Feeling unsettled these days about just who you are and where you're headed? Looking for new meaning in life?

You have company. Russia, for example.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia a humiliated ex-superpower, people here have been unsure how to redefine their country. And this summer, President Boris Yeltsin has launched a public search for Russia's soul.

The problem, Yeltsin told a group of supporters recently, is that Russia has no defining ideology such as those of czarist and Soviet times. He encouraged his aides to "develop a new national idea to unite all Russians," according to the Russian Tass news agency. And he "expressed his desire that this be accomplished within a year."

Now Yeltsin's most loyal newspaper -- the official Rossiskaya Gazeta -- has jump-started the search. In its Tuesday editions, it offered readers a 10 million-ruble ($2,000) prize for the best "unifying national idea" in seven typewritten pages or less. "We invite all who believe in the renaissance of Russia . . . to participate," it said.

The newspaper opened an idea hot line, inviting readers' views. "Do you think the Russian national idea is that of a powerful, strong hand?' " the paper asked. "Do you agree that we've had enough democracy, haven't adapted to it, and now it's time to tighten the screws?"

After two days of running its hot line, Rossiskaya Gazeta had heard from 50 callers, said Alexander Batygin, an editor. He said the paper had decided spontaneously on the contest and hot line, but that a Yeltsin aide, Georgy Satarov, had promised to "analyze the results" and present them to the president.

All this has given new public vent to old arguments it seems you can hear -- or start -- over any dinner table or vodka bottle in the country. What defines Russia? What has gone wrong with this country? And (inevitably) who is guilty?

Yeltsin's official search has raised one not-so-traditional argument from pro-democracy advocates here. They note that opinion polls find Russians humiliated, unhappy -- and inclined to accept authoritarian methods to restore Russia's "greatness" as a nation. Any state-sponsored "national idea," they warn, flirts with the establishment of an ideology that would inevitably resemble the great-power chauvinism of Russia's past.

A Yeltsin press aide, Vladimir Yevgenenko, said Friday that it was "way too early to say" how any national idea developed by Yeltsin's team would be used or implemented.

In some ways, of course, Russia has clear national ideas. In opinion polls and casual conversation, Russians overwhelmingly say that, befitting their country's great size, it has natural destinies as a strong military power, a global political player -- and a top medal-winner in every Olympics. And, while young people yearn for Western lifestyles, most Russians retain clear pride in their cultures of art, music and the like.

But when it comes to politics, Russia has remarkably little sense of itself, many Russian intellectuals and foreign scholars note. For instance, Russians can only hum their national anthem. Since independence from the Soviet Union, the country has been unable, despite repeated efforts, to agree on its words.

For centuries, Russia has been divided between Westernizers, such as Czar Peter the Great, who have imported ideas from Western Europe, and isolationists, who have stressed the need to seek Russia's future exclusively in its own traditions.

Until 1917, the czarist monarchy demanded loyalty to "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationhood." Clinging to its absolute powers, it blocked any viable consensus -- such as had evolved in most West European monarchies -- on how the country should be governed. In replacing the czars, the Soviet Union maintained what effectively was a Russian-led empire and deepened public mistrust and cynicism rather than building any accepted ideas of governance.

All spring, questions of how Russia should be defined shaded the presidential election, which dominated public life. Both Yeltsin and his Communist opponents tried to glue themselves to symbols -- such as Russia's great-power destiny and the Orthodox Church -- that most Russians feel define their country. The fight came down to an argument over which had done Russia more damage -- the Communists, under Soviet rule, or Yeltsin, in the years since.

Days after winning reelection, Yeltsin issued his call for a new national concept. "In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods -- monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika {restructuring} and finally a democratic path of development," Yeltsin said on July 12. "Each stage had its own ideology," but now "we have none."

Democrats, noting the reference to "ideology," pointed out that, following the Soviet experience, Russia's constitution outlaws official ideology.

The daily Izvestia headlined an editorial "Russia Does Not Need Yet Another State Ideology." It said "people are looking for spiritual guidance," but, "the rule of any one main' ideology that would issue from the state is destructive for society and, in the end, for the state." Satarov responded that Yeltsin is grasping for a "universal formula related to commonly accepted values and uniting all people." Yeltsin, he said, was asking "about the meaning of life. Why do we live? Why do we raise our children?"

The democrats still disagree. "We are in a very natural, slow process of growing our values," said Galina Starovoitova, a leading reformist politician. "It can't be ordered up immediately by the state. . . .The solution is not in building an official idea, but in continuing to build a civil society that will generate" its own ideas, she said.