Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
If a Ukrainian grandmother with pro-Russian views did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her—or at least that is what the Russian government decided in April. At the time, Anna Ivanova inhabited a village near Kharkiv. One day, mistaking a group of arriving Ukrainian soldiers for Russians, she took out an old Soviet flag and waved it vigorously at them to remind them of their shared past and try to deter them from destroying the village. Instead, the Ukrainian forces, outraged at the sight of the hammer-and-sickle, took the flag from her and trampled it.
Caught on video, the episode was immediately seized on by the Kremlin. Soon, “Granny Anya” as she was called—though she’s only 69, the same age as Putin—was adopted as a potent symbol of local support for Russia’s “special operation.” Here, apparently, was living proof that the people of Ukraine were desperately waiting to be “liberated.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, despite Anna Ivanova’s efforts, her own home was later damaged in a Russian mortar attack, and for some time she and her husband were both in a hospital in Kharkiv. “It was really miserable of Russia to attack us,” she said, in a statement she recorded from her hospital bed. Now, she and her husband have returned to their home village, Velikaya Danilovka.
None of that matters, of course, in Moscow. Under the supervision of Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s PR mastermind, a monument to Granny Anya was swiftly constructed and unveiled in the devastated port city of Mariupol, and her image has become ubiquitous in Russian war propaganda.
This war is full of paradoxes. Russian President Vladimir Putin insists he is fighting against a country that is overrun by Nazis, yet among the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the Russian advance were 78 Holocaust survivors who were evacuated—to Germany. Ninety-one-year-old Vanda Obyedkova survived the German occupation of Mariupol in World War II only to die during the Russian siege of the city in 2022. In Kharkiv, 96-year-old Boris Romanchenko, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, was killed when a Russian shell hit his apartment building. During World War II, the Ukrainian soldier Ivan Lisun was one of the Soviet soldiers who helped liberate Belarus and Poland from the Nazis. Now his own home in the Kharkiv region has been destroyed by the Russian army.
Granny Anya is a character from the Kremlin’s world of paradoxes, a world in which history itself has been turned inside out. As her story makes plain, after nearly three months of deadly violence, the Russian regime has struggled to find coherent, positive symbols for its “special operation” in Ukraine. It has not captured any Nazis (although the Duma would like to present captured fighters of Ukraine's Azov Battalion as such) and has also failed to come up with a clear reason for what it is doing. Instead, it has plunged an entire country into a fantasy realm, where words and deeds have opposite meanings: Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, for example, invented the concept of “liberal fascism”; Maria Zakharova, the legendary Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, now reports that George Orwell’s 1984 was written about Western civilization. And now the Putin regime faces a more daunting challenge still: how to imagine a victory out of a war that has brought the country to the brink of disaster.
The annual May 9 holiday, when Russia commemorates the Soviet victory of 1945, was once a day of solemn remembrance. It is also the only holiday that unites nearly all Russians. After Putin came to power, the May 9 celebrations began to take on a more pompous character, but he kept them open to the rest of the world. On the sixtieth anniversary in 2005, for example, he invited U.S. President George W. Bush to attend in person. In recent years, however, as Putin has increasingly built his legitimacy around the idea that he alone is heir to the Great Victory, the celebrations have been transformed into a bombastic military show. It is an infallible tactic for a dictator: by equating his own actions with the Soviet triumph over Nazism, he implied that any criticism of him amounted to criticism of the sacred victory in 1945.
By the time it rolled around this year, the holiday had evolved to the point where a significant proportion of Russians anticipated it with unconcealed dread. In Moscow, there were rumors that Putin would finally declare the “special military operation” an actual war, and that he would announce a general mobilization at the celebrations themselves, just as Stalin sent soldiers off to the front directly from the Revolution Day parade on November 7, 1941.
Russians anticipated Victory Day with unconcealed dread.
Back then, there was justification for such measures: the Soviet Union was fighting a defensive war against an attacking enemy that posed an existential threat to the country. Today, however, a general mobilization, in a war that continues to lack a coherent aim or endpoint, would have been unpopular, even among those who support Putin and the “special operation”—and even among the lazy warmongers who have for three months cheered on the unfolding catastrophe but have no intention of going to die in the trenches themselves. Perhaps aware of the potential backlash and the danger of even heavier losses of untrained and unmotivated soldiers, the Kremlin has decided against a full mobilization. And instead of World War II, it must content itself with a more logical analogy for the “special operation”: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But that’s something the regime will never admit.
Russians have gotten used to raising their voices. On the Kremlin-controlled TV channels that are now one of the main methods for shaping public opinion, talk show hosts shout instead of talking. Quarrels with friends and relatives are fought using decibels rather than facts. The propaganda, meanwhile, is as primitive as could be: through its own aggression, Russia is defending Ukrainians from neo-Nazi enemies and it is liberating territory from the “Banderites,” supporters of the WW II-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. There is also now a new argument: the West is waging a war against Russia using “Slav” hands. The most fervent Putinists now call Ukraine a “secessionist entity” and openly talk of “de-Ukrainianization” of the Russian World.
Putin has turned Victory Day into his own personal holiday, but even Russians could see that this year’s edition came without a victory, and that he was utterly alone. No other leaders came to this year’s celebrations, not even the long-time rulers of Russia’s Central Asian allies. This time, Putin was isolated, embittered, and spouting nonsense about a “pre-emptive strike.” And instead of “Never again!”—the holiday’s sacred underpinnings—we now hear “We can do it again!” This is the slogan of Putin’s core supporters, the people who, several years ago, started putting “To Berlin!” stickers on the back of their Mercedes. Less clear, though, is whether Russians are ready to contemplate just what exactly Putin has “done again.”
In March, 81 percent of Russians in a Levada Center poll said they supported the “special operation.” By April, that figure had dropped to 74 percent. Putin’s approval rating has also plateaued, and his trust rating—how many Russians say they trust him—has also fallen slightly. But although no one is quite sure what might define victory, 73 percent of respondents say they believe Russia will achieve it. Not many respondents believe Ukraine could win, although 15 percent say that “neither side could prevail.”
These numbers indicate a kind of equilibrium taking hold: aggressive Putin supporters still want to see a stepped-up campaign by the Russian army and the takeover of Ukraine, completely disregarding the stated goals of the operation, which, however, change all the time. On the other hand, Russians who are more skeptical or concerned about the direction of the war would settle at this point for a peace treaty. Still, more than two-thirds of respondents in Levada Center poll believed that the operation is proceeding successfully, although 50 percent chose the more evasive answer “largely successful.” When asked to define success, most respondents dutifully indicate the same dreary mantras about everything going to plan and territories being liberated from fascists and Banderites. Among the 17 percent of respondents who do not consider the operation a success, many cite the drawn-out nature of the military campaign and the fact that large numbers of civilians and children in Ukraine and Russian soldiers are getting killed.
Whether they think it is a success or not, however, Russians overwhelmingly blame the war on the United States and NATO; just seven percent of Russians blame their own country. Yet even this deliberate blindness is no salvation from creeping doubt: 82 percent of respondents say they are worried about events in Ukraine, and in most cases the reason for that worry is not the “Banderites,” but the death, suffering, and destruction the has taken place (46 percent) and even the fact of the war itself (26 percent). In other words, an indirect question reveals how great Russians’ emotional and psychological concerns are about what has happened to their country since February. This is despite relentless indoctrination by the official Russian media and the state.
It’s unlikely that Putin understands the extent to which he has pulled the rug out from under his own most fervent supporters, who are looking for ways to justify the unfolding nightmare. Russian psychologists have already noticed a precipitous increase in patients suffering from chronic anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Increasingly frequent clashes with reality are starting to force Russians out of the comfort zone of Putin’s propaganda.
In daily life, the war has become a familiar backdrop, but a depressing one that people wish would disappear. Many yearn for the old normal, but the new normal is here to stay. Nor do people realize that the new normal is abnormal, and will remain so for years to come. No one seems to doubt victory, but it is conviction based more on self-hypnosis than actual facts.
In my own family on Victory Day, we remember my wife’s grandmother, Maria Shatilova, a correspondent who covered the war from the frontlines; my uncle, Eduard Traub, who volunteered to fight and was killed at the age of 18 at the Battle of Kursk in 1943, the largest tank battle in history, in which the Soviets defeated nearly a million of Hitler’s troops; and my grandfather Ivan Kolesnikov, who made it home from the war, having fought in the 43rd Latvian Guards Rifle Division, which liberated Riga. (Putin, by equating 2022 with 1945, has provoked a more complicated attitude toward the memory of Soviet liberation in Latvia itself: the Latvian parliament has now decided to demolish the Monument to the Liberators, erected by the Soviets in the 1980s.)
As part of the effort to indoctrinate young Russians with Putinism, Russian schools have for years asked children to write letters to or from the front, as if they were living when the war was taking place. When my daughter was told by her middle school to write a letter from the front in the voice of her grandfather (even though children of her age could only possibly have a great-great-grandfather or a great-grandfather who fought in the war), I suggested that she instead write a letter in the voice of her great-grandfather, David Traub—from the Gulag prison camp in Russia’s Far North where he was sent for “counterrevolutionary activity.”
Stamping out the memory of Stalin made it possible to invade Ukraine.
But in today’s Russia, we’re not supposed to remember those people. They don’t fit into Putin’s holiday. This is why, before the “special operation” began, his regime decided to destroy the most important civic organization in the country: Memorial, the Moscow-based NGO that worked tirelessly to preserve the public memory of Stalin-era repression. Stamping out this history by closing down Memorial at the very end of 2021 has made it possible to go even further in 2022. It was the elimination of Memorial that paved the way for the “special operation” in Ukraine. Our collective memory has been replaced with a prosthetic, imaginary history.
In my family, there are victims of all the Soviet tragedies of the last century: World War II, the Siege of Leningrad, and Stalin’s repressions at home. No one can take that away from my family, or from many other Russian families. Putin and his entourage have now brought back that feeling of disaster and dread to Russia. Once again, we find ourselves ensnared by history, even as it is being erased. Of my late parents, for whom the victory over the Nazis meant everything—they were just finishing school in 1945—we now utter the terrible words: “Thank goodness they didn’t live to see this.”
Putin has turned everything upside down. He has destroyed all the achievements of recent decades, including his own. He has accomplished the exact opposite of his stated goals: instead of demilitarizing Ukraine, he has caused the country to arm as never before; instead of keeping NATO away, he has brought it right up to Russia’s borders; instead of making Russia great again, he has managed to transform it, and his people, into a pariah nation. Trying to impose his version of the nation’s history, he deprived it of its history. And by depriving it of history, he amputated the future. Russia is now at a dead end, a historical dead end.