Moscow: Putin’s Empire Strikes Out

Russians cling to the idea of being a great power, even though the quest for empire has become illusory and self-destructive. Can a new generation change this?

The Russian word for a great power is derzhava. But with its harsh consonants, it means more than that. It is the word for a superstate. It implies a force people cannot control and it is the expression Russians use when they talk of the nature of their country. 

What it means to live in a derzhava is visible when the Omon riot police arrive in the square in central Moscow where the statue of the poet Mayakovsky stands. Their blue and white camouflage is designed for the tundra. But on the streets of Moscow, their uniforms mean brazen authority. They offload hastily from military trucks and stand in packs around the statue. Further detachments in the dark green uniforms of the military police secure the edges of the square. Traffic is disrupted, then stopped. Security squadrons position themselves with dozens of leashed and muzzled Alsatians at the ready. The surrealism of watching a shock force secure an empty square isn’t funny to passers-by. Pale-blue-shirted policemen have spread out around the area and are waiting at all intersecting Metro stations. Dmitry, the cigarette vendor, is on edge. “This happens all the time. The opposition says they’ll have a protest. A few guys turn up and they all get arrested in minutes and then all the security men turn up and stage their own impromptu parade.” This is the order Vladimir Putin has brought back to Russia. 

On the Metro, policemen casually stand on the platforms that might transport any would-be rebels to encircle the statue of Mayakovsky. Passengers sullenly avert their eyes from the law. The human load of each carriage is a little piece of a fractured society. A one-eyed alcoholic is slouched next to a young man playing with an iPod Touch. Women wearing expensive clothing ignore the heavily wrinkled “father” carting around a small girl. There is a cardboard sign round her neck: “I need money to eat.” In Moscow, at least 23 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. This is in the city with the most billionaires in the world. The government claims the poverty rate is falling. But even Sergei Mironov, the Speaker of the parliamentary upper house, the Federation Council, estimates that more than one third of all Russians are now living in poverty. The inequities of the Tsars have returned.

Roughly one third of advertising hoardings stand emptied by the economic crisis savaging Russia. GDP slumped by 10.3 per cent in the last quarter. But this is not even the primary recession worrying the Kremlin. One in five of posters are government exhortations. “Love for the motherland begins in the family,” reads one. “A family is the highest form of love for one’s country,” shouts another. The Kremlin wants its children to maintain Russia as a derzhava.

Nikolai Petrov was once an adviser to the Russian government. His critical voice has now found a home at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, a Western-funded think-tank on the Tverskaia Boulevard. Here, a lick of new paint makes the Tsarist edifices look uglier than they were in decay. Decked in furs and clutching Prada handbags, the wives of the wealthy peruse the boulevard’s boutiques for luxuries. Petrov explains, “Vladimir Putin and his allies believed their own propaganda. But in fact most of the growth of the past few years has simply been recovery growth. The economy is dependent on oil and natural gas. The ‘Putin Plan’ is economic new-Stalinism, focusing massive state investments on vast projects. It has failed. The labour force is collapsing by a million a year. The state has only enough money to continue like this for 12-20 more months without reforms.” 

Putin sees himself at the helm of a great power. But the World Bank calculates that GDP is below that of Brazil, life expectancy is shorter than in Pakistan. The average Russian man dies at 59. In China, male life expectancy is 71. The population has fallen below that of Bangladesh. Government
advertising campaigns initially led to a rise in the birth rate but the financial crisis has brought a sudden burst of abortions. In Russia, terminations outnumber live births. In 2005, the UN warned that the Russian population could fall by one third by 2050. Petrov explains: “The scourge is alcohol and the government is unwilling to launch a temperance drive due to the massive profits it makes off vodka sales.” 

Oleg Zykov founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the new Russia. He is one of those that Stalin would call “the little screws” whose activism keeps alive real debate about where society is heading. He says: “Russia today is gripped by a multi-dimensional social plague. We are a post-totalitarian society and these problems have their origins in the way Russia was ruled for almost a century. People need to learn to take responsibility for their own lives and not rely on the state. Awareness must be spread about the devastating spread of HIV, TB, drug abuse and alcoholism.” As he is a member of Russia’s public chamber, a
forum for experts, his views are slowly seeping into the elite. But in other ways Russia is not changing. In July, a huge billboard was put up near his house. The image was a frigate on the ocean. The slogan was crude: “Russia is a great sea superpower.” 

In the Moscow office of Memorial, the atmosphere is sullen and tastes of cheap
tobacco and defeat. The place is kept alive on financial life support from the West. Once a powerful civil society organisation tackling historical issues and human rights abuses, it is today ignored, except when its members are murdered. Natalia Estimorova, who had been fighting violations in Grozny, was abducted and shot two weeks before I met Jan Rashinsky, its director of historical research. “What we are seeing is an attempt to return to some form of ideological control. It may be in a softer format than the one witnessed in the Soviet Union, but it is control none the less. This is exemplified by the recent decisions to work towards establishing a ‘correct version’ of the history of the Second World War and of Stalinism. A state history commission has been established, tellingly with no historians.” The brown walls of his office are covered in documents and photos from the 1930s. I ask him about the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin himself. “This was the inevitable result of their attempts to restore the legitimacy of the superstate. Stalin, its great helmsman, was thus restored to part of his former lustre.” 

This is lauded by Sergei Markov. He once worked closely with Chase Manhattan and the National Democratic Institute. But Russia has changed and so has he. Today, he is a member of the United Russia Party and joint-chairman of the National Security Council.  

“I followed the circle of politicians symbolised by Putin who sought to rebuild the Russian state after the chaos of the 1990s. That is why I am now a member of the Duma and am supporting the next stage — the imposition of certain ideological controls.” I ask Markov which constituency he represented. He answers a little too quickly: “I represent the Kremlin. Oh, I don’t mean that. Don’t quote me on that. I represent Moscow region.” 

Since the Tsars, night trains have tied the Russian lands together. Immigrants squat outside the Soviet baroque colonnades of Moscow’s Kazan station. Swapping cigarettes and tips, these unemployed young men from Siberia and Central Asia tell me they are too poor to start families back home. Ulan is from Kyrgyzstan. He wears clothes of the worst imaginable quality. “My family taught me to speak Russian. It has always been like this. This is the centre, the hub.” He will soon be joining the ranks of thousands of Muslim labourers who sweep the capital’s streets and work on its building sites. 

On the clattering train to Kazan, the capital of the federal republic of Tatarstan, a bearded Islamist mistakes my Semitic features for an Arab face. He speaks earnestly, as all believers do. His hand never strays far from the Koran. Once the other passengers are asleep, he speaks of the future. “In Tatarstan, we are slowly undoing centuries of colonisation, building the mosques and spreading our networks. The time is coming when there will be too few Russians to control us. The demographic crisis is our great chance. Russia will collapse again, it has to.” 

There are many new mosques in Kazan, linking the Tatars back to the Islamic world. Across the Russian republics, where people follow Islam, a steady revival is taking place. There were only 300 mosques in 1989. Today, there are 8,000. There are now more than 20 million Russian Muslims. But to say exactly how many is to enter into an often hysterical debate. Numbers as high as 26 million have been cited. Russian churches have shrilly sounded the alarm that Muslims may outnumber Christians by the end of the century. Some demographers even claim that more than one third of conscripts into the Russian armed forces will be Muslim by 2015. Demographics are notoriously unreliable and invisible. But changes are not. President Dmitry Medvedev has recently called for imams to care for Russian soldiers. 

But this data hides the fact that most Russians practise no religion and remain deeply Sovietised. Ivan, the owner of a Kazan pizza joint, tells me his family is typical . “I’m half Jewish, half Ukrainian. My wife is a bit German and the rest is Polish and Russian. My son’s girlfriend is half Tadjik. Empire has brought the mixing of races through the centuries. Just look at our eyes, they are slightly Asian.” There are two words for national belonging here: Russki meaning ethnic Russian, and Rossiyanin meaning inclusive of ethnicities, like British to English. In Tatarstan, the population is equally divided between Russians and Tatars, of whom one fifth are Christians. Coexistence is not easy. But in Kazan there is a vague Eurasianism. 

The North Caucasus is different. Across the region the slogan “Friendship and Brotherhood to the People of the Russian Federation” can be seen on billboards. But its omnipresence suggests things are rather different. Russian military expert Alexander Golts explains why: “The North Caucasus are the last provinces of a Russian Empire. They were drawn into Russia by Stalin despite profound cultural differences. The price that we have paid for retaining these territories is huge. In Chechnya, the price is the imperial vassal Ramzan Kadyrov and the barbaric security operations. The cost is the barbarisation of the federal state.” The summer saw large-scale bombings and killings in the region. 

Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan have been slowly converted by Putin’s policies into exactly what Boris Yeltsin went to war to prevent. The area is lawless, violent and dominated by men disloyal to the Federation. The military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer predicted the 2008 Georgian war. His explanation of events is blunt: “In Ingushetia, they practise informal Sharia law. You cannot buy a beer in Nazran. Islamic rebels are attempting to restart the conflict by attacking policemen and terrorising civilians. Music and beer sellers are targets.” But there are more sinister rumours about this war. 

Anton Surikov knows a lot about the North Caucasus. He is widely believed to have been a GRU (military intelligence) agent and knew the assassinated Chechen leader Shamil Basayev. Some say he was his handler. Experts believe it was his actions in convincing the Chechen leader to attack Dagestan that provided the pretext for Putin’s campaign of reconquest in Chechnya. When I inquire about his connections he explains cryptically, “When asked, I deny them. If not asked, I don’t mention it.” He has the build of a soldier and the stare of a man who knows something about violence. 

He speaks assuredly. “Putin’s connection with Kadyrov is purely personal — the connection of a Tsar to his vassal. Stability relies upon this alone in the North Caucasus. If it were broken, mass violence would begin again. The Kremlin is not in complete control of the security forces in the area. Some of the murders are done by rogue elements that seek to undermine Kadyrov. They hate him because he has gained something close to independence by stealth. You must not think of the security forces as uniform. There are clans, agendas and bandits among them. The FSB clans are faking some attacks for divide and rule policies.”  

At the cemetery of Beslan in North Ossetia, all this becomes painfully clear. More than 330 graves are spread out, almost 200 of them for the children murdered in the terrorist attack of 2005. There are teddy bears or dolls on the tombs. Bottles of water are left on some of the graves, because the terrorists gave the children nothing to drink. The Ossetian taxi-driver stares at the sight. His eyes are a mix of anger and resignation. But he speaks of another side to the Kremlin’s policies in the region: “Without Russian intervention here, these lands would be on fire. Moscow keeps the peace — and the Chechens away from us.” As imperialists always are, Russia is both prison warden and pacifier in the North Caucasus. 

But at what cost? Keeping Chechen and Ingush terrorists out with a secure border would obviously be easier than enforced incorporation. Billions have been spent and thousands of Russian lives lost. Ordinary people of the heartland draw the same benefits from this zone as Anatolian Turks once drew from the Ottoman Empire — the right simply to be conscripted and have your taxes wasted. 

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the Kremlin’s enclaves, their “independence” recognised only by Moscow , Venezuela and Nicaragua. Two cartographic daggers pointing south into Georgia, they are the Kremlin’s way of showing it still acts geopolitically. Felgenhauer believes war will roll into the South Caucasus once more. “This year, the Russian Army tested what it called an information pipeline for modern joined-up warfare. It didn’t really work. But Russia is determined to control Georgia. If you can dominate that strategic position, a land-link to Armenia is established and Azerbaijan falls into line. All of the critical pipelines that Russia does not control pass through Georgia to Europe. If you control Tbilisi, Central Asia then falls into line. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan would be under far heavier Russian writ.” 

The mountain frontier between Russian North Ossetia and its formally independent South seems at first glance to be to be as pristine as in Lermontov’s time. But as the bumpy road coils through the peaks, heavy construction veers into view. Tunnels are being smashed through outcrops and driveways ploughed through the wilds. Davit Sanokoyev, the burly South Ossetian Ombudsman apparently charged with “Human Rights”, explains as he points across the valley, “This is where a large Russian gas pipeline is being constructed to heat Tskhinvali.” But it seems suspiciously large to fit that purpose. 

Tskhinvali, the “capital” of South Ossetia, is a large wrecked village where wild dogs outnumber children. Shelled districts look as if they have been passed through blenders. There are constant shortages and power cuts. Fresh ruins rot at every turn. Young men traipse the streets in ill-fitting combat gear. “President” Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestler, puts a brave face on all of this: “Our aim is integration with Russia but not into Russia. We have signed more than 48 agreements with Moscow. This amounts to the building of a sovereignty-sharing arrangement like the one within the European Union.” He becomes defensive when I inquire about the ethnic Russians with FSB and military careers who make up most of his ministerial team. “Well, it’s no secret we’ve got manpower problems down here.” When I ask about the fact that Russia pays for everything, he replies: “Most of our budget is aid from Russia but isn’t it clear to you what a state the place is in?”

The frontlines with Georgia snake through fields of long grass, often turning into trenches, barely three miles from Kokoity’s office. The village of Khetagurovo lies in their line of sight. It hardly exists any more. The windows are blown out. Doors are hanging open, fences wrenched apart. Nature is devouring every corner, like a scene out of The Day of the Triffids. The South Ossetian Minister of Defence, Yuri Tanaev, was giggling at his own lewd jokes when I met him. “Let me tell you something,” he begins, urging me to share a bottle of vodka with him. “The Georgians are like a cat that does not know the right place to shit. In fact, we have an expression in the mountains that sums the whole thing up. A fit young rabbit will never fight a bear, even if that bear is very old and extremely sick. The Georgian-Russian relationship is just like this.” He finds this hilarious. 

That night in Tskhinvali, the Ossetians stage a first anniversary memorial service for the war. It begins with a screen displaying CNN images of George W. Bush and the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili shaking hands. It is closer to incitement than commemoration. Later, speakers blares out mournful Rachmaninov. The piano mixes into the sounds of hundreds of howling wild dogs scattered among the ruins. The battle of Tskhinvali was fêted in Russia as a turning point on its march back to superpower status. But it is really a monument to the human cost of geopolitical bargaining chips. 

Abkhazia is different. The mountains fall beautifully into the sea like a second Riviera. The capital, Sukhumi, is eerily quiet and depressingly still. But the Soviet colonnades have been whitewashed and the promenade pieced back together since the savage wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his functional office, the Abkhaz National Security Adviser, Stanislav Lakhova, sternly explains its political meaning. His face is disfigured by a huge purple birthmark, but his fierce nationalism and bright eyes lend him a certain charm. “You suggest that empires are a bad thing, but for me they bring stability. Shall I remind you of what Mikhail Lermontov wrote to a Crimean friend? That as long as you are on the edges of an empire and far away from the Tsar, things are actually for the best. One more thing: think of Russia as Don Quixote and Abkhazia as Sancho Panza.” 

I am ushered upstairs to meet “President” Sergei Bagapsh, a man with an oddly avuncular manner. He envisages a more formal arrangement with Moscow. “We intend to join the Russia-Belarus union state as soon as Minsk recognises us. And I have no doubt that this arrangement will be finalised positively.” But other officials seem to want to strike out away from the Kremlin. Sergei Shamba, the Foreign Minister, explains that he has a “multi-vectoral foreign strategy”, adding cryptically: “We have met officials from all branches of the Turkish government.” An Abkhaz source later confirms that there has been a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. The source adds, “Turkey has a three-million-strong Abkhaz diaspora due to 19th-century Russian ethnic cleansing. And using them, we can eventually get ourselves out of this strategic corner.”

But as I drive further south towards the frontlines, this sounds more and more like a fantasy. Greenery has swallowed the villages the ethnically cleansed Georgians once inhabited. The formerly prosperous town of Ochamchiere is like a sunny set from a post-apocalyptic film with its stretches of roofless and ravaged buildings. “Oh, you think it’s bad today,” intones presidential adviser Nadir Bitiev. “When it’s winter with the dogs and eery noises, that’s when it’s bad.” 

Putin has ordered the place be militarised. A large naval base will now be built here. Russian troop numbers in Abkhazia are rising from 1,500 to more than 3,500. In the badly maintained office of government at the frontline town of Gali, a local official smokes heavily and confesses, “My people are the victims of superpower relations.”  

Russia is ringed by its former colonies, across which it is has spread an alphabet soup of international organisations. There is the political Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the military Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and even the still hypothetical union state with Belarus. None of these is a genuine organisation. In this sphere, the Kremlin backs its influence with threats. It turns off the gas to Ukraine, blocks milk imports from Belarus, builds military bases in Kyrgyzstan and even sent its armies deep into Georgia. President Medvedev has stated that this is to be expected, as for Russia this constitutes “a privileged sphere of influence.” Sitting in the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel during the Georgian War, a senior European diplomatic source put it this way: “In this war, they are laying claim to what they call the near abroad.” 

Since then, the Kremlin has had some setbacks. Kyrgyzstan allowed the US to reopen its military base at Manas. The Tadjiks threatened to scrap Russian as an official language. An informal CIS leadership summit in Moscow saw four no-shows. Uzbekistan has stalled Russia’s attempts to create a CSTO rapid-reaction force, Belarus has joined the European Union’s Eastern Partnership and not one of Moscow’s allies has recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia. 

The only political battle that really matters for the Kremlin is Ukraine. If its flag flies once more over Kiev, Russia will be a superpower again. The Russian Patriarch Kirill visits to affirm a spiritual claim as the state meddles in domestic politics. Analysts and journalists trade rumours that the Crimea is about to turn hot. On Yalta beach, the young in this almost entirely Russian province have mixed views. Some think it is going to happen. “This will be Chechnya in reverse. Have you seen how many Russian chauvinist biker gangs there are?” However, others suggest, “There are more important things than this for leaders to worry about.” Almost 14 per cent of the population here are Muslim Tatar, closely aligned to Kiev and hostile to Russian power. Their leader and member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Jemeliouk, is scathing about Russia’s intentions. “Putin is trying to build a new kind of empire. We are not sure what it is, some form of Slavic union has been talked about. One thing is certain: if Russia tries to annex Crimea there will be civil war and we will fight on the side of Kiev.”

After hours in the bars of Kiev, young Ukrainians explain their feelings to me about their powerful neighbour. Anna’s views are typical: “We do not hate Russia. We share a history and much of a culture. We speak their language. But we want a democratic and prosperous future. They don’t offer that. If they could and would treat us as equals, things could be very different.” 

But the great game is in Central Asia. In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a Soviet Milton Keynes in decay, the atmosphere is sour as the country slides into authoritarianism. Opposition leader Bakyt Beshimov blames Moscow: “The influence of Russia is becoming worse as Putin is trying to impose his model of  ‘managed democracy’. Moscow finances pro-Kremlin politicians and then strengthens pro-Russian media outlets in Central Asia. Russia is trying to impose a new postmodern empire through financial clout, lobbyists, military bases and Gazprom pipelines. They want to control us.”

Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev believes Russia is running out of time. “China is becoming the dominant power here and popular feelings that could favour a new confederation of equals with Russia are being dashed by the Kremlin’s bullying.” A young diplomat at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledges that the approach is self-limiting. “What we need is a tandem partner to begin integration and construct a sphere of economic influence like the Franco-German partnership that built the EU. But the generation above me behaves as if they are in a Cold War. And they will never treat Kazakhstan as an equal.”

Russia is still an empire built of different parts and pipelines. The Kremlin is clinging to the Caucasus whatever the cost and throwing away chances for integration as by bullying its former colonies. This brings no benefits to ordinary people. Russia’s hollow economy is in free-fall and over-reliance on oil is sickening its structures. Life is tough, mostly poor and short for ordinary people. The windfalls from oil are wasted in enclaves and rockets or simply stolen. Yet Russians enthusiastically cheer the self-destructive and illusory quest for empire, because this is the meaning of derzhava, the very idea of Russia itself. 

A new generation is reaching adulthood, born during the fall of the Soviet Empire and the chaos that followed. If they can re-imagine what Russia means they may still save it. Goethe and Schiller once warned their compatriots not “to become a nation”, offering instead an alternative within their grasp: “Make yourselves rather — you can do it — more freely into human beings.”

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