It Would Be a Mistake to Assume That Russia Is a Spent Force

Roundup: Media's Take

Jonathan Freedland, writing for the Guardian (London) (March 10, 2004)

Perhaps we shouldn't read too much into the slogans emblazoned on high-street leisurewear, but the social historians of the future might unearth some interesting nuggets if they try. The FCUK brand will tell its own story of loosening mores and the enduring British tradition of sniggering at rude words. Duffer will intrigue: what kind of people were happy to walk around with the equivalent of dimwit written across their chests? And finally there will be great interest in the T-shirts and tracksuit tops whose backs bore the letters CCCP. What exactly did this invocation of the Soviet past signify?

The answer will be that it declared the Soviet Union deader than dead; so over that its motifs and iconography were reduced to the"ironic" or kitsch. Mention Red Square and, according to one survey, 92% of British 18- to 24-year-olds will recognise it - as the brand-name of a vodka-based alcopop.

These words used to scare. For the decades of the cold war, merely to mention Russia was to conjure fears of the superpower enemy, its nuclear arsenal aimed at us. From 1945 anxious western eyes stared at Moscow, watching its every move. The fear lasted for decades and sank deep into the culture: in the mid-1980s, Sting sang earnestly of his hope that"the Russians love their children too".

It's a different world now. On Sunday, Russians will vote in a presidential election that has received less media attention in Britain than the first round of Democratic voting in the hog-state of Iowa. The incumbent, Vladimir Putin, sacked his whole cabinet last month - and barely made a dent on the front pages.

Maybe that's because this is hardly a close contest. Putin polls close to 80%, while none of his rivals breaks out of single digits. He controls state television, whose criticism-free news bulletins are a Soviet throwback:"Today the president met with the defence minister of Kazakhstan. . ."A Putin cult of personality is building, with all-girl pop groups singing odes to his manhood and even manufacturers of toothpicks decorating their product with his face.

"It's wrong to call it an election," says Boris Berezovsky, one of the clutch of Yeltsin-era billionaire oligarchs who made a fortune from the great sell-off of Russian national assets, now living in exile in London."It's an election in the Soviet sense: the Russian people have no choice."

Berezovksky himself is following the election closely, of course. From his swanky office in Mayfair, he watches the Russian news on satellite TV, doubtless dreaming of the day he will overcome his enemies back home - those who say he fleeced the state and ran - and returns to Moscow as president. Yet even he seems to accept that Russia is not what it was. The boardroom corridor is lined with pictures of Russian faces from the past: Lenin, Yeltsin, even Yuri Andropov. But they, like those CCCP shirts, give off the whiff of nostalgia and irony - as if the expected response is a chuckle.

The implication is that Russia may still matter intensely to Russians, but the rest of us have gently forgotten about it. We cared when the world was divided between two superpowers, but now Russia has plunged to the middle of the global league-table and only specialists need pay attention. Is this judgment fair, if harsh - or are we making a mistake we may live to regret?

The arguments for apathy are strong. Russia is certainly a punier force than it was: its empire has shrunk to both the west and the south. In one direction, it has seen former satellite nations -Hungary, Poland and what used to be East Germany and Czechoslovakia - swallowed up into the European Union. From the other, it can only watch as the central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the rest of the"stans" - fall under US influence. Since 9/11, and in return for a free hand in Chechnya, Putin has acquiesced in America's installation of military bases in a region that was once an integral part of the USSR and an undisputed part of Moscow's sphere.

In tune with this changing geography, Russia has accepted a diminished role for itself. It has given up the peacekeeping role it fought so hard to acquire in the Balkans, has no role in Iraq and has let China take the lead on North Korea while the Europeans deal with Iran. It all smacks of a nation in retreat.

Economically it does not pack much of a punch either. The Putin years have seen growth, but the numbers are artificial - pumped up by the high price of oil which accounts for up to a quarter of the Russian economy. The country is depopulating, which dampens its future prospects. Even if Russia doubled its GDP over the next decade it would still reach no higher than the present-day level of Portugal.

Politically, too, those who had high hopes for post-Communist Russia could be forgiven for walking away now. Russians seem to have accepted what one analyst calls"authoritarian modernisation", a trade-off of democratic rights and civil liberties in return for prosperity, trusting the all-powerful leader to drive through the changes that Russia needs.

Despite all this, it would be a mistake to change channels and tune out of what is happening in Moscow. For Russia still holds some pretty serious cards. It retains the nuclear armoury of the bygone era. Berezovsky jokes that even if not all of the weapons work - to Putin's great embarrassment, at a recent military display two ballistic missiles failed to launch and another went wildly off course - some do, and it only takes one to bring Armageddon. A reckless future president could trigger disaster; more likely, a disenchanted soldier or scientist could sell the nukes on his watch.

Russia has a permanent seat on the UN security council, which counts for something; and, inflated prices aside, it also sits on vast oil and gas reserves which Europe, especially, badly needs. As America's own supply of fossil fuels runs dry, Moscow will look ever stronger.

The country's mineral wealth, coupled with its educated population, means Russia could yet break out as an economic power; a Slavic tiger, enjoying the blend of liberal economics and strict politics that has worked wonders for South Korea and China.

Above all, there is the geography. Look at the map, advises Berezovsky:"Russia is at the intersection of west and east, and east and south." It squats over the frontline in the putative clash of civilisations; and it looks out on the region where the"war on terror" could be decided - Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

What if Russia was to lease to China part of the Siberian border region, much as China leased Hong Kong to Britain, wonders Berezovsky? That would change everything. As he puts it, rather in the manner of a Bond villain:"Whoever controls Eurasia controls the world."

Russia's past may be high-street kitsch and its present may be strictly for the inside pages, but that cannot be true forever. Russia is too big to disappear from view. We need to keep watch.

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