Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Putin and the Russians have Russia, of course, which for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is a state that has defined borders, an elected president and parliament, and a democratic constitution that offers a swathe of citizens’ rights. But — several Russians said to me at the conference — what is Russia, after all? Why should its political connection be severed from states that it once dominated like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Central Asia?. And above all, the old question: “Kuda Rossiya?” Where is Russia going? To what does it aspire? Where does it want to come to rest?

It isn’t at rest now: it’s been restless since tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out on the streets to protest falsified elections, corruption and much else in 2011 and 2012, and has remained so even after the re-election of Putin last year as president. The foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin told me that the country’s foreign policy stance has changed fundamentally for the fourth time while Putin has been on the scene in Russia. In 2000 it started with a policy open to closer relations with the U.S. and Europe, then changed to a resentful retreat into a Eurasian redoubt when it felt repelled by the West, changed again to an attempt to reset relations when Dmitry Medvedev was allowed by Putin to be president for one term, then finally back again to Eurasia on Putin’s return.