The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War

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Depiction of the Kremlin, Courtesey of the Center for Eastern Studies
Depiction of the Kremlin, Courtesey of the Center for Eastern Studies

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Council for Ethincs in International Affairs on 9 June 2016.

In this transcript, journalist Arkady Ostrovsky discusses his recent book, The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, which recently won the 2016 Orwell Prize for political writing.

As has been said, in December of 1991—you may remember that day, the Christmas Day of December 1991—Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Soviet people on television, 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening, and said the following:

Destiny so determined that when I found myself at the helm of this state, it was already clear that something was wrong in this country. We had a lot of everything—land, oil and gas, other natural resources, and intellect and talent in abundance—but we were living much worse off than people in other industrialized countries, suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system. All the half-hearted reforms fell through, one after another. This country was going nowhere and we couldn’t possibly go on living the way we did. We had to change everything, radically.

Free elections have become a reality. Free press, freedom of worship, representative legislature, and a multiparty system have all become a reality. Human rights are being treated as a supreme principle and top priority. We’re now living in a new world. An end has been put to Cold War and to the arms race. We have opened ourselves to the rest of the world, abandoned the practices of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and using troops outside this country. We have been rewarded with trust, solidarity, and respect.


We have paid with our history and our tragic experience for these democratic achievements, and they are not to be abandoned, whatever the circumstances and whatever the pretexts.

I thought it was just worth reading this passage from Mikhail Gorbachev because it just reminds you what we started from in 1991. These were not empty words. The words about respect that Russia granted, solidarity, and not interfering in other countries’ affairs all seemed completely real at that time.

We are now in a situation, 25 years later, where Russia is considered a geostrategic threat; where Russia has interfered in several countries’ affairs, starting in 2008 in Georgia, going on to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Most recently, Russia extended itself beyond the former Soviet territory in joining the military campaign in Syria. The pundits in Washington, Berlin, London, Paris, including The Economist, are all asking themselves the same question, which is: What’s next, where might Russia go next in terms of aggression?

The question which was the premise and foundation of this book was the question of how did we get from the 25th of December 1991 to today. You could follow several different narratives. You could look at economy. You could look at politics. You could look at foreign policy. Yet none of those narratives will actually explain quite what happened.

What is striking is that there was no one point in the span of history which we can all point to and say, “Okay, this was the moment of counterrevolution.” There was no one event comparable in scale and significance to the three days in August 1991, when tens of thousands of Muscovites went out in the streets to defend freedom and to foil the coup which was mounted by the KGB.

There was no one event of which we could say, “Here was the counterrevolution, here was another event, here is when people went out into the streets and threw out all that freedom.” There are good candidates, and we can talk about that, but there was no one single point.

I wanted to understand how the country—and what I tried to do is to look at another narrative. I wanted to look at ideas, messages, the media, for one simple reason: Russia is a very idea-centric country. Russia is a country very much about words, and it is reflected, of course, in its great literature.

I was very fortunate, before I started writing this book, I was translating Tom Stoppard‘s Coast of Utopia, which some of you may have seen here at Lincoln Center. It was also staged in Moscow and in London. There is a wonderful moment there where a literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, visiting Paris, says to his friend, “There will come a day when saying that I’m Russian will not bring shame but will bring pride because of the Russian literature. It will be all about words, and literature has to take upon itself great tasks, substituting political institutions.” I’m not quoting directly, but that’s the meaning of the passage.

But this interest in and particular attention to words and ideas had another side to it, which was remarked on by a great Russian physiologist and psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, the same Pavlov—you know, Pavlov and the dog—who, speaking to students in Petrograd in 1919, two years after the Bolshevik Revolution in a country which was torn by civil war, said, “There is a very peculiar thing about Russian people in that we pay much more attention to words and ideas than we do to facts and reality.”

Now, it’s hard to suspect or accuse—by that time, he was in his late seventies—Ivan Pavlov of Russophobia. He was as great a European Russian as it gets. But that was a very true and almost sort of detached reflection on this faculty, our ability to sometimes believe the images and words, which is sort of the second signal system, more than you believe your own eyes. I have observed that faculty in Russia throughout the years that I have been reporting there, and most recently in Crimea and in Ukraine.

What was extraordinary—I was in Crimea just a few hours, literally, before the “polite green men” showed up. I was on the last flight out of Kiev to Simferopol. A few hours later, the airport was seized by the Russian Army.

I was traveling through Crimea, seeing people waving flags and celebrating something. When you asked them, “What are you celebrating?” they said, “We’re celebrating liberation.” “Liberation from what?” “Well, liberation from Ukrainian fascists, who just mounted a coup in Kiev, who were about to eliminate the Russian-speaking population in Crimea and deprive us of our cultural identity and probably kill us.”

In all this, I was asking, “That’s all very good, but where’s the enemy?” They said, “Well, the enemy is in Kiev. We’ve seen it on television.” [Laughter]

My reaction was exactly the same as yours, had it not been for the fact that a few weeks later the same narrative led to bloodshed in Eastern Ukraine. The very first thing that the Russian Army did—or Russian special forces, I should say, did—in Eastern Ukraine—and I would be happy to discuss the difference between the two and the policy responses—but the very first thing the Russian special forces did in crossing into Ukraine was to seize control over television transmitters and to switch off Ukrainian channels and to start broadcasting Russian channels, which were perpetuating this narrative of Ukrainian fascists who were coming to kill these poor Russian people in Eastern Ukraine.

Just imagine godforsaken, poor, poverty-stricken towns, with a lot of illegal mines, with a heavy-drinking population, where people sit and watch these pictures on their TV, and they come out of their house being told that they are heroes who are resisting this fascist aggression and being handed out weapons in the street.

The war which we have observed in Eastern Ukraine and in Crimea was a very unusual war. We refer to it as a “hybrid war” now. But it was a war that was led by the media, by television, and backed by the army, which is highly unusual. In normal warfare, where you have the military aggression first and then you have propaganda backing the military side, but here the damage was done first by the media, by the narrative of the message, and then the army provided the pictures, if you like. They backed television. They played out the script which was written in the television center in Moscow in Ostankino and in the corridors of the Kremlin.

Now, when this was happening, I was well into the book. The book was not supposed to cover those events when I started writing it. It took me much longer than I thought it would. I missed a couple of deadlines. But it clearly brought the whole idea of the importance of the media into focus. In a way, history was writing its own ending to my book and then confirming that the approach probably was the right one.

Now, if we look back, rewind the tape back 25 years, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was also the role of the media, and particularly print at that time—for interesting reasons, that communism was a pseudo-religion and operated with the same techniques like any religions, with books and scripts and arguments about the texts—the opening up of the media, in my view, was a crucial factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why? Because the Soviet Union rested ultimately on two main pillars. One pillar was repressions, or the threat of repressions, after Stalin‘s death, when they became less of a mass terror and became more targeted repressions aimed at dissidents, and were getting weaker as the regime was getting weaker.

The second pillar was ideology, or propaganda, or, to be precise, lies. It was when Mikhail Gorbachev and people who were around him, and in particular one man who I would like to note, who deserves far greater credit than he has received so far—luckily, there is a book by Richard Pipes I think recently out—a man by the name of Alexander Yakovlev, who was a member of the Politburo, who was ambassador in Canada for 11 years, and who was absolutely instrumental not only in bringing about perestroika but in actually formulating ideas which Gorbachev carried on his banners.

Yakovlev’s idea was that the only way to dismantle this very dangerous system was by opening the information channels. It was when they started opening the information channels, when they started to open out the media and weakening the ideology, they effectively pulled the second main pillar from under the system and the system came crashing down.

Now, Gorbachev obviously didn’t intend that. Gorbachev came to revive the Soviet system, to revive socialism, and perestroika was carried out in the name of going back to the ideas and the principles of Lenin. It was carried out in the name of socialism with a human face. But one thing it could not withstand, and that was the contact with reality and with the truth.

The Soviet Union came about by the words. The very first thing the Bolsheviks did was to seize newspapers, to put books on blacklists, to formulate new ideology, and the Soviet Union vanished by the words. The Soviet Union, of course, did run out of money, but even more so it ran out of words, of things to say to the people. I could elaborate on that. There were reasons why it was Gorbachev’s generation that was so instrumental in that. I’ll just say two things.

One, this was a generation formed by two very important experiences. One was a lot of them were the children of the old Bolsheviks. They were effectively the Soviet patricians. They were the Soviet princes. They were the people who felt entitled—not only entitled, but they felt duty-bound — to carry on the tasks of their fathers, many of whom vanished in Stalin’s gulag. It was because many of them got killed that they had what I would call sort of Hamlet complex of not just redeeming their fathers, but making sure that they put Russia back on the right track, that they carry on their deeds. That was a very, very important incentive and stimulus for many of those people who are described in this book, the lieutenants of perestroika.

The second important experience was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when all the hopes which were harnessed in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev‘s thaw came to nothing when the Soviet Union sent tanks to Prague. Gorbachev had a particular personal experience of this event because one of his closest university friends was Zdeněk Mlynář, who was Alexander Dubček‘s right-hand man in Czechoslovakia. Dubček was brought to Moscow in shackles. When Gorbachev was sent to Prague to restore a relationship between the youth in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, he couldn’t find his friend. His friend was by that time exiled.

And by the way, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was also a response to the opening of the freedom of the media in Czechoslovakia.

In a way, there was an unspoken oath given by that generation that “we will never do the same, we will never use violence.” It was Gorbachev’s aversion to violence, at least as much as the arms race, that ensured that the Soviet Union ended the way it did.

Just in parentheses, there is a wonderful remark which was made by the Soviet chief ideologist, Stalinist, a man by the name of Suslov, who, speaking to the Politburo, said: “The time that passed between the Czechoslovak government passing a new media law, opening the media, and the time when we had to bring in the tanks was only a few months. Now, what if we adopted the same law? Who would send the tanks to us?” The Soviets made that link very clearly between the opening of the media in Czechoslovakia and what happened with reforms and their shift westwards.

So words were incredibly important in bringing down the Soviet Union. They were as important, I believe—although images take over, because we move into the 1990s, the era of television—in forming the new country.

It was an extraordinary experiment which we observed in the early 1990s, with private Russian television channels, such as NTV, and some newspapers, like Kommersant, private Russian newspapers, that proceeded to model and program a new country, not necessarily to reflect the reality on the ground. And in Russia it was a pretty dire reality—effectively, economic collapse, lack of institutions, lack of state mechanisms, a half-disintegrating country. But the television was already kind of a Western television. It was supposed to deliver the country to the new era, to the normal civilized world, as they put it. It was good television.

There was a short period, in 1994-1995, during the war in Chechnya, when television did carry out its task and Russian reporters did extraordinarily brave things. But they also spoke a lot of half-truths and made a lot of compromises, which were particularly noticeable in 1997-1998, when the oligarchs who effectively controlled the main television channels used those television channels to fight corporate wars with each other and who very effectively smashed up, in 1997, the most liberal young government which was appointed by Yeltsin at the time, the government which was led by Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, who was, in Yeltsin’s view, a future Russia’s president.

Boris Nemtsov, as you I’m sure all know, was killed outside the Kremlin in 2015 protesting against the war in Ukraine. Nemtsov was a good friend, and it was an enormous loss, a personal loss, and, I believe, a huge loss for the country.

But there we are. This is what happened in the 1990s. This government got smashed. Russia entered into sort of an economic spiral of financial crisis in 1998, leaving Yeltsin with very little choice but to look around in security services for his successor, for somebody who could restore a sense of stability and statehood in the country.

The oligarchs who, as I said, controlled the media, recognized this mood and this demand in Russia for a strong man, somebody very different in stature and in appearance from Yeltsin, and proceeded, by the means of television ultimately, to create their own security man, as they believed, a man who would be obedient, who would come from the security services background, but yet would be easily controlled by the oligarchs and the media. Nobody knew the name. Nobody recognized the man. There was this guy, Vladimir Putin, who nobody had heard of. He was very much the product of the media—again, of the construction of the reality.

Of course, the very first thing that Putin did upon becoming Russia’s president, way before taking control of the commanding heights of the economy, of oil and gas and natural resources, was to take control over the media, and particularly over television. The television remote control became the main tool for ruling the country.

In the 1990s, there was an interesting dynamic between those who controlled the media and who commanded the media and the security services. A particular example of that was the presidential elections in Russia in 1996, where Yeltsin, contrary to the popular perception that Yeltsin was facing just the communists—Yeltsin was, in my view—and the documents bear this out—was never about to surrender power anyway.

But Yeltsin was faced with two groups within the Kremlin that were fighting each other. One group was led by his bodyguard and by the other security services establishment, who were calling on him to cancel the elections or postpone them because of Yeltsin’s low rating. The other group was some of the liberal economists, the oligarchs, and the media, who wanted Yeltsin to win transparently and openly because that would give Yeltsin legitimacy, that would help to integrate Russia into the West, that would increase the value of their assets. The siloviki, the security people, on the other hand, wanted to make Yeltsin as much of a hostage to them as possible. These two powers clashed and, for the first time, the media gained the upper hand. The bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, was sacked. The media people were promoted. The president of NTV television channel was offered the job of Yeltsin’s chief of staff.

What Putin did a few years later, having observed the power of the media, was an extraordinary thing. He effectively merged these two things together. He merged security services with the media. He understood perfectly well that in a country at the stage of Russian economic development you could not rule simply by means of police and security services and repression. Anyway, he was not, and to this day, I don’t think—and we shouldn’t exaggerate—he is not a bloodthirsty tyrant who is just desperate to kill his own countrymen. Even after the protests in 2011 and 2012, Russia, thank god, did not have Tiananmen Square.

So he understood very well the power of ideas and the media. He preferred to rule the country, yes, by security services who were put in charge of the key government positions and economic positions, but also the media, which allowed him to manipulate the narrative, which he has very successfully done. He brought together these two services, the security services and the media. The result of that merger was the situation which I described earlier, which we faced in Ukraine and which we still face today, not just in Russia and not just in Russian periphery, but now further West—in the attacks, propaganda and information warfare attacks, in Germany, Finland, Sweden, financing of right-wing parties in France.

Now, I’m very far from suggesting that Vladimir Putin has anything to do with the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump. But that said, the hopes and expectations in Moscow that Trump will win—and some of the rhetoric that we are hearing from the Trump campaign about making America great again, about imposing limitations on the media and changing libel laws, calling journalists scum, and particularly, total disregard for truth and facts—all those things, for somebody who has been reporting from Russia, seem just too painfully familiar.

Arkady Ostrovsky is Russia and East European editor for The Economist. He was formerly the magazine’s Moscow bureau chief.

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