April 22, 2019

An Excellent Read for Those Interested in Russia

Of all the types of journalist out there, I have a special respect for foreign correspondents.

Shaun Walker. The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, Oxford University Press, 2018. 288 pp

If you are interested in getting a general gist of the daily life in a certain country, it is worth reading books written by journalists and diplomats.

Shaun Walker is The Guardian’s seasoned Moscow correspondent and his book The Long Hangover is a good read for people interested in Russia, but also those seeking a captivating account of the Euromaidan events in Ukraine. Similar to the books of Robert Kaplan, the author has found a perfect format for telling his story. The book’s 12 chapters have essentially grown out of news reports, but these are not your regular observations of surroundings.

Walker supports his analysis with quotes from and references to the works of a variety of authors. He is rather predictable in basing his facts mainly on the works of other journalists and a great number of papers and analyses on political science, but he also makes use of academic monographs and articles, including authors who have addressed the topic of Russia in an innovative way, such as historians Alexander Etkind and Serhii Plokhy, or Russian-born American cultural anthropologist Serguei Oushakine. All of this makes the book not only enjoyable but also an informative read that treats the reader to a wealth of new information about Russia and its culture and history.

The Guardian’s Eastern Europe correspondent is, naturally, a good job to have: an employee of a large newspaper of international significance can afford to travel much more than those working for smaller publications or news agencies with limited means (like those in Estonia). Moscow correspondents of foreign publications generally tend to share the common flaw of settling down in Moscow and remaining there. If one writes about Russian politics, 99.9% of events relevant to foreign readers take place in Moscow. Such events come in great numbers and they need to be constantly monitored. Moreover, Russia is a big country and travelling around it is not that easy. Consequently, many journalists venture outside Moscow very rarely or not at all. In this regard, Walker is a pleasant exception, which is why the picture of Russia he paints is also more versatile.

The point is that Russia is a very multifaceted country, with considerable regional differences in daily life and politics. Capturing all this is difficult but necessary. One can say in advance that Walker has attempted and managed to do so better than those who try to extrapolate the nature of the country from their social circle in Moscow.

The book’s contents can be divided into three related themes. First, throughout the book, Walker characterises the so-called Russian soul. In other words, he writes about the intrinsic nature of Russians and Russia—what is good to know about the Russian way of thinking if you wish to understand what goes on in the country. He proceeds to expertly link this to politics, describing how the Russian leadership, and the president in particular, make political decisions and the ideological foundation of these. Here, Walker succeeds in analysing and describing one phenomenon better than any other analyst: that people tend to say that Russia cannot be reduced to Vladimir Putin. The president’s imperialist policy is said to be one thing, and the average Russian citizen another. My experience shows that this is unfortunately not the case. Regardless of Vladimir Putin’s ratings by various yardsticks, his person is at the centre of Russia: he is able to bring together people of different nationalities and political views and socio-economic backgrounds, ultimately making them fall into step.

Another central theme is the demonstration of Russia’s versatility. Just as certain things join nearly all of the people living all across the Russian Federation, the differences between the regions and various people living in the same place are also significant and full of meaning. This is a stumbling block for many authors who write about Russia: it is difficult to portray Russia in a way that makes the reader understand both the unity and the eclectic factionalism that exist side-by-side. If we look at the books published recently, only Peter Pomerantsev has managed to do this well.

The third theme is linked to Ukraine and the events that have unfolded there since 2014—Crimea, the self-appointed people’s republics in the Donbas, confusion and post-revolutionary euphoria.

Walker’s overview of the “holy war”, i.e. the cult of the Great Patriotic War in Russia, is perhaps the most important of the first set of topics. The scale, size and importance of this is difficult to understand for us Westerners. Walter’s descriptions of Magadan and how Russia has forgotten its Gulag past are also a must-read. It is true, and the author attempts to explain it.

The book’s subtitle is Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. The author paints an expressive picture of the general mood in Russia and how Putin’s policy is determined by the past. Both Russia’s perceived historical greatness and magnificence and its imagined humiliations and losses are indicators that define today’s Russia and its actions. This intertwining of past and present in daily life can only be understood by someone who has lived in Russia for years, travelled far and wide there and lived through all of those quiet but constant changes, witnessing how Stalinist Young Pioneer songs began to be played in  Moscow’s metro stations, how advertisements began to use increasingly Soviet aesthetics and how television began showing nostalgic programmes, in which more and more people praise the magnificence of the Soviet Union with tears in their eyes—and how this became the new norm and even permeated the minds of the young. All of this forms the backdrop that has contributed to the writing of this book—a perfect guide for the majority of us who do not have the opportunity to experience Russia at first hand.

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