Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.
I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.
As befits a journalist, Walker can write interesting stories. On occasion, he has a very nice turn of phrase. For instance, I rather liked his description of how post-Soviet Russia began the process of decommunization and then gave up, in which he writes: ‘Russia was like a party host who awoke the morning after, started making a cursory effort to clean up the mess all around, but after a while simply gave up and slunk back to bed to nurse its hangover.’ I’m not sure that I fully agree, but I found the simile rather neat. I’m sure most readers will find this book engaging.
This is, it must be said, a much, much better book than the one by Walker’s fellow Guardian journalist Luke Harding which I recently reviewed. Some of his stories – such as when he snuck a recording device into a meeting at which a Russian general tried to coerce a Ukrainian counterpart to surrender during the takeover of Crimea in 2014 – are quite fascinating. His account of the start of the war in Ukraine is balanced and fair. Although his sympathies for the Maidan revolution are clear, he doesn’t gloss over its more negative side, and demonstrates that the anti-Maidan risings in Donbass in spring 2014 were the product of local grievances, led and organized by locals. He is critical of the nationalist and triumphalist agenda of those who took power in Kiev post-Maidan, and of their refusal (as well as the refusal of Western politicians and diplomats) to recognize that the anti-Maidan movement was founded on legitimate concerns. Walker thinks that those who rose up against Maidan were wrong to do so, and that their fears became a self-fulfilling prophecy (which I think is fairly accurate). He also blames Russia for stoking up these fears. But if you read between the lines, his account of 2014 is quite subversive of the mainstream narrative that the war in Ukraine is purely a matter of ‘Russian aggression’ and not in any way a civil war. If I have a criticism, it is that he doesn’t draw this conclusion explicitly and also that his reporting in The Guardian has never really expressed this point of view.
Walker knows Russia well, and it’s obvious that he understands how ordinary Russians think about their past and their present. There’s a revealing moment in the book when he visits a privately-run museum in the Russian far east devoted to the Gulag. Walker expects the curator to be pleased to have a visitor to whom he can explain the abuses of Stalin’s prison system. Instead, he’s shocked when the curator denounces him, saying ‘You come here and you’re looking for negative things.’ Touché! Later, driving past a deserted Soviet town, the Russian tells Walker, ‘Everything’s gone to shit now. It’s all the fault of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. … Gorbachev is a bastard! … We would all have been better off if he hadn’t started his stupid perestroika. We had an incredible country and now it’s all gone. Bastard!’ Walker’s driver then also lays into him: ‘Why did you come here?’ he asks, ‘Your America is trying to destroy the world. Iraq! Syria! Libya! And now Ukraine. You fucking scumbags. Putin is the one man standing up to you all.’
Walker, then, gives us a good picture of what people in Russia think. He just doesn’t like it very much. There’s another revealing moment when he describes how, after the Bolotnaia protests in 2011/12, Putin’s ‘solution was to pit the majority of Russians against this uppity minority [of protestors].’ How dreadful! Basing government on the views of the majority of vatniki and sovoks with their mistaken and disturbing opinions about Stalin, rather than on the views of the liberal elite, is obviously a bad thing – or at least that’s what Walker seems to be implying. There’s a lot in the book about Soviet nostalgia, Russians’ denial of the negative aspects of the Soviet Union, and the supposedly damaging effects of this worldview, and Walker feels that the prevailing ignorance, nationalism, and aggression is in part Putin’s fault. For, as he writes, ‘These feelings, while explicable, had been seeded and needled by the endless propaganda churned out by the television and government messaging.’ This is where Ukraine fits into his narrative. The people of Crimea didn’t really want to secede from Ukraine; the people of Donbass didn’t really want to rebel against Kiev. Or at least, they didn’t initially. If they eventually did, it’s because their brains were turned into mulch by Russian TV and by fantasies of the Great Patriotic War and of stories of evil Nazis coming to destroy them. Thus, he says, support for annexation in Crimea was ‘nothing like the unanimous desire Russia claimed,’ and in any case ‘without the intense propaganda it is unclear a majority would have been in favour of full accession to Russia.’
But here we confront a kind of chicken and egg problem. Is Soviet nostalgia, the valorization of 1945, and so on, really a product of Kremlin policy? Or is Kremlin policy a response to public sentiment? Walker quotes Alexander Dugin as telling him, ‘You can’t say that Putin forced the war cult on the people, but you also can’t say that the people independently demanded it. It was a natural process that flowed in both directions. It was organic.’ Dugin makes a good point here. Things are more complex than the ‘propaganda’ meme suggests. I think that Walker understands this. He acknowledges the deep roots of Soviet nostalgia, but in the end he feels a need to come back to viewing the process from a top-down position. The result is that the analysis lacks the depth I would need in order to properly understand what has been going on.
In any case, one can easily challenge the idea that the Russian state promotes Soviet nostalgia. Walker writes, ‘The impulse to take pride in the Second World War … meant not only skipping over the darker pages of the war effort, but also whitewashing the nature of the Soviet regime at the time. To celebrate the war victory was to celebrate the continuation of this system.’ – i.e. there’s a direct link between celebrating 1945 and continued authoritarian rule in Russia. But does Putin ‘whitewash the nature of the Soviet regime’? That’s highly debatable. If it’s true, how can one explain his decision as Prime Minister to make Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago compulsory reading for high school pupils, or his attendance at the consecration of the Sretenskii Monastery (devoted to the victims of communism) and at the unveiling of the Wall of Grief in Moscow (devoted also to the victims of communism)?
This week, I read an article on the conservative Russian website Russian Idea about historical memory and the unveiling of a statue to Tsar Alexander III. The author argues that the Russian state’s attitude to the Soviet Union is anything but positive. Even when it comes to the Second World War, the Russian state takes pains to divorce the victory from Soviet power. The article notes that in an attempt to gain legitimacy the state is floundering around picking on all sorts of historical commemorations of a non-Soviet nature – a monument to Alexander III in Crimea, a statue to Pyotr Stolypin, the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg (which could hardly be said to be an effort to base legitimacy on Soviet nostalgia), and so on. In short, there’s a lot more going on than just celebrating World War Two. And even if one disagrees with what this article is saying, the very fact that the author is saying it indicates that many Russians certainly don’t feel that their government is trying to gain legitimacy by whitewashing the Soviet era. Quite the opposite, in fact – they feel their government is anti-Soviet. Which makes one wonder whether the refusal to accept the negative sides of Stalin’s rule which Walker describes really has that much to do with Putin at all.
There’s also a disconnect in my mind between Soviet nostalgia and denial of Soviet crimes on the one hand, and celebration of victory in 1945 on the other. Walker treats them as if they are one and the same phenomenon. The idea is that the latter leads to the former. But while this might be the case, Walker fails to provide evidence to prove it. There’s a missing link in the chain of logic. Likewise, there’s something missing in the chain of logic which connects the ‘cult of victory’ with the war in Ukraine. A lot of Walker’s book is about historical memory. But once he starts discussing Donbass, the connection between celebrations of 1945 in Moscow and events in Donbass in 2014 is largely lost. For sure, fear of ‘fascists’ coming to terrorize Donbass played a role in persuading locals to join the rebel armies. But that wasn’t the only factor, and in any case these people had been living in Ukraine for over 20 years; their understanding of World War Two surely owed much to factors far outside Moscow’s influence. Walker describes interviews he carried out with rebel commander Alexander Khodakovsky (interviews which are very useful for anybody wishing to study the conflict, it must be said). Khodakovsky describes how the memory of the war was a central part of his childhood, and tells Walker just why Soviet nostalgia plays an important part in the identity of the people of Donbass. But none of this has anything to do with Putin and long predates him as well as recent ‘Russian propaganda’. That’s not to deny that the latter may not have had some influence but, again, there are some layers of complexity here which need much deeper exploration.
I realize that academics and journalists work in different ways, but as one of the former I have certain expectations about how an argument should be constructed. So let me imagine how one of my social science colleagues might react to this book if presented as student thesis. I suspect that the reaction would be something along these lines: a) there isn’t a clear thesis statement; b) the methodology – anecdotal descriptions of visits made and interviews conducted – doesn’t actually help develop a thesis in depth; c) there’s no effort to isolate the chosen variable – historical memory and Putin’s manipulation of it – to the phenomenon being observed (war in Ukraine etc), so as to be able to measure the impact of that single variable and determine the extent to which the phenomenon is the result of it, rather than something else; d) subsequent failure to test the hypothesis by relating the facts given back to the hypothesis on a regular basis; and e) lack of firm conclusions.
I have some sympathy with what Walker is saying. I’m not a fan of attempts to glorify war; I certainly don’t agree with those who try to deny the crimes of the Soviet era or to argue that the ‘ends justified the means’; and deep at heart, I tend to agree that it would be better if people were all good educated liberals not semi-ignorant, Stalin-excusing rednecks. Having said all that, I’m not convinced that state policy on historical commemoration can be viewed as such as powerful cause of behaviour, let alone as the cause of something like the war in Ukraine. It’s a factor, but just one among many, and as much, if not more, a product of events as a cause of them. Soviet nostalgia is part of a complicated system of interacting phenomena, not something the state can just turn on and off again.
I’m also not sure that what Walker describes is uniquely Russian. He himself addresses this issue, saying that parallels could be drawn with the way British people don’t care very much about the more negative aspects of British colonialism, and the way the Spanish have chosen by and large to ignore what happened during the Franco era and have decided instead to ‘move on.’ But he thinks that the Russian case is different because it does more than ignore the past: it seeks to actively glorify it. This is debatable (in part for the reasons above), and I think it quite reasonable to argue that the British and French post-colonial hangovers are just as significant in explaining the continued pretensions of grandeur and military activism of the United Kingdom and France. And if that is true (and like all cultural explanations it’s impossible to prove it), then we’re dealing with a widespread phenomenon which can’t be explained in Russia’s case by simple reference to recent government practices in historical commemoration.
So, overall, I would say that this is an intelligent, well-written book which contains a number of interesting, and often quite insightful stories. You can learn a lot from them. But in my mind, the effort to meld the stories together into a coherent narrative, and thereby to argue a specific thesis, does not succeed.