Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin
Photo credit: The White House and President of Russia (CC BY 4.0)

Russian-born journalist Arkady Ostrovsky takes a deeper look at Russian history to help us better understand today’s headlines.

Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has Russia been so front and center in our consciousness. What happened to create this? How did Russia go from Glasnost and Perestroika to Putin and Kleptocracy?

Did the country change, did the people change, or were the current tendencies there all along?

Arkady Ostrovsky, a Russian-born journalist who has spent 16 years reporting from Moscow, talks with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the reality behind the headlines.

The author of The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, Ostrovsky shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his US counterpart Donald Trump, is simply a reactive politician, driven to using nationalism to exploit fear, insecurity and feelings of inferiority.

However, in Putin’s case, the nation’s fear and insecurity are far more real.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

In October of 1939, Winston Churchill said of Russia that, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. The key is Russian national interest.” Today, 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we could say exactly the same thing about Russia. The Russia that Gorbachev ushered in as the Cold War ended is seemingly a far cry from the Russia today of Vladimir Putin. What happened? Did the country change? Did the people change? Or were the current tendencies there all along? We’re going to talk about that today with my guest Arkady Ostrovsky. Arkady Ostrovsky is a Russian born journalist whose articles for The Financial Times were the first to warn of Russia’s impending takeover by the KGB. He has reported from Moscow for over 10 years for The Financial Times and joined The Economist in 2007. And he’s the author of the The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War. Arkady Ostrovsky, thanks much for joining us.

Arkaday Ostrovsky: Thank you for inviting me.

Jeff: One of the things that you talk about that is so fascinating, within the broader context of trying to understand Russia then and now, is you talk about it being a country where ideas matter, a country where ideas have significance. Talk a little bit about that first.

Arkaday: Well, Russia’s a very idea centric country where words and literature really matter a great deal. I first started thinking about it while I was translating Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a great trilogy, about Russian 19th century thinkers. And one of them, a Russian literature critic, says in it that literature can replace, can actually become Russia, that literature carried sort of a lot of social purpose and fulfilled the role that another country’s institutions and parties do, etc. So I just started looking at this through the prism of the media, and the words, and it was… it proved to be a rather fruitful approach because suddenly that complicated story started a rather different picture for me. And words had enormous importance in the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union was, you know, the Bolshevik country was based on the idea of utopia. On the books during the Soviet era, people studied Marx and Lenin, the way they studied the Bible and Torah. That had been my approach, and then in the 1990s of course it became television that replaced the printed words and became the dominant medium. So I wanted to tell the story of what happened in Russia between that extraordinary time of hope, aspiration and optimism in the late 80s when I was a student, when the country was about to open up, when there was an enormous sense of hope and promise, how did we get to today? Even though when Russia is seen as a threat, as a challenge, security threat to its neighbors, a challenge to the United States, and I believe a threat to its own people.  How did we get here when we didn’t really have any one moment, any counterrevolutionary turn that we can point to and say, “OK, this is where it all changed.”

Jeff: One of the things you talk about is that there was really a kind of fatal flaw that was inherent in the way the transition took place under Gorbachev.

Arkaday: There was… well more than one. I mean you could look at the economy, you could look at policy, but once again what I concentrated on was the media. The flaw, one of the flaws was that on the way to open up the country, on the way to tell the truth, the local people who were in charge of the Russian media used the lie, or half-truth. They couldn’t still, you know, Perestroika and Glasnost that created reform, and the Glasnost opening up of the media, should not be mistaken for a sudden freedom of speech when everyone could just suddenly say whatever they wanted and report the news. The newspapers at the time were about essays, they were about opinions, they were about looking at history, they were about “distillinization”, but they were not really about reflecting the reality. Now what was the fundamental problem, is that the people who came to lead Russia to what they thought was a new era, basically were unwinding the tapes of history back to the time when they thought things went wrong. And for their generation, for Gorbachev and the lieutenants of Perestroika around him, the time when things went wrong was the time when they were in their 20s, it was 1968, it was when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, and crashed the reform efforts of the government in Czechoslovakia. They thought, “Okay, that was the point when things went wrong. So why don’t we go back to that idea of Socialism with a human face? Why don’t we try to give the Soviet Union a new lease of life?” And they didn’t really pay attention to reality, which was unraveling before them. They didn’t really pay attention to the economy and to the facts. They lived in sort of a little, almost fantasy world of the past, thinking they could go back to that bygone era. And that continued throughout the 90s. Every time a new generation would come, they would try to look for this point on the track of history, Russia’s favorite track of history, as if it were a railway which could be traveled backwards and forwards on, trying to get back to that crucial fork in the road where Russia had gone on the wrong track.

Jeff: To what extent was the response, and a kind of triumphalism on the part of the West, to what extent was that impactful in the way this evolved?

Arkaday: So, look, that clearly didn’t help. I completely understand why on the 25th of December ‘91, when Gorbachev stepped down, when he abdicated from power effectively, and his farewell to the Soviet Union, George Bush Senior addressed the American nation straight after Gorbachev that the Cold War had been won, and we have prevailed. And in his speech to the American nation, those words were repeated several times – the words of victory. I understand why that happened, and America had its own narrative to follow. The trouble with that was that American and West European leaders didn’t really appreciate the scale of change that was before them. And they didn’t quite appreciate what impact those words of triumphalism and victory would have on the Russian people, particularly when people were going through economic hardship. So those words and I quote, ”By the grace of God, America won the Cold War,” was what Bush said. That sentiment, that triumphalism, was later used very successfully and skillfully by Putin who started to first project that sense of humiliation onto the whole country – and to be fair, that humiliation was only felt, really strongly by the KGB, which has been humiliated, which has been defeated in the early 90s – but he projected that sense of humiliation within the KGB, which was his alma mater, onto the whole country. And then having done that, he built up on that the narrative of resurgence, the narrative of revenge, the narrative of Russia coming back from the cold and him as the great leader, making Russia great again. Sometimes when I hear the rhetoric of Donald Trump, it just sounds so familiar.

Jeff: One of the things that played into, and you talk about this being two traditional Russian archetypes, that there’s always been this ongoing battle between reformists and nationalists. That that’s in the kind of Russian DNA.

Arkaday: Well, I don’t believe in DNA and sort of don’t believe in determinism, but it certainly has been part of Russian history for a very long time. I mean the debate that has been shaping Russia in the 19th century and before was always between those who believed in reform – and reforms mostly meant orientation towards the West, that Russia needs to become part of the Western world and embrace modernization. And those who believed Russia had its own path to follow, and it’s a unique Orthodox Christian civilization, which should follow its own path. It became in the 1990s a violent struggle between those two camps because the nationalists, and it might sound strange, but the nationalists made this alliance, this coalition with the hardcore communists who completely threw away all the ideas about internationalism and the global revolution, and all those things and became like Stalin, himself became a nationalist and imperialist. So, there was a genuine fight between those nationalists and the westernizing sort of reformers. That fight was before audiences on TV screens of the CNN in October ’93 when Yeltsin had a standoff with a parliament which was seized by those nationalists. We remember the extraordinary footage of tanks, shelling with empty shells, shelling the House of Parliament, the White House. Now, we thought at the time that that sort of nationalist part of the political spectrum had really been defeated. And it hasn’t been until 2013, 2014, when Russia and the next premier started a war in eastern Ukraine, that I realized in writing this book, that, in fact, those nationalist forces not only hadn’t gone, hadn’t been defeated, they simply sort of were simmering under the surface. But they came back, they were brushed off and they became the winners in the last two years of Russia, which is a very disturbing thought.

Jeff: To what extent does Putin understand these underlying issues? How much of it of his actions are reactive, and how much of it really reflects a keen understanding of some of the issues that you’re talking about?

Arkaday: That’s a million-dollar question. I think it’s both. Putin is a reactive politician. He’s a very good tactician. You know, people often say he doesn’t have a strategy. Maybe he doesn’t have a strategy, but he moves so fast, his tactical moves become a strategy of their own. He can act very, very quickly. So yes, in some ways he’s responding to the situation, and the annexation of Crimea and the war in Georgia were responses to both of those former Soviet republics drifting westward, or the Western institutions drifting eastward, if you will. It was also a response against protests that took place in Moscow in Winter 2012, when tens of thousands of middle-class educated people came onto the streets demanding modernization, demanding a new nationstate. And he trumped those not just with force, but with this idea – idea again being so important, and ideology being so important – he trumped with the idea of imperial nationalism. And he did that because he does understand that dynamic, he does understand how powerful in a former empire, how powerful the idea of national imperialism can be. And that’s what he attunes to.

Jeff: He also understands, coming back to something else you talked about, he also understands how to use the media and the importance of television in particular.

Arkaday: Completely, the very first thing that Putin did when he came to power was to seize control over television. In a way, that was a precondition for him taking control of the commanding of the economy and consolidating his power. He had to control the narrative. He had to control people’s minds. And television in Russia is now completely controlled and owned by the state. He used the remote control as his sort of, his main tool of power. Boris Nemtsov, a wonderful politician, a liberal Russian politician, was murdered outside the Kremlin just over a year ago, told me that when he visited Putin soon after his inauguration as the president, the only object that he saw on Putin’s desk was a television remote control. And that was a telling detail, because that’s how Putin deals with power, he constructs, he invents reality, invents a narrative which is then turned into real events. His friend, former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, once said that “what’s on TV didn’t happen.” Now, Putin took it a step further, and made it into “what didn’t happen, can be made to happen by the power of television.” And that’s what we saw in Ukraine for example.

Jeff: To what extent has any social media made any penetration in Russia and do you see that as having an impact over time?

Arkaday: Social media was very important, and still is very important in Russia, and not just obviously in Russian political protests. We saw how important social media was during the Arab Spring. It played a similar role in Russia during those protests in 2011 and 2012, which saw some sort of Russian Spring. Again, Putin does in a quite ingenious way, different from the way the Chinese deal with the Internet and the social media – the Chinese just impose this sort of firewall, in fact ban access to service providers from outside China. Putin didn’t do that, he deluged, the Kremlin sort of deluged the Internet with its own messages, its own trolls, with its own content, creating this sort of disorienting noise where there are no facts, there is no truth, there are so many versions of it, things simply get lost. Again, he dealt with it by the power of words and ideas, rather than simply mechanically switching it off, if you like.

Jeff: Is Putin in a position where he has to keep upping the ante in terms of this nationalism that we talked about before, that there are just more and more internal problems to cover-up – and certainly the decline in the price of oil being perhaps one of the penultimate problems – that the nationalism card has to be played over and over and over again, and maybe one too many times at some point?

Arkaday: That’s a great question, and that’s what we’re all, those of us who report on Russia, keep asking ourselves. How long can it go for? Will Putin have to escalate, if he only sort of …, where there has to be constant aggression, constant nationalism. It’s hard to say. On the one hand, yes, it would make sense as the economy continues to shrink, the oil price stays low, as people’s incomes fall through devaluation and high inflation. Yes, one of the thoughts is that this is one of the easiest ways of dealing with it. You have a war in Ukraine, you have the annexation of Crimea, you have the reactions in Syria, and, you know, you’re just waiting for the next thing to happen. There is one very big constraint on Putin’s actions and that comes from this idea of virtual reality because if you construct this virtual television reality, this constant sort of soap opera or drama series, what you can’t afford is to have real casualties, because television kind of doesn’t allow for that – people don’t die for real on the television screen. And that has been very noticeable during the campaign in Ukraine when the Russian authorities completely freaked out when the news started slipping out about the number of Russian soldiers dead. They tried to cover it up because people were not prepared for that kind of losses, were not prepared for real confrontation. They’re totally comfortable with the television kind of war, which looks like computer games. But they’re not, Russia, a country of quite low birthrates, and the demographics of 1.5, less than two children per family – people are just not prepared for their children to go and die in a war for whatever idea. So that remains a very strong concerning fact, which is why all the campaigns that Putin fought, have been limited in military scale. He can’t afford a large engagement, so he has to balance between continuing to play the nationalist card, also not letting it get out of hand and for a conflict to turn into a really lethal one.

Jeff: And finally Arkaday, is there any countervailing political leadership that is rising up in Russia today?

Arkaday: Again, great question. Hard to answer. On the one hand, I do believe that there is this, you know, what we saw four or five years ago, in Moscow, during those street protests, was the beginning of a very important social shift. A new generation of people with bigger, higher income. The middle-class demanding certain changes. I don’t think that trend has gone away completely. Even if it has been silenced somewhat by nationalism. But in terms of a political force, yes there are some politicians like this man, Alexei Navalny, who’s an anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader. But there isn’t anybody obvious, but then again, how many of us in 1986, or let’s say 1985, 31 years ago, how many of us had heard of Mikhail Gorbachev? How many of us had heard of Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president, and the man who buried communism? Suddenly Yeltsin burst onto the scene as soon as they started opening up the media. I don’t exclude the same scenario again, but in a country where the media is so tightly controlled by the state, it’s just very difficult to say who might be the biggest challenger to Putin.

Jeff: Arkaday Ostrovsky, his book is The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War. Arkaday, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Arkaday: Thank you for inviting me. It has been great to be with you.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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