The Intervention of Russia

The birth of Russia’s nationalist fervour

The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.

We’re now living in a new world. And end has been put to the cold war and to the arms race, as well as to the mad militarization of the country, which has crippled our economy, public attitudes and morals. The threat of nuclear war has been removed.

Once again, I would like to stress that during this transitional period, I did everything that needed to be done to insure that there was reliable control of nuclear weapons. We opened up ourselves to the rest of the world, abandoned the practices of interfering in others’ internal affairs and using troops outside this country, and we were reciprocated with trust, solidarity, and respect.

We have become one of the key strongholds in terms of restructuring modern civilization on a peaceful democratic basis. The nations and peoples of this country have acquired the right to freely choose their format for self-determination — Mikhail Gorbachev, 25 December 1991

Given the current cold snap in the relationship between the United States and Russia, a critical examination of the formation of the ideology that moves modern Russia is taking on increasing importance. The Invention of Russia: The Journey From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky (Atlantic Books, 2015) is just such an examination, and whilst it was published in 2015, and therefore omits much of the contemporary controversy surrounding the 2016 elections in the United States, its thorough deconstruction of the birth of modern Russian identity and political thought provides a lens through which much of the events of 2016 and 2017 can be more clearly discerned.

One could be easily forgiven for assuming that the above quote, lifted from Gorbachev’s speech marking his signing of the Soviet Union into oblivion, was mere platitude, designed to placate Western onlookers into the assurance that Russia could change after seventy years of ideological indoctrination. Yet as Ostrovsky — a veteran journalist for The Economist and native of Russia — shows, the hope of democratic reform in the late 80’s and early 90’s was entirely real. As Ostrovsky provides;

“Between 1989 and 1991 the number of those who felt that socialism brought nothing but queues and repressions and that ‘we are the worst country in the world’, destined to teach others how not to live, grew from 7 per cent to 56 per cent. People started to refer to the Soviet Union as ‘this country’ rather than ‘our country’. The word ‘Soviet’ morphed into ‘Sovok’ (dustpan) and was used as an antonym to ‘normal’ or ‘civilised’”.

A critical mass of the population had evidently had enough not only with Stalinism and its offspring, but had also seen through the folly of Perestroika, and wished the freedom promised by those reforms to reach a conclusion based on the models of Western Europe and the United States. Gorbachev and Alexander Yakovlev, a senior member of the Politburo, in their opening up the control of the media, allowed the narrative that had been constructed by the State since 1917 to be subject to collision with facts from outside sources. For a system built in no small part upon lies, this liberation proved fatal, and this was evident in the general groundswell of feeling in the population of the time.

It is obvious that much has changed in the intervening years, and the explanation for that change is largely found in the figures of the oligarchs that consolidated power over the media, particularly following the second election of Boris Yeltsin in 1996, whereupon media came to be seen in the Kremlin as a ‘branch of state power’, rather than as the first bastion of liberty that Gorbachev had hoped for when enacting Glasnost. This power enabled Vladimir Putin to shape a nationalist narrative upon his election in 2000.

For much of the 1990s, particularly following the shelling of Russia’s parliament by Yeltsin in October 1993 and the disillusionment that followed, nationalist and reactionary Russian thinkers bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union not because of the loss of the communist system, but because many who were deemed ethnically Russian had been made foreigners in their own countries over night. The Crimea region was a flashpoint of this concern as early as 1993, and had been the heart of Russian imperial ambitions since the fall of Catherine the Great in 1796. Russia’s annexation of the region in 2014 therefore came with little surprise to those familiar with the nationalist schemes of Putin’s regime. That narrative, which in the 90s was confined to right-wing journals like Den, was elevated by Putin, using the control that oligarchs had already amassed over television and print before he came to prominence, to one of national importance. Over the intervening years, as dissenting voices were silenced and the population was exposed only to Putin’s worldview, his right wing ideology slowly became the dominant one, creating a population that views Russia as having been unfairly oppressed by Western chauvinism and the gradual expansion of NATO and the Eurozone.

This then provides a frame within which one can view Russia’s interference in the American elections in 2016. While Putin publicly denies Russia’s involvement, he likely feels justified in the interference. From his point of view, the West has been slowly encroaching on Russia’s sovereignty over the course of the Twenty First Century so far, and shows no sign of desisting in its push for the liberation of Russian society. Ostrovsky’s book is a superb examination of the historical processes that shaped the dominance of Putin and his aims over Russian discourse, despite the very real hope for liberal democracy that existed upon the Soviet collapse. Anyone that wishes to enhance their understanding of the current relationship between the former Cold War adversaries should wish to gain an understanding of Russia’s view of itself, and this view has been largely shaped in the last twenty years by television, print and the State itself. It is high time that more dissenting Russian voices like that of Mr Ostrovsky’s made themselves heard.