Russia: Imperialism awakes

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Fighting Vladimir Putin has been part of the job for Dmitry Agranovsky. For years, as the Moscow lawyer defended civil rights activists in court, he found himself on one side of the divide and the Russian president on the other.

Until now. As Mr Putin stares down the west over Crimea, Mr Agranovsky stands by him, as does the vast majority of the Russian people. “Revanche for the fatherland!!!!” he tweeted last week. He posted pictures of Russian personnel carriers in Crimea accompanied by a prayer for protection of “our army”. “Rise up, great country! Rise to mortal combat with the fascist dark forces, with the cursed horde!” he wrote in another tweet.

While Mr Putin has triggered a mixture of outrage and bewilderment in Europe and America by seizing control of Crimea two weeks ago, he has received resounding support at home.

Ahead of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, Levada, the country’s most independent pollster, found this week that more than 70 per cent of Russians believe Russian speakers in Ukraine are either in real danger from bandits and nationalists, or at least that their rights are being infringed. According to the poll, 67 per cent see radical Ukrainian nationalists behind the aggravation of the situation in Crimea, while only 2 per cent blame the Russian government.

“A two-week campaign of propaganda and disinformation, unprecedented in post-Soviet times, has created a powerful effect and mass approval of Putin’s policy towards Ukraine,” Levada said. “This tactic to manipulate public opinion . . . has provided a negative mobilisation of a large part of the Russian population and revived its dormant imperial complexes.”

For many Russians, Crimea has come to encapsulate the feelings of insecurity, anger and loss that have simmered since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. One of the cornerstones of Mr Putin’s public support is broad consensus that Russia should never have lost Crimea in the first place. Although it was Nikita Khrushchev, then head of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, who signed Crimea over to Ukraine in 1954, the man most widely blamed today is the now deceased Boris Yeltsin. As president of the Russian Federation in 1991, he confirmed the inclusion of the territory in Ukraine in agreements with other republic chiefs that secured the end of the Soviet Union.

The anger over this stroke of a pen echoes a much broader demonisation of Yeltsin in Russia today. During the decade of his presidency, Russia was shaken by economic shocks, political infighting and corruption. Those traumatic memories of the 1990s, where bouts of hyperinflation and financial crisis robbed many of their lifetime savings while a handful of oligarchs became rich overnight, have long nurtured nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

Popularity boost: Vladimir Putin

“The west is accustomed to thinking the Soviet regime ended in 1991. But symbolically, it lives on,” says Andrey Zubov, a liberal historian who sparked a fierce debate two weeks ago when he compared Mr Putin’s move on Crimea with Hitler’s grab of the German-speaking Sudetenland regions of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

He says that while Ukraine’s moves over the past decade to open historical archives and publicly debate famine and deportations under Stalin allowed the country to shake off its Soviet past, Russia failed to take this step. The majority of Russians fear such upheaval, he argues. “Looking at revolution in Ukraine means looking at the spectre of revolution in Russia, too. In that sense, the fight for Crimea is not just the fight for a piece of land, it’s the fight between two world views.”

That debate is now reflected in everyday discussions in Russia. “It is hard to get people focused on work these days as everyone keeps discussing Ukraine,” says an expat at the Moscow office of a German engineering group. “We have to be careful what we say. Our Russian colleagues are unanimously in favour of what Putin is doing.”

This week over 100 prominent filmmakers, musicians and other artists including Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, signed an open letter of support for Mr Putin, stating: “As the fate of our compatriots and the Crimea is at stake, Russian cultural figures cannot be indifferent observers with a cold heart. Our common history and roots of our culture and its spiritual origins, our fundamental values and language unite us forever.”

Despite the threat of sanctions that would harm the economy, few business leaders openly oppose Mr Putin’s policy. “I am no particular fan of Putin but I think he is doing the right thing,” says a senior Russian banker.

Steven Dashevsky, a Ukraine-born US citizen living for 15 years in Moscow, says his fund, Dashevsky & Partners, went from 25 per cent exposure to Russia to 5 per cent in the past two weeks. Yet one of his rich Russian friends – someone he considers “a completely normal, sane guy” – told him recently he would “sacrifice his life for Crimea”, citing the memories he had holidaying there as a child.

For the already frail opposition movement, the fervent emotions are awkward. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who has come closest to being a credible challenger to Mr Putin, laid out his position in a nuanced, long blog post on Wednesday after treading cautiously for weeks.

“Call me a Slavic chauvinist but I believe the most important strategic advantages for Russia in this world are not oil, nor gas, nor nuclear weapons, but friendly (even fraternal, which already exist) relations with Ukrainians and Belarusians,” he said, appealing to the view that Ukraine is not like a foreign country, given that the first Slavic state had its capital in Kiev.

Mr Navalny also said Mr Putin’s real motivation was to stop a revolution that could unseat his own corrupt regime, and argued that the rights of Russians were less under threat in Ukraine than in most other former Soviet republics.


One reason for these fervent emotions, which are so out of step with public opinion in western Europe and the US, is Moscow’s propaganda campaign. State media describe the crisis in Ukraine as a stand-off between Russian civilisation and law and order on one side, and radical “fascist” forces on the other.

In Russia, such language surprises no one because it has long been part of the official historical narrative. “The victory over Hitler’s Germany, which our history textbooks call fascist, is the single high point in our modern historic memory,” says Mr Zubov. “That contrasts with western Ukraine, where the dominant historical memory is the fight against Communism, led by people who in turn have consistently been called ‘fascist’ in our historiography.”

The country’s nationalists feel their hour has come. Alexander Dugin, a rightwing ideologue who has long called for Russia to rebuild a Eurasian empire, says triumphantly that while Mr Putin, as a realist, has not followed his ideological advice in the past, their lines have now crossed.

“[The referendum] is the seal of creation of a new era. Monday marks the end of the unipolar world,” he says. “If there is no attack from Nato before the vote, then that’s a geopolitical, strategic and moral victory for Russia – Obama said ‘yes, we can’, but Putin has shown him ‘no you can’t’.”

Mr Dugin envisions a “Russian spring”, under which Europe would drift away from the US and close ranks with Russia, while Moscow would use its new power to help other countries around the world to “break loose of American hegemony”.

While few even in Russia share such expectations, political observers agree that Mr Putin has moved to the right during his third term, including an increasing clampdown on the free media. The Russian public’s yearning for new strength and identity could compel him to stay there.

“In western Europe, our positive history starts with the beginning of our democratic history, and we don’t embrace past periods such as colonialism, slavery, national socialism. But in Russia, history did not start in 1991,” says Alexander Rahr from the German-Russian Forum.

He argues that Russia’s view of its own history, which stresses the role of heroes and strong leaders, puts the country on a different trajectory from that of the west. “It is about repelling enemies, preserving its own form of Christianity and protecting the fatherland – all concepts that in Europe sound very old-fashioned,” he says.

The question is how far Russia is prepared to go for such beliefs. Despite broad support for Mr Putin’s Crimea policy, there are deep-seated fears of war in the Russian public. Fewer than half of respondents of the Levada poll believe that Russian soldiers can help stabilise the situation in Crimea, and more than 80 per cent say they feel frightened of war.

Liberal Russians hope this will help rein in Mr Putin. Mr Zubov says he believes the young generation will have enough energy to boost turnout at an anti-war demonstration planned in Moscow on Saturday.

If they do, they are under a lot of pressure. At small-scale rallies over the past two weeks, some of those traditionally opposed to Mr Putin took part in demonstrations supporting his Crimea push. Mr Agranovsky, the defence lawyer, makes his own stance very clear. “Don’t attend the rally of the defeatists and traitors if you don’t want to be viewed as a defeatist or traitor!” he tweeted on Thursday.

Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.