St. Petersburg in 2008: The Lure of Putin’s Promise

The Naval Museum, the Rostral Columns and an ice fisher on the Neva River in St. Petersburg.

In 2008 I spent a cold January in St. Petersburg, Russia. I spoke terrible Russian, but enough that I could engage in some limited discussions about Russia with Russians. I also took any opportunity to pick the brain of English speaking Russians.

One of the hardest things for a visitor to remember is that when you travel to a foreign country you are only experiencing it in a particular moment, along a certain path, and you are doing so as an outsider. You must be conscious that the static impressions you formed can only be enhanced through critical thought, but that the country and its politics continue forward in real time. The Russian moment I found myself in was just a little over halfway into Putin’s rule (as of now). But looking back to January 2008, I realize I was seeing the currents of historical revisionism, revanchist Russian military power, and ethno-nationalism that would lead to the Russia of today.

Putin was incredibly popular, but reaching the limit of his democratic credentials after eight years in office. He was up against the term limits that would have kept him from running for President again. To get around this he was engineering Medvedev’s succession to the Presidency and the inauguration of “tandemdemocracy” where Putin assumed the Prime Ministry and would still be able to run the show. Despite this very undemocratic move a lot of people in America and Europe were nervous but unsure as to the kind of country Putin was creating. He was and is a beguiling and enigmatic figure. President George W. Bush had said in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” Only the last part turned out to be true.

When trying to examine another’s culture it is also important to remember where your own perspectives come from. As an American student of history and growing up in a family of Military and State Department Officials I had always thought the story of the Cold War was pretty straight forward. My negative views towards Russia’s actions post World War Two in Europe had only been reinforced by visits to Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary when I was growing up. Walking the same streets where the Soviet military had divided the German Nation in 1961, crushed the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and aborted the Prague Spring in 1968 had a powerful effect on me. Seeing those countries embracing the vibrant European future they were denied by Soviet military power exposed the cynical politics and naked force that had held them in the Russian sphere of influence. I had read everything I could about Putin’s rise to power and quite a bit more on the Soviet system that created his worldview and, in the spirit of honesty, took a very dim view of the Russian people’s acceptance of him. I took all these cultural and political biases with me into these discussions (and probably a few I was not aware of).

So I sat in the English Corner of the St. Petersburg Library and attempted to tell an ethnic joke about Estonians in Russian that I had just learned in my “Russian Ethnography” class and this set off a discussion of Estonian ingratitude. Six months prior to my visit, in June 2007, Estonia moved and renamed the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet-Era monument, “To The Liberators of Tallinn.” They moved it to a military cemetery and renamed it the, “Monument to the Fallen of the Second World War.” This symbolic act lead to ethnic Russians rioting in Tallinn, Russian nationalists besieging the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and a number of very sophisticated cyber attacks against Estonian infrastructure. Six months later several of the young Russians at the English Corner were still fired up about this slight.

As they saw it Estonia should remain grateful to the enormous sacrifice Russia undertook to liberate it from Nazi Germany. Yet Estonian nationalists saw the statue as a reminder of Soviet oppression. Keeping the moment to war dead seemed to be a compromise, but Russian media was not spinning it that way. Russia lost around 20 million people in its titanic struggle with Nazi Germany. To forget that would be an injustice to those who died, but for the people they liberated it is nearly impossible to separate this sacrifice from the political system it imposed on them (or the fact that until it was betrayed by Nazi Germany the Soviet Union had connived with Hitler to dismember Eastern Europe). One of the Russians pointed out that Americans would be rightly distressed and angry if France were to rip up American graves in Normandy in an attempt to rewrite history. But the simple fact is the French don’t want to do something like that because the Allies did not liberate France with the intention of dominating it.

However these young Russians were being taught that Russia’s position in the present was threatened by reactionary nationalists in its former client states. The shrill condemnations of the “hot headed and slow witted” Estonians I heard that day seems all the more ominous now that the Russian Foreign Ministry is using the defacement of Soviet Memorials in Ukraine as evidence of fascist forces usurping the democratic government of Ukraine and thus an excuse for intervention there. There is a willful blindness by modern Russians, encouraged and shaped by Putin’s state controlled media, as to the horror and pain their soldiers caused while “liberating” these countries. It was there in 2008 and it is all the more strident and dangerous today.

In a similar vein there was a lack of understanding as to why the U.S. would see Putin and a strong Russia as a problem. This was a constant topic of discussion when politics came up over dinner or in school (indeed this debate over how much deference and tolerance the U.S. Government should exercise in regard to Russian actions has been going on constantly since the First World War.). I spent a long uncomfortable lunch that completely overwhelmed my language skills being harangued by my host’s brother about how the west didn’t understand Russia. I did understand these few sentences.

“The U.S. isn’t our enemy but they don’t understand that Putin is good. Why do they go against us? We are both great countries and things have gotten better under Putin. Russia is strong again. It is like Soviet times because the people are all together.”

My host mother added: “The Soviets closed all but three of the churches here [St. Petersburg]. People lost their religion. Now under Putin all the churches are open again. I hated totalitarianism and the gulag, but Putin isn’t like that; he is a democrat. The churches are proof of that. I believe that the U.S. and Russia will work together in the future.”

I expected a certain amount of nostalgia for the social stability and strength of the Soviet Union from the age group these two represented. They had lived through the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the dissolution of the Soviet Regime, an attempted coup to restore it, the economic shock therapy of the ‘90s, and the two Chechen Wars. Putin was giving them back some of what they thought they once had as long as they did not question his methods. It was a powerful narrative, but I didn’t expect it to have the same type of pull with people who were too young to remember all those things or who had been exposed to the West through travel, media, or study. In fact, Putin’s narrative seemed to have more appeal to them.

I was at the American Corner at the St. Petersburg Library again and talking about Putin this time instead of the truculent Estonians. Nearly everyone there was my age, perhaps a few years older, and so none of them had participated in the Soviet system. At least two of them were illegal internal immigrants to St. Petersburg [You can move anywhere you want in Russia but you must register at your new address. Landlords often do not want to register new tenets for financial reasons and they control the process. “Since registration is the primary source of one’s address for legal purposes, many internal migrants still are de facto second-class citizens deprived of their right to vote, obtain a passport or driver’s license etc.”]. All of them had a great affinity for Western pop-culture and the English language. We talked about Friends, the beauty of the English language, the greatness of Russian Literature, and the future of Russian-American relations. I ventured the future wasn’t too bright because Putin was making the West nervous with his authoritarian behavior.

“Yes, but he is very popular so that makes him a democrat! And the U.S. should work with a democrat.” From around the table people explained Putin’s popularity in different ways:

One, a young woman said, “Putin is popular without elections. The [2000 and 2004 presidential] elections were meaningless because the young don’t care about voting. We just want him in charge.” Another young woman said, “Young people don’t mind what Putin acts like because he is getting things done.”

More worryingly a young man who couldn’t have been much older than 22 said that, “Putin is making things like they were in the old days. They were much better under the Communists. Yes, life was not so good but that was because everyone was concerned with a glorious future and they were willing to sacrifice the now for the later. Gorbachev [the last Soviet Premier] betrayed this sacrifice by shrugging off the burden of working for the future. A majority was not behind the fall of Communism.”

I was left wondering how could all these people feel an affinity for the west and hope that the U.S. and Russia could work together out of anything other than ignorance of what the west truly stood for? Democracy is not about having a popular leader. It is about the free flow of information, rule of law, strong institutions, and respect for a citizen’s rights. Even in 2008 these were foreign things to Russians. And in the willingness to tolerate a lack of them I saw the beginnings of the political climate that would lead to Putin crushing the street protests in March of 2012, imprisoning Pussy Riot, and having his thugs kill off journalists and opposition leaders.

The final conversation I want to note came during one of our two hour long Russian History lectures, These were the highlight of of my days in Russia. The professor was a soft spoken, elfin man, who was fluent in English. He had stood on the barricades in St. Petersburg when the Soviet Regime was crumbling and the hardliners staged a coup. They had planned on sending tanks into St. Petersburg to take out the liberal street protests there. He had risked his life by standing on a barricade that day.

After a month of reviewing the often blood-soaked history of Russia, he turned to current events. He had this to say about Putin: “He is a man forged from the KGB reactionary mold, but people didn’t think about this when he was elected. Since then he has removed every piece of control citizens once had over their government.”

“Russia’s future is soft-authoritarianism buoyed by high oil prices and democracy’s essential foreignness to the Russian people. Russians often trade their rights for stability. This is less than ideal for the United States but it might be tolerable. To conclude, I wish I could be more optimistic, but I cannot.”

He could sense the trouble brewing in the dark political currents Putin was plying on his rise to power. Few of the others I spoke too could or wanted to see this. When talking about the Estonians moving monuments or American wariness towards Putin they were confused as to why anyone would want to repudiate Soviet history or work against a new stronger Russia (Say by enlarging NATO, the EU, and building Theater Ballistic Missile Defense). These young Russians saw no contradiction between supporting their president’s growing dictatorial powers and nationalist aims and wanting personal freedom, economic opportunities, and an open window to the West. In 2008 these things seemed like they were not mutually exclusive. Today as the west imposes sanctions on Russia’s tumbling economy and tensions between East and West are the highest they have been since the Cold War and as thousands die in Eastern Ukraine they most certainly are exclusive. The contradictions in Putin’s promise have been called in. I wonder if things could have gone any differently given the mood and worldview I encountered in 2008. I think they could not.

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