By Jonathon Van Maren
I’ve now been in Russia since the beginning of last week, and will be flying home today. I’ve been doing research and conducting interviews here, and am looking forward to turning my pages and pages of notes into columns and essays to share some of what I’ve learned about the new Russia, especially in regards to the resurgence of Russian Orthodox Christianity, social conservatism, and how these things shape relations with the West. There are many fascinating contradictions and ironies, and it is obvious that my attempt to get a better understanding of what is going on in this country is barely beginning.
The part of this trip that has been by far the most surreal is the contrast between what the Russians I am speaking to—some journalists, some students, others just people we had the opportunity to talk to—and what we hear in the West and hear in the Western media. Over the weekend, for example, my friend and I decided to take a late-night walk near our hotel and stumbled on a rally near the Kremlin. As it turned out, it was a celebration of what they refer to as the “restoration” of Crimea to the Russian Federation four years ago, and what in the West they refer to as the annexation of Ukrainian territory. Several stages were set up, with Russian performers singing rousing folks songs to a massive crowd waving flags and cheering in the freezing cold. There were fur-hatted soldiers everywhere—we later discovered that this was because we were standing about 100 metres away from Vladimir Putin himself.
Putin has been in the news back home nonstop for the duration of my time here, and not only because the fairness of the elections over the weekend are considered suspect. Nearly every time I check my email inbox or my Twitter, feed, more media outlets are growing more strident about the nerve gas attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury—British Prime Minister Theresa May, in what looked like a rather pathetic attempt to emulate Maggie Thatcher, even mustered up some outrage for Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that the accusations be toned down until more analysis had been done and the evidence had been examined. In Canada, Terry Glavin wrote a column for Maclean’s magazine suggesting that Vladimir Putin was the “new Joseph Stalin.” I did a double-take when I read it: Putin is a sinister fellow, yes. But Joseph Stalin?
When I quoted the article to several Russians and journalists, they were scornful. Some of them laughed out loud. Even if Putin is guilty of everything Glavin detailed in his column—up to several dozen murders—to claim that bloody political thuggery is on par with a dictator who was, according to Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, responsible for the deaths of between twenty and twenty-five million people seems, to put it kindly, hysterical. And that, people kept on telling us, is why it is so hard for ordinary Russians to take Western politicians and the media seriously: The ramped-up bluster, the obviously ridiculous hyperbole, and the hypocrisy of groveling for trade deals with Communist China and palling around with the head-chopping Saudis while raging against Putin. In that context, any pretence of principle or consistency is eliminated. Many here want to know: Why such hatred towards Russia, specifically?
Interestingly, not a single Russian or journalist we’ve spoken to in St. Petersburg or Moscow—and we spoke with and interviewed many–actually believes that Putin was responsible for the Salisbury attack. Several of them stated that they believed he was capable of it—it seems fairly accepted, for example, that Russia was probably responsible for the assassination of former Russian secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko in the UK in 2006. But why, asked one student from the St. Petersburg School of Higher Economics (who said he was not voting for Putin), would Russia bother to try and target a washed-up spy with no further secrets to spill, just prior to an election that needs to appear legitimate, and just before Russia hopes to host the World Cup? Not only that, but why would the Russians have botched the hit so badly? I have no idea what actually happened, but it was interesting to hear the widespread dismissal here in Russia.
Further to that, those we spoke with simply seemed suspicious by the rush to judgement. The West, they said, seems to want to demonize Russia every chance they get. Some said that it seems as if Putin is being used as a familiar boogeyman by Western leaders simply to distract from their own problems. After all, if it was simply a matter of principle, then surely the denunciations of places like China and many others would take precedence over Russia. Fundamentally, one theme came out over and over again: The West doesn’t understand Russia or the Russian people, they make no attempt to try, and they do not understand why Putin is so popular. Many Russians feel as if the accusations by the West of election-rigging amount to other countries telling them that they are doing democracy wrong—and the evidence for this is because the wrong guy keeps on rising to power.
This view—that we in the West simply do not try to understand Russia—was highlighted again by an Orthodox nun we met with in the Sretensky Monastery in the heart of Moscow. She remembers when Boris Yeltsin was beloved by the West, she said. (For my part, I actually heard former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tell a story once about getting drunk with Yeltsin and questioning him, with boozy breath, on election-rigging.) For those who were actually in Russia, the nun told us, Yeltsin’s reign was the rise of the gangs and the oligarchs. “I never saw so many dead bodies in Moscow as I did in the ‘90s,” she told us. “But to Westerners, Yeltsin was the great liberator.” Now, she said, it is perfectly safe to stroll around the city late at night.
The one European journalist who has consistently sought to inject historical context and understanding into the debate has been the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens, who lived in Moscow throughout the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I must say that our conversations and interviews in Russia so far have done nothing but confirm the sentiments he expressed in a 2016 essay in First Things titled “The Cold War is Over”:
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has struggled to find a new bogeyman. Noriega would hardly do. The Taliban crumbled at a touch. Saddam Hussein was not up to the job, and the failed attempt to make him look more dangerous than he was has made the populace more incredulous than ever. Even the Iran of the Ayatollahs turned out to be quite keen to make friends. Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have an unconvincing fuzziness about them, nasty for sure but not as big as the headlines that are written about them. So what a relief to return to the old and trusted Russian menace, even if it does not really exist and its supposed aggression consists mainly of retreats.
The misreading of Russia’s geopolitical situation is especially sad because for the first time in many decades there is much to hope for in Moscow. Out of utopian misery has come the prospect of rebirth. It is as yet incipient. But I see great possibilities in it, in the many once-blighted churches now open and loved and full again, in the reappearance of symbols of pre-Bolshevik Russia, in the growth of a generation not stunted and pitted by poisoned air and food, nor twisted by Communist ethics. Many Russians will never recover from the cynicism they were taught, the mistrust, the contempt for religion and the foul cult of Comrade Pavlik. But their children can, and may. Why then, when so much of what we hoped for in the long Soviet period has come to pass, do we so actively seek their enmity?
That is but a snippet—I urge you to read the entire essay to get a sense of how someone who genuinely understands and appreciates Russia approaches our current geopolitical escalation. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and as sinister and power-hungry as he is, it is ludicrous to compare Vladimir Putin to Stalin. While ordinary Russians respond to the caricatures they see emerging of themselves in the Western press with their trademark stoic humor—one-part bitterness, one-part cynicism—there is a genuine disappointment among many that relations have soured so dramatically. The decision of UK foreign minister Boris Johnson to compare Putin’s Russia hosting the World Cup to Hitler’s Germany hosting the Olympics was an obvious attempt to infuriate Russia, and it worked–Russians were outraged. Nearly every town square has an enormous monument to the tens of millions of Russians who died between 1941-1945 beating back the Nazis, and that comparison was deeply and personally offensive. Johnson, an amateur historian, had to know how this idiotic comparison would be received.
That disappointment is beginning to turn to fear. My friend and I spent one evening earlier this week with the chief correspondent for foreign affairs and a radio journalist from one of the largest print newspapers in the Russian Federation, and while we grilled them on what was going on in Russia, the foreign affairs correspondent kept on attempting to turn the interview around. “What do you guys think,” he asked, brow furrowing. “Will there be war? Does the West want war?” We responded, shocked by his question, that the prospect of war with Russia seemed pretty bizarre. He nodded, and raised his beer: “To peace, then!”
None of this is to imply, in any way, that I have any expertise regarding the geopolitical intricacies of what is going on between Russia and the West. The purpose of this column is merely to relate what Russian journalists and citizens have told us over the past two weeks during interviews and conversations, and how they perceive the situation—and how radically their perception differs from ours. I was shocked to discover that some are genuinely worried about the possibility of war if tensions continue to escalate, and that some of those who voiced such concerns are people with extensive experience in foreign affairs and much behind-the-scenes knowledge. I’m sure I can say with full confidence that nobody, anywhere, desires that outcome. Since that is the case, perhaps certain leaders should begin to heed the warnings of journalists like Peter Hitchens going forward–in order to avoid any unintended consequences.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.