Sunday 22 September 2019

War and empire: how Russia got its mojo back

Politics: The Long Hangover - Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, Shaun Walker, OUP, hardback, 278 pages, €24

In command: Putin has revived Russia's obsessional homage to World War II, while also understating Stalin's crimes and mistakes
In command: Putin has revived Russia's obsessional homage to World War II, while also understating Stalin's crimes and mistakes
The Long Hangover

Eamon Delaney on a gripping book that disentangles the dark forces at play in the former Soviet Union

Books on Russia, of which there have been a few recently, are in danger of being overtaken by events as soon as they appear. However, it is for the same reason that they also feel right up to speed.

This account by Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker is just that kind of book. In it, there is a description of the bloody suppression of the Chechnya revolt, followed by the installation of a pro-Russian leader in the shape of Akhmad Kadyrov, a strongman collaborationist who decided, with some Chechen support, that endless resistance to the Russians was futile, and they may as well co-operate. He was later killed for his co-operation by other Chechens.

Akhmad's son, Ramzan Kadyrov, took over and was accused of, among other things, trying to kill Adam Osmayev, a British-educated Chechen nationalist who had travelled to Ukraine to help fight the Russians (and who was also, in 2012, accused of trying to kill Russian President Putin with a bomb). In October, Ramzan's wife Amina was killed in an Kiev attack meant to kill her husband. Walker has had to keep up to speed in disentangling the dark forces now at work in the Russian 'sphere'.

He does an excellent job and, compared to many such books, Walker keeps his narrative relatively short in a gripping and clear-sighted way. He focuses on Chechnya as a reminder of how ruthless Moscow has been about suppressing dissent and separatism: Chechnya was not an acquired Soviet era republic, after all, but an "integral part" of Russia itself - as the Russians saw it.

War features throughout this book, and indeed like all books on contemporary Russia, the focus on the endless culture of militarism, masculinity and a paranoid yearning for control can be exhausting just to read about. It is a salutary reminder of just what a comfortable, social-democratic world the rest of us inhabit.

It was war that created the Soviet Union and gave it its empire, and Vladimir Putin has revived the obsessional homage to World War II, while also understating Stalin's crimes and mistakes. It is all about the restoration of pride and honour, and this is why so much of the Russia public overlook Putin's authoritarian tendencies, ruthlessness and kleptocratic circle.

Walker's overarching narrative is how post-Soviet Russia felt betrayed after 1990, when they gave too much away. An inexplicable yearning has thus grown for the glories of the Soviet Union, despite all its faults and repression. Because it makes people feel good, thinking about how they were the other superpower in a two-superpower world, sending men to space and soldiers all over the globe.

There is also a sense that it was, at least, egalitarian, in that everyone was relatively poor, but secure with a job, home and certainty. It is a nostalgia common to other former Eastern Bloc countries and it has been explored in another recent book, The Future is History - How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. The fact that Putin has presided over a kleptocracy, with insiders getting vastly wealthy, is a further paradox to this.

Lest we forget, Walker charts the truly extraordinary brutality that occurred under Communism: the labour camps, and gulags, the show trials and endless interrogations, but also the irrational turns by which Stalin and his henchmen would turn on a community, or ethnic group, or set of individuals.

The author gets access to files, and meticulously kept notes of interrogations. In one case, a man is taken from his home on trumped charges of treason and forced to confess in a secret ceremony, and then shot. Later, much later, his wife, unaware of his fate, writes merely asking to know if he is dead or alive. But her letter sits on the file unanswered. It is a spine-tingling moment of bureaucratic cruelty which shakes Walker and, indeed, us, as readers.

There were tens of thousands of these cases, and though acknowledged, they are not discussed or else they are just waved away as the excesses of a system that had to gird itself for 'nation-building' and war against the Nazis. Walker even meets a man who documents the gulags and their history, and who brings him to visit the site of an old one, but even he gets chippy and defensive to Walker on the excesses of the old regime and suddenly tries to give it 'context' - "people met their spouses here".

The rapid collapse of Communism and then of the Russia empire, allowed no time for a proper reappraisal of this shameful past, and so now, in a way, this deliberate act of amnesia is echoed by a current denial about the erosion of civil liberties and rights in modern Russia.

Who can get too worried about the hounding and even killing of opposition politicians and investigative journalists when this is a country that killed tens of thousands of innocent people in show trials and political assassinations?

The book veers inevitably, and bleakly, towards Ukraine, where Walker impressively goes right to the heart of a conflict, meeting traumatised survivors and dangerous warlords and vividly recording the excitement and then futility and sheer misery of war.

In Donetsk, he meets The Demon, an infamous and volatile warlord fighting with Russian separatists. He feels safe as he is with Marina Akhmedova, a writer the Demon respects, but the interview goes wrong when The Demon is questioned about killing prisoners and then he erupts violently, and threatens to kill them. Gun-toting henchmen hover nearby. Eventually, the journalists are spared and told to go.

He concludes with a scene that, for me, seems to be an enduring image of the Ukraine conflict: elderly people leaving their war-broken gingerbread houses to collect firewood and water and eke out a living beside the muffled cannon of pointless war. One elderly couple have lost everything - the house and modest car they had carefully nursed for old age. It is, as he says, as heartbreaking an image as the dead bodies in Kiev and Odessa that he has already witnessed.

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