As terrible as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be for Ukrainians, it also spells suffering for Russians, who cannot shake their own society’s paranoid, authoritarian traditions. Long gone is the modicum of pluralistic politics attempted briefly under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Vanished is the relatively relaxed acceptance of multilateral interests in “the near abroad,” as Russia calls its European neighbors. Now, as if reaffirming its tragic history, Russia is firmly back into autocratic form under Vladimir Putin, with its attendant xenophobia, insularity, and belligerence.
For all its bigness and might, Russia has a thin skin, easily penetrated by slights and humiliation. There have been plenty of those inflicted by the United States and western Europe, most dramatically in breaking promises from the early 1990s to refrain from expanding NATO. But even with that, Putin’s pugnacious sense of victimization runs far beyond reality. It depends on a demonization of the outside world as vitriolic as in Communist times. It depends on a vertical flow of power as dictatorial as the czars’.
Putin’s raging, wounded speech on February 21 setting the stage for war brought back a memory from the 1977 Soviet Union, when a Moscow police lieutenant stopped a West German television crew from filming the smoke-damaged exterior of the Rossiya Hotel after a fire that killed at least 20 people. The reporter asked why. The officer explained: “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.”
The remark offered a telling insight. To imagine that foreigners were eager to mock Russia over a deadly fire must have required extraordinary self-torment, a loneliness of unfathomable pain. There is every indication, 45 years later, that Russia’s leadership remains stuck in that state of mind.
The sense of persecution echoes into Putin’s current remarks. Ukraine “has been reduced to a colony [of NATO] with a puppet regime,” the Russian president declared. It “intends to create its own nuclear weapons,” and “Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.” Its policy is “to root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation.” It is subjecting ethnic Russians to “horror and genocide” in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which—he neglected to mention—was being wracked by an eight-year civil war that he launched and fueled. Those crimes, he said, were being ignored by “the so-called civilized world, which our Western colleagues proclaimed themselves the only representatives of.” He called Ukraine’s democratic movement, which overthrew the pro-Moscow government in 2014, “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism.”
These dystopian fantasies about Western designs on Russia’s pride and security make a volatile chemistry. Whether he believes them or not, Putin uses a technique once described by a Soviet professor as characterizing sophisticated propaganda: “a truth, a truth, a truth, and then a lie.”
Putin mixes truth and falsehood. His list of grievances include the real NATO expansion, the imaginary “support for terrorists in the North Caucasus,” George W. Bush’s real withdrawal from the antiballistic missile treaty, and “the disregard for our security demands and concerns.” In sum, the Russian president asked, “Why? What is all this about, what is the purpose? All right, you do not want to see us as friends or allies, but why make us an enemy?”
Russia is not a carbon copy of the Soviet Union. Small antiwar demonstrations broke out in Moscow and other cities after the Ukraine invasion, with protesters quickly arrested, live on CNN. In Communist days, in the unlikely event of such a demonstration, no overt broadcast would have been allowed.
Still, the Russian press has been largely stifled, dissidents jailed and murdered, and opposition candidates barred from ballots. The legislature has become as supine as the Communist Supreme Soviet, voting mechanically for Putin’s agenda.
Russian reformers have been unable to free their society from its suspicion of disorder, the lust for a strong hand at the top, the distrust of foreigners, the ethnocentrism, the fear of encirclement, the jealous secrecy, the mixed inferiority/superiority complex, and the twisting of history. These are the currents that buoy Putin and his circle of ultranationalists now embarked on the most dangerous game seen in the heart of Europe since the end of World War II.
Significantly, that list of beliefs overlapped both left-wing Communist and right-wing anticommunist constituencies in Soviet times. In the 1970s, a semi-dissident undercurrent known colloquially as Russian nationalists harbored anticommunist views yet shared most of the Communist Party’s attitudes about the West and democracy. They spurned Marxist ideology but embraced dictatorship. Their most celebrated voice, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, declared in 1973, “Russia is authoritarian. Let it remain so, and let us no longer try to change that.” Those who run the country now, even former Communists like Putin, are heirs to that Russian nationalism of decades ago.
The top-down decision-making structure, rebuilt and fortified by Putin after the Soviet Union’s collapse, appears to leave him free from checks and balances as he executes war. If there is politics in the Kremlin, it is hidden and muted.
The difficulty of creating democracy was expected. In 1990, the waning days of the Soviet Union, after relatively free elections a year earlier, a member of the Duma, munching on hors d’oeuvre in the legislature’s buffet, offered me one of those delicious jokes that Russians loved, but one salted with sadness:
Legislator No. 1: Do you think we’ll ever have a democracy like Sweden’s?
Legislator No. 2: Not a chance.
No. 1: Why not?
No. 2: We don’t have enough Swedes.