“Russia was like a party host who awoke the morning after, started making a cursory effort to clean up the mess all around, but after a while simply gave up and slunk back to bed to nurse its hangover.” Such was the situation, according to The Guardian journalist Shaun Walker in his new book The Long Hangover, when Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, following the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decade of chaos. Walker’s book, filled with apt and entertaining analogies such as these, attempts to understand how Putin tried to overcome this hangover, and delivers it with the clarity of a skilled reporter and the humanity of a poet.
It is easy to forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a mere 27 years ago. And what a collapse it was, politically, ideologically and psychologically. As Walker writes: “In 1991, Russians experienced a triple loss.” The citizens of the Soviet Union were suddenly plunged into an identity crisis, as their shimmering north star faded from view and was replaced by a dark, empty sky, under which market stallholders became billionaires and scientists became taxi drivers. “Russians felt they had lost not an empire or an ideology, but the very essence of their identity.”
Russia was a wounded superpower, and Putin – himself not impervious to the traumatic aftermath of his country’s dissolution – set about tapping into the “long line of Russian political philosophy that fetishized the strength of the state and sovereignty”. Amplifying the Soviet victory in the second world war – known as The Great Patriotic War in Russia – to that of a founding pillar of the nation’s identity, was a skilful way to instil a desperately needed vitality into a country paralysed by change. And in many respects, it worked. Once again, Russia had something to celebrate.
But what Walker deftly invites us to see, is how the amplification of one narrative comes at the cost of many others. Travelling to Chechnya, the Crimean peninsula, Kolyma (the notorious gulag epicentre in the far east) and Kalmykia, Walker reveals the scale of the Soviet atrocities that the celebrations of Victory Day prefer to avoid. The countless deaths, deportations and seemingly avoidable famines overseen by Stalin rarely get a mention in the Russian history textbooks of today, and when confronted, are usually followed by the caveat that they were necessary evils for the good of the state.
Take Olga Gureyeva, who was deported from her childhood village in the Ukraine aged seventeen, and sentenced to twenty years of katorga (penal servitude for the most dangerous enemies of the state), for bogus charges of collaborating with the Germans. Her gulag experience tells a horrific story: scrubbing blood off the barrack floors following executions, digging potatoes in the frozen earth, or sitting in vomit-infused water that sloshed around the hold of a ship whilst being relocated to Kolyma, to work in a tin mine.
Towards the end of Walker’s poignant interaction with the now elderly Olga, she confesses: “inside it destroys me to remember, these are things that should be forgotten. Every time I talk about it, I have pains, headaches, trauma for days and weeks”. As if speaking for the country as a whole, Olga’s assertion characterises Russia’s deeply problematic relationship to mourning. What it cannot reconcile it prefers to forget.
The second-half of Walker’s book deals with events in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the Maidan protests and the pro-Russian rebels now fighting under the orange and black ribbon of St George, the symbol of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Here Walker remains as critical of the Ukrainian nationalists as he is of the separatists, offering a refreshingly even-handed analysis of events that are so often painted with partisan colours.
But once again, what comes through most powerfully is the sense of gut-wrenching loss and queasy confusion experienced by ordinary Ukrainian citizens in this post-Soviet world: “They had toiled all their lives to afford the luxury of seeing out a basic but comfortable retirement in this middle-of-nowhere rural quietude. Now, the fruits of their decades of labour had been pulverized by two groups of men, one of them fighting under the red-black flag of the wartime Ukrainian nationalist army, and the other fighting under the orange-black St George’s ribbon symbolizing the Soviet war victory. For a month, the two sides had stood at opposite ends of these people’s street and lobbed explosives at each other, over their heads.”
It is these passages – so charged with personality whilst remaining politically astute – that make Walker’s prose so compelling to read. He takes the singular melody we trumpet about Russia in the West and adds harmony, dynamics, colour and context. Read this book and you will have a more nuanced understanding of the dissonant symphonies emanating from the east.
2018 is poised to be a big year for Russia: the presidential election will coincide with the anniversary of the annexation Crimea on March 18th and the football World Cup will kick-off in June to a global audience. Meanwhile, Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election continues to keep Russia in the headlines, on our screens and in the sheets of our newspapers. As relations between the West and Russia face mounting tension, never has there been a more urgent time to understand the story of Putin’s Russia.
Click here to read the prologue to Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia And The Ghosts Of The Past, republished on Culture Trip.