IN THE FALL OF 2013, Masha spent her days in court and her evenings at cafés and bars, sometimes working on foreign reporters’ assignments or on her own, often not. She was almost always angry and often, by the end of the evening, drunk. There were many arguments that she remembered only because her throat felt scratchy in the morning.
The faces at those cafés were familiar from the protests. Now they had all gone back to their regular lives at television channels, advertising agencies, and, in more than a few cases, in government offices. They were often drunk by the end of the evening too—especially the men from the government offices. One night one of them patted the chair next to him with his pudgy hand: he had something to tell Masha. He said there would be an amnesty—nominally tied to the twentieth anniversary of Yeltsin’s constitution, but really intended to make Putin look better in advance of the Sochi Olympics. Amnesties always applied to women, especially if they had small children. So Masha’s ordeal would soon be over, he said.
She believed him. Her friends told her it was wishful thinking. They pointed out that Putin was not acting like he cared one bit about improving his image for the Olympics. The women of Pussy Riot were still behind bars—one of them had declared a hunger strike to protest starvation rations and sixteen-hour workdays at her prison colony, and though her open letter had been published the world over,1 the state appeared willing to let her starve to death. The country’s most famous inmate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was approaching the tenth anniversary of his imprisonment, with no end in sight. And in September, Russian troops in unmarked uniforms had hijacked a Greenpeace ship flying a Dutch flag in international waters, towed it to the port of Murmansk, and deposited its multinational thirty-person crew in jails there.2 Just because the ruthlessness of Russian law enforcement defied the imagination, these friends argued, was no reason to disbelieve its threats—quite the opposite.
“I am not going to prison,” Masha took to saying to them, like a mantra. “I am walking between the raindrops and staying dry.” It was an idiomatic expression, customarily used in the third person, but that fall she made it her own. Still, that was the fall when she started throwing up blood.
In December, Western leaders began backing out of going to the Sochi Olympics. German president Joachim Gauck was the first to announce his non-attendance, followed by the presidents of Poland, Estonia, and France, and the prime minister of Belgium. Finally, American president Barack Obama chose his delegation. It included no high-level politicians—something that had not happened in almost two decades—but, in a well-calculated affront, did include two openly gay athletes.3 The next day came the amnesty: Masha would not go to prison, the women of Pussy Riot would be released, and so would the thirty Greenpeace activists.4 And at the end of his annual press conference, on December 20, Putin made an announcement that no one, including his inner circle, expected: he would release Khodorkovsky.5 Within hours, the former oil tycoon was transported out of the prison and out of the country—to Berlin, where his mother lay gravely ill. A clear condition of Khodorkovsky’s release was that he would not return to Russia—unless he wanted to be arrested again. With his company and most of his fortune gone, he would have to reinvent himself on foreign soil. He landed in Germany wearing an airport crew jacket that someone had given him en route, to replace his black prison robe.6
Masha, on the other hand, was still in her own city, wearing her old clothes. No one was going to transport her to her new life now that she was no longer a full-time defendant in a political trial. What was she supposed to do with herself now?
OVER HER YEAR AND A HALF of living as a de facto political prisoner, Masha had not been paying much attention to the outside world. The most important event in this outside world was the ongoing protest in Ukraine. The president there had backed out of signing a partnership agreement with the European Union, and Ukrainians had been protesting since November. Like the Orange Revolution nine years earlier, the protests united people of vastly different political views. Cosmopolitans who wanted to see their country become a part of the European community came together with nationalists who wanted to break free of Moscow’s influence. Once again, protesters occupied the center of Kiev and settled in for however long it was going to take. Just like nine years ago, everyone in Moscow seemed to think of Ukraine solely as Russia’s looking glass. A group of more than fifty Russian writers wrote an open letter to the protesters. “We hope that you succeed,” it concluded. “For us that would serve as a sign that we in Russia can also win our rights and freedoms.”7
The Russian parliament unanimously passed a resolution calling for the protesters in Ukraine to disband. Before the vote, the chairman of the parliament’s foreign relations committee said that if Ukraine were to sign the association agreement with the European Union, “that would increase the sphere of influence of gay culture, which has become the official policy of the European Union.”8
Moscow shut down for the interminable winter holidays, but the protests in Kiev continued. Here was an important distinction between Ukraine and Russia: precisely two years earlier, the Russian protesters had retreated after their biggest demonstration, taking their long-planned vacations or simply commencing the customary two weeks of eating and drinking, as though revolutions kept office hours.
Just as the Russians were waking up from their holiday, the Ukrainian parliament passed a series of laws aimed at designating the protests as illegal; some of these were textually similar to the bills passed at the beginning of the Russian crackdown. The protesters prepared to defend themselves. They built barricades, using car and truck tires, stones, pieces of pavement, and ice that they chopped up with axes and loaded into sacks. They armed themselves with hunting rifles, slings, and Molotov cocktails. The first shots were fired on January 22. Two protesters were killed and one wounded.
It seemed that Masha was a journalist now—she was not anything else, and she was cohosting a popular-science show on TV Rain—and, following the amnesty, she was free to travel. She went to Kiev.
She was the last to arrive. Every other Moscow journalist was already there. Everyone knew everyone else, everyone had a routine and a hangout, and everyone was an expert. The lay of the land was uncomplicated: a couple of blocks of government buildings were sealed off and heavily guarded; the main city square—Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the one referred to simply as the Maidan, was occupied by protesters, as were a couple of adjacent streets. In the rest of the city, life went on as what must have been normal. Everyone spoke Russian. It was hard to believe that this was a different country, especially one where someone had died for its independence from Moscow. Except when Masha was among the protesters, when they stood together, as they did every hour, to sing the Ukrainian national anthem—then she believed, and she very much wanted them to succeed.
All the stories about the Maidan were being written by the self-confident, experienced journalists who had gotten there before Masha. They had cultivated their heroes and their sources among the protesters, and all their stories starred them. The one thing no one was doing was talking to the soldiers who guarded the government—the ones who, everyone said, had fired the shots that killed the protesters the day before Masha arrived in Kiev.
Masha put on heels and makeup. Lots of makeup. She thought of it as war paint. She went to the Maidan, where the barricades constructed of huge old tires had been set aflame. It seemed to her the protesters were trying to make the square look like revolution—the French one, from the movie of Les Misérables. Not that there had been tires at the time of the French Revolution, but the stench and the flames fit her mental picture. Masha crossed the protesters’ barricades.
She was in no-man’s-land now, a strip of snow that separated the Maidan’s burning-rubber barricades from the government’s police-fence barricades. Men in long black robes—Orthodox priests—stood here. Masha saw the giant gray shape of a cross in the snow—the long shadow of a small cross held up by one of the priests in the yellow light of a streetlamp. Here, where neither side ventured, Masha’s heels sank into the snow. The priests, she realized, were praying for life on both sides of the barricades. She knew at that moment that there was a God and that there would be war.
“You can’t go through,” said an officer on the government side. He was wearing riot gear. “You need a helmet.”
“What if I’m a journalist?”
“You’ll still get yourself killed.”
“Don’t worry, the bullets won’t get me.” She had almost said, “I’ll walk between the raindrops.”
“All right,” he said, pulling back a section of the barrier. “But don’t go near Berkut. You’ll get yourself killed.”
Berkut—“golden eagle” in Ukrainian—were the special forces. People on the Maidan said that it was Berkut who had killed people. On this side too, Berkut were clearly known as the killers. Masha recognized them by their black ski masks. She edged closer to Berkut’s bonfire. Everyone had a fire, on both sides of the barricades, and everyone had hot tea, and everyone shared both. Even Berkut.
“What’s your name?” asked a black ski mask.
“Mine is Sergei too.” The mask laughed, showing two rows of large teeth. He had no way of knowing that Masha’s husband and the one man she had loved passionately were both named Sergei—he must have meant simply that they were alike because they had unremarkable Russian names. She had come from the other side wearing war paint, he was wearing a black mask, but they came from the same people.
Berkut did not want to be interviewed. Masha would not leave. By three in the morning they started talking. By five, Masha had what she had come for: she felt she understood. Berkut officers thought they were there to protect the peace. They were convinced that the protesters were a handful of troublemakers. They were not particularly devoted to Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, but they believed in order and strong power. A real leader would never have let riffraff burn tires in the capital’s central square. This sort of thing would never happen in Russia, for example. They even mentioned Bolotnaya. Masha tried to tell them that Bolotnaya had been nothing like the Maidan. They said that was a good thing. She was not so sure. But she was certain that whatever was happening here in Kiev would end differently from the protests in Moscow.
“Ukraine is some sort of parallel-reality Russia,” she wrote in the conclusion to her dispatch. “Everything is completely different there.”9 TV Rain’s online magazine, Slon, published the article as submitted: none of the editors objected to referring to Ukraine as a sort of alternative Russia.
MASHA WAS THE ONLY RUSSIAN to have interviewed Berkut. She came back to Moscow a real journalist.
A day after she returned, Masha cursed out loud when she was reading Twitter. Then she made a screenshot and sent it to TV Rain’s web editor with a question: “WTF?”
The tweet originated with TV Rain. It said, “Should Leningrad have been surrendered to the Germans if that would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives?”
It was the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. The siege had lasted 872 days and claimed over a million lives. Masha had been around long enough to know how much trouble this tweet could cause: she had seen battles to the death break out in the Russian blogosphere over less. She knew that no question about Soviet conduct in the Second World War ever went unpunished—and this was a question that suggested that the country’s greatest and most mythologized sacrifice in that war could and should have been avoided. She also knew that the new social media manager at TV Rain was in his late teens and that he was about to learn one of the hardest lessons of his life.
The tweet was live for all of eight minutes—the time it took for the channel’s web editor to come out of the shower at the gym where he happened to be, open his locker, see outraged and worried messages from Masha and countless others, and delete the tweet. It was too late. The firestorm had begun. In the next few days, the St. Petersburg city legislature called for the channel to be shut down. A federal deputy prime minister publicly backed the demand.10 Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, declared war on the channel:
I want audience reaction to be absolutely merciless here. Because the moment we start becoming even the least bit tolerant of such surveys, our nation will begin to erode, our memory will erode, the genetic memory of our people. I am certain that other countries would give an even harder time to a channel that crossed this kind of moral and ethical red line.11
When Masha came to work, she was greeted by members of the youth group Nashi, who were picketing TV Rain. They had brought plastic bags filled with excrement, to spread in the channel’s courtyard and to toss at the occasional employee.
Less than two weeks later, all the channel’s satellite carriers had dropped it and most of its advertisers had canceled their contracts. The channel’s director general, who together with her husband owned TV Rain, called a staff meeting. She announced that there would be layoffs and that those who kept their jobs would have to take a 30 percent pay cut. Masha did a quick mental calculation. She could barely make ends meet as it was—a 30 percent pay cut would mean she had to find another job to supplement the income from the journalism that she had originally entered in order to survive as a political defendant. She decided to quit—by leaving on her own, she could at least make the editor in chief’s job a little bit easier. The director general was still talking.
“With all that’s been going on, I haven’t seen my children at all,” she said. “So, starting tomorrow, I’ll take a short vacation—we had long planned a ski holiday in the Swiss Alps, and this will dovetail nicely with Davos.”
The director was not yet finished talking when a camerawoman named Alya sent out an all-staff message: “Does anyone have a couch I can sleep on? Looks like I’ll have to move.” Masha knew that Alya had a kid Sasha’s age who was living with Alya’s mother—even on her old salary, Alya, who was not originally from Moscow, could afford to rent only a small room in the city. Masha herself had been renting out her two-rooms-plus-kitchen apartment ever since it was raided, and renting a similar one closer to the center. Who said she and Sasha could not share a room? The director general was still talking. Masha waved to Alya across the room and pointed to herself with two thumbs, then messaged: “I’ve got a spare room. Enough for you and the kid.”
A lot of people moved in the next few days. One TV Rain on-air personality was spotted wheeling his belongings down the Garden Ring in a supermarket shopping cart. His cat sat on top of his clothes. Alya hailed a cab over to Masha’s. That evening both of them changed their Facebook relationship status to “in a domestic partnership.”
THE SOCHI OLYMPICS opened on the day of that staff meeting. Foreign correspondents flooded the social networks with photos of filthy tap water and descriptions of absurd malfunctions in hotels that were still under construction.12 But the opening ceremony was spectacular, and Russia garnered the highest number of gold medals: thirteen. If Masha had felt less disoriented and besieged, she would have felt more patriotic.
In Ukraine, there was more bloodshed on the Maidan. More than a hundred were now dead, including several government troops. On February 21, over a hundred thousand gathered in the Maidan to mourn the fallen protesters. By evening, the square was threatening to storm government buildings unless the president resigned. President Yanukovych fled the capital, seeking refuge first in eastern Ukraine and ultimately in Russia. The following day, Masha got a phone call from Kiev: one of the Berkut officers from that night in January was calling to let her know that his partner had been killed. She had interviewed the partner too. It felt strange, almost like she was somehow responsible.
A friend called from Crimea: everyone was there now, and Masha should come. She went. The day after she arrived, she realized that something had changed overnight. The streets were full of armed men in unmarked uniforms. They walked around smiling. Within a few hours, they were joined by ordinary Crimeans, who had come out to take pictures with the men. No one could know for certain, but the sense was, these were Russian soldiers who had come to save the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Black Sea peninsula from the Maidan. That was what people were saying: “Save us from the Maidan.” With men in unmarked uniforms now in the streets, everyone sounded ecstatic and looked radiant.
Moscow journalists, who really were all there, kept filing dispatches that their editors rejected. Moscow had not confirmed that the armed men were under its command, so the journalists’ descriptions of what they were seeing could not be published. Masha was not even sure that she was a journalist now—her media career might have ended as soon as it began—and she would be hard-pressed to explain why she was in Crimea. She wrote a column for the American magazine New Republic. It began, “Right now in Crimea, the strangest war I’ve seen in my 30 years is unfolding.”13 She had not actually ever seen a war before, but you did not have to have seen one to know that this one was unlike any other.
On March 1, Putin asked the upper house of the Russian parliament to authorize the use of force beyond the country’s borders—and got its unanimous approval the same day. The armed men were already in Crimea by then. The streets of Crimea filled with billboards showing a swastika and barbed wire on the left and a Russian flag on the right, with the caption, “On March 16, we will be choosing between this and this.” That day, at a hastily convened referendum, 96.77 percent of Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation.14
THE HISTORY OF CRIMEA had been as violent as that of any part of the former Soviet Union but perhaps more confusing than that of most of them. From the time the empire first annexed Crimea in 1783, it was a part of Russia for nearly two centuries. In 1944, Stalin ethnically cleansed Crimea: Tatars, who had made up a large part of the peninsula’s population, were deported, as were the local Armenians, Belarusians, and Greeks. This left the ethnic Russians, the only people Stalin trusted in the wake of the Second World War. Then, in 1954, Khrushchev, who had just been installed as Soviet leader, redrew the borders of constituent republics, assigning Crimea to Ukraine. No explanation was offered at the time and none could be found later—at least none that could be convincingly documented.
Khrushchev had once been the Party boss in Ukraine, and this led to conjecture that he wanted to give the republic a lavish gift—or, conversely, that he was atoning for the sins committed there (he had taken charge after the man-made famine of 1932–1933, but plenty of blood had been shed on his watch). Harvard historian Mark Kramer has suggested that Khrushchev used Crimea to secure control over Ukraine after the war. Soviet Ukraine had been occupied by the German army for nearly three years. The postwar division of Europe allowed the Soviet Union to keep most of the territory it had annexed under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. What was now the western part of Ukraine had thus been occupied three times: by the USSR in 1939, by Germany in 1941, and again by the USSR in 1944. Soviet rule there was new and uncertain, making the division between the newly occupied western lands and the eastern part of the republic all the more pronounced. Adding ethnically cleansed Crimea to Ukraine may have been a colonizing strategy: the republic gained nearly a million new residents, all of them Russian-speaking ethnic Russians.15
Back in 1954, most Russians had no reason to wonder about Khrushchev’s motives. For one thing, most acts of the Soviet leadership appeared arbitrary to the citizens and, for another, this one made no difference in everyday life. Russians continued to think of Crimea as their country’s most important resort, and to use it. Crimea, in its way, was an equalizer: someone who came from extreme privilege, like Seryozha, spent his summers in an elaborate castle there while Masha’s mother could rent an apartment in season and Lyosha’s mother could rent a bed for herself and one for her son. Every Russian story began in Crimea: it was the place where childhood friendships were struck, romances were kindled, virginity was lost, drugs were tried, and all sorts of memories were made. Those who had not yet spent a summer there thought that someday they would. It was the universal Russian aspiration. The realization that the all-Russian summer dream could belong to someone else—another country—came rudely in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians still made up the majority of the population there, but now they used a different currency and Russian citizens needed foreign-travel passports to enter. Over the years, many Russians discovered that the Black Sea resorts of Bulgaria and Turkey were more comfortable and more affordable, but Crimea remained the symbol of summer and youth.
On March 18, two days after the Crimea referendum, Putin gathered members of both houses of parliament as well as governors and other dignitaries in the Kremlin for an extraordinary address. He spoke for more than forty minutes. He was interrupted repeatedly by applause and by standing ovations. At the end, Putin and three representatives of Crimea—one of them wearing a thick black turtleneck sweater, as though he had just returned from an imaginary Spanish Civil War—signed a treaty conjoining Russia and Crimea, and the men and a few women in the room stood up to the sounds of the Russian national anthem. As Putin and his cosigners exited, the room erupted in yet another standing ovation, and a chant: Spasibo!—“Thank you!”—Spasibo! Spasibo! Spasibo! It was a chant one might have heard at the end of a rock concert. The roomful of officials was responding not as it might have to a leader who had led the country to victory—that chant would have been “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”—but, in keeping with the “mafia state” model, as it would to a patriarch who had just given members of his clan a grand gift.
Putin’s speech laid out Russia’s case for Crimea. His first argument was historical, and it echoed every other historical claim to territory ever made. Putin said that Crimea was the cradle of Russian civilization (much like Serbia had always claimed that Kosovo was the cradle of its civilization). He acknowledged the ethnic cleansing of Crimea, sort of:
Yes, there was a time when Crimean Tatars, like some other peoples of the USSR, were subjected to injustice. I’ll say one thing: millions suffered from repression in those times, and most of those people were, of course, Russian.16
This was not true of Crimea, but the statement was factually accurate for all of the Soviet Union, if for no other reason than that ethnic Russians far outnumbered all other groups. Through this rhetorical sleight of hand, Putin dismissed the pain and fears of Crimea’s ethnic minorities and repositioned Russians as the victims:
What had seemed impossible became a reality, alas. The USSR collapsed. . . . And it was when Crimea suddenly turned out to be part of another state that Russia realized it had been not simply stolen from but robbed. . . . Millions of Russians went to sleep in their own country only to awaken in a different one. Overnight, they had become ethnic minorities in former Union republics. The Russian people became one of the largest, if not the largest, divided nations in the world.
The difference in meaning between the terms “stolen from” and “robbed” was subtle and unclear, but the implication of violence was unmistakable. In the story that Putin was telling, Russia had recognized the post-Soviet borders that made Crimea a part of Ukraine under duress, because it was too weak to object. Later, under Putin, Russia sacrificed its national interests and deep desires for the sake of peace in the region, and did not contest the post-1991 borders. But after being forcibly moved to another country, without physically moving, the Crimean Russians found themselves citizens of an unstable state:
Russians, like other Ukrainian citizens, suffered from the ongoing political and the permanent government crises that have been seizing Ukraine for more than twenty years.
This was a reference to both the Maidan and the Orange Revolution, and this was the point where Putin’s speech turned away from Russia and toward America—or, rather, from what Russia had lost to what the United States had gained. The United States, he said, had funded the Maidan, and once the Maidan won, it would crack down on its opponents:
Crimea—Russian-speaking Crimea—was the first in line for the crackdown. Because of this the people of Crimea . . . asked Russia to protect their rights and their very lives. . . . Of course, we had to respond to this plea. We could not abandon Crimea and its people to their plights. That would have been a betrayal.
Not only were Russia’s actions right, continued Putin, but they were based on precedent created by the United States itself, when it facilitated Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. The only difference between Kosovo and Crimea, he argued, was that the former had had the backing of the United States, which felt that it could make the rules in the post–Cold War world. “They had us all with that,” he said. In fact, he said nagnuli, a crude expression most accurately translated as “They had everyone up the ass,” conjuring the clear image of homosexual rape. The Kremlin’s translators rendered it in English as “had everyone agree.”17
Putin continued the litany of grievances against America: after Kosovo “there was an entire chain of ‘color revolutions’ managed from the outside”—Ukraine’s were just two of many. Countries where these revolutions were “orchestrated” were then “forced to accept standards unsuitable for the way of life, tradition, and culture of the people”:
They lied to us time after time. They made decisions behind our backs and then had us face a fait accompli. That’s what happened with NATO’s eastward expansion, when military outposts were placed at our borders. They kept saying to us that it’s none of our business. Easy for them to say.
Russia could no longer take it. “Like a spring that had been wound too tight,” it had uncoiled:
We will clearly face opposition from the outside. We have to decide if we are prepared to stand firm in protecting our national interests or if we are forever going to be giving in, retreating when there is nowhere to retreat to. Some Western politicians are already threatening us not only with sanctions but also with problems inside the country. I wonder what they mean: are they placing their hopes in a fifth column, national-traitors of various stripes, or are they figuring that they will be able to have a negative impact on the Russian economy, thereby sparking popular unrest? . . . We must take appropriate action.
This was a war speech, though Putin laughed off concerns about war even as he spoke:
They are talking about aggression, about some sort of Russian intervention in Crimea. That’s odd. Somehow, I can’t recall any historical example of an intervention that went off without a single shot being fired, with no casualties.
Really? Gudkov could readily think of such an example. Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938 was one. His takeover of the part of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland was another. That involved not a single gunshot—instead, it employed a plebiscite and a speech, among other bloodless tools. In his September 1938 speech Hitler decried the hypocrisy of Western democracies, which he said refused to recognize the true will of the people. He mentioned that France’s sole interest in Czechoslovakia was in using it as a base for launching an attack on Germany. Most important, he mentioned the ethnic-German minority in Czechoslovakia, which, he said, was “robbed of its right to self-determination in the name of [Czechoslovak] self-determination.” Germany, he said, had put up with this state of affairs—and with borders that divided its nation—first because it was weak in the wake of the First World War and later in the interests of peace and stability in Europe, but this had been “misinterpreted as a sign of weakness.” Now, he said, Germany was finally asserting itself by fulfilling its sacred duty to the oppressed Germans of Czechoslovakia.18
Most of the elements of Putin’s Crimea speech were familiar from his earlier statements: the tragedy of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the hypocrisy of the United States, the treachery of NATO, the idea that America organizes revolutions and then forces its values on traditional cultures, the obligatory below-the-belt reference, which these days also had to be homophobic, and even the enemy within—the “fifth column.” But the idea of a divided nation and a moral duty to countrymen abroad that superseded laws and national boundaries had a different antecedent—it recalled Hitler’s Sudetenland speech directly. This got Gudkov reading or rereading thinkers who wrote about Nazism. It occurred to him that all this time his thinking about ideology had been wrong. He had been taught that totalitarian ideology had to include a vision of the future. But this was never a key characteristic of Nazism. Its vision had been archaic, and its promise was simplicity, the return to an imaginary past when laws were instincts and the nation was a tribe.
So maybe this was it. Crimea was Russia’s ideology. This was why it pulled together every theme that Putin had floated before. And judging from the reaction to Putin’s speech, and from survey data, it functioned as an ideology: Crimea mobilized the nation. Levada Center polls showed that 88 percent of the population supported the annexation of Crimea and only 1 percent said that they were “definitely opposed.” This fell below the survey’s margin of error: it was as if these people—people like Gudkov—did not exist.19
Hannah Arendt wrote that an ideology was nothing but a single idea taken to its logical extreme. No ideology was inherently totalitarian but any ideology contained the seeds of totalitarianism—it could become encapsulated, entirely divorced from reality, with a single premise eclipsing the entire world. Totalitarian leaders, she wrote, were interested less in the idea itself than in its use as the driver and justification of action. They derived the “laws of history” from the single chosen idea and then mobilized the people to fulfill these imaginary laws.20
Now that there was, apparently, an ideology, Russia checked off all the boxes on any of the traditional lists of totalitarian-society traits—except, perhaps, Gudkov’s own list, which included enforced poverty.
Maybe this was how it worked when a totalitarian society was reconstituting itself rather than being shaped by a totalitarian regime: the ideology congealed last. Gudkov thought of Russia’s totalitarianism as a recurrent totalitarianism, like a recurrent infection; as with an infection, the recurrence might not be as deadly as the original disease, but the symptoms would be recognizable from when it had struck the first time.
ANOTHER PERSON TO WHOM Putin’s speech sounded familiar was Dugin. He recognized himself. It had been just over five years since Dugin declared his intention to become his country’s lead ideologue, and it was happening: Putin was using Dugin’s words and his concepts, and he was carrying out his predictions. Back in 2009, Dugin had prophesied the division of Ukraine into two separate states: the eastern portion would be allied with Russia and the west would be forever looking toward Europe. Dugin saw Ukraine as inhabited by two distinct nations—the western Ukrainians, who spoke Ukrainian, and the people of the east, a nation that included ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians who were, nonetheless, Russian in language and culture. The two nations, in Dugin’s view, had fundamentally different geopolitical orientations. This meant that Ukraine was not a nation state. It also meant that its division was preordained—the only question was whether it would be peaceful. There might be war, he had warned back then.21
This was about much more than Crimea, much more than Ukraine, and Putin’s speech made that clear. Dugin had spent years waiting for Russia to claim its place as the leader of the anti-modern world. The idea, like Dugin’s other ideas, had been gaining traction, and Dugin had been accumulating powerful allies. When the protests in Ukraine created an opportunity to be heard, one of these allies, a billionaire who had been supporting ultraconservative groups, delivered a memorandum to the Kremlin. It proposed using the chaos in Ukraine to launch the process of annexing Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. Written before Ukrainian president Yanukovych was deposed, the memo predicted his demise. It also attributed the Maidan to Polish and British Secret Services and proposed that Russia beat the West at its own game: organize unrest on the ground in southeastern Ukraine to justify its intervention. Many of the words and ideas in the memo belonged to Dugin.22
In late February, Putin’s administration started organizing and financing anti-Kiev, pro-Moscow protests in cities in south and eastern Ukraine. By design, once people could be roused to storm and occupy government buildings, and while there to adopt resolutions asking for Moscow’s help, Russian intervention would begin.23 Top-level Kremlin officials gave orders and doled out money to local organizers; Dugin stayed in contact with activists, advised on strategy, and issued reassurances. Russia would not stop at Crimea, he told his contacts: it would help southeastern Ukraine fight against Kiev. Sitting in a tall black leather chair in his home office, with hundreds of books for his backdrop, he would conduct long Skype sessions with Ukrainian activists. “This is only the beginning,” he would say. “Those who think that it all ended with Crimea are very wrong.”24
In early April, the protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk, two regional centers in eastern Ukraine, began taking over government buildings. Some of them were armed with weapons looted from a local armory.25 On April 7, protesters convened a government of what they called the People’s Republic of Donetsk and passed a resolution asking Russia to intervene. Fighting began with isolated battles in some other eastern cities—Ukrainian government forces were able to prevent the takeover of more government buildings—and then it became war.26 The United States, which had imposed sanctions on Russia after the occupation of Crimea—including visa and business bans on several businessmen and officials—threatened further sanctions. Europe hesitated.27 Russia failed to rouse large enough uprisings in the south, but Ukrainian forces failed to restore Kiev’s authority in the east.28
On April 17, Putin held his annual televised hotline. Before he entered the studio, one of the two hosts set the stage:
If things were different, I might have said that this will be yet another conversation, but on this day we have a different country listening to us. Russia is now united with Crimea and the City of Sevastopol.* We have been waiting for this moment for twenty-three long years, ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. For this reason every question today will be either directly related to Crimea or will have a subtext colored by Crimea.29
The show lasted nearly four hours. A lot was said. The annexation of Crimea was placed in line with Russia’s great Second World War victory. Russians who opposed the annexation were condemned as traitors. One such opponent came to the show to make amends. It was Irina Khakamada, who back in 1999 had been one of only two Union of Right Forces founders to oppose Putin’s candidacy for president—Nemtsov had been the other. A month before this show, she had also opposed the annexation. But now she said to Putin:
I have come to say the following. Crimea has always needed to have a Russian identity. I have often been to Crimea. . . . They always wanted to be a part of Russia. It happened the way it did, so be it. You are the victor. You really did pull off that operation without firing a single shot.
The opposition—the barely perceptible 1 percent—was surrendering. Only one member of parliament—Masha’s former boss Ilya Ponomarev—had voted against ratifying the Russian-Crimean union treaty. He had since been forced to leave the country.30 Now Nemtsov remained the only person with any name recognition who opposed the annexation.
To Dugin, the most important parts of the show were ones in which he recognized his own influence. There were several points when Ukrainians who remained loyal to Kiev were referred to as “nationalists” and even as Nazis—and Putin pointed out that “such was the historical past of these territories, these lands, and these people.” The implication was that the west had been permanently contaminated by the German occupation of 1941–1944. The east, on the other hand, he said, was “connected to Russia at the root, and these are people with something of a different mentality.” At the conclusion of the show Putin expanded on the idea of this mentality:
There are certain special characteristics, and I think they have to do with values. I think that a Russian person, or, to speak more broadly, a person of the Russian World, thinks, first, about the fact that man has a moral purpose, a higher moral basis. That is why the Russian person, a person of the Russian World, is focused not so much on his own self. . . .
Putin trailed off and rambled for a bit, revealing to the attentive listener that he had not yet fully assimilated the ideas he was putting forward. But in a few moments he picked up the thread:
These are the deep roots of our patriotism. This is where mass heroism comes from in war, and self-sacrifice in peacetime. This is the origin of mutual aid, and of family values.
The phrase “Russian World” was Dugin’s. It was a geographically expansive concept, the vision of a civilization led by Russia. Putin was right to circle around to “family values”—the idea was precisely that the Russian World, whatever its borders, was united by values. The point that Dugin had been making for years was that the very idea of universal human values is misleading: the West’s idea of human rights, for example, should not apply to a “traditional-values civilization.” One of Dugin’s best phrases was, “There is nothing universal about universal human rights.”
At another point in the show Putin referred to something that Dugin had been working on for years: making connections with people and organizations that shared the Russian World’s values even though they were located in Europe:
I think we are indeed witnessing the process of reevaluating values in European countries. What we call conservative values is starting to gain traction. Take Viktor Orbán’s victory in Hungary or Marine Le Pen’s success in France—she came in third during a municipal election. Similar tendencies are growing in other countries, too. It is obvious, just absolutely obvious.
Absolutely. In the last few years Dugin had revitalized his contacts with the West: he had built bridges with French ultraright activists—ones who were too radical for Le Pen’s National Front—and with Hungarians to the right of Orbán, as well as many other groups, including ultraconservative European and Israeli Jewish organizations. What united these activists and groups, disparate as they were in conventional political terms, was their political opposition to Brussels and philosophical opposition to modernity.31 His work was now effectively recognized by the president. It had attained the status of a national project.
The following day, Dugin was the guest on the country’s most popular interview show. He had been interviewed on television many times, but this was a first. The show was run and hosted by Vladimir Posner, a Jew who had once worked in the United States. This was by far the most liberal, pro-Western show on Russian television—and the fact that Dugin was invited meant that he had acquired the kind of political weight that made him an essential, unavoidable guest. The tone of the interview was antagonistic—Dugin even told Posner at one point that he thought that he, Posner, should be banned from television—but it provided a platform for conveying his views to the widest possible audience. Dugin was able to say that the events of the last couple of months—Crimea and, now, a war in eastern Ukraine—constituted a Russian renaissance, a “Russian Spring.” “We are starting to feel pride in our country,” he went on. “Russians are beginning to realize that they exist in the world not only as passive objects but as subjects of history. And the more we show that we care about the Russians and Russian speakers outside Russia, the stronger we make our society, the more we emerge from a sleeping state to a state of mobilization. . . . Look at the people who have come from Crimea: this is an entirely different sort of people than our officials or Ukrainian ones. These are people of a new generation, a new brand.”
POSNER: Are you saying that these people are making our nation healthier?
Dugin concurred. Then Posner asked him to expand on a phrase he had seen in Dugin’s recent writing: “Greater Russia.”
DUGIN: Greater Russia is the Russian World, the Russian civilization. I think the territory of Greater Russia roughly coincides with the territory of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, give or take. . . .
POSNER: So let me ask you. Is the Caucasus a part of it? Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan?
DUGIN: Certainly, of course. These are parts of Greater Russia. But that does not mean that—
POSNER: What about Central Asia?
DUGIN: Central Asia—of course, certainly.
POSNER: The Baltics?
DUGIN: I don’t think so. I think perhaps parts of the Baltics and western Ukraine, under certain circumstances—
POSNER: But everything else is—
DUGIN: Greater Russia. Look, civilization doesn’t have those kinds of borders.
It devolved into an argument on civilizational exceptionalism. Posner was a difficult interviewer. Still, there it was, an hour-long interview for one of Russia’s largest television audiences on the idea of the Russian World. Dugin also mentioned traitors and, pressed by Posner, said that they should be annihilated, and, pressed further, he said their names: Navalny, Nemtsov, Kasyanov, Ryzhkov.* He said what he believed to be true of them, and what he believed all Russians should know: that these men were employed by the Americans.32
Dugin was giving many interviews and writing many articles—the urgency of the situation amplified his already superhuman efficiency. He was writing that America was waging war against Russia, that Russia was finally stepping up to the challenge, and that the entire world might be on the verge of erupting into its third giant war.33 But by the end of May, he was growing impatient and even disappointed with Putin. Rather than embark on an open, all-out war, the Kremlin seemed intent on creating a quagmire. What was the point of that? It was true that a slow war in the east would serve the purpose of destabilizing Ukraine, sapping its strength and weakening its new government, but these were petty, tactical goals. Dugin wanted Putin to invade Ukraine openly, using regular troops, and to aim for a glorious victory that would expand Russia. Indeed, it would be only the beginning of Russia’s expansion. But when this failed to happen, Dugin knew the reason: Putin was being held back by his moderate, fundamentally pro-Western advisers. He invented a term for them: “sixth column.” If the “fifth column” were people like Nemtsov, who Dugin believed were working directly for the United States, then the “sixth column” were traitors to their civilization, not their country. They hid in plain sight, in the Kremlin.34
Dugin had always told his supporters, “We seek not power but influence.” Now he used the same juxtaposition to assuage their disappointment. “Our power is negligible,” he said, “but our influence is immense.”35 This became something of a slogan among his closest allies. It helped that they kept hearing their words repeated by top Russian officials: the evidence of their influence was there for all to witness, if they knew what to listen for. The fact that Putin’s actions were not keeping up with their words should only strengthen their resolve.
Outwardly, Dugin’s status shifted too. His right-hand man, Valery Korovin, became a member of the Presidential Civic Chamber, the body created to rule civil society. Dugin was no longer a fringe activist. Even if he now found himself used as a foil to make Putin’s views and actions look moderate, this served to legitimize Dugin’s own positions too.
IN LATE APRIL, Khodorkovsky gathered about three hundred people in Kiev for what he called a “dialogue.” It was a strange list of names: famous writers, not-so-famous activists, and people who were important to Khodorkovsky. Masha was invited, probably because she had been charged in the Bolotnoye case and because she had corresponded with Khodorkovsky when he was in prison. Behind bars, he had become something of a village elder: people wrote to him with their questions and their grievances. Masha had had grievances: she had felt betrayed and abandoned. Khodorkovsky’s response emphasized the virtues of patience, of rising above the fray, and of taking the long view. Masha no longer remembered what she had written, but Khodorkovsky must have, since he invited her.
In his opening address at the congress, Khodorkovsky emphasized the long view again:
People have been asking me, What’s the point of this conference? . . . I give my usual answer, one that saw me through my ten long years [behind bars]: Do what you must and come what may. . . . I have learned over the last ten years to think long-term and to remember that darkness will always cede to light and dreams that seem most unrealistic today will become reality tomorrow.36
As far as Masha could tell, everyone at the congress had the same dream: to get onto Khodorkovsky’s payroll. Word was, he wanted to bankroll an entire shadow society. Everyone got in line. Masha decided that she wanted no part of what everyone wanted. She actually had a scheduled appointment with Khodorkovsky, but it was at ten in the morning, following a night she had spent drinking, so she canceled. But Khodorkovsky sought her out himself, in the hotel lobby. They talked. She liked him more than she had expected, a lot more. They were oddly alike—and unlike most of the people at the congress. They were both reluctant dissidents. Masha thought Khodorkovsky really wanted to be the establishment—he wanted to be the president, not the president’s Enemy Number One. Most people who fight tyrants do not seek power themselves. Khodorkovsky did, and Masha liked this about him. She would have liked to be a general in his army, or at least an official in his administration.
A couple of weeks later Khodorkovsky’s people invited her along to the Donetsk region to see what was happening there. It was terrifying. She had liked Donetsk when she was there in another life, two years ago—when Sergey the photographer took her along for the European Cup. The beautiful airport was still here—all of Donetsk was still here, in fact—but in place of the measured traffic of everyday, there was hectic motion now, and clumps of tense, angry, armed men. Here in Donetsk they had not fired a shot yet, but you knew that they would.
In and outside the city, men were building checkpoints, placing flags on them. The men had tremors, which Masha recognized, as any Moscow bar regular would: amphetamines. The men stayed up on speed. Masha talked to men on both sides. They spoke the same language, and they hated each other. Each side thought the other was less than human. Their guns were loaded and had no safety catches.
Masha called her mother-in-law to tell her that she was in Donetsk: the older woman had grown up there. The mother-in-law launched into an anti-Kiev tirade. As far as she was concerned, the new government was made up of Nazis.
Two weeks after Masha left Donetsk, anti-Kiev fighters seized the airport. The Ukrainian army took it back after a day of fighting. Four months later, it was attacked again—and then, after weeks of fighting, it belonged to the separatists. But all that was left were ruins: mountains of rubble, chunks of aircraft, and many dead bodies.37
Masha finally took a job with Khodorkovsky’s organization. She would coordinate his work with political prisoners. Her new colleagues at a clandestine office in Moscow were working on a news site and on educational seminars. The seminars, coordinated by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a guy around Masha’s age, were innocuous stuff: basic civics education. But because they were backed by Khodorkovsky, the seminars drew too much attention. Local officials shut them down, pressured venues into canceling rental agreements, and even had the power to a venue cut one time. Masha hated the idea that she had now become a professional political prisoner, or at least a political-prisoner professional, but she liked the fight.
THE EUROPEAN UNION, Canada, and several other Western countries followed the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia. They banned certain Russian state companies from financial markets, embargoed exports of high-tech oil equipment to Russia, and banned the sale to Russia of military and dual-use technology. In addition, a number of Russian politicians were effectively declared personae non grata. The road for this kind of personal sanction had been laid by the Magnitsky bill back in 2012—and Masha’s new colleague Kara-Murza had been in Washington lobbying for the sanctions back then.
Businesses got nervous. Western investors began pulling out for fear of the sanctions and of the effect of the sanctions. The Russian economy had slowed down precipitously even before the war, but now it seemed to be going into a tailspin. Others were scared too. The World Congress of Families got cold feet about its planned grand gathering in September—the one slated for both the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Everyone, or almost everyone, still came and praised Russia for its brave opposition to the LGBT lobby and talked about the dangers of “gender ideology” and the specter of “demographic winter,” but, in apparent deference to the sanctions, the event was billed as Russian-organized and the World Congress name was not used.38 The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church spoke at the opening, as did a vice-speaker of parliament and the minister of culture, among others. John-Henry Westen, a Canadian right-to-life activist and journalist, gushed in an article: “Imagine a land where life, family, faith, and culture are promoted by the official government. Where large families are treated, not as a blight on the planet, but indeed as the ‘future of humanity.’”39
With the sanctions in place, the forum took on added importance for the Kremlin. Some of the Western guests were elected officials in their countries—and however marginalized their parties might be, they had the potential to disrupt the process of imposing and extending sanctions. So far, even Russia’s closest European allies, such as Hungary, had joined the sanctions, but eventually the monolith would have to crack. Here too Dugin had a chance to wield his influence, capitalizing on his contacts with far-right parties in Greece, Finland, France, Austria, and, especially, Italy.40He was able not only to be a guest—he continued to lecture abroad even as he seemed to devote all his energies to eastern Ukraine—but also to play host. He invited some of his most daring foreign friends to the Donetsk region in June 2014, to show them how history was made, and to fantasize about a future Greater Russia.41
The Western powers introduced sanctions step by step, building on the premise that Putin could be pressured to change his country’s behavior—to avoid even greater damage to the Russian economy. But to a Russia that believed that it was at war with the United States, this gradual ratcheting up of pressure looked like nothing but escalation. By the end of the summer Putin responded with sanctions of his own: Russia banned the import of foods from Western countries. Kremlin media estimated that the ban applied to $9 billion worth of imports—the message was that hostile foreign countries would lose this amount of money while Russian food producers would benefit.42 What actually happened was that food prices grew 10 percent in a single month while the range of food available at supermarkets dropped noticeably. Most cheeses disappeared, for example. Russia once again became a place where food made the best gift: visitors or travelers returning from the West invariably came bearing cheese.
Gudkov made a chart that contained just two curves: Putin’s approval rating and the Levada Center’s consumer perceptions index. The index was derived from answers to five questions: (1) How has your family’s economic situation changed in the last year? (2) How do you expect it to change in the next year? (3) Do you expect the next twelve months to be good or bad for the country’s economy as a whole? (4) What about the next five years? (5) Is now a good or a bad time to make large purchases, such as furniture, a television, a refrigerator?43 They had been tracking the index since 1995, and had been asking the current set of questions since 2008. Soon after Putin’s approval rating headed vertically up, the consumer perceptions index began its descent. The economic slowdown had been evident before the Olympics, then there had been a brief moment of optimism, but two months after the invasion of Ukraine, the decline became precipitous.44 By the spring of 2014, layoffs were epidemic. The ruble, which had held steady for more than a dozen years, began losing ground against the dollar. Sanctions weakened it, the countersanctions pushed it further down, and in the fall of 2015 declining oil prices sent it tumbling. In December, after the ruble spent a day acting like a yo-yo and finally settled 11 percent down against the dollar, Russians rushed to dump their currency on durable goods. Car dealerships ran out of inventory and electronics stores ran out of large-screen televisions.45
Gudkov studied his divergent curves. Putin’s popularity stayed steady at the anomalously high level that was apparently no longer anomalous. The consumer perceptions index kept declining. This was impossible. Eventually, these curves would have to break and head toward each other.
Or not. Gudkov himself had once added poverty to the definition of totalitarianism: he had come to the conclusion that scarcity was essential for the survival of a totalitarian regime. So perhaps in a case of recurrent totalitarianism, a totalitarianism that was being created from below at least as much as it was being imposed from above, the state and society were cooperating in creating a sense of scarcity.
People found ways to circumvent the sanctions, of course. They labeled food products as being something other than what they were or originating somewhere other than where they originated. One could now buy seafood from landlocked Belarus. In the summer of 2015—a year after countersanctions were first introduced—Putin signed a decree ordering the destruction of all foodstuffs deemed to be contraband. The cabinet then published rules dictating that banned foods should be destroyed “by any available means” in the presence of two impartial witnesses and the process must be captured by photo or video. There was talk of crematoria and of mobile incinerators. Some people were taken aback. A government plan to destroy vast quantities of food—edible food, food that was undeniably in demand—would probably be bizarre in any country, but in Russia it might have seemed particularly shocking. This was the country of the man-made famines that had killed millions, the country of the Siege of Leningrad, of the postwar hunger, of the catastrophic shortages of the 1980s, and of the salary arrears and subsistence off tiny plots of land of the 1990s. The president’s own mother had nearly died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad—this had been the obvious subtext of the outrage over TV Rain’s tweet—and now the president was ordering the destruction of food. Over a hundred fifty thousand people signed a petition asking the government to give banned products to the poor instead, and a few officials expressed support for the idea.
Then 114 tons of pork were annihilated in Samara, a city on the Volga. The pork had been labeled as Brazilian but was exposed as hailing from the European Union. Twenty tons of cheese in the Orenburg region were next in line. Then there was more pork, this time in St. Petersburg, and three truckloads of illegal nectarines.46 Now nothing was too horrible or too bizarre to be believed.