The Russia I Knew Did Not Have to Become a Pariah

It is hard to feel sorry for Russia today, when its army is savaging Ukraine. But for those of us who were in Moscow on that August morning in 1991 when a warm sun rose over people massed outside the “White House,” the embattled seat of the Russian government, and we realized that the tanks were not coming, that the coup had failed, that the Soviet yoke had been lifted, it’s also hard to escape a deep sense of grief that Russia has come full circle.

Russia’s potential is being set back by decades; the young, educated and creative are leaving; and the hard men are ascendant. Once again, Russia has become a pariah spreading lies and death.

Even back then, amid the elation of witnessing a victory over tyranny, those of us covering the demise of the Soviet empire knew that its dismemberment would not be quick or pretty. But it didn’t have to come to this.

In the weeks since Mr. Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the reactions within Russia have been muffled. Many foreign correspondents, including those from The Times, have left Russia, and anyone who says anything publicly that contradicts the falsehoods put out by the Kremlin about the “special military operation” faces the threat of up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information.” (The Soviet-style contraction for the invasion is “spetz operatsiya.”)

I have been reaching out to friends who are still in Russia. Most were understandably cautious about talking to a journalist online, but their pain and sense of helplessness were tangible. One spoke of acute “shame and bitterness” among students and staff at a graduate school when word spread that the invasion had begun. “Nobody, nobody anticipated that he would ever do this,” my friend said. “We had ridiculed the reports in your newspaper that an invasion was imminent.”

Reports from Russia, and from some friends I’ve reached, speak to a widespread dismay and shame among younger, educated, urban Russians. Dismay because of the thousands who have been arrested in Russia for protesting the war; thousands of intellectuals and cultural figures have signed petitions against the invasion and carried out individual acts of courageous resistance. Novaya Gazeta, which was until this week the last functioning major opposition news outlet, wrote about a priest who dared to preach, “Brothers and sisters, this is a fratricidal war,” and was denounced to the police.

Novaya Gazeta itself announced that it was suspending publication after being warned against publishing an interview with President Volodomyr Zelensky of Ukraine. “There is no other choice,” said the editor, Dmitri Muratov, who was a co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. One of Novaya Gazeta’s last issues showed ballet dancers silhouetted in front of a mushroom cloud with the caption, “A copy of Novaya, created in accordance with all the rules of Russia’s amended criminal code.” The allusion was clear: During the failed 1991 putsch, Russian state TV had looped “Swan Lake,” establishing a lasting meme.

The shame is because these were Russians who had refused to believe that Mr. Putin would actually invade Ukraine, even though they had pushed back against his oppressive rule. They had assumed, as many in the United States and Europe did, that however great Mr. Putin’s hatreds and grievances, however much he resented Ukraine’s independence, he was sufficiently rational not to do something so criminal and self-destructive. And then, as my friend told me, “he just threw over the chess board” and condemned Russia to another cycle of repression and isolation.

Like the large majority of Russians, the intelligentsia had supported Mr. Putin when he first came to power in 2000. He restored a measure of order to the chaos of the early post-Soviet years, and the economy rapidly expanded, and with it the wealth and standard of living for many people in Russia’s big cities.

But over the years Mr. Putin became increasingly less tolerant of dissent, especially as “color” revolutions and pro-Western leanings swept through Ukraine and Georgia and protests over dubious elections filled Russian streets. Independent media was steadily choked off, and nonprofit groups receiving funding from outside the country were required to identity themselves as “foreign agents.”

A growing number of educated Russians began flowing out of Russia, some to Kyiv. When I visited there some years ago, I met several prominent Russian journalists who were, in effect, living in exile, such as Yevgeny Kiselyov, a pioneering Russian television journalist in the 1990s. One Russian reporter told me then that his dream was to build in Ukraine the democracy they were now blocked from building in Russia.

When the word spread that the invasion had begun, the brain drain became a rush for the doors. With flights to more than 30 countries now stopped, the twice-daily trains to Finland have been full, and many more Russians have being fleeing south to Georgia, where they don’t need a visa, or through Gulf States. Their stories are painfully similar, a sense that they have no future in a Russia that has been cast out of the civilized world, and that they are helpless to stop Mr. Putin. One friend, who had been visiting the United States, is applying for political asylum.

Not that Mr. Putin cares. He wields his power through a coterie of strongmen, the “siloviki,” who still view the world through the old Soviet prism of paranoia and ignorance. Many, like Mr. Putin, were officers in the security services, the elite shock troops of the omnipotent State. They never reconciled themselves to the loss of Russia’s status as a great power or bought into the notion that the people, the faceless “narod,” could be anything other than their subjects. And if the nettlesome liberal intelligentsia, or the new breed of wealthy business tycoons, didn’t like it, let them go.

If the polling figures are right, a majority of Russians accept the tough line of their leaders. Unlike the urban intelligentsia, many people spread across Russia’s vast expanse, and especially the elderly, get their information solely from the government’s television stations. The support is not only in the provinces: Thousands of Russians, according to the Moscow police, packed the Luzhniki stadium there for a pro-war rally on March 18, with banners reading “For a world without Nazism.”

However strong that support looks on paper, it could be brittle. A provincial Russian knows the right answer when asked by a pollster whether he supports the president, and many of the participants at the Luzhniki rally were likely state employees or nationalist groups bused in by the Kremlin. And Mr. Putin’s extraordinary efforts to deny there is any war and to minimize Russian casualties speaks to his awareness that if the truth about the “special military operation” and its cost came out, support would likely crumble.

When Mr. Putin recently met with women employed by Russian airlines, they all loyally declared full support for the “military operation,” but their questions reflected disquiet. What is in store for us at the end of this road? Will there be martial law? Will people employed in the private sector receive support? What will we do now that many Russian carriers can’t fly abroad?

How Mr. Putin will respond to this kind of quiet challenge by ordinary Russians is, in some ways, as important as the abstract arguments about whether the Russian leader might be unhinged or out of touch, or whether the West is somehow to blame for this conflict. There are many forces within Russia that turned a low-ranking K.G.B. officer into a grievance-driven tyrant obsessed with restoring an empire. While Western policies or Russian history are no doubt among them, I believe that opportunity — the corrupting allure of power and obscene wealth — is more to the point.

None of it can justify or explain Mr. Putin’s galling decision to launch a scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine, and to condemn his own people to isolation, hardship and contempt. What Russians are enduring, of course, comes nowhere close to the suffering and destruction of Ukraine. But looking back to the promise of that sweet victory more than 30 years ago, it is heart-wrenching to witness what Mr. Putin has wrought on his own country.

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