Two Weeks in Russia: part II and conclusion

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 entrance to the ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post (with one exception) are by the author.

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.’

Part of the outside of the ‘Russia — My History’ exhibition in Moscow, March 2019. It shows Tsar Alexander III above his words, ‘Russia has only two allies: her army and fleet’.

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.

A newly-restored and reopened church on Khavskaya Street, Moscow. March 2019.

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.

Visitors to the ‘The Motherland Calls’ war memorial, Volgograd, Russia. March 2019.

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.

Second World War tanks outside the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ museum on the bank of the River Volga, Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

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.

The ruins of a flour mill destroyed during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943. The ruins were left as they were at the end of the battle as a reminder of the war. Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

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 changing of the guard at the Mamayev Kurgan war memorial, Volgograd, March 2019.

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.

The ‘Bronze Horseman’ monument to Tsar Peter the Great, with the Russian Constitutional Court in the background, Saint Petersburg, March 2019.

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.

The author visting Volgograd, 16th March 2019.


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Two weeks in Russia

Part of the Kremlin wall and Spassky Tower, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post, are by the author.

I have just returned from a two week trip to Russia, my first visit to the country since 2009, when I finished my posting there as BBC correspondent. It was also my longest time away from Russia since I first worked in Moscow as a TV news producer in 1991. On this trip, in addition to meetings with academic colleagues, and giving two lectures, I went to places which will feature in my next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin. I am extremely grateful to the Society of Authors for the grant which funded my travel. This is a longer piece than I usually post here. It covers change in Russia, history, journalism, and personal reflection. This is part one of two. I will post part two tomorrow.

MOSCOW LOOKS CONFIDENT. It welcomes the visitor now with the self-assurance of a capital proud of how it looks and what it has. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport I was as impressed as I was obviously supposed to be. I first landed there in the summer of 1991 — the last summer of the Soviet Union — and the contrast could not be greater. In almost every way, that was another country. Gone was the drab lighting, the air tinged with the scent of boiled cabbage and the distinct, if distant, smell of Soviet cigarette smoke. Now the arrivals hall shone: spotless floors, sparklingly clean windows, quick and efficient passport control. There were more signs than ever in English – and in Chinese, too.

If there were any signs of the old days, they were rare enough to suggest that I was witnessing the end of trends from the last century. The taxi driver took pleasure in removing his seat belt as soon as we had passed the traffic policeman at the exit from the airport. He even had a spare seat-belt buckle which he attached in order to stop the irritating and noisy ticking and flickering of the car’s safety warning. The old Russian belief that a seat belt is a restrictive annoyance which can actually impede the driver still had its adherents.

The war memorial at Khimki – in the shape of three huge tank traps – was harder to spot by the road than once it had been. Since the end of socialism in Russia, this symbol of the Soviet Union’s greatest victory (marking the furthest point which the German invaders reached as they closed on Moscow in the fall of 1941) has been overshadowed by the symbols of consumerism – superstore sign after hypermarket sign—which now tower behind it.

I stayed in the Moscow hotel where I stayed during my first ever assignment in the summer of 1991. Its name had long since changed – from the ‘October’ (named for the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power) to the ‘Arbat’, but some of the rooms – and I got one, having requested their cheapest – still have the Soviet-era wood floors and furniture. I was especially pleased to get a room at the front of the hotel – as I had in 1991 – with a view of the foreign ministry from the window.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, March 2019.

The shine of Sheremetyevo spread to the city centre. Moscow’s Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has made the Russian capital smart and clean. A burning rubbish bin outside Smolenskaya metro station made me wonder if that was still a common sight. It was not. In the late Soviet period, cigarette ends – discarded as their owners entered the public transport system – smouldered and smoked in the trash. This was the only time I saw it on this visit. There was not a single tiny piece of litter in the metro. Cleaners rode the escalators in pairs, polishing as they went. New trains and carriages carried Moscow’s millions of passengers quickly and punctually. Station names were also written in the Latin alphabet, that was new since I lived here; announcements made in English.

New Markets, New Words

The sweeping political changes of the last quarter century have been reflected in the Russian language. In the 1990s, ‘biznesmen’ (businessman) and ‘killer’ (hired assassin) were two additions. The first new word I noticed this time was ‘food court’: the English word transliterated into Cyrillic; the concept introduced in Moscow’s increasingly gentrified food markets. From 2006-2009, I lived near one such, Danilovsky Market, south of the city centre. I went back during this visit to see how it had changed.

The charming chaos of a Russian market had been swept away. I was reminded of the taunt opposing football fans flung at supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City when new, wealthy, owners changed their club’s fortunes on the field, and, supposedly, character too: ‘You’re not Chelsea anymore’. Danilovsky market was not Danilovsky market any more. A few of the stallholders looked like they might have made the transition, but they had been squeezed into corners by the advance of globalized good taste. Potatoes, still with the soil of mother Russia clinging to their skins, spilling out of sacks, and bloodied chopping blocks for butchering fowl and fish – all this was gone. Although any property this close to the city centre would – as in so many global capitals today – be eye-wateringly expensive, that did not mean its inhabitants were necessarily well-heeled. The prices in the market were London prices; Moscow’s salaries are not London ones. I cannot imagine this gentrification, good though it may look to a visitor like me, has been given an unadulterated welcome.

A coffee stall at Danilovsky Market, Moscow, March 2019.

Messages from History

Some things were reassuringly similar. The radio tower built nearby in the early Soviet period still dominates the area. Philip Jordan, in Moscow as correspondent of the News Chronicle during the Second World War, described in his 1942 memoir Russian Glory, ‘the great lattice tower of the Comintern Radio that hangs above the city like a minaret of the twentieth century’. He would recognize it today.

The Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Gregorievich Shukhov, Shabolovka St., Moscow, March 2019.

Then, the radio tower was a beacon sending socialist propaganda to the world. The correspondents of that era were frustrated by the fact that often they were not permitted to file news until it had been on Radio Moscow – meaning that their home news desks had the story before they were allowed to offer it, and raising questions as to the value of their presence. Today, Moscow still sends its views out over the airwaves and internet connections: Russia Today (or RT as it now calls itself) and Sputnik have become symbols of a country which feels it has regained some of the status it lost when the superpower that was the Soviet Union fell apart – but the correspondents are at least allowed to compete.

Yet for all the ‘food courts’ with their sushi and espressos, for all the beer bars where bearded hipsters show off their inked arms as they serve craft ales, the appearance of internationalism is deceptive. Russia wants to be part of this global society, but only to an extent. The shining new streets of Moscow may impress the visitor, but if outsiders are the target audience at all, they are the secondary one. Muscovites and their fellow Russians are the people who are really supposed to be impressed – reassured that Russia is back where it belongs, and that Russia is best.

Every country has its patriotic pride, but in Russia this seems to have become a principle characteristic of official policy. The new metro trains are proudly made in Russia. During my visit, a televised competition ‘Leaders of Russia’ was followed nightly on the main TV news bulletin, Vremya (‘Time’). Prominent members of Russia’s political and business establishment (Mr Sobyanin among them) offered advice to young people seeking to become the country’s future elite. The prize was a million roubles (about $15,300; €13,500 or £11,600) to be spent on education, but only in Russia, not abroad. Vremya also offered news reports on how good Russian weapons were, even including the range of missiles imposed on a map of Europe, in case you didn’t get the idea.

A mural on a Moscow building. The writing says, ‘I defend my Motherland. 23rd February, Day of the Defender of the Fatherland’. Moscow, March 2019

Crimea Five Years On – No Regrets

Vremya also aired reports about the building of rail links between southern Russia, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. A very excited correspondent breathlessly described the construction of a rail link alongside the bridge for motor traffic, which was already open. My visit to Russia coincided with the fifth anniversary of the annexation. Political leaders lined up to express their enthusiasm: an event in Crimea on Friday 15th March drew the leaders of all the main factions in the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

Foreign guests were few, although television pictures showed the French politician, Thierry Mariani, offering, in broken Russian, a message of solidarity and support. It was warmly applauded. There was even more the next evening, when about half the 30-minute bulletin was devoted to celebrations of the welcoming (annexing) of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation: a long piece of public relations about infrastructure was followed by a another report on the visiting French politicians. Their presence may have impressed some sections of the domestic TV audience; to an outsider, the fact that the guests were not of a higher profile served as a reminder of the price that Russia has paid internationally for Crimea. That, though, was not an angle I saw addressed in any of the coverage.

The newsreader said that celebrations had been taking place across the country. I was in Volgograd that weekend. I arrived at the place where the event was happening about an hour after it had started. By then, the crowds were already dispersing. I could not say how many people had been there, but for a city of a million people, it seemed few. Opinion polls suggest that Russians still strongly support the annexation of Crimea, but, in Volgograd at least, normal weekend activities seemed to have proved a stronger draw than a political rally.

For Russian TV news, though, this was pretty much the only story for days – and there was more to come.