No other country in the world is as entranced with its past—both real and imagined—as Russia. To be precise, it’s not the country that’s obsessed, but the regime, which bases its legitimacy on some very simple but effective myths about Russia’s exceptionalism and its special path (Sonderweg, Russian style), and the privatization of certain key historical events and figures that serve as the glue of the nation. Naturally, the primary such event is victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia.

None of the leaders of today’s political regime in Russia—from the representatives of bureaucratic capitalism to the Orthodox special services autocracy—have anything to do with victory in the war, Yury Gagarin’s spaceflight, or even the achievements of Soviet hockey. Yet they have the audacity to pronounce themselves the heirs of all the proudest pages of Soviet and even pre-Soviet history, and to whitewash the darkest pages, particularly from the Stalin era.

Policy on monuments has become particularly important today, as the regime uses them to mark its mythologized historical territory. A bust of Stalin appeared in the center of Moscow, in the so-called Alley of Rulers, supposedly only because he is one of many Russian leaders: that’s a flimsy excuse. A monument to Prince Vladimir, who brought Orthodox Christianity to Russia, has been erected a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, where the prince’s head could easily be replaced with that of any other czar or general secretary. Statues are popping up here and there: Ivan the Terrible, famed for the cruelty of his oprichniki guards; Ivan III, who united Rus with an iron hand; Alexander III, who refroze Russia after Alexander II’s thaw; and Pyotr Stolypin, the controversial reform-minded prime minister of pre-revolutionary Russia.

All of these statues have an allusive significance: President Vladimir Putin has consolidated land, and has been an ideological unifier and a reformer, albeit not a particularly liberal one. It is strange that we haven’t yet seen a new monument to Catherine the Great, who annexed Crimea “without a single shot being fired” long before Putin did.

The Putin regime is a complete fusion of power and property, in which those who rule Russia simultaneously control its assets. That is why it is so difficult for them to give up their power: without power, they have no life. The Putin regime is the complete intrusion of the state—i.e., Putin himself, several clans with varying proximity to him, and their hired managers—into the affairs of society. It is a monopoly over politics (one leader in the absence of lawful political competition), a monopoly over the economy (state corporations and state investments determine everything, including the peculiar nature of competition), a monopoly over the souls and the minds of the people (a combination of aggressive pro-regime media outlets and the activity of the Russian Orthodox Church, which supports the government unquestioningly), and a monopoly over history (the approved version of history is presented in textbooks and in the speeches and interviews of top officials).

This is a corporativist system in which everyone is grouped into special organizations, from the ruling party and parties that pretend to be the opposition to youth camps and Kremlin-coddled NGOs, and in which any organization that is not controlled by the state is written off as a “foreign agent” or “undesirable organization.” It is an eclectic tacit ideology that combines nationalist mythology, extreme aggression toward the Other and the Foreign, anti-Western sentiments, isolationism, and, of course, imperialism.

The annexation of Crimea was the culmination of the development of the Putin regime. It was less an act of Russian nationalism than it was an act of Russian imperialism. A direct action—sudden, dramatic, and consistent—that united the nation around Putin and boosted the level of approval for his actions (which shouldn’t be confused with his much lower electoral rating) to plateau at more than 80 percent.

Putin’s support is largely based on successful military operations, if we use the term “military” to denote any actions that create a besieged-fortress mentality and a sense of resurging grandeur in Russians. The doping scandal was a defensive war. The Syria campaign was a successful offensive war. Russia’s most popular ministers are those who defend Russia in the military and diplomatic realms: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Putin’s approval rating had been gradually decreasing, but surged in September 2008 following the August war with Georgia. Then it declined until a boost during the 2014 Olympics, which were also seen in some senses as a war that had to be won at any cost, including by tampering with the athletes’ urine samples. Then came Crimea, and the rating of the commander of the besieged fortress has not gone down since.

Post-Soviet Identity

Russian identity hinges on the imperial idea. Serhii Plokhy’s Lost Kingdom supports this narrative, beginning its overview with the reign of Ivan III. The annexation of Crimea responded to people’s dormant phantom pains for the lost empire. For the average Russian, any other territory pales in comparison with the symbolic significance of Crimea. They don’t understand what the Novorossiya concept reintroduced by Putin in 2014 is about, and consider the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria to be foreign lands. But Crimea is an imperial territory, both culturally and historically. That’s precisely why most Russians see its annexation as the restoration of historical justice.

In his book The Long Hangover, Shaun Walker discusses the cultural, historical, emotional, and psychological reasons for popular support for the annexation of Crimea. He does this, quite rightly, by combining reporting and political analysis. What happened in Crimea in 2014 was a defining event in post-Soviet Russian history. Indeed, Putin and his elites aren’t the only ones to blame. The majority of Russians who supported and still support the annexation of another country’s territory share responsibility. The “Crimea is Ours” movement prolonged the life of the Putin regime, and if the Crimea effect has worn off at all, then it is hardly noticeable: according to a 2015 Levada Center poll, 70 percent of those polled believed that the annexation did Russia more good than harm, and in 2017, 64 percent still held that position.

The long title of Walker’s book is “Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past.” The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent describes these ghosts as having possessed living Crimeans and as feeding their current euphoria and false hopes for the future. This is equally true of Ukrainians: as Walker correctly points out, all of them are in search of their post-Soviet identity. Therefore, some of them see Putin’s Russia as a romanticized beacon in the mist, while others put their stock in the image—conveniently cleansed of anti-Semitism and Nazism—of the historical Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. These are all myths and illusions, but they live on inside ordinary people. (Plokhy goes as far as to argue that Russian aggression consolidated a multiethnic and multicultural Ukraine, essentially creating a Ukrainian nation.)

Walker starts his book by describing a Donbas separatist field commander who goes by the alias “Romanian,” a revolting product of the post-Soviet era.

“Public executions seemed a little out of place in twenty-first-century Europe,” I ventured. The Romanian shrugged. “Nobody blames a surgeon for the fact they remove tumors from the body with a scalpel. That is what we are doing here, with this society.”

In Soviet times, this character would have been pushing pencils in some dusty office, but the war gave him the chance to become a boss with a rigid and cruel code of conduct and a similar outlook on life. So instead of just sharing his savage views with his co-workers during a cigarette break, he puts them into practice, which makes him feel important and powerful. That’s what people like him gain from the war: the war for the Russian World.

Describing such characters can be both appealing and repulsive at the same time. The personality of Alexander Dugin is an apt example. For some reason, many in the West consider him to be one of the ideologists of the nationalist wave under Putin, although his influence was of limited scope and duration. He is too esoteric, unintelligible, and, frankly, overrated: so much so that he gets far more coverage in the West than in Russia, and ends up being one of the seven characters in Masha Gessen’s book The Future Is History. Yet, much like the Romanian, he is an ordinary post-Soviet individual gone with the wind of history, and possessed by ultra-right fundamentalist ideas that may seem complex but are in fact sickeningly simple.

The Anatomy of Collapse

The next question is: why did this empire that is so significant for the Russian soul collapse? In trying to find an answer to this question, Gessen quotes abundantly from the memoirs of the architect of Russia’s liberal reforms, Yegor Gaidar, but fails to cite Collapse of an Empire, his most important work on the reasons for and nuances of the Soviet collapse. Gessen tells the story of the founding group of Soviet sociologists, including one of the main characters of the book, Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, but neglects to include the history of the economic team that formed around Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais and their semi-underground academic seminars. One liberal reformer who wasn’t a member of this circle of experts in the late 1980s was the late Boris Nemtsov, whose daughter Zhanna is another of the characters of the narrative. All the important contributions made by the sociologists of the 1960s notwithstanding, the economic circle is where the Russian liberal reforms that destroyed Stalin’s economic principles originated.

Discussing the demise of the Soviet Union, Gessen argues against the position that Plokhy takes in his earlier book, The Last Empire: that the Soviet Union collapsed precisely because it was an empire, and all imperial constructs eventually collapse. Of course, empires (whether Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, or British) are doomed to collapse, but being an empire was not the only factor that toppled the communist colossus.

There is nothing particularly enigmatic about the fall of the Soviet Union: the empire was destined to break up because it had exhausted itself at a biological level, if you will. As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev launched a very cautious restructuring (perestroika) of the system from above, it immediately caved in, and the leader could do nothing but run ahead of the avalanche, pretending that he was in charge of the process of transformation.

I recently had a brief conversation with a former Soviet prime minister, eighty-eight-year-old Federation Council member Nikolai Ryzhkov. His view on what transpired during the perestroika years is crystal clear. He believes the government was right to reform the economy but shouldn’t have “touched the foundations,” i.e., the Soviet political system. In his opinion, it was the decision to hold the first free elections in 1989, made at the 19th Party Conference in 1988, that triggered the collapse.

In Lost Kingdom, Serhii Plokhy also talks about the key role that political liberalization, glasnost, and elections played in the breakup of the Soviet Union. “The introduction of free elections transformed Soviet society, putting the structure and even the integrity of the multiethnic USSR into question,” he writes.

It’s also important to understand that the Soviet collapse didn’t end on December 25, 1991, when the Soviet flag on the Kremlin was lowered. That was just the beginning of the empire’s lengthy physical and mental departure, a process that continues to this very day: the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine are part of this process.

To understand the reasons behind the breakup, it’s important to appreciate the fundamental difference between the perestroika era and today. It took the nation—or rather the empire—a few years after attempts at modernization were launched in the second half of the 1980s to reach a consensus that people were ready to give up on communism. It was a simple message that united everyone, albeit for different reasons: some wanted national emancipation; some strove for democracy; others dreamed of material well-being under capitalism. Nowadays, in contrast, most ordinary people don’t want to see radical changes, as they fear the possible negative effects. And Putin’s elites have learned a lesson from the perestroika years: they are especially frightened of rocking the regime’s political foundations, and hence aren’t prepared to initiate modernization from above.

The Past Becomes the Future

When Putin was chosen as Boris Yeltsin’s successor in the summer of 1999, this was attributed to a desire to prevent a tandem of two heavyweight old-timers from coming to power: Soviet foreign policy guru Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor and state capitalist Yury Luzhkov. The loftier (and not irrational) explanation was that Putin could protect the democratic and market achievements of the Yeltsin era. Last but not least, he was expected to guarantee the personal safety of Boris Yeltsin and members of his political “Family.” Putin seemed to be the best candidate, despite his FSB background.

Ultimately, however, Putin was the one who destroyed all the achievements of the 1990s, building his charisma and legitimacy by criticizing the era. At first, not everyone understood that he was a man ready to build a corporativist state in the manner of Benito Mussolini, but any remaining illusions about Putin were dispelled in 2001, when he decided to revive the Soviet anthem. In 2003, the democratic parties did not make it into parliament and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested. In 2007, Putin explained the basic principles of his foreign policy to the West during his speech at the Munich Security Conference. In 2014, he did everything that he had told the West he would do and just previously hadn’t gotten up the nerve to do. Then it was time to rule the country, including with the aid of historical mythology.

In that context, the title of Gessen's book, The Future Is History, is very accurate, since Russia’s future is not only determined by its past. The future is planned by the elites working from their perception of what was good and bad in the past. Accordingly, the dark pages of history are whitewashed and historical facts are consciously simplified, depriving Russia of its future. In our country, where there is no clear image of the future, and its heroes—such as Stalin—are imported from the “glorious” past, history is indeed the future. As Plokhy notes, everything that Putin does, including annexing Crimea, has historical and ethnocultural justifications. The historically approved imperial idea plays the leading role here.

Shaun Walker is very good at exploring these mechanics of Russian historical consciousness. He shows how Putin has essentially appropriated the Soviet victory in World War II as an additional way to legitimate his rule. That’s precisely what Brezhnev did: it was inappropriate to criticize the Soviet regime because it supposedly cast a shadow over our sacred victory.

Strictly speaking, Putin’s views have not changed. He had always espoused Russian nationalism mixed with imperial syndrome and seasoned with Orthodoxy and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. And Putin saw history through the eyes of a Soviet KGB officer. It was simply that he couldn’t afford to “come out” ideologically right away; he had to do so slowly over the years. At first, he sought to become an equal to world leaders while playing by the rules; when he did not succeed, he began to make the rules himself. This freed his hands and loosened his tongue: Putin began to say exactly what he thought.

There is no going back for Putin. He isn’t likely to offer liberalization or democratization. He has learned from the experience of Gorbachev, who imprudently undercut the political foundations of his rule, and Putin has also been sobered by the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. The hybrid authoritarian regime has entered a period of maturity.

As 2018 unfolds, however, the regime is beginning its decline. Putin looks less and less like Mussolini and more like Francisco Franco. There is a Spanish joke about Franco sitting at his desk and transferring papers from a box labeled “Problems Time Will Solve” to a box labeled “Problems Time Has Solved.” Putin’s post-empire is also moving toward transformation at the pace of slow degradation, without catastrophes or revolutions. It will take a long time before we see a transition from authoritarianism to a gentler and more open regime. As Kornei Chukovsky, the Soviet literary scholar and author of children’s poems, said back in the 1960s: “In Russia, you have to live a long life.” 

  • Andrei Kolesnikov