Psychologically wounded by the USSR’s collapse, Vladimir Putin has now restored national pride, but at a high price – as a new book documents
Book review: The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past
Russia’s return to prominence over the last decade-and-a-half has unsettled many in the West, all the more so for the dominant role that Vladimir Putin has played over that period. Recent events, such as the annexation of Crimea and the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, not to mention the potential meddling in elections in the US and Europe, have only heightened tensions and left many struggling to understand this more aggressive and self-assured Russia.
Shaun Walker, the outgoing Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, and previously Moscow correspondent for The Independent, has had a front row seat on Putin’s Russia – its good and bad sides – having first visited the country in 2000, the same year that Putin became president.
In The Long Hangover, Walker traces today’s Russia back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A seminal event, it was a traumatic experience for many in Russia, even those who weren’t strongly invested in the old regime. People lost the political system that had dominated their lives for more than seven decades, and witnessed the exit of peripheral states that had long been part of their country. For many Russians, now that they were no longer Soviet citizens, they were unsure exactly who they were.
The “vacuum of ideas and purpose” the end of the Soviet Union left in its wake helped to shape Russia today, writes Walker, as well as the whole post-Soviet world. The Wild West days that followed in the 1990s, when those with connections grabbed lucrative state assets and everyone else was left behind, only exacerbated tensions. At the same time, Russia was no longer treated as an equal by the US, a stark contrast to the days of the Cold War.
By 1993, public opinion surveys showed that 63 per cent of Russians regretted the end of the Soviet Union.
The Long Hangover takes us back to a 37-year-old Putin, as the Berlin Wall comes down, keeping the crowds at bay and destroying documents at the KGB headquarters in the German city of Dresden. Like many, he would become angered by the manner in which his country disintegrated, not with a bang but with a whimper.
Putin took over as Russian president in 2000, and quickly laid out his belief that once the country regained its global importance, the well-being of the Russian people would automatically improve. To do this, he zeroed in on the events of the Second World War – the Great Patriotic War as Russians refer to it – as something that could unite the country and “serve as a foundation stone for the new nation”.
Soon, military parades were restored to national prominence, and Russia began re-exerting itself militarily, first in places such as Chechnya and later in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Walker writes, “the flames of a new conflict were fanned by the memories of an old one”. Walker travels widely in the country, visiting Crimea several times as it switched from being part of Ukraine to being part of Russia, while also meeting with the rag-tag military groups in areas scarred by fighting in eastern Ukraine.
It is really the characters that Walker meets that both flesh out The Long Hangover, and leave a lasting impression. A retired Russian military officer, fighting in his sixth war and known by the nom de guerre the “Romanian”, strikes terror in those around him as he orders public executions and rules a town in eastern Ukraine with an iron fist. Meanwhile, a few surviving elderly residents on a street in the nearby city of Luhansk survey the devastation caused by months of the aerial bombardments from both sides. They have nowhere else to go.
At the same time, Russia continues to funnel weapons and men across the border, including, in all likelihood, the surface-to-air missile that brought down commercial flight MH17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukrainian airspace, resulting in the deaths of all 298 people on board.
Reporting on these regions, Walker is treated with distrust and sometimes animosity, often with threats of violence. Meanwhile, dissidents are being physically abused and rounded up. “Putin’s mission to unite Russia involved the manipulation of history and an aggressive stifling of dissent,” Walker writes.
As the author explains, The Long Hangover attempts to be neither an apology for Putin’s tactics and his years in power nor an anti-Putin polemic, although it perhaps leans more strongly towards the latter given the recent actions of Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the stifling of dissent back home.
Many in Russia are unhappy with the corruption that has become part of daily life, but for the most part they choose to overlook it due to the restoration of the country’s prestige. At times, it feels like a bad bargain.
Glorifying the Second World War has also meant overlooking the more unsavoury elements of Russia’s war years, notably the mass deportation of ethnic groups to the frozen Siberian regions, where huge numbers would die in terrible conditions. It is estimated that the Soviet Union deported about two million of its own citizens during the war. Some had collaborated with the Nazis, but most were simply groups that were considered “other”. These are some of the memories that Putin doesn’t want the nation to dwell on.
Walker tracks down those affected by the deportations, visiting the towns that were established and seeing the bleak regions for himself. Interestingly, many of those whose families suffered see the actions as a necessary part of the Soviet victory. Only a handful of small museums exist dedicated to the deportations.
It is the overriding drive of Putin that shapes modern Russia, and Walker’s book. The author describes Putin as a political chameleon in both domestic and foreign policy, but with the powerful and overriding goal of restoring Russia’s place on the global stage, whatever it takes. After seventeen years in power, and with little sign of him relinquishing power, it really is Putin’s Russia.
Published by Oxford University Press, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past will be available on February 22