Oxford University Press, £20.00; published 22 February 2018.
Reviewer: Angus Roxburgh
Coverage of Russia in the Western press these days is disturbingly uniform, as though an entire generation of journalists, pundits – and politicians – have a collective mind-block about one of the biggest issues of our age. You get the same opinions about Russia in The Guardian as in The Times, Telegraph, or Daily Mail – not something that could be said about any other subject. To make matters worse, a new class of pop-up experts has emerged of late, recycling each other’s views, with little or no expertise.
In the standard Western discourse, NATO policies towards Russia are never questioned. Russia’s own views are rarely represented and its history and culture are entirely ignored. Policy statements by President Vladimir Putin are generally treated at best as jokes and at worst as lies, rather than as indications of what is actually going on in his mind. Attempts to understand why Russia behaves as it does are derided as ‘following the Kremlin playbook’.
Shaun Walker, Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, stands out from the crowd. This is all the more remarkable in a newspaper whose editorials and commentaries are so orthodox that they could be written in the US State Department or Pentagon. Walker’s reporting has been consistently good primarily because he doesn’t hate the country he is writing about. Having studied Russian and Soviet history at Oxford University, and ‘caught the Russia bug’, he has immersed himself over the past ten years not just in the politics but in the culture and history, and speaks the language fluently. His new book, written as he – regrettably – leaves his Moscow posting, does not disappoint.
Walker’s reporting has been consistently good primarily because he doesn’t hate the country he is writing about.
The Long Hangover is a superb book, based on real knowledge and long conversations with Russians (and Ukrainians) with a wide variety of views and backgrounds. Walker is clearly guided not by prejudice but by empathy and a willingness to accept that not everything is black and white – not as simple as the majority of Western commentators make it out to be. He eschews the hectoring or supercilious tone that marks so much Western writing about Russia. It actually adds to our knowledge, rather than recycling clichés.
The subject of the book is essential for our understanding of Russia today: how the country’s terrible past – the Stalin years, the terror and Gulag, the Second World War, and the chaotic collapse of communism and break-up of the Soviet Union – weighs upon the present.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, all the former Soviet nations were left struggling to redefine themselves. Most looked to aspects of their past to help them recreate a sense of nationhood. The main theme of Walker’s book is the Kremlin’s exploitation of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – a rare instance of triumph in a century of chaos and crime – as a ‘national founding myth’. The symbol of victory in the World War – the orange and black St George’s ribbon – has morphed (thanks to deft manipulation by Putin’s strategists and followers) into a symbol of support for the regime itself.
The trouble is that in order to portray Victory as an unalloyed success, one that can truly unite the nation, it has to be stripped of its many unsavoury aspects – the fact that Stalin (hailed as the great war leader) purged his most brilliant commanders on the eve of the war and refused to believe warnings about Hitler’s imminent invasion, thus most probably making the country’s losses far more severe; the fact that several entire nations (Chechens, Crimean Tatars and others) accused of collaborating with the Nazis were effectively subjected to genocide, deported from their homelands en masse; the fact that the war effort depended to a huge extent on slave labour by convicts in murderous labour camps; the reports of rape and looting by Soviet soldiers advancing into Germany. None of these aspects of those desperate years fit into the Kremlin’s cleaned-up version of the Great Patriotic War.
The book’s sub-title refers to ‘Putin’s new Russia’, but it also explores how Ukraine grapples with the legacy of the past, and it goes a long way towards explaining how the bloody conflict still simmering on the two countries’ borderlands stemmed from their differing interpretations of history: ‘Two countries that had been seeking to define themselves for a quarter of a century had created dangerously incompatible versions of history and contemporary raisons d’etre.’
Not many Western commentators, in these days of anti-Russian hysteria and unthinkingly pro-Ukraine sentiment, dare to suggest that the nastier side of the Maidan protests did contribute to worries and unease in Russian-speaking areas. Walker, to his credit, does not shy from this.
In Ukraine’s case, Walker points out that the history of the Holodomor – the man-made famine of the 1930s – has been politicised to portray it as a Russian ‘genocide’ against the Ukrainians. He also describes how the search for a national identity has led some pro-Western Ukrainian leaders (including former President Yushchenko) to lionise nationalists, fascists, and anti-Semites. Not many Western commentators, in these days of anti-Russian hysteria and unthinkingly pro-Ukraine sentiment, dare to suggest that the nastier side of the Maidan protests did contribute to worries and unease in Russian-speaking areas. Walker, to his credit, does not shy from this.
The most moving part of the book, for me, is Walker’s description of his journey to Kolyma, the most distant and notorious outpost of the Gulag, where he records the astonishing testimony of a camp survivor. Olga, an old woman now, was 17 when the Red Army entered her village in 1945 looking for Ukrainian nationalist fighters. She was arrested, held in a jam-packed cell, and ruthlessly beaten during interrogations. “I was half-dead and black with bruises, like a piece of meat, by the end of it. After four months I didn’t have any strength left so I signed everything they put in front of me.” After a trial lasting a few minutes, she was sentenced to twenty years of hard labour in the most extreme conditions Russia can offer.
Walker’s thesis is that all of this brutality has been air-brushed out of the ‘new history’ that is being curated in order to give the Russian nation something to believe in. In general of course, this is true, although it is odd that Walker scarcely mentions a new major Gulag museum in Moscow which documents the history and brutality of the camps in graphic detail, and pulls no punches about Stalin’s use of terror for the purposes of stamping out every vestige of opposition.
Walker’s thesis is that all of this brutality has been air-brushed out of the ‘new history’ that is being curated in order to give the Russian nation something to believe in.
Walker is also mistaken to say that Putin has never called out the Stalinist terror as a crime. In fact just last December (probably after the book went to print), Putin did exactly what Walker demands, when he decried attempts to justify Stalin’s crimes by saying they were for the greater good. “Millions of people were branded as enemies of the people, were executed or crippled, underwent torture in prisons and forced deportations,” Putin said (while unveiling a huge new memorial to the victims of the terror). “This terrible past cannot be erased from the national memory. And certainly cannot be justified by whatever imaginary greater good of the people.” Putin was clear that unlike some other episodes in Russia’s past, which are subject to controversy and heated public discourse, Stalin’s terror is not something that’s up for debate. “It was about death and suffering of millions. One should only visit the mass graves of the victims, which are many in Russia, to realize that there is no justification for those crimes. The persecution campaign was a tragedy for our people, our society, a ruthless blow to our culture, roots and identity. We can feel the consequences now and our duty is not to allow it to be forgotten.”
The conundrum that Putin fails to resolve is this: how can Russians condemn Stalin for murdering millions of his own citizens in the terror – and simultaneously hail him as a great war leader? For the moment, as Walker emphasises, it is the need to glorify Victory as a unifying cause that prevails in Russia – and this in turn leads to a creeping deification of one of history’s most brutal dictators.
I feel pretty sure that Putin’s manipulation of the glorious Victory in World War Two is primarily intended to remind people of what he regards as today’s belligerent Western stance.
I am not wholly convinced by Walker’s thesis that the revival of World War Two nostalgia is exclusively explained by Putin’s need to create a founding myth for Russia. He doesn’t link it at all to the new threat perceived by Russia from NATO following its expansion into Russia’s neighbours, though this would seem to me to be a more plausible explanation. It is surely significant that the need to celebrate the army’s prowess faded precisely during the Yeltsin years, when the West was not perceived as a threat. I feel pretty sure that Putin’s manipulation of the glorious Victory in World War Two is primarily intended to remind people of what he regards as today’s belligerent Western stance. If Russia did not feel threatened (and it does, regardless of NATO’s protestations), then Putin would be looking elsewhere for a source of national unity and pride. Indeed, in his early years, he seems to have believed that Russia’s destiny was firmly as part of the European family, rather than in opposition to it.
I also wonder whether Russia is unique in looking back to high points in its past to revive its sense of nationhood. I read this book just after watching two films, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, both of which embellish or sandpaper historical truth to show Britons as plucky survivors, striking out alone in a hostile world. Not a bad message as the country faces Brexit!
The question of how a country faces its past is a complex one – especially when its history is as brutal as Russia’s has been in the last century.
The question of how a country faces its past is a complex one – especially when its history is as brutal as Russia’s has been in the last century. Germany has brilliantly coped with its Nazi past. Somehow the nation has succeeded in accepting that it suffered from a collective breakdown under Hitler, and has now moved on, analysed the causes, vowed never to let it happen again, and pursues policies that sometimes look like overt statements of atonement (such as Angela Merkel’s unqualified offer to welcome refugees). The problem in Russia was that Stalin died, but his system remained, albeit in a more humane form. Millions of Russians believe to this day that the system itself was merely distorted, but that it contained many good elements too.
There is also the question of whether ‘remembering’ the horrors of the past is enough to prevent their reoccurrence, or whether it merely prolongs the pain without achieving much else. In his section on the Gulag, Walker quotes the survivor, Olga, as saying, “It destroys me to remember. These are things that should be forgotten. Every time I talk about it, I have pains, headaches, trauma for days and weeks.” Yet in the next paragraph, he castigates the authorities for glossing over the period and playing down its horrors. Is it right for an outsider to demand that victims replay their nightmares over and over? Surely the important thing is not to focus on the pain, but to analyse why it happened, and make sure it isn’t repeated.
That said, I wish someone like Walker, with his experience and empathy, would team up with a top film director to produce the great movie that remains to be made about the Stalinist Terror. Russia still has not had its Schindler’s List.