How Russia Became Russia

Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia describes how a decades-long struggle between nationalists and liberals led to Putin.

The fall of the Soviet Union has to be one of the most interesting things that has happened in our lifetime. The Soviet Union was a huge empire, highly centralized, ruling over more than 13 countries with an iron fist. No dissent was tolerated. Yet, it unraveled in a matter of months and went from a super power to a defunct, bankrupt Russia.

Arkady Ostrovsky is a Russian born British journalist who spent several years reporting from Moscow for the Financial Times, and then as a Russia and East European editor for the Economist.  His book, The Invention of Russia – The Journey from Gorbachev’s freedom to Putin’s war, traces out the thought process leading to Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika and then the events that succeeded these policies. In Ostrovsky’s words: “This book is about the failures of the pro-western elite that came to rule Russia after the Soviet collapse , the rise of populist nationalism and the role of the Russian media.”

The Invention of Russia traces the fight between liberals and nationalists within the Soviet Union since the days of Khrushchev, and how it culminated in Gorbachev’s signature policies of glasnost and perestroika. It offers a glimpse into the battle for the soul of Russia between the statists, the nationalists who wanted a strong, independent, powerful Russia, and the liberal minded intelligentsia who wanted to Europeanize Russia and follow the western ideals of free speech, individual liberty and freedom.  It talks about the influence of television and the role of the media in influencing the narrative, and therefore the attempt from either side to control the media. For us here in India, all this has a familiar ring, and for this alone, the book is a must read.

The book starts with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and the effect that it created in the Soviet Union. The death of Stalin was a watershed moment: “It marked the end of one country and the beginning of another.” Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin (which was equivalent to a political earthquake) was not reported anywhere in the state media, but information was still leaked out through messengers and word of mouth. When hardliners and Stalinists in the party like Molotov and Malenkov attempted to overthrow him, violence as a mode of revenge was eschewed. They were given the death sentence but, in a first, the sentence was never carried out. This was the dawn of a struggle between the nationalists and liberals to determine the direction in which Russia was headed. This was also the beginning of the “shestidesiatniki”– a generation of liberals who believed more in the concepts of free speech, freedom and equality. As Ostrovsky says – “In the West, Gorbachev is seen as a visionary historic figure solely responsible for the liberalization of the Soviet Union. In fact, he was a man of his generation which determined his sensibilities and choices.”

One of the main characters in the book is Yegor Yakovlev, who ended up being the editor of a magazine called Moskovski Novosti. Yegor is described as a “colorful figure” catering to the roving, restless youth, starting with his publication called Zhurnalist. Zhurnalist was one of the first magazines which tried to talk about what people were talking “in their own Moscow kitchens.” The magazine’s circulation grew rapidly and Yakovlev was fired. However, this marks the beginning of a new liberal media within the Soviet Union.

Ostrovsky describes the role of this new media — still in its infancy — in the part that it played in the Soviet invasion of Czech Republic. There were protests in Moscow against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the protesters were carted off by the KGB. However, the true meaning of the events meant that protests were allowed to happen, the liberal media was able to print its opposition and support the cause of the liberal Czech Alexander Dubcek, who was the leader of the Czechoslovakian republic. As Ostrovsky writes, “What was published was not new. What was new was the fact that this could be printed in a newspaper under someone’s byline. The very existence of such a paper was the biggest news of all.”

The nuclear disaster of Chernobyl was a catalyst for glasnost – the opening up of the media. Ostrovsky talks about rival publications belonging to different schools of thought. This was the age of Sakharov, of Solzhenitsyn, of their vocal protests to the Government. One set of publications were edited by Stalinists and nationalists. The other set of publications (including a tabloid called Moskovski Novosti edited by Yegor Yakovlev) printed opinion pieces and essay writing. People would form long lines at dawn to buy these liberal newspapers. Television made its appearance as a much-sought-after medium. There were programs that followed the hardline stance, and programs which followed a more liberal school of thought. Vzglyad was a program that talked about removing Lenin from his mausoleum. It carried an interview with a Soviet navy captain who said that Soviet submarines were death traps. It was the first program to interview Sakharov when he was released from exile.

One of the most fascinating portions of the book is when it traces the roots of glasnost and perestroika, and highlights the sequence of events that led to the fall of Gorbachev. There was unchecked privatization, and huge enterprises fell into the hands of individuals who took advantage of what perestroika could offer them. There were growing ideological differences between generations – people who were wedded to the Soviet way of life but wanted liberalism in their ideas – and people ( of the younger generation)  who wanted nothing to do with the Soviet way of life. The rapid loosening of political control led to chaos. Somewhere, Gorbachev did not understand the consequences of his own actions.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a consequence of rapidly devolving political control over the country, unaccompanied by economic or political reforms. Mass protests, both among Russians and among the Soviet republics, were not suppressed. With the intelligentsia still influencing Gorbachev to not crackdown on protests in the true meaning of perestroika or let the liberal media report on it freely, the result was a turn of events which manifested itself with the fall of the Berlin wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup which brought the mayor of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, to power.

Yeltsin is described as a person who cared only for power, and would do anything to get it. He came to power as a popular figure representing the power of the people against the tanks of the state. This was the height of power of the liberal sections of Soviet society. However, “in the Yeltsin era, Russian capitalists bubbled from the underground. It started with black marketeers, opportunists, adventurers, hustlers and conmen.” Ostrovsky talks about the rise of businessmen like Boris Berezovsky and Gusinsky, and the systemic corruption that was pervading the economic and moral fibre of the Soviet Union.

Dozens of cons were inflicted on the people in the form of scams of every shape, size and variety, with the conmen never getting caught. He talks of the new television station NTV owned by an oligarch – Gusinsky — and the role it played in the first Chechen war. This was a dark period of Russian history and one begins to understand the hatred that the common Russian feels when looking back at the Yeltsin years. Also, Yeltsin was a person who had the total support of America and the West. The West lent him huge sums of money, providing respectability to Yeltsin politically. At a time when his people looked down on him as a drunk, he has the highest regard from the Western powers.

However, this is where the book falters. Not enough detail goes into the relationships between Western governments and Yeltsin, and why he was provided unconditional support. Not enough detail has gone into the rise of the oligarchs and their intimate relationship with the Russian government and Yeltsin. State enterprises were privatized with no regard to law, and the circumstances of the privatization are not detailed enough in the book. There are instances of the state oil company Gazprom funding oligarchs owning liberal media and TV stations (NTV), and then turning its back on them. The relationship between Gazprom, its chief executives and the money spent by Gazprom on media, supporting the various oligarchs, businessmen and politicians has not been gone into. There are parallels that could perhaps be drawn with today’s Ukraine, but the author does not go into those relationships.

The advent of Yevgeny Primakov, the charismatic Russian foreign minister, signified a return of the hardline faction to power within the Government. The author describes the situation when Primakov was due to fly to the US to ask for more funds for the Russian Government. When he realized that there was an imminent attack on Belgrade, in a highly symbolic move, he asked for the plane to be turned around in the middle of the Atlantic and proceeded back to Moscow. The author describes the premiership of Primakov as a steady calming effect on the public. He represented continuity, a return to the old values. It also represented a start of full-blown nationalism and anti-Americanism. The NATO war on Serbia was a disaster for Yeltsin and it is surprising that nobody realized it at that time. The bombing of Serbia was a wakeup call for Russians. It led them to the belief that they were being taken for a ride by the West. It was the start of the consolidation of all nationalist forces under Primakov, the communists and Zhirinovsky that ultimately led to the Presidency of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The rise of Putin was not a sequence of random events — it proceeded from a set of convulsions that had rocked Russian society since its victory in World War Two. Putin is not a hardline nationalist in the mould of a Zhirinovsky. But he is no liberal either. He stands for a strong independent powerful Russia that holds its place in the league of powerful nations. At the same time, he has not eliminated the oligarchs and brought an end to free enterprise in Russia. The media in Russia (RT and Sputnik) after their various makeovers have a high viewership across the world. The quality of their programming is good, even though their bias may be suspect. To some in the outside world, he is able to maintain a balance of statism with some amount of liberalism injected.  To others, he is a die-hard nationalist intent on restoring the Soviet Union.

When reading about any school of thought or ideology, we are taught to look at the best of the thought and try and incorporate that into our belief systems. The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky brings out the worst of hardline nationalism reflected under Communist rule, and the worst of uncontrolled liberal ideology as manifested during the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The Soviet Union swung between two extremes – from absolute power to totally giving up power in the name of liberalism. In the TV debates that we have at home, there are usually loud arguments on issues with a nationalistic perspective and the exact opposite liberal ideology. Both don’t talk to each other or are incapable of understanding each other. However, this lack of communication when manifested in its extreme form is the story of the fall of the Soviet Union. It is something that we always need to keep at the back of our minds.

About the author

Harish Yagneshwar

Harish is a student of Takshashila and is primarily interested in Russia and East European affairs. His blog can be found at