Understanding Russia

Russia’s own narrative is part of the reason for the big differences between Russia’s self-perception and the common perception of Russia in countries such as Denmark.

[Translate to English:] Årsagen til Putins og Ruslands handlinger og selvforståelse ligger et helt bestemt sted – nemlig i landets historie. Foto: Colourbox

At the conference “Travelling in Time - the construction of past and future events across domains” on 22 - 23 June at Con Amore, the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus BSS, Professor James Wertsch from Washington University in St. Louis, discusses Russia’s self-perception under the heading “Narrative Templates in Collective Memories and Futures”, in short, stories seen in relation to the past and to the future.

“We are mistaken if we think that we’ll be able to understand the actions of the Russian president by focusing on him as a person. He probably has his own little ways, but I’m convinced that these are not what mainly drive his actions. A lot of what he says and believes simply mirrors an underlying national narrative that has been part of Russian culture for centuries.”

This is how James Wertsch describes the Russian president Vladimir Putin and the way in which Russia sees itself and is acting today. According to James Wertsch, the reason for Putin and Russia’s actions and self-perception is found in the actual history of the country.

Our actions build on memories
According to James Wertsch, the explanation for Russia’s self-perception is very much found in the country’s own narratives.   Stories about our past and our future constitute an important part of our mental life, and the way in which we imagine our future is built on our memories. In short, there is a strong link between remembering events in the past and imagining events in one’s personal future.

The stories can also be linked to more overall processes in a society, e.g. when nations or societies remember their past and use these memories to imagine their future. And this is where Russia’s self-perception comes into the picture:

Russian history

Catherine the Great, who made the Crimean peninsula part of the Russian empire in 1783, was said to believe that the only way to defend her country was by expanding its borders. According to James Wertsch, this way of thinking still plays an important role in Russian mentality - both on grassroot as well as on executive level. Russian people see their past as defined by repeated invasions by foreign enemies. These enemies have inflicted great pain and humiliations on the Russian people, but were, in the words of James Wertsch finally defeated ’due to a brave effort from the Russian people united in a significant spiritual heritage’.

To the Russians, today’s actions simply represent a repetition of an endless number of repeated narratives. To them, the same story has been played out for centuries although involving different persons and peoples. The collected Russian memory of enemies and invasions thereby promotes the Russian ability to see threats everywhere. Thus, the memory also affect Putin’s perception and actions.

During the past years, Russian thinkers such as Alexander Solsjenitsyn and Alexander Dugin have described the dangers involved in the “Atlantic” forces that threaten modern Russia, and to Putin these dangers represent a threat to a new eurasian empire - with Russia in the center. Putin believes that the eurasian area is meant to be guided by a superior spiritual power that stands in sharp contrast to the materialism and fake values of the Western World.

But yet again, there are other forces at play than just Putin and his philosophical heroes. The national narrative that forms the basis of their way of thinking has shaped Russian culture for centuries. In 1872, the author Fjodor Dostojevskij’s novel “Demons” introduced a series of characters which were close to spiritual distinction because they were infected with ideas from the Western World. The spiritual demons appeared in the shape of different “isms” that bore names such as materialism, nihilism and atheism. Today, these “isms” are still seen as great threats by people such as Solsjenitsyn, Dugin and Putin. To ensure that the isms do not take over Russia and the Russian people, Putin makes sure to suppress activists and media just as the Russians tsars did. Putin’s strong and increasing popularity, as well as his ability to unite the citizens, thus stem from his ability to appeal to narratives found at the heart of Russian culture.

How should the Western World respond to Russia?
According to James Wertsch, the Western World may use the explanation about Russian history to understand the way Russia and Putin are acting today:

“Of course it doesn’t relieve Putin and other Russians of the responsibility of ignoring the law of nations in Crimea, attacking Eastern Ukraine etc. But it does give us a better foundation on which to react efficiently towards the Russian provocations,” says Professor James Wertsch and offers his take on how the Western World should respond to Russia:

“In the short term, inflicting strict punishments on Russia - e.g. in the shape of sanctions - is still the best option, as this makes Russia aware of the consequences of annexing other countries.  It will probably damage the relationship between Europe, the US and Russia, but if the sanctions are harsh enough, they will force Putin to start thinking more pragmatically. When enforcing such sanctions on Russia, it is, however, important not to ignite the Russian fear of threats and humiliation for no reason.”

From a more long term perspective, Werstch believes that a firm but fair Western reaction to Putin’s actions offers the best hope for the political debate and might also allow Russia to regain a more acknowledged position in the international community.

Inside Russia, the patriotic support  for Putin’s style will probably also decrease when the Russian people realise the costs of violating the laws and norms of the world. The protestors against Putin will yet again find their voice, and the main part of ordinary Russians, who simply wish to improve their everyday life, will start to question the price they have to pay for Putin’s antics.

Apart from the lecture by James Wertsch and other lectures about collective images of the future, the conference also includes lectures on how mental illnesses affect people’s ability to construct images of the future, the ability to self-regulate identity, and the neurological basis for memories and images of the future. The conference also covers the ability of other species to relate to the future 

More information about Professor James Wertsch


Further information

Professor Dorthe Berntsen

Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University

Department of Psychology and Behavioural Science - Con Amore


Tel:  +4587165868


Professor James Wertsch

Washington University,  St. Louis

Tel: (314) 935-9015