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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Russia Without Icons

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During Soviet times, three symbols served as indicators for me of the regime's stability: If Lenin was still in his tomb, if the red flag still flew over the Kremlin and if the statue of secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky still stood in front of KGB headquarters, then all was right with the Soviet world.

The red flag did of course come down on Dec. 25, 1991, and by then the Dzerzhinsky monument had been dramatically hauled down from its pedestal and proved hollow. Lenin is still in his mausoleum, but two out of three's not bad.

Great makers and breakers of icons (they whipped their pagan idols after accepting Christianity), the Russians have not created any new icons in the 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An enormous amount happened in the 15 years after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. There was the end of World War I with invasions by the United States and Britain among others; the Civil War; the New Economy Policy, which was a step back to capitalism to repair the ruined economy; the power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky; and finally Stalin's full ascent to power.

The 15 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, though colorful and erratic, have not produced any upheaval like that which followed the Revolution, which is either a sign of maturity or exhaustion. No symbols that express the nature, beliefs and aspirations of the new society have been created, nor have large-scale political figures arisen. Putinism, whatever that is exactly, will not long outlive President Vladimir Putin. Chances are he will step down in 2008 and by that one act of honoring the Constitution he will redeem much of the backsliding caused by his cheesy authoritarianism. That will help enshrine the principle that no man is above what Putin has called "the dictatorship of the law."

Unlike early Soviet Russia, which was isolated, the new Russia is much more integrated, both politically and economically, with the world outside its borders. Russia is an active player in negotiating with Iran and North Korea and supplies Europe with more than one-quarter of its gas (it would be interesting to compare European temperatures and criticism of Russia this winter). This integration, a welcome development, has also constrained Russia in its forging of new symbols by subjecting it to more foreign influence than it can readily assimilate.

We do know what the Putin administration fears by what it punishes and seeks to repress. The imprisonment of Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky shows that the power elite fears the moneyed elite, the billionaire boyars. The heavy-handed regulation of nongovernmental organizations (as much to intimidate as to eliminate), the crude and absurd retaliations against Georgia and the impolitic reaction to Ukraine's Orange Revolution demonstrate that today's Russian leaders are either even more paranoid than has traditionally been the case or have a strong sense that the Russian people could one day take to the streets.

But what banner would they march under -- what symbol or slogan?

Nothing seems quite as fake as a fake symbol. Symbols have to touch the soul and come from the soul. Some worry that Russia, always famed for its soul, is becoming too much like all the rest of the modern world with its worship of wealth and celebrity. A country that has lost touch with itself will not be able to generate images, anthems and holidays -- all that gives a nation its spirit and identity.

Or maybe these are premature worries. The restrictions of Putin's regime may only be a reaction to Yeltsin's laxness. This clash of opposites should, according to the laws of dialectical materialism, combine in a synthesis that has elements of each but transcends both. And maybe that new Russia will find a new icon to which to lift its eyes.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."