Rafael Behr

The Russia I fell in love with is now just a dream

The spirit of Putin’s nationalism and fascistic propaganda has contaminated my memories

July 20, 2023 13:58

Out walking the dog in the Sussex countryside, I pass a group of hikers chatting in Russian. I slow down to eavesdrop but can’t get close enough to catch the thread. There was a time when I’d have barged straight into the conversation, partly to be sociable, mostly to practise a language I speak with ragged competence. That was before the war in Ukraine. Now I can’t hear people speaking Russian without an involuntary flicker of suspicion, a need to know which side they are on.

I immediately rebuke myself for the feeling. Honestly labelled, it is prejudice, literally pre-judging strangers by the language they speak.

Also, it is illogical. Plenty of Ukrainians use Russian as their first language. (When eavesdropping, I listen out for the distinctive accent.) Besides, not all Russians are pro-war and, while opinion polls show consistent majorities backing Vladimir Putin, those who prefer to live abroad are, by definition, likelier to number in the dissident minority.

I know liberal Russians, campaigners for human rights and democracy, who have fled their homeland in fear of repression. Two of my oldest friends have stayed in St Petersburg but reluctantly, in despair. One — I’ll anonymise him as V — is Jewish. He sees plainly the fascistic character of Putin’s regime, its fusion of hardline ethnic nationalism and neo-Soviet imperialism. V would gladly join his son, who emigrated to Israel a few years ago, but his elderly mother is unable to travel.

Another friend, D, would get out if he could afford it. He has been on pro-democracy marches, chased by riot police. His daughter has been arrested for participation in anti-war protests. He is torn between fear for her safety and pride in her defiance. “In the future, people will ask us all what we did to prevent what is happening now,” D tells me. “I can’t tell her not to go to the demonstration.”

These friends talk bleakly about the resonance of Putin’s propaganda all around them. It feels different to their youth in the late Soviet period, when Communist Party power was visibly decaying. Then, there was widespread tacit recognition that the revolutionary slogans were absurd and that the information on official channels was all lies.

That scepticism is alive in some quarters and reborn in a younger generation that is plugged into alternative, digital news sources. But there are also far too many Russians whose worldview snuggly fits the warped contours of extreme nationalism: the myth of Cold War martyrdom to Nato aggression; the necessity of redemptive glory through war; the idea that liberal democracy is an effeminate corruption of the manly, Slavic soul. Tens of millions nod along each night to the pundits on state-controlled TV, whose harangues against Ukraine are flagrantly genocidal. That capture of the popular imagination is totalitarian in scope. It also means the spirit of Putinism will outlast the man himself.

The recent mutiny by the mercenary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin proved that the current Kremlin incumbent is vulnerable but it gave no succour to anyone hoping for transition to something more democratic, still less any atonement for the atrocities perpetrated against Ukraine.

That is why my Russian friends feel not only political alienation but moral detachment from their country. As an opponent of communism, you could feel patriotic about an alternative Russia waiting to be free. The equivalent destination today is shrouded in a fog of impotence and guilt. “We will be pariahs in Europe,” D tells me. “And we’ll deserve it.”

That doesn’t justify my flinch on hearing Russian spoken on British streets. It is the seed of a dangerous, illiberal impulse. It implies holding a whole nation collectively responsible for actions taken by the government that claims to act in their name. Applied in other contexts — to British intervention in Iraq, for example, or Israeli occupation of the West Bank — that ethos has been extrapolated into a justification for terrorism.

It is a moral trap, which is why I keep the impulse in check. But I can’t rekindle the Russophilia I acquired as a student. I have lost the effortless romantic attachment to Russian culture, to its literature and music, to the sardonic sense of humour I learned to appreciate in vodka-fuelled, late-night pseudo-philosophy sessions round the kitchen table in St Petersburg apartments.

The apartments are still there. So are the friends. But their country exists as a memory, or a place in the imagination, an idea of Russia-in-exile that is not yet a political project, barely even a hope of one. That is why I still gravitate to the sound of Russian voices wherever I hear them. I lean in because I know there is a better Russia out there, but its voice is soft, fragmented, muted by fear and shame.

July 20, 2023 13:58

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