Russia, One Year After the Invasion of Ukraine

A year ago, in January, I went to Moscow to learn what I could about the coming war—chiefly, whether it would happen. I spoke with journalists and think tankers and people who seemed to know what the authorities were up to. I walked around Moscow and did some shopping. I stayed with my aunt near the botanical garden. Fresh white snow lay on the ground, and little kids walked with their moms to go sledding. Everyone was certain that there would be no war.

I had immigrated to the U.S. as a child, in the early eighties. Since the mid-nineties, I’d been coming back to Moscow about once a year. During that time, the city kept getting nicer, and the political situation kept getting worse. It was as if, in Russia, more prosperity meant less freedom. In the nineteen-nineties, Moscow was chaotic, crowded, dirty, and poor, but you could buy half a dozen newspapers on every corner that would denounce the war in Chechnya and call on Boris Yeltsin to resign. Nothing was holy, and everything was permitted. Twenty-five years later, Moscow was clean, tidy, and rich; you could get fresh pastries on every corner. You could also get prosecuted for something you said on Facebook. One of my friends had recently spent ten days in jail for protesting new construction in his neighborhood. He said that he met a lot of interesting people.

The material prosperity seemed to point away from war; the political repression, toward it. Outside of Moscow, things were less comfortable, and outside of Russia the Kremlin had in recent years become more aggressive. It had annexed Crimea, supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, propped up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, interfered in the U.S. Presidential election. But internally the situation was stagnant: the same people in charge, the same rhetoric about the West, the same ideological mishmash of Soviet nostalgia, Russian Orthodoxy, and conspicuous consumption. In 2021, Vladimir Putin had changed the constitution so that he could stay in power, if he wanted, until 2036. The comparison people made most often was to the Brezhnev years—what Leonid Brezhnev himself had called the era of “developed socialism.” This was the era of developed Putinism. Most people did not expect any sudden moves.

My friends in Moscow were doing their best to wrap their minds around the contradictions. Alexander Baunov, a journalist and political analyst, was then at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. We met in his cozy apartment, overlooking a typical Moscow courtyard—a small copse of trees and parked cars, all covered lovingly in a fresh layer of snow. Baunov thought that a war was possible. There was a growing sense among the Russian élite that the results of the Cold War needed to be revisited. The West continued to treat Russia as if it had lost—expanding NATO to its borders and dealing with Russia, in the context of things like E.U. expansion, as being no more important or powerful than the Baltic states or Ukraine—but it was the Soviet Union that had lost, not Russia. Putin, in particular, felt unfairly treated. “Gorbachev lost the Cold War,” Baunov said. “Maybe Yeltsin lost the Cold War. But not Putin. Putin has only ever won. He won in Chechnya, he won in Georgia, he won in Syria. So why does he continue to be treated like a loser?” Barack Obama referred to his country as a mere “regional power”; despite hosting a fabulous Olympics, Russia was sanctioned in 2014 for invading Ukraine, and sanctioned again, a few years later, for interfering in the U.S. Presidential elections. It was the sort of thing that the United States got away with all the time. But Russia got punished. It was insulting.

At the same time, Baunov thought that an actual war seemed unlikely. Ukraine was not only supposedly an organic part of Russia, it was also a key element of the Russian state’s mythology around the Second World War. The regime had invested so much energy into commemorating the victory over fascism; to turn around and then bomb Kyiv and Kharkiv, just as the fascists had once done, would stretch the borders of irony too far. And Putin, for all his bluster, was actually pretty cautious. He never started a fight he wasn’t sure he could win. Initiating a war with a NATO-backed Ukraine could be dangerous; it could lead to unpredictable consequences. It could lead to instability, and stability was the one thing that Putin had delivered to Russians over the past twenty years.

For liberals, it was increasingly a period of accommodation and consolidation. Another friend, whom I’ll call Kolya, had left his job writing life-style pieces for an independent Web site a few years earlier, as the Kremlin’s media policy grew increasingly meddlesome. Kolya accepted an offer to write pieces on social themes for a government outlet. This was far better, and clearer: he knew what topics to stay away from, and the pay was good.

I visited Kolya at his place near Patriarch’s Ponds. He had married into a family that had once been part of the Soviet nomenklatura, and he and his wife had inherited an apartment in a handsome nineteen-sixties Party building in the city center. From Kolya’s balcony you could see Brezhnev’s old apartment. You could tell it was Brezhnev’s because the windows were bigger than the surrounding ones. As for Kolya’s apartment, it was smaller than other apartments in his building. The reason was that the apartment next to his had once belonged to a Soviet war hero, and the war hero, of course, needed the building’s largest apartment, so his had been expanded, long ago, at the expense of Kolya’s. Still, it was a very nice apartment, with enormously high ceilings and lots of light.

Kolya was closely following the situation around Alexey Navalny, who had returned to Russia and been imprisoned a year before. Navalny was slowly being tortured to death in prison, and yet his team of investigators and activists continued to publish exposés of Russian officials’ corruption. There was still some real journalistic work being done in Russia, though a number of outlets, such as the news site Meduza, were primarily operating from abroad. Kolya said that he worried about outright censorship, but also about self-censorship. He told me about journalists who had left the field. One had gone to work in communications for a large bank. Another was now working on elections—“and not in a good way.” The noose was tightening, and yet no one thought there’d be a war.

What is one to make, in retrospect, of what happened to Russia between December, 1991, when its President, Boris Yeltsin, signed an agreement with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to disband the U.S.S.R., and February 24, 2022, when Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, ordered his troops, some of whom were stationed in Belarus, to invade Ukraine from the east, the south, and the north? There are many competing explanations. Some say that the economic and political reforms which were promised in the nineteen-nineties never actually happened; others that they happened too quickly. Some say that Russia was not prepared for democracy; others that the West was not prepared for a democratic Russia. Some say that it was all Putin’s fault, for destroying independent political life; others that it was Yeltsin’s, for failing to take advantage of Russia’s brief period of freedom; still others say that it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s, for so carelessly and naïvely destroying the U.S.S.R.

When Gorbachev began dismantling the empire, one of his most resonant phrases had been “We can’t go on living like this.” By “this” he meant poverty, and violence, and lies. Gorbachev also spoke of trying to build a “normal, modern country”—a country that did not invade its neighbors (as the U.S.S.R. had done to Afghanistan), or spend massive amounts of its budget on the military, but instead engaged in trade and tried to let people lead their lives. A few years later, Yeltsin used the same language of normality and meant, roughly, the same thing.

The question of whether Russia ever became a “normal” country has been hotly debated in political science. A famous 2004 article in Foreign Affairs, by the economist Andrei Shleifer and the political scientist Daniel Treisman, was called, simply, “A Normal Country.” Writing during an ebb in American interest in Russia, as Putin was consolidating his control of the country but before he started acting more aggressively toward his neighbors, Shleifer and Treisman argued that what looked like Russia’s poor performance as a democracy was just about average for a country with its level of income and development. For some time after 2004, there was reason to think that rising living standards, travel, and iPhones would do the work that lectures from Western politicians had failed to do—that modernity itself would make Russia a place where people went about their business and raised their families, and the government did not send them to die for no good reason on foreign soil.

That is not what happened. The oil and gas boom of the last two decades created for many Russians a level of prosperity that would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. Despite this, the violence and the lies persisted.

Alexander Baunov calls what happened in February of last year a putsch—the capture of the state by a clique bent on its own imperial projects and survival. “Just because the people carrying it out are the ones in power, does not make it less of a putsch,” Baunov told me recently. “There was no demand for this in Russian society.” Many Russians have, perhaps, accepted the war; they have sent their sons and husbands to die in it; but it was not anything that people were clamoring for. The capture of Crimea had been celebrated, but no one except the most marginal nationalists was calling for something similar to happen to Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, or even really the Donbas. As Volodymyr Zelensky said in his address to the Russian people on the eve of the war, Donetsk and Luhansk to most Russians were just words. Whereas for Ukrainians, he added, “this is our land. This is our history.” It was their home.

About half of the people I met with in Moscow last January are no longer there—one is in France, another in Latvia, my aunt is in Tel Aviv. My friend Kolya, whose apartment is across from Brezhnev’s, has remained in Moscow. He does not know English, he and his wife have a little kid and two elderly parents between them, and it’s just not clear what they would do abroad. Kolya says that, insofar as he’s able, he has stopped talking to people at work: “They are decent people on the whole but it’s not a situation anymore where it’s possible to talk in half-tones.” No one has asked him to write about or in support of the war, and his superiors have even said that if he gets mobilized they will try to get him out of it.

When we met last January, Alexander Baunov did not think that he would leave Russia, even if things got worse. “Social capital does not cross borders,” Baunov said. “And that’s the only capital we have.” But, just a few days after the war began, Baunov and his partner packed some bags and some books and flew to Dubai, then Belgrade, then Vienna, where Baunov had a fellowship. They have been flitting around the world, in a precarious visa situation, ever since. (A book that Baunov has been working on for several years, about twentieth-century dictatorships in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, came out last month; it is called “The End of the Regime.”)

I asked him why it was possible for him to live in Russia before the invasion, and why it was impossible to do so after it. He admitted that from afar it could look like a distinction without a difference. “If you’re in the Western information space and have been reading for twenty years about how Putin is a dictator, maybe it makes no sense,” Baunov said. “But from inside the difference was very clear.” Putin had been running a particular kind of dictatorship—a relatively restrained one. There were certain topics that you needed to stay away from and names you couldn’t mention, and, if you really threw down the gauntlet, the regime might well try to kill you. But for most people life was tolerable. You could color inside the lines, urge reforms and wiser governance, and hope for better days. After the invasion, that was no longer possible. The government passed laws threatening up to fifteen years’ imprisonment for speech that was deemed defamatory to the armed forces; the use of the word “war” instead of “special military operation” fell under this category. The remaining independent outlets—most notably the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta—were forced to suspend operations. That happened quickly, in the first weeks of the war, and since then the restrictions have only increased; Carnegie Moscow Center, which had been operating in Russia since 1994, was forced to close in April.

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