The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past by Shaun Walker
Curating the Past
A first-tier nation
To assert that the collapse of the Soviet Union cast a long shadow over subsequent events in Russia and the other former Soviet republics is to state the obvious. It is hardly surprising that the death of a whole system would irrevocably shape the future for years, if not generations, to come. But I feel that the particular way in which the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the vacuum of ideas and purpose it left in its wake, is undervalued when it comes to our understanding of Russia and the whole post-Soviet world.
In 1991, Russians experienced a triple loss. The political system imploded, the imperial periphery broke away to form new states, and the home country itself ceased to exist. There were few committed Communists left by 1991, but that did not make the collapse any less traumatic. Russians felt they had lost not an empire or an ideology, but the very essence of their identity. If they were no longer Soviet citizens, then who were they?
Images of toppling Communist monuments and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall were the easy metaphoric expressions of the Soviet collapse; the multitude of Lenins that remained, standing proudly amid the capitalist cityscapes of modern Russia, were a sign that attitudes to the Soviet past in Russia were not so clear-cut after all. But the visual, surface issue of how to deal with Communist symbols was just one small part of the picture. Almost every story I have written during many years of reporting from Russia and the broader post-Soviet region has been, at least in some way, about the effects of the Soviet downfall, and with it the requirements of reformatting national ideologies, the international geopolitical balance, and the emotional and psychological makeup of 250 million people.
For a great many Soviet citizens, the collapse came as a long-awaited blessing: the end of a stifling political system and the arrival of a multitude of exciting opportunities. But even for those who despised Communism, the collapse of the country along with the system was a jarring moment. They had spent their lives walking along a particular path: it had been hard going, the progress was minimal, and it was unclear if they would ever make it to their destination. But they at least understood the terrain. Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet gave way. All that had constituted the fabric of everyday life—accolades and punishments, status and rank, linguistic and behavioural codes—was suddenly rendered meaningless. The established order had dissolved, and in its place was a new world that was difficult to navigate and full of pitfalls.
It was a sensation I would hear about again and again from people who had failed to find their way in the post-Soviet years. The vague sense of unease and nostalgic longing created fertile ground for manipulation. It often seemed to be most acute in those aged between forty and fifty: people who had come of age just as the system collapsed. Men often seemed to struggle more than women to find the emotional resources to deal with the transition: there are many confused and angry men to be found in these pages.
What people remembered about the Soviet period did not, perhaps, bear much resemblance to what they had actually felt at the time. But memory, both individual and collective, is fickle, more dependent on the vantage point of the present than on the reality of the past. Viewed through the prism of the miserable 1990s, the previous decades took on a rosier hue.
Appeals to a visceral and intangible sense of the past, what the Russian emigre thinker Svetlana Boym labelled 'restorative nostalgia, can gain traction in any society: witness the taking back control' of Brexit, or Donald Trumps promise to 'Make America Great Again, with little explanation of when the exact period of previous greatness started and ended. In Russia, there were more specific historical hooks on which
to hang these appeals, most of all the Soviet collapse, which could be recast in peoples minds not as the juddering death of an untenable system, but as the nefarious dismantling of a great state by malevolent external forces and their helpers within.
This book charts Vladimir Putins mission to fill the void left by the 1991 collapse and forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia, though it is by no means a chronological history of the Putin era. The first section explores the curation of the past in the service of the present: the attempt to meld collective memory of the painful and complicated Soviet decades into something Russians could be proud of, particularly the elevation of victory in the Second World War to a national founding myth. Putin had no interest in resurrecting the Soviet system, but the sense of injustice over the way it collapsed would prove a powerful rallying point.
The later sections explain how this historical discourse, along with a parallel process in Ukraine, helped lead to the events of 2014, which left ten thousand people dead and changed the geopolitical map of Europe. By 2017, with record-high approval ratings at home, and much of the Western world looking towards Moscow with trepidation, Putin appeared to have succeeded in his quest to consolidate Russia, and turn a weak and traumatized country into a major world player once again. But with what collateral damage?
This book is not an apology for Putin s policies during his years in the Kremlin. Putins mission to unite Russia involved the manipulation of history and an aggressive stifling of dissent; the system he constructed also allowed his old friends and inner circle to become fantastically rich. But neither is the book an anti-Putin polemic. Putin, after all, is only one of a large cast of Russians featured in these pages. He too had his moment of personal trauma as the Soviet Union collapsed, which strongly influenced his later worldview and actions. Putin was, to some extent, the director of the post-Soviet story for modern Russia, but he was also very much a character in it.
There is a rather well known story about a lieutenant colonel of the KGB, who in 1989 was stationed in the East German city of Dresden.
His was just one of millions of individual experiences that would remain seared into the memories of those who had lived them for years or decades to come. But for the future direction of Russia, this particular one would have great resonance.
The thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel, Vladimir Putin, watched nervously as angry crowds stormed Dresden's huge Stasi compound in December 1989. Overrunning the offices of the East German secret police, the crowds moved on to the KGB headquarters, the inner sanctum. Putin called for armed backup to protect the employees and sensitive files hidden inside, but was told there was no help on the way. 'Moscow is silent,' said the voice on the line. He had no choice but to go outside and lie to the crowds that he had heavily armed men waiting inside who would shoot anyone who tried to enter. The bluff worked, the mob dissipated, and the KGB's files on informers and agents remained safe. But the psychological scars ran deep, at least in Putin's own telling a decade later.
As delighted crowds in Berlin tore down the wall separating the two Germanies and drank in the new atmosphere of freedom, a shocked Putin set to work destroying the compromising documents of the KGB, an organization that had until recently seemed omnipotent. It would be another two years before the Soviet Union collapsed for good, but the way Putin recalled it later, his personal moment of realization that the game was up for the Communist superpower came that day in Dresden. He felt he was watching one of the largest and most powerful empires the world had ever seen unravel in the most pathetic and humiliating way. 'I had the feeling that the country was no more,' Putin remembered. 'It had disappeared.'1
It might seem strange that Putin would mourn the passing of the Soviet Union, given his life trajectory in its wake. Like millions of Soviet citizens, Putin grew up in spartan, even squalid conditions, his whole family crammed into one room of a communal apartment that had no hot water. Having worked his way up to what was only a middling position in the KGB by the late 1980s, he did remarkably well out of the decade following the Soviet collapse, inserting himself into the St Petersburg mayoral office at a time when being part of the government meant proximity to contracts and financial flows. In 1996 he was called
to the presidential administration in Moscow, and by 1998 he was made head of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB.
In a few short years, Putin had made a spectacular rise from mid- ranking cog in the periphery to overlord of the whole sprawling organization. A year later, the ailing Boris Yeltsin made Putin his prime minister and, ultimately, successor. The 1990s were good to Putin, and he proved far more adept at rising through the post-Soviet system than he had the Soviet one.
But he never forgot that moment of helplessness in Dresden, and however well he did personally from the Soviet collapse, he was deeply angered by the manner in which the country had disintegrated. He seemed to mourn not the human cost or material tribulations, but the national humiliation of a powerful state simply imploding. He later claimed to have had a sense for some time that the collapse of Soviet power in Europe was inevitable. 'But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That's what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.'2
Even those who had been far less committed to the Soviet cause than Putin felt these pangs of regret at how the end of the seventy-four- year political experiment brought the country itself tumbling down with it. 'I was delighted that the end of Communism had come about,' Alexander Voloshin, chief of staff to Yeltsin and then to Putin, once told me. 'But the Soviet Union was my homeland. That was different. How can you be happy about your homeland collapsing?'
During Putin's early years in Moscow serving Yeltsin, he saw up close how weak the country had become. The Russian Army fought a miserable and bloody war to stop the southern republic of Chechnya from seceding, costing tens of thousands of lives and ending in de facto defeat for Moscow. Russian society was in turmoil, goods scarce, and the majority of the populace impoverished.
On the international stage, things were little better. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton called Yeltsin to tell him the United States was considering air strikes on Serbia, Yeltsin was furious. He screamed 4NeVzyCid'—something like 'it is impermissible!'—several times down the phone at the US president and then hung up. The bombing raids went ahead anyway. A country that had only recently been one of the
world's two major lodes of power was now utterly powerless to stop bombs falling on the capital city of an ally. American diplomats and politicians were constantly warned during the Yeltsin era that such a state of affairs would not last forever.
'Russia isn't Haiti and we won't be treated as though we were,' Yeltsin fumed to Clinton's point man on Russia, Strobe Talbott. T don't like it when the US flaunts its superiority. Russia's difficulties are only temporary, and not only because we have nuclear weapons, but also because of our economy, our culture, our spiritual strength. All that amounts to a legitimate, undeniable basis for equal treatment. Russia will rise again! I repeat: Russia will rise again!'3
On the eve of the millennium, Yeltsin announced he was stepping down. He left the country mired in poverty, the wealth in the hands of a few greedy oligarchs and the army fighting a grim and demoralizing war in Chechnya.
Perhaps most troubling of all, Yeltsin's years in charge did not provide a clear idea of what kind of country modern Russia should be. Gleb Pavlovsky, a spin doctor and political technologist' who worked for both Yeltsin's and Putin's Kremlin, later told me about the panic during the handover period: 'There was a real sense that Yeltsin could leave and there would be utter chaos. Most of the population didn't recognize the Russian Federation as a real thing. They felt like they lived in some kind of strange offshoot of the Soviet Union. We had to ensure the handover, but we also had to create some sense of nation.'
Yeltsin, a man who had once embodied hopes of future prosperity, cut a sorry figure, of unfulfilled expectations and missed opportunities, as he gave his slurred farewell address on the eve of the millennium: 'I am asking your forgiveness for failing to justify the hopes of those who believed me when I said we would leap from the grey, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, prosperous, and civilized future. I believed in that dream. I believed we would cover that distance in one leap. We didn't.