Inside the Russian psyche

The UK remains surprisingly reluctant to dig deep into the patterns shaping Russia’s view of the world

Features
Alexander Litvinenko in hospital, November 2006: his revelations about the FSB had seemed too exotic to believe (©Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images)

Behind the recent furore over the Russia Report lies a deep British confusion over how to “read” Russia, the country once called by Churchill a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill’s belief was that unfathomable Russian behaviour could best be understood as the pursuit of the country’s national interests.

But the news items in recent years seem too intrusive and destabilising to fit comfortably into that category, if the starting-point is that we are on reasonable terms with Russia. The stories range from poisonings in London and Salisbury, through accounts of troll farms producing fake news and suggestions of over-generous donations for a variety of political causes, to allegations of interference in the 2016 American election and the Brexit vote.

It’s hard, on the face of it, to see why it would be in Russia’s national interest to act as aggressively as reported, or suggested, in the media. Why rile foreign partners so spectacularly, if you’re not planning a fight? If you are pursuing your national interest in a normal way, wouldn’t you be better off simply making an effort to create a peaceful neighbourhood with some reliable allies you can trust and call on in times of need?

In a country like Britain, where dogged, low-key common sense is so prized, conspiracy theories about Kremlin-and-KGB power grabbing have always seemed too extraordinary to be true. The sheer swaggering theatricality of the kind of skulduggery often alleged tends to beggar the belief of a nation raised on the principle that life is naturally more cock-up than conspiracy.

When the much-delayed Russia Report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee was finally published six months late this summer, after months of official foot-dragging, this was the principle that seemed to have been applied. Unlike in America, where allegations of Russian electoral interference were investigated, British MPs said little interest had been shown here by security agencies. The inference was that our leaders might have simply turned a blind eye.

And yet a quick look back at history shows we are almost always wrong when we start relying on a relationship governed by notions of quiet common sense. We have form, historically, for missing the point in our interactions with Russia. Here are a few examples from recent history.

Tell an Englishman that an assassin might choose to kill someone innocently waiting for a London bus by jabbing him with an umbrella tip containing a pellet of the rare poison ricin, and the Englishman’s first reaction will be to laugh in disbelief. Why bother with such elaborate cloak-and-dagger tactics? If you want to bump someone off, why not just push him under the bus?

Yet that is exactly the way the KGB did behave. Ricin was used in the James Bond-style murder in London in 1978 of the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. He was jabbed with a poisoned umbrella tip while waiting for a bus on London Bridge, and died four days later. The KGB was blamed.

Anyone who thinks the secret police learned to behave better after the Soviet Union disintegrated—and the Soviet KGB was reformed and renamed the Russian FSB—had to think again after a more recent arrival from Moscow died an even more exotic death, from ingesting the rare radioactive substance polonium in Piccadilly in 2006.

Alexander Litvinenko came to Britain at the start of the 21st century. In Moscow, Litvinenko had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian secret police. He claimed to know some of the darkest secrets of his country’s recent past, from the era when the FSB was run by Vladimir Putin, who later become the Russian president.

Litvinenko first made headlines in Russia in 1998, when he blew the whistle on an order he said he received from his FSB superiors to assassinate an unpopular but powerful tycoon. He won political asylum in Britain. In London, the spy in hiding continued to speak out. His every revelation was designed to show that the FSB was behind just as many cloak-and-dagger horrors as the KGB ever was.

It was hair-raising stuff, at least in principle. But in practice it didn’t really gain a foothold in the British popular imagination. It was just too exotic for anyone from the comparatively gentle streets of London to believe in.

That changed when Litvinenko died. But, even then, it took several years for Britain to formulate a public view. It was only at a non-judicial public hearing in 2014-15 that Scotland Yard’s representative stated that “the evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko’s murder”.

British authorities were quicker to be suspicious when Sergei Skripal, another ex-spy, living in retirement in Salisbury, collapsed in that city in March 2018 beside his daughter Yuliya, after both were poisoned with a Russian-developed Novichok nerve agent. Within days, then Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia was responsible and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.

Yet, as the current unease shows, we remain reluctant to dig deep. 

Russia has strong geographical and political reasons to distrust its neighbours. Lying in the middle of the   Eurasian landmass, its borders have expanded and contracted over time as a result of external pressures. Fear of invasion and a sense of victimhood—populist politicians like to call Russia “much-suffering”—may lie at the heart of its suspicious approach to the outside world. If you feel surrounded by enemies, you’ll be prone to seeking retaliation rather than common ground.

The Russian state has also, historically, not been good at housing dissent, or even a range of views, at home. There has been a historical tendency to throw out opponents to live in exile, then to fear they are scheming abroad, and to send out secret police to neutralise the perceived threat. This has given Russia centuries of practice at targeting people living beyond its own borders. The Tsarist secret police set up offices in Paris in the 19th century to keep tabs on Russian lefties. A generation later, it was the turn of their Soviet successors, also in Paris, to bump off White Russian opponents. White Generals Kutyopov and Miller were both kidnapped in Paris—Kutyopov in 1930 and Miller in 1937—by the Soviet secret police.

This history of suspicion of outsiders gave Russian politicians an easy narrative to unite their people domestically against some “external enemy”, even if this meant curtailing liberties. The paranoid Stalin era knew the enemies as saboteurs and wreckers. For different generations, they’ve been Jews or Chechens. This popular fight-back approach was evoked in a more playful way, in the anxious post-Soviet 1990s, when domestic retail markets were flooded with Western goods. One Russian cigarette brand marketed itself with a picture of a flying cigarette packet heading straight for the Statue of Liberty, with the slogan: “Return Strike”.

The 21st-century Putin era has seen a more sophisticated weaponising of information take hold, described elegantly by Kremlin-watcher Peter Pomerantsev. In his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, he described how a dazzling array of eye-popping and implausible news stories are promoted through official media but in such a way that no clear narrative ever emerges as to what points of view are shared with the Kremlin. One party is briefly favoured, then its opponent. The domestic aim, he says, is to reduce those exposed to this information onslaught to a state of passive uncertainty before the TV screen, unable to work out how to behave in response.

As Pomerantsev wrote recently on the information website Coda Story:

Russian international relations thinkers with a conspiratorial bent first started to develop the idea of ‘information war’ as a quasi ideology in the late 1990s and early 2000s, arguing that the USSR lost the Cold War not because of an inferior political system and dearth of economic achievements, but due to “information viruses” like Perestroika and Glasnost (economic reform and enhanced freedom of expression) planted by the West and a fifth column of reformers and dissidents. For a long time such ideas were not in the mainstream, but as the Kremlin searched for ways to explain away protests at home and revolutions against Kremlin friendly authoritarians and kleptocrats abroad, the “information war” philosophy was brought into the mainstream. Today, Kremlin media, its spokespeople, and just anyone who wants to curry favor with it, accuse Western media, anti-corruption investigations and even internet companies of being part of a concentration of non-kinetic forces hell bent on stopping Russia “rise off its knees”. And if the West is up to such malarkey, then why shouldn’t Russia launch the odd hack, cyber-attack and sneaky social media campaign against the West.

In this view, the explosion of fake news and troll farms we complain so bitterly of in the West these days can be seen, essentially, as Moscow’s way of packaging for export its domestic approach to news as a conductor of uncertainty and passivity.

It remains impossible to say for sure how much truth there might be in the stories that circulate today about activities perhaps designed to weaken Western democracy. But, according to one eastern European diplomat talking recently about the UK parliament’s Russia Report, there is a good chance that there is some truth in some of them. For him, though, the irony is that the modern Russian state, however skilled at these activities, is less powerful than its Soviet or Russian imperial predecessor, and less to be feared. The giant rising up in the geopolitical background today is China. China also benefits from the pandemonium in many Western democracies. And, as the diplomat added with a smile, the Chinese may well be grateful if this work is being spontaneously done by someone else.