A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a friend, a European who has lived in Russia for most of his adult life. We were discussing the current political environment in Russia, particularly in regards of the situation in Ukraine, and he made an interesting comment. He said what was different about the current situation as opposed to any before, and what surprised him, was that Russians who he previously considered to be more liberal and skeptical of the government line had bought wholesale into the Kremlin narrative and had fallen into the same patriotic fervour as the rest of the population.
I found the comment interesting because I have observed much the same thing. Of the Russians I know and read online, I have always been broadly aware of which were the skeptics who could generally be relied upon not to offer unquestioning support for Putin’s policies. But since this Ukraine mess started, and Russia annexed the Crimea, it has been interesting to watch how the views have aligned. I don’t know why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess it is because this is probably the first time when Russia has really come under serious criticism from the West: chucking Pussy Riot in jail rankled with some people, but no sanctions were applied. As such, it could be that Russians feel the need to defend their homeland regardless of the actions they wittingly or unwittingly support whilst doing so.
Personally, I’m not bothered – it’s up to the Russians how they think – but I’m also not surprised. For all the complaining from Russians about the Soviet Union when it existed, and then when it did not, they tended to overlook the fact that an awful lot of them supported it unquestioningly right up to the point when it came crashing down around their ears. The Russians were not some oppressed minority forced to adopt a system and language not of their choosing under orders issued from a foreign capital, in a way the Lithuanians or Latvians were. Russians bear a responsibility for their lot both during and after the Soviet Union which in my opinion they’ve never really owned up to. When pressed, they speak of the Soviet leadership as some sort of “other”, an alien government, but where was this sentiment at the time? Other than a handful of dissidents, everyone else fell meekly into line. I’ve mentioned this on here before, but one of the things which shocked me most when I read about the Stalin purges was the willingness of one set of Russian civilians to unquestioningly massacre their friends and neighbours. By the million.
Putin’s approval rating among Russians currently stands at 87%, and I am quite ready to believe that is accurate. Now, as then, Russia has united in the face of perceived attempts by foreigners to destablise Russia. And now, as then, Russia is also clamping down internally. Alex K. has posted some good stuff on the suppression of seemingly any form of pro-Ukrainian sentiment, and witch-hunts seem to be growing apace:
A veteran Russian rock star has been accused of betraying his country after performing in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by the Ukrainian army.
A prominent MP and other Kremlin supporters say Andrei Makarevich, a critic of Russian policy on Ukraine, should lose his state honours.
United Russia party MP Yevgeny Fedorov denounced Makarevich over his 12 August concert for children from Donetsk and Luhansk.
Fedorov said he should be stripped of his state honours, including one “For Services to the Motherland”.
Now, as then, it appears that anyone who doesn’t support the government’s policies is seen as a traitor. More so than at any time since the USSR the population has thrown itself behind the government – or more specifically, the person who leads the country – and is rooting out dissidents both real and imagined.
This will not end well. I believe Russians are sleepwalking – nay, rushing headlong and willingly – into a state that, via a rapid shifting of the Overton window, they will come to not like living in very much. I don’t know how many times I can repeat “You’ve been here before,” but it is worth noting that it wasn’t the Gulags and famines that disgusted the Soviet citizens of the 1980s, but decades of stagnating living standards, unmet potential, and a slow realisation that their leaders had been living it up at their expense from the outset. Putin is not Stalin, and he is not going to unleash The Great Terror Round 2, but as I implied above, Stalin did not lose the USSR – Brezhnev and his successors did.
If this is the direction Russians want to take, then good luck to them. They are an independent and proud people, who deserve to choose their own path. But they should be wary all the same. When the Soviet Union ended there was a surprising amount of sympathy for Russians and the hardships they faced, as they were considered (wrongly, in my opinion) as being a victim of a system over which they had no control. For all the complaints modern Russians have over how they were treated by the West in the post-Soviet era, they actually came off very lightly. Aid money poured in, overseas visas were issued by the tens of thousand, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation by both sides. The worst that can be said is the Russians were given well-meaning economic advice but, as nobody realised the degree to which they were prepared to beat the shit out of each other and kill over money, the results were disastrous. But note that Poland was given the same advice, and we don’t hear stories of mafia wars raging in Warsaw and Gdansk for a decade. By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.
Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently. History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.