We noted in an editorial on Friday that this blog, once accused of extremism, is now mainstream conventional wisdom on Russia. As if to confirm us, one of the world’s leading Russia correspondents, Luke Harding of the Guardian, lays out the horrifying facts in a manner no thinking person can dispute, saying things we’ve been saying (and predicting) since April 2006:
Tanks rolling into neighbouring countries, the media back under state control and Kremlin policy shrouded in secrecy … Luke Harding reports on why Russia seems hellbent on reverting to its Soviet past
The first thing you come across after hanging up your coat is Yuri Andropov, the former Soviet leader and KGB boss. A large white bust of Andropov adorns the lobby. Next to him, just up the stairs, is a portrait of another KGB protege who went on to bigger things, Vladimir Putin. (Putin is wearing his famous judo outfit. He looks terrific, relaxed. His hands rest lightly, almost pertly, on his hips.)
On the walls are various paintings of Russian generals and intelligence chiefs. Some I recognise; others are a bit more obscure. Over lunch I find myself sitting under Genrikh Yagoda – a thin, cadaverous-looking man with a black moustache. Yagoda was the head of Stalin’s NKVD secret police, and was responsible for the murder of thousands of Soviet citizens before his own inevitable execution, on Stalin’s orders, in 1938.
Welcome to Sword and Shield – a communist-style Moscow restaurant, which faithfully recreates the atmosphere of the Soviet Union. The restaurant is popular with Russia’s modern-day spy-bureaucrats, and others nostalgic for the days of Soviet power. Down the road is the Lubyanka – the notorious KGB prison, where prisoners were interrogated in the basement and shot. It is now the headquarters of Russia’s ubiquitous post-KGB spy agency, the FSB or Federal Security Service.
The Soviet Union, of course, no longer exists. Formally, it vanished in 1991, when the Soviet empire was dissolved into a galaxy of independent states. But since 2000, when he became president of the Russian Federation, Putin has restored many aspects of Soviet life. This
restoration is wide reaching. It includes Russia’s political institutions, its civic society, the media, its (and so far largely verbal) confrontation with the west, even its rhetoric.
The sense that Russia is on a post-modern journey back to the USSR has been growing in recent months. Last month Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s successor as president, proposed extending the presidential term from four to six years. Russia’s pro-Kremlin Duma or lower house of parliament rushed through the necessary legislation in less than a week. These changes to Russia’s constitution will soon become law.
The main beneficiary of this is likely to be Putin himself. There is feverish speculation that Putin is planning to get his old job back as president, possibly as early as next year. Failing that, analysts believe he could reoccupy the Kremlin in 2012 – when Medvedev’s four-year term is up – and then serve two successive six-year terms. In 2024, when Gordon Brown and David Cameron are long forgotten, Putin could still be running Russia.
The most fitting comparison is with Leonid Brezhnev – another long-serving Soviet leader who clocked up 18 years in power, until his death in 1982. Brezhnev began brightly enough, with the Soviet Union at the height of its prestige. But his epoch eventually became synonymous with stagnation and economic decline – a bit like the Putin one. After eight years of rapid and increasing prosperity, Putin’s Russia is floundering amid the global economic crisis.
During the Brezhnev era there was deep conflict with the western alliance over the US’s plans to site Pershing missiles in western Europe. Under Putin we have the row over US rockets in Europe – this time the Pentagon’s plans to site missile defence interceptors and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Kremlin vehemently objects to the shield; it has poisoned US-Russian relations.
Then there is the invasion by Russia of one of its neighbours. Back in 1979, it was Afghanistan – when Russian tanks rolled across the dusty Hindu Kush to prop up a struggling communist regime. (Officially, Moscow said its intervention was necessary because of US encroachment in Afghanistan.) Fast forward three decades to Russia’s summer 2008 invasion of Georgia when Russian tanks were rolling once again – this time along the Caucasus mountain valley towards US-leaning Tbilisi.
Throw in an Olympics, and the comparison with the Soviet era is unavoidable. The US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Russia is now preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the picturesque Black Sea resort of Sochi. Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili has already hinted at a boycott. Depending on what happens next, a boycott of Sochi led by Georgia, Poland and the Baltic states is entirely feasible.
Inside Russia, there are other disquieting similarities to what was thought of as a bygone era. In Brezhnev’s time there was no formal opposition to Soviet power – merely a handful of dissidents and intellectuals. The same can now be said of Putin’s Russia. There isn’t much mass popular opposition to the Kremlin these days: opposition leaders have been co-opted or quashed. But the days of small-scale dissident protest – led by the former world chess champion Gary Kasparov – are back.
Writing in last month’s Moscow Times, the political analyst and TV host Yevgeny Kiselyov wondered whether Marx was right when he suggested that history repeats itself – “first as tragedy and second as farce”. A Putin comeback was “entirely plausible”, Kiselyov wrote, adding: “Vladimir Putin will still be president when our grandchildren grow up.”
Kiselyov lost his job in 2001 when Putin closed down his NTV news channel, replacing it with pro-government ownership. In the 1990s there were competing independent TV stations. But once again, as in Soviet times, Russia’s media is now for the most part under Kremlin control. In the Soviet 1970s, bulletins would invariably begin with agricultural topics – news on the potato crop, for example – and the latest on industrial production. Now Russia’s state channels lead with Putin and Medvedev. The broadcasts have one shared element: nobody ever criticises the country’s rulers.
“I think Russian political life and Russian public life has been very Sovietised recently, Stalinised even. We have got politics completely closed from public view. Nobody really understands what is going on,” Kiselyov says. “People inside the Kremlin, even at ministerial level, don’t understand how decisions are taken at the upper level, at the highest level. That’s very Soviet. It’s completely non-transparent.”
During the long Brezhnev period a tiny group of “four of five” Politburo insiders took all decisions behind closed doors, Kiselyov says. Putin has a similarly exclusive inner circle. Nobody quite knows who its members are – though they are rumoured to be made up of lawyers who studied with Putin at Leningrad university, oil traders, bankers from St Petersburg and the prime minister’s old wrestling chums.
These days, meanwhile, Russia’s political institutions – its parliament, upper Federation Council, regional assemblies – are decorative entities. Their function is to endorse and legitimise decisions made by the Kremlin. The last independent MPs vanished from Russia’s Duma in December 2007 – after what one western diplomat dubbed a “manicured” election.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former opposition MP whose party was abolished by the Kremlin, says that the democratic changes brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika have virtually all disappeared. Putin now has more power than either the tsar or the general secretary of the Communist party ever had, Ryzhkov says. The Kremlin’s claim that Russia is a western-style democracy is mere “blah blah blah”, he adds dismissively.
“You have to divide demagoguery and reality. The rhetoric is democratic but the reality is absolutely autocratic. In Soviet times Brezhnev talked about socialist democracy every day. Now we hear about sovereign democracy [a phrase dreamed up by Kremlin ideologists to describe Russia’s current political system]. What’s the difference?” Ryzhkov asks.
According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russia’s leading sociologist, this summer’s war in Georgia was part a long-cherished Kremlin plan to recreate a “mini-USSR”. The Kremlin’s ambitions go further than merely recreating an updated version of Soviet society, she suggests. They also include a blueprint to bring back the Soviet Union’s geography.
Russia’s territory now includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the two breakaway regions of Georgia effectively absorbed by Moscow this summer. The Kremlin is also considering a formal union with Belarus, Russia’s authoritarian and Soviet-like neighbour. Other similar-minded states might be persuaded to join a new Russian confederation, Kryshtanovskaya says – Kazakhstan, perhaps, or maybe an independent post-Ukraine Crimea. There are, of course, major differences between Russia and the Soviet Union. The biggest are freedom and the market. The food queues, which were a hallmark of Soviet life, vanished long ago. In daily life, Russians enjoy a freedom of speech that in Soviet times scarcely existed. And then there is foreign travel: something now available to all Russians, at least those who can afford it, following decades of Soviet isolation.
Russia’s big cities are now unashamedly capitalist. They resemble their western counterparts in most essential respects: with shopping malls, designer clothes shops, expensive restaurants offering Kamchatka crab (at £65 a pop) and clubs guarded by ruthless doormen known as facecontrol-shiks. The scale of wealth is impressive too. Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world. This spring, before the financial crash, Russia boasted more billionaires than anywhere other than the US. Last month Moscow held its fourth millionaire’s fair – a luxury shopping and entertainment event for the country’s super-rich where businessman in tuxedos, accompanied by willowy young women in black cocktails dresses, drift between stalls selling yachts and helicopters and islands off Dubai.
Drive out of Moscow, however, and Russia’s other big cities and you enter another world – of decaying villages, poverty, alcoholism, high male mortality and general hopelessness. Life in Russia’s countryside doesn’t seem to have changed much since Soviet times.
The ideology however has. The Soviet Union had a global ideology: the triumph of socialism. According to Kryshtanovskaya, Putinist Russian doesn’t have an ideology as such – beyond what she dubs a “chauvinistic nationalism”.
“The Soviet Union had global ambitions. It believed in socialism and social justice. Now the main ideological idea is nationalism and anti-Americanism. There are no positive ideas any more, only negative ones,” Kryshtanovskaya says. She adds: “At the same time Russia is becoming increasingly isolationist.” During Soviet times a successful bureaucrat could expect to live in a good but modest three-bedroom flat, with modern furniture. He could expect holidays on the Black Sea coast. Corruption was frowned upon and punished; indeed the Communist party’s ethic was ascetic.
These days, senior Kremlin bureaucrats are multimillionaires – with properties in west London, bank accounts in Switzerland and private education for their children at Europe’s best schools. Corruption has become a systemic feature of life in Russia; indeed the country’s elite is now fabulously rich.
Back at Sword and Shield, two elderly customers are tucking into Brezhnev’s favourite cutlets in oak-panelled private rooms decorated with KGB memorabilia. Even the service is authentically Soviet: the waitresses, dressed in white interior ministry uniforms, are grumpy and bad-humoured. Across the road, work has just finished on the restoration of a series of blue-and-yellow classical mansions: the buildings will provide new offices for Russia’s ever-expanding security services. Like the restaurant itself, the offices are a sign of the times. “Here in Russia we revere our security structures,” the owner, Armen Manucharyan, says.