While Germany was working, building economy, infrastructure, Russia kept invading other countries.
    Since ending of WW2 in 1944 USSR/Russia invaded 16 counties and kept under occupation for decades countries it invaded earlier.

  7. On February 17, 2015 at 3:14 pm Роман Уляшев responded with... #

    Pfff. Obama is talking about how he nails countries, if he they don’t do what USA want’s. But still, Putin is enemy!? Obama regime must fall!

  8. On February 17, 2015 at 3:18 pm Роман Уляшев responded with... #

    Invaded leaving infrastructure, school, jobs, economic groth XD

  9. On February 17, 2015 at 3:59 pm Valentina responded with... #

    Quite correct the author is. Right before the Soviet Union fell – and the decade after, Russians were much infatuated with the USA and Europe, with all those pretty words ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, with borders of “the prison of nations” opening. So much enthusiasm, really. Russians did expect to be welcomed into that new world, believed and trusted like kids. Since then, the admired West has done pretty much everything to disillusion the Russians. You know, Russia was on a silver plate for you – soothing and lulling by Western values definitely worked better as a security and stability guarantee than any NATO-like thing. But western policy-makers, out of stupidity or whatever is driving them, decided it was safe to change Russia-friendly regimes, igniting civil wars, taking our allies out one by one, creeping to our borders. Now guess who was surprised and hurt? To realize our dear America, our old Europe to which we craved to belong still are more than ready to make us “enemies”, it was a bitter medicine for many of us. And thank God we are awakened from a daydream about good intentions of Uncle Sam.

  10. On February 17, 2015 at 6:54 pm H. H. GAFFNEY responded with... #

    I was rather mystified by this article (in both parts). I’ve been around even longer than Mike Vlahos and had been intensely involved with all this history, beginning with World War II, the atomic bomb, the Berlin Airlift, the Communist scare in the U.S. (almost worse than the terrorist scare), courses in college (my first on Russia was Merle Fainsod’s course on “How Russia Is Ruled,” Billington’s course at Harvard Summer School, courses on the Soviets in graduate school, and then into the Office of the Secretary of Defense, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. nuclear weapons programs and the evolution of the whole deterrence question, and off to USNATO where I was deep into nuclear weapons in NATO through 1978, After the Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed (I was in Moscow just after the August 1991 aborted putsch — the word the Russians used) I then organized sixteen seminars with Russian strategic thinkers and fifteen trips to Moscow (and other Russian cities), and, despite all this exposure, I have no idea of all these concepts that Mike is talking about. We in the U.S. Government were always modest about what we could do — always coping, as it were, without pretenses we were saving the world. I found no sense of alienation in all our dealings with the Russians, got to meet lots of admirals, generals, and other officials. As a veteran of 13 years of intense effort on NATO, mostly on nuclear weapons, I was truly disappointed that NATO was mindlessly expanded without Russia — it always reminded me of Lucy in Peanuts organizing parties for the sole purpose of NOT inviting Charlie Brown. And, of course, the efforts to create a new Russian economy — led by Chubais with the help of Jeffrey Sachs and Anders Aslund — led to the oligarchic/kleptocratic economic system that has prevailed in Russia (and Ukraine) — a system that the U.S. itself is now deeply entrenched in (I am waiting for our own Euromaidan). All the rest of the things that Mike talks about seem like nonsense to me. It really wasn’t the way everything worked — or as it has turned out — didn’t work. If you don’t like Putin as President, wait till you see Ted Cruz as President in the U.S.

  11. On February 17, 2015 at 9:46 pm Raymond M. Keogh responded with... #

    Today, the elusive word “Identity” is fraught with overuse and misuse. What does it really mean? According to the present article it is “all about belonging”. But, even the title suggests that there is a difference between belonging and identity; otherwise why
    include both words?

    Many claim that identity defies a dictionary definition; do we not all understand, innately, what it means?

    I don’t think so.

    For example, does Putin actually yearn to belong to a particular group
    of nations or does he see Russia as having an essential distinctiveness which
    allows it to stand alone? Of course, you’d have to ask Putin. However, when
    coming to the table to negotiate it would be wise to know how HE defines the term.

  12. On February 17, 2015 at 11:46 pm Canberra_Alex responded with... #

    Germany and Japan were given favourable trade conditions and USSt got Cold War and was shut off all exchanges of technology. That got to have a difference.
    So I guess you count USSR military adventures as Russia’s….
    Ok, the it Chechoslovakia, Hungary, Afghanistan – as USSR, and now Ukraine -as Russia. What 16 you are talking about?

  13. On February 18, 2015 at 1:33 pm Mikhail Birukov responded with... #

    Would you be so kind as to explain what do you mean by ‘rewriting history’ in this case? and why some nations ‘cannot be excused’ and ‘must be stopped’ for what the others are excused quite easily and must not be stopped?

  14. On February 18, 2015 at 1:37 pm Mikhail Birukov responded with... #

    The article explains just that – why the parties cannot come to peace.
    “Americans are setting them up for failure by insisting that the only path to a better society lies through public submission to the United States”. That’s a quotation.

  15. On February 19, 2015 at 3:34 am Terry Washington responded with... #

    My reply is that whilst nobody LIKES losing a war( “Cold” or otherwise), Germans and Japanese sensibly picked themselves up after their defeat in 1945 and concentrated on building a new future for their respective nations- unlike Putin and his ilk they didn’t mope around saying “It isn’t fair that we lost- we wuz robbed!”

  16. On February 21, 2015 at 11:15 am Edward responded with... #

    After a year of essentially anti-Russian propaganda, sober minds are happily beginning to speak out. Thank you Professor!

  17. On March 7, 2015 at 6:06 pm Max Argumenter responded with... #

    “Germans and Japanese sensibly picked themselves up after their defeat in 1945 and concentrated on building a new future for their respective nations- unlike Putin”
    – Damn man! How ignorant you are! Unlike Germans and Japanese, Russians WON that war!
    It was Russia, not the USA who broke the backbone of fascism! Go back to school and read some books b4 you start posting on the forums!

  18. On March 7, 2015 at 6:10 pm Max Argumenter responded with... #

    Brava Valentina! Very well said!

  19. On March 7, 2015 at 6:14 pm Max Argumenter responded with... #

    Most ridiculous statement ever!

  20. On March 7, 2015 at 6:17 pm Max Argumenter responded with... #

    “Putin-like Stalin”

    – You look really stupid making these kinds of statements