Sure as night follows day, every new presumed Russian atrocity – the Skripal poisoning, for instance – brings the hoary old accusation in its wake. Russia is on a fast track back to the Cold War Soviet Union, or indeed – woe is us – is already there. The claim comes with various adornments: today’s Russia is a totalitarian dictatorship; Vladimir Putin is a latter-day Stalin. Russia’s double objective, so it goes on, is to oppress its own people and divide and conquer the west in the shape of Nato or the European Union.

Today’s more discerning cold warriors accept that the present ice age is different in many respects from the old. But they still insist that the confrontation of two blocs representing diametrically opposed values systems (open vs closed, altruistic vs selfish, defensive vs aggressive, free vs enslaved, good vs bad) is in essence the same. A bear may smile and wave its paws in the air, but it is still a bear.

Let me start with an admission. I have never, ever, understood how anyone can reasonably argue this case – if, that is, they have ever experienced both the real Soviet Union and today’s Russia firsthand. Maybe the comparison can be forgiven when made by those born after, say, 1985, whose only knowledge of the USSR comes from an old map or a history textbook or from those who left the Soviet Union and have never been back to Russia. But my indulgence stops there. 

For anyone who has experienced both the old Soviet Union and today’s Russia, the contrast is little short of astonishing. It was brought home to me once again recently when I travelled back to the provincial city where I had spent a year as a British exchange student in the 1970s – the years of Brezhnev’s “stagnation” and the height in many ways of the Cold War. 

Then, unless you held an often precarious position of privilege, daily life was a perpetual struggle. The million-strong central Russian city of Voronezh that I arrived in at the start of the autumn of 1972 was closed in almost every possible way. Outsiders needed permits even to travel there; no flying in (you might see a “secret” object), no rail travel by day for the same reason. Soviet news was a rehash of the day’s Pravda articles; and Pravda and its stable mates were the only “news” source available, unless you were lucky enough to alight on a rare copy of the Morning Star.

Leonid Brezhnev (left) sought to reduce tensions with the US (AP)

In the student hostel, we lived three to a room (where Russians shared five). My roommates were the president of the (Communist Party) student union, and the daughter of a privileged party “high up” in Volgograd. There was hot water once or twice a week. Fruit and vegetables vanished from the shops from the first to the last snow (November to April); and meat could be found only at exorbitant prices in the (commercial) covered market. We were advised to take vitamin supplements with us. (There was no coming home for the weekend or halfway through.)

Russian students and local residents were not so lucky; Voronezh was a category 3 city, which meant that its access to supplies was inferior to that of Moscow or Leningrad (now St Petersburg), though better than many provincial cities and rural areas. Women rose before dawn to queue for what fresh food might have been delivered. The first lemons I saw on open sale arrived on street stalls just in time for International Women’s Day. By the end of winter, the vast majority of the population were in poor health. The annual flu epidemic lasted a month or more; young people already suffered long term health conditions, such as heart or lung problems, that would be rare in the west. Above all, people were afraid – of the authorities, of foreigners, even of their neighbours.

Russia has its own post-Cold War charge sheet against the west: the expansion of Nato, the bombing of its Slavonic brethren in Serbia, the intervention in Iraq and the abuse of a UN Security Council resolution on Libya to topple Gaddafi

These are just snapshots of a year spent in an introverted and monochrome city, where we – nine students from a variety of “capitalist countries” – provided, through our western ways, blue jeans and Beatles LPs, a glimpse of a world that was beyond the imagination of most of those we met. It was time when the war in Vietnam turned; Nixon was ensnared in Watergate; the UK was mired in industrial unrest and the Northern Ireland Troubles. But we knew almost none of that, just as we had no idea of what was going on in the Kremlin.

Return to Voronezh, as I have over the years, and the place is transformed. This year, I could book internal train tickets and plane tickets and hotels online, as can Russians too. You can get roubles from the plentiful ATMs. And it would be hard to tell the city’s Russian students apart from their contemporaries elsewhere in the developed world – except, perhaps, for the Orthodox crucifixes many choose to wear; a sign, I would guess, of their Russian-ness. There are supermarkets and cafes, out of town shopping malls and enough cars to make daily traffic jams. Satellite TV will bring the world into your sitting room (if you want it and can pay); the young are as connected, by mobile phones and social media, as they are in the west. The internet is not censored (this is not China). There are foreign holidays and student years abroad. Any bookshop offers an eclectic pluralism that runs the gamut from Dan Brown through Russian imperial history to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Mary spent a year as an exchange student in Voronezh, a city 325 miles south of Moscow

As for the argument that the country has moved backwards towards Sovietism in the past five to 10 years of Vladimir Putin’s period in power, that depends on what your comparisons are. Unless your single point of orientation is the rush of chaotic freedom in the 1990s (which produced the oligarchs, remember, and drove many ordinary people to penury), then life has improved beyond measure. All too often, Russia’s economic performance is judged only by its oil and gas output and its supposed reluctance to “reform”.

But where is the flourishing consumer sector in these statistics, which has grown out of nothing? The record grain harvests and abundant fresh food that has visibly improved people’s health? The domestic farming sector, by the way, has been enormously boosted by western sanctions. Should we not count these changes, too?

Now, it is fair to ask whether I am not placing an undue emphasis on material wellbeing at the expense of the life of the intellect and the soul – which some Russians, especially those we westerners tend to meet – would lament is no longer valued as it was. To which I would respond that a life where the basics of a tolerable existence are lacking, or obtainable only by privilege or corrupt means, is no life. Those needs were not met, and they are now for the vast majority – with knock-on effects for public civility. That does not seem to be backwards in any way, least of all to the Cold War.

But why, if Russians are infinitely better provided for, better informed and no longer living in fear, is the west so convinced that Vladimir Putin is out to get us, and Russians remain the eternal enemy?

Russia’s primary aim is not to undermine the west (AP)

One answer might be that we can hold two contradictory images – of the people and the state – in our head at once. The people – as witnessed by those many foreign fans who enjoyed themselves hugely during the World Cup – can be benevolent and outgoing, given good weather and a bit of encouragement (rather like us, in other words); even as the almighty state and the evil Tsar Vladimir plot our downfall.

Old habits – old Soviet-era habits – it has to be said, die hard; on both sides. But to argue that Russia at the state level, in the shape of Putin or the Kremlin, sees its chief objective as undermining, even destroying, the west, smacks of a dangerously self-reinforcing prejudice and a profound misreading of Russia’s aims.

The perceived threat posed by today’s Russia is nothing like that posed by the Soviet Union, where two competing military and ideological blocs faced off and Mutually Assured Destruction was the name of the game

The west’s charge sheet against Russia is familiar: it was read out again by Theresa May in her 5 September demarche in the House of Commons on the Skripal case. But it barely changes from year to year. According to May, “this chemical weapons attack… was part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour that persistently seeks to undermine our security and that of our allies around the world. They have fomented conflict in the Donbas, illegally annexed Crimea, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and election interference. They were behind a violent attempted coup in Montenegro. And a Russian-made missile, launched from territory held by Russian-backed separatists, brought down MH17.”

Most of this is true, or almost true. But Russia would have its own post-Cold War charge sheet against the west, which would begin with the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders, the bombing of its Slavonic brethren in Serbia, the intervention in Iraq and the abuse of a UN Security Council resolution on Libya to topple Gaddafi with similarly anarchic results as the war in Iraq. Russia would also argue that its actions – including the annexation (which it calls “reintegration”) of Crimea – were defensive, not offensive, moves in response to actions by the west.

Fresh food was hard to come by in Voronezh during Mary’s student days

Now there is no space to delve into the rights and wrongs of these examples – each is different and worthy of an essay in its own right – but the central point is that almost throughout Putin’s time at the top of Russia’s leadership, the west and the Kremlin have seen crucial events in a quite different light. And Russia feels, in particular, that the west does not recognise that the Soviet Union is long gone or that post-Soviet Russia has its own national interests that it is entitled to defend.

I would also argue, along with many western Russia-watchers, that the continuation and then expansion of Nato were crucial mistakes that scotched the chance of a genuine post-Cold War settlement for Europe in the 1990s. The west, I think, has simply not appreciated the trauma that Russians have experienced over the past 30 years – the collapse of both the political order and the empire – which would have given rise to a sense of vulnerability and prickliness in any country. The UK, for instance, is still suffering to a degree from its post-imperial hangover.

So long as the west and Russia are equally suspicious of each other’s intentions and read each other so badly, however, it will be difficult for anything to change. As the stronger party according to any indicators by far – economic might, per capita GDP and defence capability – however, the west can afford to make the first move, which it has steadfastly not done. And when Donald Trump proposed to do just that, he was thwarted by the Washington establishment, and remains so to this day.

Modern displays of Russian military might should not lead us to conclude that Vladimir Putin is ‘out to get us’ (Reuters)

This is not to let Russia off the hook – even though Kremlin responsibility for either the Skripal or Litvinenko poisonings has not, at least in my mind, been proved (the conclusion of the judge, Sir Robert Owen, in the latter case was no more than that “the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev [then head of the FSB] and also by President Putin”; and that there was “a strong probability” that Andrei Lugovoy poisoned Litvinenko “under the direction of the FSB”). Nor has any Russian “collusion” in Donald Trump’s election, or the Brexit referendum in the UK.

Nonetheless, Russia waged a brutal war against separatists in Chechnya; it has intimidated its neighbours; it set a dangerous precedent when it annexed Crimea; it is meddling in eastern Ukraine; and Putin is responsible for creating a climate in which some opposition figures, including journalists and politicians, feel threatened. That is wrong; but to regard today’s Russia as gripped by a new Stalinist terror is to sanitise the real horror of Stalinism and to forget how closed Russia was until 1991.

Nor is the perceived threat posed by today’s Russia anything like that posed by the Soviet Union, where two competing military and ideological blocs faced off and Mutually Assured Destruction was the name of the “game”. To the extent that Russia presents a danger today, it is because it feels threatened by the west and because the Soviet-era safeguards and communications channels no longer exist. To argue that it is because Russia is inherently an aggressive state, or because Putin wants to restore the Soviet empire, does not correspond to the facts. One of Putin’s priorities through his time in power has been to sign treaties finalising Russia’s post-Soviet borders. His infamous quote about Soviet collapse being the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” refers, as he has explained many times, to the chaos inside Russia during the 1990s.

There are also internal constraints on how Russia acts, which did not exist before – and one is a force not often recognised in the west, which is Russian public opinion. Another is the new sensitivity on the part of the state as to how Russia is seen abroad.

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Why has the Kremlin not pushed further into Ukraine? Why is its intervention in Syria limited? And why have rounds of talks been held to try to prevent what the west fears will be a “bloodbath” in Idlib province? The answer to all these questions is that those who remember the Soviet Union’s humiliating departure from Afghanistan and those who have lost family in risky military enterprises are not completely without influence with a regime that still, to an extent, fears its people. Popular protests, including by those who ask why the government is raising the pension age while spending on wars abroad, do have an impact.

If the west took more trouble to consider what motivates Russia today – and that includes its eternal quest for security and a craving for respect after what is seen as the humiliation of the Soviet collapse – then much else would fit into place, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia might seem less of a threat.

Alas, the day when such understanding will dawn still seems a very long way off.

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