This is the second part of my post, ‘Two Weeks in Russia’, about my first visit to the country since 2009. You can read the first part here.
The event in Volgograd took place in front of the building housing a new exhibition: ‘Russia: My History’. A number of them have been set up across the country. I had visited the one in Moscow, in one of the pavilions of the Soviet-era ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, the day before my arrival in Volgograd. It was slightly overwhelming. It would be wrong to call it a museum, for there is not one single concrete object in it. Instead, the visitor is treated to a multimedia experience offering a huge amount of information. I had underestimated how much there was to see. Arriving at the ticket desk, I was asked which exhibition I wanted to visit. I had expected a single one covering everything. I chose the 20th century, the period I am writing about in my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin.
President Vladimir Putin first reached the highest levels of Russian politics when he became Prime Minister in 1999 — but you would be wrong to think that might mean he would not feature prominently in an exhibition covering Russia’s twentieth century. In fact, even Mr Putin’s views on the First World War are shared with visitors: Russia’s attempt to mediate peacefully before the outbreak of war not having succeeded, it was forced to take up arms to defend ‘a fraternal Slavic’ people, Serbia – but paid a high price in defeat.
Revolution followed, and the ‘shameful’ peace treaty made by Russia’s new Bolshevik government. The final analysis of the conflict sets the tone for the rest of the century: noting the collapse of the Russian; Austro-Hungarian; and Ottoman empires before asking who ultimately benefited (a favourite question in any Russian discussion), the voiceover concludes that it was the United States, ‘A new era had arrived. The era of the dollar.’
The exhibition is skilfully put together for a generation used to being constantly surrounded by audio visual experience. There is nuance, too: some things are bad and good (the 1990s, for example, may have seen economic hardship and political instability, but they also witnessed the start of a business system, and the reconstruction of churches). Overall, though, a number of messages emerge which confirm that Russia under President Putin has taken a path which respects its past traditions, and will serve it well for the present, and the future.
Briefly, these are: Russia has done best when not relying on others; the west is always out to undermine Russia (it is telling that on the section covering the political crisis of 1993, which ended in gun battles on the streets of Moscow, and tanks shelling the then parliament, the only clip of President Boris Yeltsin has him talking of the support he has received from the United States); the ages when Russia has followed conservative social values under the guidance of the church are those ages when Russia has fared best. The Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War is attributed at least in part to the return to more traditional ways after the Bolsheviks’ questioning of the nuclear family as a system of social organization.
Russia’s biggest domestic challenge in the last quarter century has been to restore faith in the political leadership’s ability to run the country. While many in the West look at the 1980s and 1990s, the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, as a time when relations were improving, for many Russians these are years remembered more for extreme economic hardship and uncertainty than for political freedom. ‘Russia: My History’ understands this, and its overall message is not to tell people of their history, so much as to reassure them that things now are as they should be.
Russia’s post-Soviet attempt at liberal capitalist democracy having been judged a failure, the country has struggled to find a defining ideal since. Pride in history has helped to fill the void left by the death of Marxism-Leninism.
Stalingrad – sacrifice, and triumph
The Second World War – the Soviet Union’s part in which is referred to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’ — is the most prominent example of this. Living in Russia for long periods in the last decade and in the 1990s, I came to understand how much the sacrifice and victory meant. I also came to understand that was not fully appreciated in the West. One of the chapters of my next book covers the work of British and American correspondents in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. As part of my research on this trip, I travelled to Volgograd to see the site of the battle which changed the course of the war. Soviet victory here, and at the Battle of Kursk later in 1943, stopped the German advance onto Soviet territory, and, as it later became clear, was the start of the process that would lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany.
The Soviets’ task was to stop the Germans and their allies taking the city, then called Stalingrad. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that Hitler’s armies could advance on the Caucasus and the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. It would also have cut off the River Volga as a supply route. After a battle lasting 200 days, the Soviet forces prevailed. The German Field Marshal, Friedrich von Paulus, was captured along with his generals.
Today, the cellar – then underneath a department store – which was their headquarters, is a museum. It was here, in February 1943, after the surrender, that the BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, was brought by the triumphant Soviets to see their prized prisoners. As a western journalist in Moscow – to whom I told this story during my visit – wondered, this was perhaps the first time during the war that allied correspondents saw such high-ranking German captives.
Even decades later, and with little to recognize of the city as it was (aerial bombardment, followed by weeks of infantry and tank battles, reduced the riverside stretches to rubble – what you see today is almost all Soviet-era reconstruction, with the exception of the ruins of a flour mill, left as a reminder) Volgograd tells the visitor so much about the way Russia sees itself. Any correspondent or diplomat, any curious business person, newly-arrived in Russia, should visit. This was the place where Russia changed its own history, and that of Europe. This is the place where you understand why, after the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union was so suspicious of the West – suspicions which have found their contemporary counterparts. In their telling, danger came from the West in the shape of invaders, and Russia stood alone to face them – eventually triumphing simply by refusing not to.
The monument ‘The Motherland Calls’ was built to remember the triumph of arms. Mother Russia is no longer cowed: brandishing a sword, the giant statue symbolizes the moment when, victorious at Stalingrad, the Soviet forces went on the attack to drive the invader out. As Mother Russia leads the charge, she looks back at the same time: urging her armies to follow her. The hill where she stands was of great strategic importance, and captured at great cost: a sign tells the visitor that 34,505 soldiers lie buried there in common graves.
This great victory, won at such cost, has become part of the creation of modern Russia’s view of itself. Mr Putin even invoked the sacrifice of wartime when speaking at a concert held to mark five years since the annexation (not his phrase, obviously) of Crimea. ‘The actions of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol remind me of the actions of Red Army soldiers during the first tragic months after the breakout of the Great Patriotic War, when they tried to battle through to join their comrades and carried their field flags close to their hearts,’ he told the crowd.
‘Those Were The Days’
This trip also gave me plenty to consider about the nature of being a foreign correspondent. I will incorporate some of the lessons I feel I learnt into my teaching when I return to City, University of London’s Journalism department in September. It was a time to reflect on my own experiences in Russia, from the end of the Soviet period, to covering a very different kind of era in Russia’s war with Georgia in the summer of 2008.
When I left VDNKh, after my visit to ‘Russia: My History’, ‘Those Were the Days’ was playing over the public address system. The tune was originally a Russian folk song. To me, it evoked not only modern Russia’s assessment of its past, but also to my own long history with this county — long enough that some of the other journalists I have known here have since died: some in road accidents; at least one was killed in a war.
It is with sadness that I reflect that the close ties between Russia and the West, for which my generation hoped at the end of the Cold War, have not been built. After Crimea, and the diplomatic conflict which followed the poisoning in the English town of Salisbury last year of the former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, there is absolutely no prospect that they will be soon.
Russia has built its own system. It has finally – after decades of deliberation – decided on the direction it wishes to take. Freedoms seen as part of a liberal capitalist democracy are curbed. In return, the state is supposed to guarantee stability, a reasonable standard of living, and to permit citizens the liberty to be individual consumers (and despite sanctions, there seemed to be to buy).
The post-Soviet period is over. Russia has completed its transition. The country I knew as a journalist between 1991 and 2009 is no more. Like all countries, Russia will continue to develop – but within the confines of the new order it has established.
Still, there are questions. Can the system, based as it is on the leadership of one man, President Putin, now in the second and final term of his current presidency, endure? Views I gathered during my trip varied on this. The answer, it seems, depends on Mr Putin’s being able to find a replacement – drawn, in all probability, from the security services, as Mr Putin himself was – who will command the respect of opposing factions within the elite. Those factions may also choose to keep the peace to defend their self-interest; there may be some changes to the constitution to allow Mr Putin to retain some form of overall authority when his presidential term ends.
In the history exhibition, there is a quotation from Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warning that the consequences of the collapse of Russia would make the end of the Soviet Union look like a kindergarten, or child’s play, as we might say in English.
The airport and the streets of the capital may exude confidence, but the warnings of what is at stake suggest a certain nervousness, too.
Moscow, Volgograd, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. A grant from the Society of Authors funded this trip, assistance which I very gratefully acknowledge.