The Mental Worlds of the Contemporary Russian Population

April 15, 2003 // 3:30pm5:30pm

In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Boris Firsov, a current Woodrow Wilson Public Policy Scholar, discussed his research examining "post-Soviet man in social time and space." Firsov contended "Russians have to come to a better understanding of themselves and to make themselves more comprehensible to the outside world." In order to accomplish this, Firsov continued, "we need new concepts of identity that link the conscious to the unconscious and cultural artifacts to anthropological, biological and psychological artifacts." He posited that the complexity of the Russian mentality "impedes the development of the country." According to Firsov, Russia's tumultuous past has resulted in a "hybrid of ideas." He contended that the hybridization of different ideologies has resulted in "a periodic accumulation of unrealized potential."

In his research, Firsov explained, mentality is defined as "the psychological dominant of people belonging to specific culture." Based on his findings, Firsov concluded that in Russia, an individual's private needs, such as self-identity, supercede one's public needs. He found that while a "western-looking segment has formed within Russian society, the political elite "has been unable to prove that looking toward the West is better than distinctiveness." Firsov contended that the mentality of the post-Soviet person consists of three layers: the Russian (traditional), Soviet (modernist), and Russian (post-modernist, stemming from the disappointment following the failures of the communist and reformist periods). His research showed that the mentality of most Russians cannot be exclusively grouped into one of these categories, but rather consists of a complex "layering" of the three.

According to Firsov, one defining characteristic of Russian history is that it is "layered with different temporal, political, social, and sociocultural structures." The three ideologies "fully reflect three historical choices that continue to be considered by today's Russian population." He noted that the symbols of the tsarist and communist periods continue to have a powerful influence on Russians in the post-communist period, resulting in a hybrid identity that includes elements of all three periods. However, Firsov contended, this "triple citizenship" postpones "civil definiteness and national unity."

Firsov argued that while it is impossible to imagine that the entire Russian population will move toward the creation of a national identity at the same rate. Different groups and individuals will continue to identify themselves with each of three intersecting mental worlds. He stated that the desire "to overcome the loose, unstable organization of life—leads people to construct a desired future, including images of the state and society for the most part borrowed from ideal and mythologized principles of Mother Russia, the Soviet Union and the modern West."

Firsov concluded by stating that despite its complexity, "the use of the idea of three mental worlds seems productive" in understanding Russia. He proposed that the Russian mentality should be understood as an evolving system of interacting mental worlds. He noted that Russia's population remains one of different languages and cultures and therefore the study of the "divergence and convergence of these mental worlds" would help provide a better understanding of Russia.

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