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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Three Imperial Mythologies

What happens to a country's sense of itself when it finally runs afoul of the hard evidence of history? It goes into hiding, I believe; turns both inward and backward into the past, and finally reemerges as historical sentimentality and a new, egocentric version of the national idea.


Take Britain, whose sustaining national ethos was -- until the end of the Second World War, at any rate -- that it was born to imperial sovereignty; born with a unique capacity, not so much to rule others as to bring them towards the light of its own inherent decency. Other empires enslaved and stole, but Britain's brought order, education and the saving grace of its own exported institutions, from judges' wigs and the monarchy to cricket and the parliamentary system. When Indians, before and after the war, demanded their independence, most British people thought them simply criminally ungrateful.


All this was exposed as a fiction in the 1950s and '60s. Progressively stripped of its empire, Britain was forced to confront the facts of its own past, and to set off towards the reality of what it is today: a small gaggle of European offshore islands of dwindling relevance to the world's realpolitik.


Its national myth, however, survived to reappear in new forms. It became, on one hand, a sentimental attachment to an imaginary past and to the trappings of its lost power -- an attachment which took the form of a growing monarchial theme park, the provider of "a better class of history" to poor deprived tourists from abroad. And on the other, it mutated into an assumption of the superiority of Britishness at a personal level: an assumption which runs the gamut from the appalling noblesse oblige of the country's ruling classes to the behavior of its skinhead football hooligans, who wear Union Jack t-shirts, body paint and underwear, and seem to regard all foreigners as barely human.


A second national myth, I think, which has followed the same path -- though from a different starting point -- is that of the United States. The U.S.'s national myth had nothing to do with the continuities of geography and history, and class. It was the myth of freedom from these things, the notion that an individual could make himself up out of his opportunities. By moving on, moving over, moving West and so on, he could become whatever he wanted to be. It was the myth of a total freedom to improve oneself by effort. And it was this myth that the U.S. believed it was exporting, when it too, reluctantly, took on the job of empire.


The U.S. empire has now, I think, been exposed as something less than a successful exporter of this sort of freedom. In any case, it's increasingly reluctant today to act as a policeman, however moral, unless victory is absolutely guaranteed, as in Grenada and Panama. At the same time, too, it has become harder and harder to believe, except for the minority which is already rich, that anyone can become what he or she wants to be in the United States today. The horizons of possibility have been drastically reduced, to say the least. And it's not effort, but gambling, the fastest-growing industry in the country, that's clearly seen as the best way to change one's fortunes in the future.


The result of all this is , again, a sentimentalizing of the domestic past (Reagan's dream of the white picket fence, the return of cowboy and gangster movies) and, at the same time, the internalizing of the idea of self-improvement by effort, so that it's become the idea of improvement of the self by effort instead. The ubiquity of psychotherapists, of gyms and aerobics classes, cosmeticians and plastic surgeons -- all these speak to me of the breakdown in America of what was once a truly national idea.


What does all this mean for Russia, the domestic heart of yet another recent empire? Russia's sustaining national myth was that it was uniquely chosen by God to represent on earth the perfect equality of His justice. It was nation, and nationality, as holy redoubt, as crusade, with a divine right to expand its borders. Now this idea has been seriously undermined by the facts once more.


So what can we expect from Russia in the future, based on the British and American experience? I'd say a renewed sentimentality about the past, a rise in fundamentalist Orthodoxy, an increasing arrogance in personal behavior, and a gathering enthusiasm for another crusade, either in the "near abroad" or even further afield -- like Britain's disastrous "police action" in Suez. I'd say something a lot more complicated and more intrinsically Russian than the West currently seems to expect.