October 24, 2018

The Russia That We’ve Invented

Russia is an unlimited source of inspiration for all kinds of writers who try to make sense of it and publish hundreds of new books every year in nearly all of the languages of the world.

Arkady Ostrovsky. Venemaa loomine (English: The Invention of Russia). Translated from English by Krista Eek. Tänapäev, 2017. 391 pp.

In 2017, we saw the publishing of Estonian translations of two books by Russian journalists: Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia (translated into Estonian by Krista Eek) and Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men (translated into Estonian by Ülar Lauk). Arkady Ostrovsky (born 1971) spent ten-odd years as the Russian correspondent of The Financial Times and currently works as the Russia and Eastern Europe editor for The Economist, where he previously ran the Moscow Bureau. Mikhail Zygar (born 1981) worked as a (war) correspondent for Russia’s leading newspaper Kommersant and later as the editor-in-chief of Russia’s independent TV channel, Dozhd. He is currently focusing on developing educational projects on recent history. These books were first published in 2015 in English and Russian, respectively, and were soon translated into many European languages. The books can be read in parallel: the events described are mostly the same, yet each author offers a different focus and explanations of the developments. Both are trying to find an answer to the question of how Russia ended up where it is now.

Ostrovsky’s book focuses on intellectuals, journalists, heads of media channels and other cultural figures, who enjoyed a close relationship with power figures and were responsible for shaping the Kremlin’s ideology and its implementation via media at one time or another. Nearly a third of the book takes place in the Soviet Union, where the talented people who caught a sniff of freedom in the 1960s were unable to find personal fulfilment after the failure of the Prague Spring and were forced to focus on research removed from real life or some other replacement activity instead of everyday politics. However, they re-emerge during Perestroika and begin toiling away until the point where the next generation asks them to vacate their fancy offices. The same Turgenevian pattern repeats itself later, with each generation finding it complicated to get along with their predecessors.

Ostrovsky’s descriptions and portrayals are accurate and nuanced—the motives, familial experiences and shattered hopes and expectations that shaped the characters’ attitudes are evident from their life stories. The passing of time brings fewer ideological dogmas and more cynicism. With the introduction of the market economy, money begins pouring into the media and television personalities become stars whose symbolic power is equal to that of the men of the Kremlin. Ostrovsky, who holds a degree in theatre studies from the University of Cambridge, skilfully weaves pictures of the theatre life in Moscow from one period or another in order to illustrate the changes in society and metaphorically highlight the theatricality of everyday politics. Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin assume a secondary role in his book and interest the author mainly as products of their time and environment.

Ostrovsky’s answer to the time-old Russian question “Whose fault is it?” is clear: it was the intellectuals who were too concerned with playing games with one another and the authorities, and failed to notice the moment when the authorities began to play them. Instead of educating the public and including them in state governance, they were treated to banal entertainment via television (page 194). Ostrovsky expounds all of the great debates on values that have taken place in Russia in the last 50 years, even those that were conducted behind closed doors and never made it to the newspapers. According to Ostrovsky, the innovations in linguistic expression that coincided with every mutation of power happened before the actual politics. Since Glasnost, the Russian world view has been shaped by print media and later also television and this is why journalism is to blame for the constant public explosions of xenophobia, bloodlust and the desire to dismiss any kind of change.

Ostrovsky, who writes for high-profile foreign newspapers, does not distance himself from the events described and completes the journey shoulder to shoulder with Russia and its people. This is the book’s main virtue: unlike many other authors who have written about Russia, Ostrovsky does not simplify, patronise or become too personal when describing his sources and characters despite the several decades he spent in Moscow. The abundance of quotes that capture the zeitgeist and the text that structurally resembles a play offers readers interested in Russia’s recent history a comprehensive chronology of events as well as pure literary enjoyment.

Both Ostrovsky and Zygar are experienced journalists who have kept a close eye on Russia’s internal and external political developments for years, but for the purpose of writing their books, they also conducted a number of interviews with top politicians, journalists and political scientists. In that sense, Ostrovsky’s references are more academic and representative and one might find quite a few ideas for further reading.

Mikhail Zygar. Kõik Kremli mehed. (English: All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin). Translated from Russian by Ülar Lauk. Tänapäev, 2017. 432 pp.

Mikhail Zygar’s book consists of 19 narrative chapters, each focusing on one person, generally one close to Putin or some other well-known individual who has influenced Russian politics in the past—including opponents of the Kremlin. Each of them, even Putin himself, displays traces of humanity, but the book, which is targeted at foreign audiences, remains rather superficial to readers who are well-informed of what is going on in Russia. Compared to Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, Zygar’s book contains more rumours, myths, anecdotal situations and speculations of how certain conversations may have occurred in the corridors of power. At the same time, the author has an impressive ability to arrange tiny pieces of information into a meaningful whole and tell a non-linear story.

According to Zygar, the West has played an important role in the shaping of Putin starting from his days as a KGB officer in Dresden and his desire to feel accepted as a leader, to his belief that everything can be bought and sold, which has become deeply ingrained over the years. Putin allegedly watches Netflix’s House of Cards and assumes that talking about a value-based approach is hypocritical in the context of Western politics (p. 340). Everything can be bought and this is also vividly illustrated by the story about former Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder whom Putin likes to introduce to guests invited to receptions in his wine cellar every now and then (p. 154). Putin as a person does not exist but his traits and attitudes are omnipresent, expressed as a yardstick for the people’s wishes as well as in the behaviour of a court that has been shaped over more than 15 years in power. Similarly, the reader has reason to constantly change their attitude towards this Putin character who evolves along with his country and the rest of the world.

Both authors are certain that Russian politics should not be defined as a collection of conspiracy theories because many things have happened under the pressure of circumstance and as a result of urgent decisions without much deliberation. At the same time, the annexation of Crimea, which is generally considered reactive in the West, is the result of lengthy deliberations on the part of Kremlin officials supported by old sentimental (Ostrovsky, pp. 171–172) and geopolitical (Zygar, pp. 344–345) justifications.

In 1992, we saw the premiere of the film Russia That We’ve Lost directed by Stanislav Govorukhin. In this film, Govorukhin painted a picture of the ideal Russia before the revolution—this approach was common in the early 1990s when people tried to ignore the Soviet past as if it had never happened (Ostrovsky, p. 155). If we were to continue with this analogy, both books lead to the conclusion that we can say that we have indeed invented the current version of Russia (the Estonian translation of Ostrovsky’s book uses the word “creation” in the title instead of the original “invention”)—as journalists and experts abroad and voters in Russia. We have often created the image of the almighty Putin without his involvement and the current version of him is not likely to be the last, as Zygar warns us (p. 425).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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