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In this Foreign Affairs podcast, Gregory Feifer, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power, discusses Russia and Vladimir Putin with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Brian O’Connor. Read the article “Putin's Throwback State.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.
Brian O’Connor: You're a journalist who reported from Russia for almost a decade, what were some of the experiences that stood out in your mind spending that much time in the country?
Gregory Feifer: Well, one of the things that really stood out were... The continuities, really... When I first went to Russia it was in 1991, I caught the last couple of months of the Soviet Union before it came crumbling down, and I was in Moscow during the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, or the coup attempts, I should say, when there was this great optimism right after, that Russia would soon join the international community and would be sharing in Western prosperity, and so on and so forth. And it became quickly evident, in fact, it was evident already before then that the Soviet Union didn't entirely crumble and leave a ruin on which to build a new shining capitalist democratic society but it still had many structures in place and many behaviors that continued. Nevertheless, I think it could have fundamentally changed, it was fundamentally changing in some ways in the 1990s, that is, I don't believe Russia's faded to remain a corrupt authoritarian country.
O’Connor: You actually say in the article that the escalating conflict might have enabled Putin to tap into a deep current, but by playing on Russian tradition he has probably set a course for the country to repeat its history. You mentioned that that history might be avoidable after all, what do you think might need to change for that to happen?
Feifer: Well, we often look at Russia as kind of a mystery, a quarter century almost, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans find Russians as baffling, I think, as ever. Why did they continue to support their authoritarian President who's presided over a huge explosion of corruption and is again, isolating his country from the West, when Russians are free to travel, they're free to read pretty much still everything they want to on the internet? And I think the answer at least for me, in my eight years of reporting there is that there is no such thing as a mysterious Russian soul that's unknowable because it's different. But that Russian behavior is based on very practical motives, there are reasons that Russians behave the way they do, and there are forces that shape the national character. It's the world's largest country by territory but its a place where most of the land is uninhabitable, its tundra or taiga forest, its climate is legendarily awful, it has a very bitter history, and there are certain ways that leaders have traditionally ruled a country which is very difficult to rule. I think, like I said, it was changing in the 1990s, I think that Boris Yeltsin who essentially provided the political protection for a group of young technocrats to rewrite laws, to privatize very imperfectly, but nevertheless, were actually changing society. And it was really a confluence of events in the late '90s that brought about Putin and it didn't have to happen.
One of them was the economic crisis in 1998, which of course, started in Asia, but which seriously affected Russia. It had to default on some domestic debts, had to devalue its currency, inflation sky-rocketed, and it really ended the reformaire for Yeltsin because he had lost a lot of political power and really that... The crisis started a very bitter battle for political succession that Putin ultimately won. He saw how Russians reacted to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, he understood that Russians were nostalgic for the lost superpower status, and he was very quickly able to tap into these feelings by presenting himself as a restorer of Russian greatness, a restorer of law and order.
Of course, nothing could be farther than the truth, I think his rule in many ways has been ruinous for the country, but he's been a terrific, a master of appearances, somebody who seems very crude to us, but somebody whose approval rating is now, a year after having invaded Ukraine at 86%, and somebody who governs very successfully on his own terms. Within the Russian political culture, he's been... He's had an exemplary reign, so far.
O’Connor: Where do you think the country goes, post Putin?
Feifer: Well, one of the things that I think that we in the West often fail to keep in mind is that Putin is really acting in his interest and not the country's. This image of him as a restorer of Russian greatness, it's really a narrative that he's created that's not actually true. The economy now is going into recession. There's virtually no investment going into Russian infrastructure, no efforts going to diversify its energy resources economy. What he's doing is not ultimately, politically or economically sustainable. Russia may appear to be a wealthy country if you go to Moscow. The oil and gas proceeds have fueled an explosion of fancy restaurants and luxury cars on the streets, but even a half-an-hour drive outside of Moscow, the countryside is filled with thousands of literally dying villages.
I've visited many where there were only one or two elderly people left living along isolated muddy tracks and abandoned wooden houses, really apocalyptic scenes, where agriculture and industry have essentially collapsed, thanks to corruption and mismanagement. So I don't think that, again, I don't think it's ultimately sustainable, Russia's current course, but I don't think Putin cares about that. His main concern is the interest of himself and his inner circle and he doesn't really care what comes next. Now, predicting when this is all gonna come crashing down, it's really a mug's game. We have no idea. The economy has proved to be more resilient than many had thought.
He is... I think, will continue to maintain a kind of a simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, which really enables him to pose as really, America's main rival. I think his ultimate goal is to appear on CNN on a split screen with President Obama, which shows the Russians that, look, Russia is indeed an influential country; the West is forced to reckon with it and this could go on for quite a long time. I think the only very vague answer I can give is that Putin will last only as long as Russians will continue to believe that he's acting in the country's interest and their interest. When they realize that he's not, then I think it will come crumbling down quite quickly.
O’Connor: I was curious to learn little bit more about the way that propaganda plays into the Russian understanding of what's happening in Ukraine.
Feifer: Well, I think that Russian propaganda, crude as it often is, has actually been quite successful because Russians don't actually... The Russians don't actually have to prove all of the claims that Ukraine is being run by fascists who are killing Russian speakers, that the US basically backed a coup, and that all Russia is doing is protecting the lives and rights of Russian speakers. I... The only thing really that the Russians have to do is question the Western narrative that Ukrainians deserve the right to self-determination, that they deserve the right to join the West if they want. And by claiming that for instance, Ukraine isn't really a viable state, that it was always part of Russia, essentially part of the Russian Empire that the language and culture are essentially the same, the Russians are able to tap into feelings in the US and other countries that, well, Ukraine really isn't the West's battle.
Also a serious argument, rather one that's raised in all seriousness is that essentially, Russia's actions in Ukraine are a reaction to the expansion of NATO in the 1990s, that really the West only has itself to blame for what's the natural reaction once Russia restored a certain amount of power. And I think that for various reasons, a lot of American liberals, for instance, believe that really, that America shouldn't be the world's policeman, which it shouldn't. But when it comes down to Ukraine, again, the Russians have been very successful in tapping into Western debates. And for that reason, even though I think that Ukraine minus Eastern Ukraine and Crimea will eventually, if not actually join the EU actually will continue orienting toward the West. I think the Russians can sustain this propaganda battle for a long time quite successfully.
O’Connor: Well, it seems like Putin also tapped into the idea of Novorossiya, the idea that there is a Russian state that should be, that once was and may exist yet again. And I'm wondering how much of that sentiment you feel like is tied into this idea of Putin having so much control of the Russian? How much maybe the public also feels similarly about that concept?
Feifer: Well, yeah. Excellent question. They've actually dropped the Novorossiya narrative just over the last few months. The Kremlin has stopped talking about it, it's almost never mentioned. But the fact is that, at least half of Ukraine, present-day Ukraine, was never part of the Russian empire. It was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and there's also this... Essentially, this myth that Russian culture and Ukrainian culture is essentially the same. Yes, Russia essentially got its orthodox religion via Kiev, when it was the seat of Rus, a civilization that preceded the rise of the Russian principalities in the North. But there was quite a large gap of time in between the collapse of Rus and the rise of the the Slavs in the Northern forest. They looked to Kiev much later for their models of culture and politics. It was a separate civilization. And Ukrainian is its own language, it's not basically Russian.
I don't mean to say that the two don't have anything to do with each other, but not to the extent that Russia claims. Russia has... And this is nothing new. For centuries, Russia has waged a Russification campaign, has always claimed... Has always laid claim to Ukraine. One of the names... Ukraine's name... So, Ukraine comes from "Ukraina", at the edge. So the very name of Ukraine is derived from its relation to the Russian empire. Its previous name was "Mala Rossiya", little Russia. So this is nothing new, but of course, it doesn't make it true.
O’Connor: What I think is interesting about that is, in the beginning of the piece, you mentioned speaking with a young 30-something, somebody who had traveled abroad, but was a professional within Moscow. And this person, you had indicated, was blaming the West essentially for what's going on in Russia and it seems that that sentiment was something that you encountered fairly often.
Feifer: Well, that's right. I met him... This was in the very early 1990s, I think it was 1992 or maybe even 1993, and I had just assumed that all young Russians were pro-Western, that the benefits of Westernizing, integrating into the international community were self-evident after 70 years of communism and especially after communism collapsed so quickly under its own weight a couple of years earlier. And when I've heard that, well actually everything in the West is doing is aimed at keeping Russia weak, that America wants to continue to see Russia on its knees, it really took me aback. Since then, we now know that a lot of young Russians are ostensibly anti-Western, sort of anti-American.
And I think that in some part, that has to do with Putin having played on these latent feelings in the 1990s. Now of course, the West, I think made a lot of mistakes. I don't think we supported the Russian reforms seriously enough. We didn't provide enough financial aid, but I think ultimately the West can't be blamed for what happened in Russia. I think it was a confluence of events, that brought Putin to power. But now he was able to play on these latent feelings and really elevate them in order to support what's essentially a new cold war against the West.
O’Connor: And along those lines, I'm wondering in your experience within the country, what's something that people in the West or, in particular the United States, what's something that we get wrong about Russia and Russian culture?
Feifer: Well, I think we tend to believe... Well, first of all, as I was saying, that the benefits of cooperation with the West are self-evident. To a lot of Russians, at least on the face of it, they're not. But I think the main thing that we don't get is that Russia has a political culture that works according to its own internal logic. It's a country, again, as I was saying, that's very difficult to govern and the way that Putin has done it is by relying on corruption. Corruption isn't an unfortunate byproduct of governance in a way that it is in many Western countries. In Russia, it's central to governing the country. It's the way that Putin is able to exert top down control. Now, it's well known that bribery is very common in Russia. If you drive a car, you will inevitably be stopped by the traffic police almost daily and will have to pay a bribe to keep your license.
If you own a corner store, for example, you'll have to pay the fire code inspector, the health code inspector, just an army of people coming by to take bribes. Now, bribery coerces people because it enables the authorities to essentially prosecute almost anyone. But it also co-ops people by giving them essentially the feeling that they too have a stake in the system. And so, if pay a bribe you get something out of it, if you pay the local police, if you're the corner store owner and you feel maybe you've got a leg up on the competition a couple blocks away down the street. So I think we don't understand, first of all, the centrality of corruption, and we also don't understand why Putin has been successful. And as I was saying, I think he's reinvigorated a century's old traditional culture and I think at the heart of it is erecting facades. So, Russians aren't stupid, they know that they live in a corrupt authoritarian country. But by posing as a restorer of Russian greatness, Putin is able to, essentially, to distract them to essentially cover up for what's actually going on. I think that's something that's been reoccurring throughout Russian history.
O’Connor: I think it'll be interesting to see whether or not it stays successful.
Feifer: That's the great unknowable.
O’Connor: Great. Well, Gregory Feifer, thank you so much for joining me for the podcast, really appreciate you taking the time.
Feifer: My pleasure, thank you.