Russia: What's the Big Idea?

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MOSCOW: Most Russians would happily admit they have no idea what the National Idea Commission is for. Trouble is, neither does the National Idea Commission. Boris Yeltsin summoned this august group of intellectuals in the aftermath of his narrow 1996 election victory, and charged them with finding out what the big idea was in other words, what makes Russia Russian now that Communism's gone? Well, after a year of extremely deep thought, the Commission has reconvened to tell the world: Sorry, we haven't a clue.

Oh, they tried. They even dusted off a few patriotic slogans from the past. But somehow, "Workers of the World, Unite!" just doesn't have the same ring anymore. And the old czarist favorite, "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationhood," lacks that all-important democratic touch. In their report "Russia in Search of an Idea," the Commission delivers a lot of weighty analysis try ploughing through chapters like "The Distribution of Metaphors Related to the Understanding of the National Idea" or "The Ideology of Language and the Language of Ideology" but not an original notion to be found. Now Boris is left to foot the bill. What on earth was he thinking?