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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Made in Russia' No Longer a Kiss of Death

Seven years after Boris Yeltsin launched a search for a new "national idea" to give purpose to a Russia that had left its communist ideology well behind, most Russians may still be unsure what this national idea should be.

But in the past few years, a new sense of national pride and confidence has emerged, according to a poll commissioned by the World Economic Forum and to be released Thursday at its Russia Meeting.

The poll, conducted by ROMIR Monitoring and paid for by the Union of Social Advertising Creators, examines how Russians today see themselves and their country. Despite their often critical and fatalistic look at Russia's present, the poll reveals a nation proud of its past and optimistic about its future.

The poll surveyed 1,484 people in late August and early September in 90 cities and towns spread across all seven federal districts. Twelve focus groups in six cities also were used.

A large majority of those surveyed -- 79 percent -- said they were convinced that Russia must follow its own path of development; only 11 percent advocated following the Western example.

Overall, the poll showed that Russians want stability and a strong state, and they want the state to do a better job promoting patriotism and traditional values.

While promotion of traditional spiritual and cultural values was seen by most respondents as a priority, only 5 percent mentioned democratic values as important.

The majority, 76 percent, said the government is not doing enough to solve the country's problems -- 65 percent said the government's main task should be economic development, as opposed to 13 percent who said "development of democracy" should be its priority.

Even so, President Vladimir Putin remains extremely popular. Almost 40 percent of respondents said Putin was Russia's best leader since 1917. Leonid Brezhnev was second with 10 percent, followed by Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Yeltsin was eighth and last, with 3 percent.

One of the more interesting findings of the study is that while 25 percent said "we have nothing to be proud of as a country," only 8 percent said they do not consider Russia to be a great power. It could be that for the most part the economic hardships are seen as temporary, while the belief in Russia's greatness is deeply engraved into the popular consciousness.

The definition of patriotism favored by the highest number of respondents was love for the homeland, followed by a conviction that Russia is a great power. But only about half of the respondents said they think patriotism is widespread in Russia.

The Quest for an Ideology

Russia has spent the last decade trying to define itself both symbolically and ideologically. Like other former Soviet bloc countries, Russia was left without an ideology following the collapse of communism. But if countries such as Poland or the Baltic states could turn to their pre-Soviet history in search of their national roots, a similar quest has proved difficult for Russia. Russia did not have communism imposed upon it by a foreign power and had lived under communism for much longer.

True enough, the idealization of the pre-revolutionary past was extremely widespread in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was then that director Stanislav Govorukhin shot his striking documentary "Rossiya, Kotoruyu My Poteryali" ("The Russia That We Have Lost"), which glorified the turn-of-the-century Russian Empire. The fascination with all things tsarist even made it to marketing, with new private companies using the old alphabet to write their names.

But Old Russia as an idea could not unify contemporary Russian society. The new democratic ideals as a unifying factor also fell short, especially after the euphoria of the early 1990s was replaced by bitter disappointment when the liberal economic reforms left many people below the poverty line.

It was not long before a denial of all things Soviet gave way to a more critical approach. In typical Freudian fashion, Russians in the 1990s were loathing much of their Soviet past, while becoming increasingly nostalgic.

The change of mood was spotted by Yeltsin, who shortly after winning re-election in 1996 announced a search for a new "national idea" and gave his advisers one year to come up with one. "In Russian history of the 20th century there were various periods -- monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika and finally a democratic path of development," Yeltsin said in July 1996. "Each stage had its ideology. We have none."

While many agreed that the country needed an "ideology" in some shape or form, there was little agreement on what an ideology is or how it can be enforced, or if it needs to be enforced at all.

"A national idea is not something you can define. I don't think I know what it means exactly," said sociologist Alexander Oslon, who heads the Public Opinion Foundation. "But it is one of those expressions that gives you a warm feeling, despite being meaningless."

Formulating the country's national idea became an obsession of sorts, but in the end the National Idea Commission failed to produce anything noteworthy.

And that is hardly surprising, said Kathleen Parthe, director of the Russian studies program at the University of Rochester.

"The search for a national identity in the 1990s couldn't succeed because different aspects of national life were changing at different speeds, and it was virtually impossible to take in the whole picture and describe it," she said. "The regional differences were substantial -- little could be said that would have been equally true for a city in the Far East, a village in the north and Moscow."

Together with James Billington, the librarian of the U.S. Congress, Parthe prepared "The Search for a New Russian National Identity: Russian Perspective," a report published online in April 2003 and based on meetings with Russia's leading politicians and thinkers in 1998-99.

Stability and Putin

Russia's search for itself was born of the feeling of crisis and cultural and economic collapse that was characteristic of the Yeltsin period. The thought was that some sort of unifying idea would bring stability, but "it appears that greater economic and political stability is coming first, and as things achieve some level of predictability, a consensus is slowly beginning to take place," Parthe said.

Indeed, as greater stability has been achieved under Putin, the country has slowly begun to regain a sense of being at peace with its past and present, while the quest for national identity has lost much of its relevance.

In a compromise meant to appeal to all strata of Russia's divided society, in 2001 the State Duma brought back the old Soviet anthem (albeit with new words) and approved the double-headed eagle of the tsars and the pre-revolutionary white, blue and red flag as national symbols. The Soviet-era red star was reinstated as the military's official emblem in 2002. In a sense, if Putin's Russia has a unifying idea, it could be an acceptance of the Soviet past as part of the country's heritage along with the Russian Empire.

"Yeltsin was a destroyer, but Putin came to power as a stabilizer and a builder. The last three years have been like a period of rest after continuous stress and instability," Oslon said. "And the approval of the new symbols was seen by most as the restoration of historic ties that were violated in the early 1990s."

Made in Russia

The development of Russia's national identity is illustrated by the changing attitude toward domestic products. Today, a "Made in Russia" label is often an advantage, unlike in the early 1990s when anything Western was considered hip and emphasizing a product's Russian-ness was nothing short of suicidal from a marketing point of view.

"The classical example of the early 1990s' attitude is J7 juice," said Vladimir Yevstafyev, head of the Russian Association of Advertising Agencies. Wimm-Bill-Dann, the country's largest dairy and juice company, intentionally gave its bestselling juice brand a Western-sounding name.

But a new consumer study by the Rodnaya Rech advertising agency showed that since 1993 the number of consumer "patriots" has grown by 15 percent. Now it is Western producers that are hiding behind Russian brand names to appeal to buyers.

"Back in 1993 there was no consumer society to speak of, there were virtually no Russian brands," said Yulia Arakelova, director for strategic planning at Rodnaya Rech. " Now, if the quality is the same, a significant portion of the population will choose domestic products."

Even advertising was almost exclusively borrowed from the West until the mid-1990s, regardless of local customs and traditions, said Vladimir Filippov, president of the Avrora advertising agency.

"Following the economic crisis of 1998 people had to choose domestic goods out of necessity because they were normally much cheaper. It also gave a sense of moral satisfaction to buying Russian. Now the tendency is far more pragmatic," Filippov said.

Yevstafyev agreed. "Things are far more balanced now than they were in the early 1990s, when people would crave anything foreign," he said. "The society has matured since then. Now people prefer quality over country of origin."

Parthe and Oslon said Russians need to do a better job promoting themselves.

"The Europeans see themselves as the most cultured, the Americans as the most successful or simply the best, but the Russians often think they can't do anything right, even though they see themselves as the most creative," Oslon said.

Parthe said the Western press, which has a tendency to see Russia as being "perpetually on the brink of some abyss into which it never quite falls," is not being fair.

"There are numerous promising developments, large and small, to point to," she said. "A new society is being built: one summer institute, one business, one jury, one saved park, one restored house of worship at a time. A new identity is evolving, and it is time to get that story out."