Not content with committing war crimes as it tries to erase Ukraine from the map, the Putin regime is now trying to snuff out hopes of Russia coming to terms with the shame and horror of its own past.
The regime has stepped up its witch-hunt against the country’s most respected human rights group, Memorial, an organisation pledged to protect human rights in Russia as well as document the crimes against humanity committed during the Stalin era.
Memorial was shut down in 2021. But on Tuesday this week President Vladimir Putin’s security forces raided the homes of nine members of the organisaton, including its chairman, Yan Rachinsky, anyway.
“They view Memorial’s work … as a threat to their power,” says Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia director.
As a pretext for raiding the homes of members of Memorial, the Russian authorities accused them of “rehabilitating Nazism”, “which is manifestly absurd”, says Zviagina.
But with every passing day, Russia starts to resemble its historical nemesis, the Third Reich, a little bit more. I know Russian political scientist in exile who now refers to her country as a “klepto‑fascist” state.
Despite the appalling sacrifices Russians made in fighting the Third Reich, just a few years earlier, Joseph Stalin, the tyrant that Putin increasingly resembles, had been on friendly terms with Adolf Hitler – until, the German mass-murderer turned on the Russian mass-murderer. But these are not issues many Russians discuss in public. Some members of Memorial have tried – but look what has happened to them.
A daft and sclerotic nostalgia for a Soviet utopia that never was, and knee-jerk hatred for the West and the US in particular, means many on the hard-left continue to cut Putin some slack. This persists no matter how, oppressive – how obscene – his actions become. In the process, they do ordinary Russians – including the brave members of Memorial, no favours.
To paraphrase Tolstoy: Happy countries are all alike; every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Russia is by far the world’s biggest country, but an economic also-ran (and who knows how far it will fall because of the Western sanctions ). It has been a beacon for art, literature and science, but can’t escape constant cycles of revolution and oppression – and an unjustified sense of entitlement that matches its vast geography but is completely out of proportion to its economic contribution to the modern world.
Now the Ukraine war has hastened its moral collapse into totalitarian police state.
Totalitarian states need outsiders and other countries to blame for their failings. Never has that been truer than in Russia today. Campaigners at Memorial, are dubbed foreign agents. Ukraine is the Trojan horse through which Nato will launch an attack. Dehumanising – Nazi-like – denigration of Ukrainians on state media is the norm.
The collective guilt or otherwise of the Russian population in the ongoing destruction of Ukraine remains a vexed issue.
In a lacerating essay on the state – and possible fate – of her country, the Russian historian Anastasia Edel writes in Foreign Policy: “Many Russians likely share some psychological propensity to justify the war because if what they believe – that their country is engaged in a righteous war against forces of evil – is untrue, then the alternative is being complicit in, and thus culpable for, its crimes.”
Other Russian academics point to research that suggests many of their compatriots might appear to support Putin in public but oppose the war in private and don’t believe the West is a threat to their country.
How would you or I react to life in a police state? Let’s hope we never find out.
The regime’s barbarism has caused an epochal brain drain. The best and brightest are leaving in droves. This week, Olesya Krivtsova, a 20-year-old university student in northern Russia, who was facing a decade in prison for her political posts on social media, joined hundreds of thousands fleeing their homeland.
Russia’s long-term economic prospects look dire. The all-important oil majors have completely pulled out of the country; as a result Russia will not be able to develop the next generation of projects in hydrogen and LNG when the world weans itself off fossil fuels.
This week Russia’s “friend without limits”, China, conspicuously failed to agree to a new Siberia gas pipeline Moscow will need to keep its economy alive in the interim.
Putin’s corrupt regime is lying about the country’s past, consuming and wasting its most valuable assets and, of course, destroying its future. Russia is on a road to economic and moral ruin: a country feasting on its own entrails.
Its theatre – regarded as among the most vibrant in the world – is dying as artists and intellectuals are replaced with apparatchiks.
With the pitch-black humour of Gogol or Bulgakov, one Russia journalist Arkady Babchenko, who staged his own death to thwart an alleged assassination plot by Russian security services, noted that “anyone showing dissent will simply fall out of the window”.
In a supposedly post-colonial world, Russia is an anachronism. Most of Russia’s oil and gas comes from two autonomous ethnic regions in Siberia, from where it is – or was – piped to Europe; the hundreds of billions of dollars of profit, of course, go to Moscow and into the pockets of oligarchs.
This has led pundits and politicians, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to say that Russia’s federal structure of republics, krais, oblasts and cities will need a radical shake-up before it can be dragged into the 21th century. But for the process to even begin, some, like Edel, say Russia will probably have to lose the war in Ukraine. For now – and the forseeable future – Russia’s prospects look very dark.
“So deep is the country’s malaise that even Russian President Vladimir Putin’s exit from the Russian political stage, whenever it occurs, is unlikely to change the country’s current trajectory,” writes Edel.
“Too many red lines have been crossed, too many points of no return passed. Increasingly lawless, economically doomed and morally bankrupt, Russia is running out of good endings.”
Michael Day is i’s Chief Foreign Commentator