The election of Vladimir Putin for a second term has added Gogol's question to the maelstrom of public debates: "Where are you heading, Russia?" In other words, what road should the slowly rehabilitating country take? What national idea can unite long-suffering Russians?
For seven decades, Russia, as part of the Soviet Union, knew what it was doing. It was building communism, a society where everyone would do their bit in return for their requirements being fulfilled. Many people think that communism was at that time what we now describe as the national idea.
The dictionary says that the idea "is the supreme form of cognisance of the outside world with the purpose of perfecting it." In the case of the national idea, it probably means a guidance to action which the whole nation is ready to heed. No matter how horrible Stalin's terror was, the building of the communist utopia genuinely inspired millions of Soviet people.
In the early 1990s, the communist experiment's test tube blew up. The Soviet Union disintegrated and ideology became a four-letter word. It was believed at that time that only "people of the past," meaning unrepentant communists who had not seen the light, could speak about a national idea.
The situation changed in 1996, when President Boris Yeltsin announced, shocking many people, that Russia badly needed a national idea. It appeared that the Kremlin boss, who had been a true Communist Party member in the past, became uncomfortable in the ideological vacuum. Where to lead the country? he wondered. Where is the corner with icons in this large national house at which one could kneel?
To all appearances, Yeltsin thought it would be very easy to formulate a new national idea. "Work must be launched to study the attitude of the people (young, middle-aged and senior people from different social groups) to the generalised formula of the national Russian idea that embraces Orthodoxy, patriotism and nationalism," a Kremlin document of that period read. "At the same time, specific details can be added to it and it can be discussed with the country's political and spiritual leaders."
Yeltsin's speechwriters were not original, or rather, they were guilty of common plagiarism. A similar formula can be found in the writings of Count Uvarov, the minister of education in tsarist Russia who proclaimed Orthodoxy, authoritarianism and nationalism as the national idea that inspired him to try to be a model official in 1833.
In spring 2004, some elements of that formula have become fashionable again. Russia wonders yet again if the tsarist era, the Soviet past and the democratic future can be merged.
The resumption of debates about the national idea is clearly connected with a new awareness of the country in Russians. Russia has overcome a crisis, embarked on the road of economic recovery and is quickly regaining its former authority in international affairs. While linking these achievements to the efforts of Vladimir Putin, many people in Russia ask: Can the next four years of Putin's rule produce a new national idea?
The discussion was seasoned by the publication of an article signed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, "The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia." In it, the former head of the oil giant Yukos, who is in custody awaiting trial, severely criticised the generation of Russian liberals of the 1990s, to which he belongs.
Or should we say "belonged"? In that article - he has admitted that he did not write it but fully agrees with it - Khodorkovsky accused his former liberal brothers of cheating 90% of the population during the unfair privatisation, when far from the best 10% of the population grabbed control of the nation's wealth. Disregarding the interests of the people, the official liberals drove Mercedes cars, frequented nightclubs and carried gold cards in their pockets. In short, they "sold the constitution for another plate of sturgeon with horseradish," as he ironically wrote in the article.
His conclusions are bitter: Millions of Russians, who were sidelined by privatisation, have become disillusioned in democracy and reforms. Hence the catastrophic defeat of the right-wing parties at the parliamentary and presidential elections. And this explains the popularity, Khodorkovsky thinks, of the main idea of nationalists and revanchists of all colours, who infer that Russia does not need freedom. "According to their [nationalists'] model, freedom is the fifth wheel in the cart of national development," Khodorkovsky concludes bitterly.
However, Russia's richest man is convinced that the idea of democracy is immortal in Russia and it was not the idea but the people who tried to manipulate it for mercenary reasons that are to blame for its failure.
Khodorkovsky suggested several choices for Russia. One of the most interesting is the one that reveals his understanding of patriotism as an element of Yeltsin's formula of the national idea. He writes: "We must learn to search for the truth in Russia and not in the West. It is very good to have a good image in the USA and Europe, but it will never replace the people's respect at home. We must prove - above all to ourselves - that we have not come to snatch and flee but that we have come to stay."
The left-wing parties frequently replace patriotism with "etatism" as a possible model for the national idea in Russia. It is not clear what they mean, though. To them, etatism means keeping their neighbours and their own population in an iron imperialist grip, possibly with enough to eat but in constant fear of their lives. Such "etatism" failed to save the Soviet Union and it will hardly save Russia and become the national ideology of its future development.
It is another matter when etatism is interpreted as Russia's international role worthy of its natural and human resources, as the protection by a strong state, a power, of social justice in the interests of 140 million of its population spread over a vast territory. Interpreted in this way, this national idea can be accepted by the bulk of the population.
Daniil Granin, an old and much loved writer, spoke about this the other day on the air. "We still live by old notions of a power that was feared, that had nuclear and hydrogen bombs, Kalashnikovs and missiles," he said. "A great power is healthy and happy people who live in conditions befitting human beings." And who are proud of the achievements of their country, I would add.
Communism ceased to be the national idea for the bulk of the Soviet people back in the 1950-1960s. At that time, that ideology was gradually replaced with pride for being part of the achievements of scientists and industrialists. The launch of Sputnik, the production of the Tu-104 (which had no match in the world at the time), and other Soviet achievements that impressed the world kept the Soviet people together and served as a powerful moral impetus for them. In other words, they played the role of the national idea.
Maybe this should serve as the basis for Vladimir Putin's programme for the next term? some romantics ask. What they mean is that he should ensure support not for a national producer but for those whose products would be ahead of the rest of the world.
Experts are pondering the examples of such technologies. One of them is the "flying saucer" invented by the talented Russian designer Shchukin, which is a fundamentally new craft that is much more energy-efficient, is safer and can carry more cargo than current aircraft. Another is the "Caspian monster," the so-called ecranoplane, a ground-effect plane that has been rusting in Sormovo for more than a decade. And still another is the incredible fertiliser made of slowly dissolving glass that can feed the soil for several years without being washed into the rivers.
Indeed, according to specialists there are many more such examples. But it is extremely difficult to distinguish the romantic pride for Russian trailblazers from the genuine worth of their inventions.
In this rainbow of opinions, there are three models for helping Russia overcome the identity crisis, as social scientists describe the current situation. So far, Russians do not understand who they are and where they should go. But there are at least three roads the country can take.
First, Russia can take the Soviet road but try to avoid the mistakes it made in the past. It can become an improved edition of the Soviet Union that would be more acceptable to the world civilisation. This is obviously a dead-end.
Second, Russia can repent, say that everything it did in the past was wrong - and start from scratch by copying the West. This is, roughly, the national idea of the reformers of the 1990s. Mikhail Khodorkovsky explained very graphically what this resulted in.
And third, we can try to build new bridges between the new Russia and the country that has a thousand-year history, revive Russian etatism but without an imperial taste, return to the people the share of natural wealth that belongs to them and, together with it, the possibility to be proud of the achievements of Russian science and industry.
In other words, we should take the Russian road in our search for the national idea.