“Congratulations/commiserations on being on the Russians sanctions list,” read the text message from a colleague. That was how I found out that I am now on the Kremlin’s enemies list — banned from entering Russia.
The realisation that I might have made my last visit to the country made me think back to my first trip in 1987. It feels like Russia has come full circle — back to the autocracy, aggression and isolation that defined the Soviet era.
In 1987, the Soviet Union was in its dying days — although we didn’t know it at the time. I was in Moscow to cover the arms talks between the US and the USSR. The big story for the local correspondents was the opening of the first private restaurants in the country. Things were changing and that was reflected in the almost playful manner of Gennadi Gerasimov, the Soviet spokesman at the time.
It was typical Gerasimov that he later used a joke to in effect announce the end of Soviet imperialism. The Brezhnev doctrine was code for Moscow’s self-proclaimed right to invade its neighbours, to ensure that they stayed in the Kremlin’s orbit. Asked in 1989 if it still applied, Gerasimov replied that it had been replaced by the “Sinatra doctrine” — from now on, everybody could do it their way.
That development appalled the young Vladimir Putin, who was then a KGB agent stationed in East Germany. He later bitterly recalled that as the East German communist regime collapsed around him he had asked for military support, only to be told that “Moscow is silent”.
By the time I began to visit Russia more frequently — from about 2004 onwards — Putin was in charge. On the surface, the country had changed beyond recognition. The National Hotel, near the Kremlin — a Soviet-style dump when I stayed there in 1987 — was now too glitzy and expensive to consider. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, had been removed from central Moscow and placed in a fallen monument park.
The transition from despotism to globalised capitalism was symbolised by the shifting fortunes of the Solzhenitsyn family. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize for his novels about the Soviet gulags and been forced into exile. His son, Yermolai, was now a McKinsey consultant, based in Moscow.
But the fact that so much had changed from the communist era made it too easy to overlook how much remained the same. Beneath the consumerist western surface, autocracy, violence and imperialism were still fundamental to Putin’s way of government.
The regime’s political opponents were still persecuted and sometimes killed. Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal who I met in both Moscow and London, was murdered within yards of the Kremlin in 2015. Russia invaded neighbouring Georgia in 2008 and attacked Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea. As those acts made clear, Putin and his acolytes had never really accepted the independence of countries that had once been part of the Soviet Union. Countries such as Poland, which used to be in the broader Soviet bloc, worry that the Russian imperialist instinct still extends to them.
Fyodor Lukyanov, an academic close to the Russian leader, once told me that Putin was driven above all by the fear that Russia, for the first time in centuries, might lose its status as a great power. With an economy that ranks 11th in the world (measured by nominal gross domestic product), the Kremlin’s remaining great power pretensions are based on the country’s military might and its nuclear weapons.
The elite’s reverence for war was brought home to me in 2014 in a conversation in the Russian parliament with Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the Duma and the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, who had been Stalin’s foreign minister. When we discussed Russia’s relationship with the Bric countries, which include Brazil, Nikonov told me that there was one big problem with Brazil as an ally: “They don’t understand war. They have only ever fought one war in their history.” “And that was with Paraguay,” he added contemptuously. As Nikonov saw it, Putin’s annexation of Crimea was a moderate step: “Molotov would have invaded Ukraine and taken it in a week.”
Putin, in fact, shared that same arrogance and aggression towards Ukraine. It led him to dangerously underestimate the resistance Russia would encounter when it launched a full-scale invasion this year.
In the Putin era, as in Soviet times, imperialism abroad goes hand in hand with oppression at home. For many years, Russia under Putin allowed much more space for political dissent than the Soviet Union did. I witnessed large anti-Putin demonstrations on the streets of Moscow in 2012 and 2019. But Putin has used the cover of his special military operation in Ukraine to finally snuff out any domestic political opposition. Thousands have been arrested for taking part in antiwar demonstrations and the opposition movement, led by the jailed Alexei Navalny, is being dismantled.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also plunged the country back into an international isolation that feels even deeper than that experienced by the Soviet Union. I flew from London to Moscow on a direct flight in 1987. Those flights no longer exist. I am not optimistic that I will see them restored anytime soon.
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