The discussion in Russia now is sustained and grave. One of its focuses is the army, still the most respected institution of the former Soviet Union, at least among Russians. The recent 50th anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad was eagerly celebrated. But there was an ambiguity. One side of the coin was a passionate polemic about the merits or otherwise of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which Russia and Germany were - albeit briefly - allied. The other was the Russian government's wish to influence the continuing historical debate. Russians, it appeared to believe, needed to be told anew what would have happened if Stalingrad had fallen to Hitler in 1943.
This was the context in which the Russian public learnt that the Germans lost fewer soldiers at Stalingrad than did the Red Army. The timing of this statistical revelation was not innocent of politics. The Russian government has used every possible occasion, the Stalingrad anniversary included, to belittle the official achievements of the Soviet epoch. For Russians, the greatest accomplishment of that period was the defeat of Hitler. The official imperative is consequently to show that the brutal incompetence of Stalin made the Stalingrad victory more wasteful of Russian lives then it need have been.
Much play has rightly been given to revelations made possible by Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. It was only in the late Eighties that Soviet citizens were allowed to know that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 had secret protocols on the division of influence in Eastern Europe which provided for the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States. Boris Yeltsin has taken further laudable steps to uncover the Russian past. After the August 1991 coup, he instructed Rudolf Pikhoya, the minister for the Russian State Archives Committee, to make the central political records generally accessible. Many aspects of Soviet rule have been made public, including the involvement of Lenin in mass terror after the revolution of 1917. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, was a figure whose reputation Gorbachev had always tried to protect.
Yet the Orwellian maxim that he who controls the past also controls the present still holds true. The same historians who once lauded Lenin now proclaim that he was a mass murderer. The entire Marxist-Leninist experiment is denounced. The blame for all Russia's ills is placed squarely on the Communist Party.
A new official orthodoxy has emerged; essentially it is the old orthodoxy turned on its head. Where once virtue was claimed, now only iniquity is discerned. This orthodoxy is the bone of contention in the current polemics over national identity.
Yeltsin and his supporters are not totalitarian in aspiration; but they recognise that, in Russia's present turmoil, a new identity has somehow to be formed. The main problem is that, until recently, Russians were encouraged to think of themselves as the main constituent segment of 'the Soviet people'. This was Stalin's way of conferring a quasi-imperial role upon them. Soviet achievements could appear essentially Russian.
This role for Russia has been swept off-stage with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is now a sovereign state within a Commonwealth of Independent States, each fiercely guarding its independence. Russian holidaymakers on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast can no longer feel they are in their own country. No sane Russian visits Transcaucasia except for the most pressing reason.
Other imperial nations had their empires mainly overseas and could decolonise more abruptly. This is not an option for Russia. Its position is especially difficult because 25 million ethnic Russians live in parts of the former Soviet Union outside Russia. The tendency for commentators in West and East is to assume that territorial frontiers have a historical fixity. In Russia's case, nothing is less true.
The Russian Federation was originally far bigger than it is today. In the Twenties it gave up Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia; and in the Thirties, under that most Russifying of Soviet rulers, Stalin, it lost Kazakhstan (the second largest state in the CIS after Russia). Unsurprisingly, Yeltsin's ministers, who are committed to existing state borders, choose not to dwell on such matters. Their overriding aims are twofold. First, they want a peaceful transition to a market economy and parliamentary politics within the existing frontiers. Second, they wish to convince Russians that their present leaders can be trusted.
Parts of the past are therefore just as much of a Pandora's box for them as was the figure and reputation of Lenin for Gorbachev. Last year a scandal was caused by newspaper investigations into the bacteriological institute that caused an epidemic in Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) when Yeltsin was head of the Communist Party there in the late Seventies. The party archives must contain plenty more such material.
There is also abundant reason to suppose that, in establishing Communist rule in the north Caucasus area of the Russian Federation after 1917, Lenin played off one mountain people against another. The archivists have provided much information on Stalin's deportation of some of these peoples during the Second World War; but the more mundane power-meddling of earlier times has yet to be researched. Since it would parallel the activities of Russian forces in the north Caucasus in 1993, there can be no confidence that work will soon commence.
On its side the Russian government has the fact that most of its citizens are too busy earning their livings to worry about the borderlands. Moreover, ethnic Russians in the other CIS states are not yet fleeing back to Russia in vast numbers. Opinion polls indicate popular disillusionment with Yeltsin personally, but this is not coupled to a popular wish to reconquer the lands of the Soviet Union; and ethnic Russians in Russia evince no great antagonism to their non-Russian fellow citizens.
For the moment, the post-imperial role that the Russian government is developing for the country has not been unpopular. To their evident astonishment, the aggressive nationalists are making little headway. The virulent nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who threatens to devastate the Baltic states with Russian nuclear waste, is deeply frustrated. Yeltsin and his advisers have stressed that Russians cannot regard the treatment of ethnic Russians outside Russia with indifference. Recognising the traditional Russian sympathy with brother Slavs further to the west, the government has also moved towards a pro-Serbian standpoint on the war in former Yugoslavia. Zhirinovsky is not therefore an immediate threat.
And Yeltsin's patriarchal approach to the Russian past, while having its defects as a comprehensive historical treatment, none the less serves his purpose. Whether Yeltsin will be able to maintain his approach if inter-ethnic conflict occurs on a large scale has yet to be discovered. In this eventuality Russians may well turn back to the more imperial aspects of their national identity. Whatever happens, the dispute will not sputter fitfully like the damp squib of Britain's post-imperial identity crisis. It will be a Russian firecracker.
The author is professor of Russian history and politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.