The Problem of Political Identity - The Meaning of Great Projects Politics in Contemporary Russia

Master's Thesis, 2010

58 Pages, Grade: A-


Table of contents:


Chapter 1: Social Constructivism and the Great Power Identity
1.1 Social constructivism and the great power as a customary discursive component in Russian and Soviet foreign policy making
1.2 The changing of the great power concept
1.3 Domestic great projects and historical politics as a compensation for the crisis of internationally recognized ‘greatpowerness’

Chapter 2: The Condition of Postcommunism and the Nature of the Great Projects Politics
2.1 ‘Bespredel’ and the ‘true end of history’: Russian politics in the 1990s
2.2 ‘Dictatorship of law’: Putinite era and the lack of political identity
2.3 Contemporary great projects and the ritual of being a great power


Appendix 1: Classes of Content



Today, an IR scholar meets a claim that “Russia is back to the world stage”1 with increasing frequency. Indeed, the vision of Russia as a resurgent power is, no doubt, present in the political discourse, “[i]rrespective of whether one refers to the recovery of Russia’s economy or its assertive foreign policy, the success of its sporting teams or the wealth of its oligarchy…”2 On the international level, this vision can be supported by a number of works that address the problem of Russia’s revival. When in 2008 Edward Lucas published his New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, the book enjoyed unprecedentedly wide popularity and received a considerable number of positive reviews.3 In his view, Russia is reinventing herself as a milder version of the Soviet Union and hence should be seen as a serious threat to the West.

Such a comparison could also be found earlier in the book by Steven Rosefielde Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower. The author emphasizes the similarity between contemporary Russian policies and those of the USSR, thus virtually equating the two and prophesying the comeback of history unless the Russian Federation manages to alter its way, taking the path of genuine Westernization.4 During the last decade many IR scholars were yet again using the term ‘empire’ to refer to the contemporary Russian state.5 This once almost forgotten practice explicitly shows the concern that the renowned scholars and policymakers have regarding Russia’s current status on the international arena and the prospects of its potential development.

Domestically, the seeming stability of Putin’s presidency (as well as his premiership) is accompanied by the realization of various ‘great projects’ that are either closely intertwined with the commemoration of Russia’s glorious history or aimed at modernization and economic growth. For instance, the excessive commemoration of the Great Patriotic War is a classic example of historical politics, along with many others that seem to be directed toward all poles, in their attempt to reestablish the country’s important status. The powers that be build tremendously big cathedrals all over the country (in Kaliningrad, Voronezh, Moscow, etc.)6 and canonize state’s former rulers,7 appealing to the Russian imperial past; they restore Soviet symbols and rehabilitate Joseph Stalin, addressing the Soviet great power legacy; they try to accomplish expensive modernizing projects in business8 and social spheres,9 as well as achieve big successes in sports,10 thus organizing domestic exhibition of power.

Yet, how is the evidence of Russia’s comeback can be interpreted within IR? What is its true meaning, which theoretical approach could better account for these realities, and can the mentioned great projects policies, indeed, be compared to those of the Soviet Union, as Rosefielde and Lucas do? It is certainly tempting to fit the fact of Russia’s revival into the realist paradigm, as it seems to be a mere correction of what should not have happened, and what have failed to be predicted, namely, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.11 One could, together with John Mearsheimer, argue that the bipolarity of the world politics was, paradoxically, ensuring peace and stability on the European continent, and that “the demise of the Cold War order [was] likely to increase the chances that war and major crises [would] occur in Europe.”12 Hence, the states, being rational actors, who are aware of their external environment, try to ensure their safe survival and pursue strategies that more effectively maintain the existing international balance.13 However, just as Mearsheimer would have difficulties with explaining the drastic reorientation of the Russian state in 1991, when “the fate of the Cold War … was mainly in [its] hands,”14 and it was more beneficial for it to maintain the balance, so he would also be unable to account for the fact that, despite this reorientation, Russian political elites never stopped seeing the country as a great power, since even during the hardest years of transition Boris Yeltsin insisted that Russia “always was and remains a great world power.”15 Even today, when “[Russian] consumers still aren’t economically sovereign, its government isn’t democratically responsive to the electorate, and Russian society is blatantly unjust,”16 the country, for some reason, is characterized as “a colossus with feet of clay” [emphasis added].17 Why is it that after ten years of disintegration and economic decay, after sanguinary internal conflicts and political confusion within the ruling elite, Russia necessarily has to be seen not simply as a recovered state, but as a not yet fully recovered great power? It seems that simply remaining within the realist paradigm it is problematic to explain the events of the last two decades, as well as the ever-present Russian great power identity. Hence, it is necessary to engage with the theories that are able to explain the construction of state’s identity.

Since the great power identity is dependant on the international recognition and hierarchical identity structures,18 perhaps, one could look for the answer within the realm of systemic constructivism. However, it is important to remember that, as a rule, systemic constructivists, Alexander Wendt being a deserving representative, treat identification as “a continuum from negative to positive - from conceiving another as anathema to the self to conceiving it as an extension of the self.”19 Consequently, such an approach can dangerously oversimplify the situation, excluding the possible existence of, say, a great power, which is backward at the same time (the way Russia is frequently labeled today), or an enemy, which has a similar ideology. What is more, those who believe in purely systemic construction of the great power status will face difficulties explaining why in the beginning of the 1990-s Russian leaders were happy to follow the West and were eagerly accepting western assistance, which, in its turn, appeared to be unexpectedly insufficient, and still considered Russia to be a great power. They are also unlikely to answer why Vladimir Putin was widely misunderstood by the population, when during his first rather successful years in Kremlin he started comparing Russia with tiny Portugal, emphasizing that the former had to work hard in order to reach the latter’s level of economic development.20 Therefore, one has to grant this a more careful investigation, as, apparently, the idea of the great power status is not rooted exclusively within the aspirations of a ruling elite or the international system as such. It seems to reach deeper grounds. In this light, perhaps, the black box of state has to be opened and the answer should be sought for on the level of popular discourse.

Precisely the latter was attempted by Ted Hopf in his book Social Construction of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 and 1999. Hopf, trying to be as inductive as possible, develops a theory of social identity and traces the implications of competing identities on Soviet and Russian foreign policy making in the critical years of the country’s development. In the course of analyzing the discourse he singles out eight distinct identities “that were distributed most broadly and deeply across and within the most texts [which he chose to deal with]”21 - four for each studied period. Hopf then follows their interaction and tries to explain certain foreign policy moves through the corresponding domination of this or another identity in a given case. In other words, through interpreting these domestic social identities he shows “how they made possible Soviet and Russian understandings of Others in world politics [and how the] constructivism [could] work all the way down, rather than having [to] stop at the level of interstate interactions.”22

It becomes apparent in Hopf that, both in 1955 and 1999, the idea of great power was essential for every identity that he believed to be distinct and was indeed rooted on the level of popular discourse. During both historical periods there was a clear discursive demand for Russia’s great power status - the alternative of losing this status was altogether unthinkable for the population. Thus, Hopf showed that not only the decision-makers were, as Thomas Ambrosio put it, ‘obsessed’23 with the great power status, but that such a vision was also embedded into the social discourse, and the powers that be could not but comply with what was expected from them.

However, Hopf also understood that, in spite of internal roots of the mentioned identity, it is impossible to analyze it, focusing exclusively on the domestic level. A great power would never become one without any international recognition of its status. Therefore, he emphasizes its dual nature, by giving some credit to the systemic and normative constructivisms in what concerns the great power recognition. Then, if I have to understand the current Russia’s revival (which is invariably expressed through the great power rhetoric), what type of discourse can I focus on, while analyzing the great power politics employed by the country. I believe this might be the discourse related to the previously mentioned great projects, as the justification of their realization, on the one hand, would necessarily have to bear the signs of the great power identity and, perhaps, reflect the discursive demand for it, and, on the other hand, would have to articulate vision of Russia, being a great power within the international system, as, due to a great scale and considerable expenditure, the purely domestic practicality would fail to become a satisfying justification.

Since it has been decided to focus on analyzing the great projects politics, one could pick an example of a contemporary great deed as an occasion of great power politics and, just like Hopf, analyze the discourse surrounding it in order to trace the great power identity and prove or disprove its presence in the contemporary Russian popular discourse. One of the recent and most ‘discursively well-covered’ projects was the attempted construction of the so-called “Okhta-Centre” in St. Petersburg - a 396-meter-tall skyscraper intended for the ‘Gazprom’ headquarters.24 Ratification of the project immediately caused unprecedented public discontent: among those who officially disapproved were the Russian Union of Architects,25 UNESCO World Heritage Centre,26 the Russian Ministry of Culture27 and some political parties.28 They all believed that a glass skyscraper built close to the historic city- centre could spoil the harmonious architectural ensemble of the Russian cultural capital. And this concern does not seem to be unfounded. City officials, however, were determined to erect the tower. On repeated occasions, ‘Gazprom’ administration, supported by the Governor, had to defend their right to build the business centre in court. Today, after almost five years of heated confrontation between ‘Gazprom’ and the city officials on the one side, and the public of St. Petersburg in the person of cultural intelligentsia and political activists on the other, the problem is far from being resolved. The latter fact, however, appears to be particularly fruitful for a constructivist scholar, who tries to study the Russian political identity, as the mentioned conflict gives birth to abundant discourse, which includes opinions and justifications of both supporters and opponents of the project. Therefore, let us try to trace the mentioned great power identity in the texts of the interviews, given by the project supporters.

Without engaging with substantial empirical analysis, one could simply give the relevant discourse a look in order see, whether or not the demand for the great power status is still there. For this one could, following a preliminary investigation of the discourse, “develo[p] analytical categories that [will] be used to construct a coding frame that is then applied to the textual data.”29 In other words, it is necessary to construct a ‘glossary’ of classes and then, after a more thorough research, to refer different words or phrases to one of these thematic categories (i.e. attempt to do what Hopf performed in his research). An important condition for the choice of the classes is that they have to be indicative for the main theoretical underpinning mentioned earlier, i.e. the idea of great power. A number of interviews referred to on the official web-site of the project30 and the news portals “”31 and “”32 were chosen to be the sources of analysis. The choice was conditioned by the fact that all people, being important public figures (actors, directors, politicians and musicians), seem to represent the popular discourse, which, as argued by Hopf, reflects the self-understanding of the society. The latter is particularly influential for and helps better interpret domestic and foreign policy actions and reactions of a given state.

While trying to trace the great power identity, one can focus on the following thematic classes: the role of St. Petersburg in the world; the project as a normal practice; the consequences of the project’s rejection; the consequences of the project’s acceptance & the new image of St. Petersburg.

The role of St. Petersburg in the world: The analysis of this class of content explicitly shows that the great power identity is still dominant in the popular discourse. The city is often referred to as “the world cultural and political centre, [whose] significance steadily grows,”33 compared to London, Paris, and New York. The ‘Okhta-Centre’ is presented as a “project worthy of the city.” The alternative vision of “a city with provincial destiny” is mentioned just once and is treated as a very unfortunate thing that has to be corrected.

The project as a normal practice: This class directly refers to the justification of the project and can potentially support the previous conclusion. Apparently, the project is often presented as normal practice that all great cities (and great powers) have to employ (New York, Paris, and London). The old vision of St. Petersburg as a northern counterpart of Amsterdam (which can no longer be seen as a truly important European capital) vanishes from the discourse completely. Another traditional comparison with Venice is now presented as an opposition. On the other hand, the supporters also address the discourse of the past, inspiring authorities to “leave the mark in history, by building [their] own ‘St. Isaac’s’,” which clearly is a due thing for a great power to perform The consequences of the project’s rejection: This category reveals the discursive demand by engaging with the logics of thinkable alternatives to the modernization of the city. Paradoxically, without distortion of the historic harmony the latter is seen impossible to be preserved. The rejection of this project means the alternative of remaining in its place, which is a disaster that leads to the unavoidable decay, be it “a swamp,” “a beautiful ruin,” “a city- museum,” or “a primitive society.” A virtual obsession with moving ahead and standing “in the avant-garde” is a customary component of all the interviews. Such an obsession indicates that in the view of the project supporters, St. Petersburg will either become a globally important modernized city, or will die off completely (i.e. stop living), having turned into a lifeless memorabilia.

The consequences of the project’s acceptance & the new image of St. Petersburg: The acceptance of the project is always seen as a “logical phase in the city’s development.” However, when one tries to find out what this will mean in practice, it comes to a mere economic benefit and an increase of the investments. The latter, however, can justify neither the enormous height of the tower, nor its central location. What is more, the tower “will become the centre of culture,” i.e. it will become a cultural place in a cultural capital. Explicitly emphasizing the demand for the creation of a new city, the supporters cannot but address the need for preservation of what St. Petersburg, in their opinion, always was, i.e. they paradoxically argue that the preservation of the cultural heritage is a “step forward” and the ‘road to decay’ simultaneously. Moreover, the vision of new St. Petersburg is never articulated. The supporters either yet again address its cultural status, or employ the axiologically indefinite rhetoric. In this light, the relevant teleology can only be formulated in terms of eventually becoming what we always were. In contrast, remaining what we always were will necessarily lead to a catastrophe, which will make the life of the city stop. It seems, in the absence of any meaningful teleology, the only way of conceptualizing development is to shift this process into the past, so that it would have the realization of potentiality of the present as its final goal. Hence, it becomes apparent why pure remaining in its place is so disastrous - the present proper has now become the past, remaining in which the city ceases to live.

While the first three classes seem to support Hopf’s findings by explicitly showing the discursive demand for the great power status, the last two appear to give somewhat unexpected results. If this project seems to every supporter like a dew thing for a great power to accomplish, then why is it that the actual outcome would be a mere realization of the potentiality of the present? Furthermore, can there at all be a great power without any meaningful teleology or political project? Even if it potentially can, than it is, at least, certain that over the last hundred years this has not yet happened - all great powers, be it the USSR, the US or, say, Nazi Germany, invariably had a particular political teleology, which triggered their development and conditioned their international actions.

Then, how should one treat the mentioned digressions? Perhaps, they could be discarded as occasional odds, since it is individual interviews that undergo the analysis, and individuals can make mistakes and do not always think about the long-term perspective. Alternatively, they could be taken seriously, as it might help understand the nature of power in Russia today better and answer the main question of this research, namely, what the meaning of the great projects politics in contemporary Russian really is.

To accomplish the latter, one could address a deserving example of theoretical interpretation of the direction-less politics in contemporary Russia, which was given by Sergei Prozorov. Drawing mainly on Giorgio Agamben and Alexandre Kojève, the author analyzes late Soviet, Yeltsinite and contemporary periods of Russian history in an attempt to “bring the experience of … postcommunism into the discourse of political theory by re- engaging with the ‘end of history’ thesis from an alternative theoretical perspective.”34 Thus, the ‘end of history’, in Prozorov’s view, is not a triumph of any teleological project (as argued by Fukuyama35 ), but rather a suspension of the teleological dimension as such. By disengaging from the public sphere and making the whole system utterly inoperative, the Russian society not only triggered the demise of the Soviet system, thereby resisting the most ambitious historical project, but also managed to undermine “every possibility of the recommencement of history during the 20 years of postcommunism.”36 What is more, like Hopf, Prozorov traces the mentioned process on the level of popular discourse (rock poetry of Boris Grebenshikov in Prozorov’s case), thereby countering all possible objections, raised earlier. Another important feature of his analysis is that his theory actually accounts for the domestic manifestations of power, and thus, potentially, it is able to explain the pursuit of great projects politics in the context of the complete absence of any teleological normativity.

On the other hand, Prozorov limits his analysis within the domestic realm and does not address the idea of great power, which Hopf believes to be an integral part of Russian political discourse and which is possible to effectively interpret, only if the international system is also taken into account. Yet, merged together, the frameworks can potentially compliment each other to give an unambiguous answer to the main research question. For this, however, they have to be addressed in much more detail. The next two chapters of the present research are going to treat both mentioned frameworks more attentively. In conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the research question, incorporating Prozorov’s findings into Hopf’s theoretical approach, as well as attempt to give some predictions contemporary political condition.

Chapter 1: Social Constructivism and the Great Power Identity

1.1 Social constructivism and the great power as a customary discursive component in Russian and Soviet foreign policy making

This chapter addresses Hopf’s social constructivism. First, I focus on the explication of his theoretical framework, paying special attention to the way his research is constructed. Then I discuss the conclusions he reaches, emphasizing the importance of societal self- understanding and the ever-present discursive demand for the great power status, which he traces in both studied periods. The second section aims at analyzing the process, only briefly mentioned in Hopf, namely, the historical change of the great power concept. The latter is needed, since the explanation of the great projects politics in contemporary Russia cannot be full without the understanding of how a great power of today is likely to perceive itself. One also needs to trace the change the concept underwent since the Soviet and Yeltsinite periods of country’s development, i.e. it is necessary to define the set of norms that has won legitimacy in the contemporary world (or, at least, to show the way contemporary Russia sees it). Finally, I try to make use of Hopf’s theoretical findings and examine the domestic and international political discourses of contemporary Russia in attempt to relate them to the great power politics in the condition of the present days’ normative crisis.

In opposition to those, who believe that a state’s identity can be constructed exclusively as a result of systemic interactions on the international level (e.g. Alexander Wendt), and also those, who treat states as rational actors that try to support the existing international balance for their own benefit (e.g. John Mearsheimer), Hopf effectively domesticizes his approach and claims that “every individual society has many identities, [each of which] has associated with it a collection of discursive practices.”37 In his research he opens up the black box of state and demonstrates how the domestic discourse can simultaneously enable and limit thinkable political practices of a given country (the USSR and the Russian Federation in Hopf’s case), thereby recovering the social origins of identity. He performs the latter by carrying his analysis through three important stages.


1 Angela E. Stent, “Restoration and Revolution in Putin’s Foreign Policy,” Europe-Asia Studies 60, 6 (August 2008): 1089.

2 Sergei Prozorov, The Ethics of Postcommunism: History and Social Praxis in Russia (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), x.

3 See Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008).

4 See Steven Rosefielde, Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2-3.

5 E.g. Georgi Derluguian, “The Fourth Russian Empire?” PONARS Policy Memo No. 411 (December 2006); Celeste A. Wallander, “Russian Transimperialism and Its Implications,” Washington Quarterly 30, 2 (Spring 2007): 107-122; Fiona Hill, Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia’s Revival (London: Foreign Policy Center, 2004).

6 See Aleksandr Morozov, “Has the Postsecular Age Begun?” Religion, State & Society, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2008): 39.

7 In 2000, the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and his family were recognized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

8 E.g. the construction of Okhta-Centre in Saint-Petersburg.

9 E.g. The President Committee for the Realization of the Projects of National Priority, “Prioritetnye Natsional’nye Proekty” (Projects of National Priority), (accessed May 14, 2010).

10 See News, “Ofitsial’no svernuta federal’naya programma razvitiya Sochi na 2006-2014 gg.” (The Program of Sochi Development for 2006-2014 Is Officially Closed), (accessed May 14, 2010).

11 A detailed account of this failure was given in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking of Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter, 1998).

12 John J. Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,” International Security, Summer 1990 (Vol. 15, No. 1): 52.

13 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, 2001), 31.

14 Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future,” 52.

15 Boris Yeltsin’s 1992 speech quoted in Thomas Ambrosio, “The Geopolitics of Demographic Decay: HIV/AIDS and Russia’s Great Power Status,” Post Soviet Affairs, 22, 1 (January-March 2006): 4.

16 Rosefielde, 2.

17 Ibid.

18 Ted Hopf, Social Construction of International Politics. Identities & Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 & 1999 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 290.

19 Alexander Wendt, “Collective Identity Formation and the International State,” American Political Science Review 88, No. 2 (June 1994): 386.

20 See, “Putin i Portugaliya” (Putin and Portugal), (accessed May 12, 2010).

21 Hopf, 41.

22 Ibid, 261.

23 Ambrosio: 3.

24 Okhta-Centre Website, “Obshchestvenno-delovoy rayon” (Social and Business District), http://www.ohta- (accessed May 28, 2010).

25 Architectural News Agency, “Soyuz arkhitektorov Rossii vykazal protest protiv neboskryoba ‘Gazprom-siti’” (The Russian Union of Architects Protests Against ‘Gazprom-City’ Skyscraper), (accessed May 28, 2010).

26 UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Decisions Adopted at the 31st Session of the World Heritage Committee (Christchurch, 2007): 116, (accessed May 28, 2010).

27, “Zaklyucheniye” (Final Report), (accessed May 28, 2010).

28 RIA-Novosti, “Peterburgskiy sud rassmotrit isk o stroitelstve ‘Okhta-tsentra’” (Court of St. Petersburg Will Examine the Suit Against ‘Okhta-Centre’ Construction), (accessed May 28, 2010).

29 Cynthia Hardy, Bill Harley, and Nelson Phillips, “Discourse Analysis and Content Analysis: Two Solitudes?” APSA Newsletter, Spring 2004, Vol. 2, No. 1: 20.

30 Okhta-Centre Website, (accessed May 26, 2010).

31 - St. Petersburg News, “Okhta-Tsentr” (Okhta-Centre), (accessed May 26, 2010).

32, (accessed May 26, 2010).

33 Categorized translations of the relevant phrases of the interviews can be found in Appendix 1.

34 Prozorov, The Ethics of Postcommunism, xi.

35 See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

36 Prozorov, The Ethics of Postcommunism, 248.

37 Hopf, 1.

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The Problem of Political Identity - The Meaning of Great Projects Politics in Contemporary Russia
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Anatoly Reshetnikov (Author), 2010, The Problem of Political Identity - The Meaning of Great Projects Politics in Contemporary Russia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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