BEARR Trust Annual Lecture 2018

“Putin’s Russia and the Ghosts of the Past”

 Speaker: Shaun Walker

This year’s Annual Lecture, kindly hosted once again by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), One Exchange Square, London EC2A 2JN, took placeon 20 September 2018.

Shaun Walker is Central and Eastern Europe Correspondent for The Guardian, based in Budapest and covering the wider region. Previously, he spent more than a decade in Moscow, first for The Independent and then for The Guardian. His book on Putin’s Russia, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, was published in January 2018 by Oxford University Press.

The lecture was followed by a reception, to allow for further discussion and networking with others with an interest in the field.

Here is a report of his lecture:

Few visiting Russia for the first time in early May would guess that the now ubiquitous orange and black St George’s ribbons at Victory Day only made their first appearance in 2005. For Shaun Walker, who gave this year’s BEARR Trust Annual Lecture, hosted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, this ‘invented tradition’ is just one manifestation of the way in which memories of the past are increasingly pressed into the service of the present state. 

Shaun Walker first arrived in Moscow in January 2000, just as Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency. For the past 18 years, he has been a sharp observer of Russian politics and society, first as a freelance journalist, then as a reporter for The Independent, and latterly as The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. His book, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Pastdraws on assignments across Russia and, most recently the conflict in the Donbas in an “attempt to make sense” of the Putin years.

Part of this is understanding the state’s quest for a unifying ‘national idea’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly-independent Baltic states could enthusiastically embrace their ‘return to Europe’; in Central Asia, appeals to semi-historic national sentiment were more or less successful in cementing new regimes. Russia’s challenge was greater given its previous dominance within the USSR and loss of status after the fall.

From before the start of his presidency, Putin saw the restoration of Russia’s ‘great power’ status as a central policy objective, warning in a 1999 article of the risks of the state’s ‘relegation’ to second or third tier status. This meant recovery from the catastrophic economic losses of the 1990s. But from Putin’s perspective, it did not just mean that: it also meant the restoration of Russia as a ‘hard’ power and moral concept.

However, the idea of ‘restoration’ was not straightforward. There might have been nostalgia among many for the Soviet Union, but an appeal to a socialist past was hardly likely to be welcomed by business, and a return to a pre-1991 system was neither viable nor desirable. Putin himself summed this up in his famous comment that “only a person without a heart would not mourn the loss of the Soviet Union – but only a person without a head would want to recreate it”.

In this context, victory in the Great Patriotic War provided a unifying reference point: a source of pride around which the ‘nation’ could unite, and which the state sought to augment. This marked something of a break with the recent past: in the postwar years, recent experience of loss made remembrance of the War relatively sombre and muted; during and after perestroika, much of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied it disappeared. But since the early 2000s, official commemorations of victory have become larger and more powerful: heavy weaponry returned to the main Moscow parade in 2008, and commemorative symbolism has become more widespread.

But as those with direct experience of the conflict pass, what is the nation actually remembering? In Shaun Walker’s analysis, the focus of official memory is increasingly on Russia’s role as victor: “through you,” Putin told veterans in 2002, “we have become a nation of winners,” with the baton of victory handed down to their descendants. In other words, victory is the contribution of the memory of the War to the ‘national idea’, more than a broader sense of shared suffering or remembrance.

That memory of victory can be pressed into the service of the present. In the first place, victory in 1945 presents a clear contrast to the ‘tragedy’ of 1991, and modern-day victories (the ‘restoration’ of Crimea, for example) can be painted as a continuation of the spirit of ’45. But at the same time, the War narrative can serve to obscure alternative narratives of Russia’s painful twentieth century history. From the 1980s onwards, movements such as Memorial spearheaded new acknowledgement of historic oppression, but official support for this has been reduced in recent years: even in Magadan, a city built out of the Gulag, official memory of repression is marginal in comparison with the popularisation of wartime victory.

Perhaps this is because the War is seen as a conflict for national survival, in which Russia (or the Soviet Union) faced down an existential external threat. This external threat persisted after 1945 in the form of the United States and the West, and from the state’s perspective, this threat remains today (and has intensified since NATO expansion). The specific nature of the enemy may have changed, but the concept of Russia as isolated, threatened and prepared to fight back remains. Every victory first needs an enemy, and there is continuity between the War memory, the postwar Soviet world view and the state’s current stance.

‘Memories’ of the War, and concepts of the enemy finally bring us to the current conflict in Ukraine, particularly in the characterisation of Ukrainian nationalism as ‘fascist’ (a widely – and very broadly – applied term in communist propaganda). Certainly, some elements in Ukrainian politics deserve the term, but the wartime label was quickly adopted by the Russian media to denote a much larger ‘enemy’ category. In the Donbas after the declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Shaun met Alexander Khodakovsky, a thoughtful military advisor to the DPR junta and who described the imagery of the War as a driving force of Russian nationalist sentiment, as an effective means of identifying those who remained loyal to Kiev as the enemy (Khodakovsky’s reflections on where this might all lead seems to have proved too much for the local regime, which later sidelined him).

There is no doubt that the popular memory of the War (the ‘cult of the War’ as Shaun called it) has been a unifying idea. But will it fade as ‘real’ memories of the Soviet Union recede? In the medium term, probably not: the scale of the conflict was epic (and of course far more devastating than for the Western Allies), and all families have a connection to it (albeit with a couple of generations of separation). And anyway, Russia is not the only country for which the War acts a central part of national identity: Britain is an obvious example of another victor country with its own war myth.

However, wartime victory does not provide the only narrative. Despite the shadows of Crimea, the Donbas, the Salisbury attempted murders and international sanctions, many in the wider world were perhaps surprised by the sunshine and welcome of Russia’s 2018 World Cup. So far, the impact of sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis has not damaged the Putin administration; in fact, Western pressure may have reinforced the perception that Russia stands alone, surrounded by enemies. But perhaps in the long run, winning doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

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