20 years under Putin: a timeline

The most recent public polls in Russia show an unprecedented increase in patriotism and support for president Vladimir Putin’s policies. At the same time, there is growing intolerance toward the opposition and hostility toward Western counties. Olga Melnikova, a Moscow-based journalist, observes that, under the influence of propaganda, many Russians seem to have developed something akin to Stockholm syndrome in their relationship to the government.


One of the Kremlin propaganda’s techniques is mythologization of the Soviet past. Photo: the poster reads: “We Will Come to the Victory of the Communist Labor;” unknown author, 1970s.


If anyone had asked me last summer how things were going in Russia, I would have answered that they were going pretty badly. Today, such an answer would be a laughable understatement: I could not imagine at the time how quickly the situation would deteriorate. One of the worst developments has been the change in my close friends’ and acquaintances’ awareness and perceptions of reality. Thinking back, I try to understand where it all started.

Maybe it started with the state rhetoric directed at justifying the Chechen wars. Writing about the hostilities in Chechnya was basically forbidden, and where there is no information, there is no discussion either. Consequently, many Russian citizens began to blame “people from the Caucasus” for all manner of misfortune, from crime to failed businesses.

Or maybe it all started in Beslan? Compassion for terror victims got mixed up with cruelty toward a “barbarous people” that had bred terrorists. The way victims turned into dangerous enemies in the eyes of most Russian citizens seems rather twisted, does it not? As a result, a whole generation of North Caucasians grew up during the war. These children saw friends and family members die. Do you really think this time bomb is not ticking away? The time simply isn’t ripe for it yet.

Or maybe it all started with Russians’ resurgent love for the country’s military past? Kremlin strategists hit the mark when they remembered the Georgian ribbon and revived the slogans “Thank you, Grandpa for the Victory!” “March on Berlin,” and “We remember.” Everyone wants to be proud of his or her motherland. Patriotism, like religion, is a powerful force. But why should one only be proud of winning wars?

After all, the government could have drawn upon the Soviet rhetoric of developing virgin lands, reviving regions, and celebrating worker-heroes who honestly pay their taxes. Instead, it opted for an aggressive approach. Since the “splendid little war” in Chechnya went wrong, the regime decided to exploit Russia’s victory in World War II. But if we really felt proud of our victory over Nazi Germany, our veterans should have become our heroes. They should be treated like gods. Instead, many of them struggle to survive as the country takes pride in organizing military parades and demonstrating its military equipment.

Russia’s past is being mythologized bit by bit. By celebrating the victories of heroes of wars in which we ourselves did not fight and great construction projects that we did not accomplish, we are celebrating other people’s myths. As a result, a strange thing happens: these myths begin speaking to the deepest layers of our psyches. Pandora’s box opens and lets out demons that have until now been kept in check by common sense, upbringing, education, and the bounds of public decency.

In the mid-1930s, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung described how archaic, powerful, and dangerous forces awaken in the national consciousness. Grown-up people start behaving like children who cannot tell right from wrong. People suddenly give up centuries of humanist achievements, resulting in a situation where might makes right.

Queues in Russia serve as a good example of the quick degradation of society. Think, for instance, of the recent traffic jams at the Kerch ferry crossing on the road to Crimea. Why did people treat each other with such hatred and hysteria? After all, they were not waiting in a queue to get boiled water for their kids in Leningrad during the blockade years. But when a country’s leader sheds the onerous chains of decency and declares that he can and even should take something that does not belong to him, what can you expect from ordinary people who also want their fair share? It is to this base aspect of human nature that the government appeals through the Russian state media.

When the Olympic Games began in Sochi, many people (including even my close friends) who had previously been opposed to the current regime, seemed changed. I remember the opening ceremony very well: social networks were suddenly flooded with proud sentiments about Russia, its history, culture, athletes, and ballet—the standard list of subjects featured in Soviet propaganda. In behavior that calls to mind the “25th frame effect,” people who had not previously demonstrated any loyalty to the Russian authorities suddenly began writing things like “Thank you, Vladimir Putin, for the Olympics. For the first time in a long period I felt proud,” and “I cried when I saw Natasha Rostova’s first ball, the Olympics were after all worth the money spent on them,” and “Russia, Russia, we are champions!” Whom did we beat to become champions? Why can’t one just be proud of one’s country, without justifying corruption?

Today, even those people closest to me seem to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome in their relationship to the Russian government. Having been oppressed by the current Russian regime for so long, they’ve ended up siding and identifying with it. People who are by no means stupid are justifying the government’s actions against them.

It got worse as time went on, though. After hostilities began on Maidan Square, social networks were once again flooded with commentary about how Ukrainians spoiled the Olympics. When I ask my friends why they think they have the right to give advice to citizens and authorities of another state, most simply do not understand what I am talking about.

What is Russian chauvinism? It is a profound belief that the Ukrainian nation simply does not exist. There are only the khokhols who load up on cured pork fat and are butcher the Russian language out of spite. There is no Ukraine; there is only Malorossiya (“Little Russia”), which is a part of the empire—not the Russian empire, as one might expect, but the Soviet one.

Today, even those people closest to me seem to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome in their relationship to the Russian government. Having been oppressed by the current Russian regime for so long, they’ve ended up siding and identifying with it. It is frightening and sad to watch this unfold. People who are by no means stupid are justifying the government’s actions against them.

The following is typical of recent conversations I’ve had with Russian friends and acquaintances:

One friend: You know, they [the authorities] are not monsters. When the annexation of Crimea began, the management told all news reporters [at our newspaper], “Those who do not share the government’s position and are not ready to cover news at the moment can call in sick and stay home for a few days.”
Me: And you called in sick? And now what? You can’t spend your whole life on sick leave.

Or another example:

Another friend: So this deputy raped a high school student and was given a suspended sentence. So what? This does not only happen in Russia—it happens in every country. In Africa, children are starving.
Me: So you are defending a rapist because these things supposedly happen everywhere? Does this mean that deputies should not get sentenced at all because officials in Russia can only get a suspended sentence? Or sometimes they do get sentenced, but then get an award.

If you grew up in the USSR, you know that private space was virtually nonexistent. What private space can you speak of if, as a child, you never had your own room? You were lucky if you didn’t grow up in a communal apartment and didn’t have to share a room with your parents until marriage. What kind of private space did you have as a child? Did you have your own room, or desk, or maybe a drawer? Did you have to wear hand-me-downs from your siblings? Did your mother deem it appropriate to read your diary?

Russians have a problem understanding the notion of private space. They carry this issue into adulthood and pass it on to their kids. It is hard to defend your position with regard to other people if you do not understand the notion of boundaries. Yet, unperceived and violated boundaries represent only one aspect of the problem. Another complication is that someone who lacks a clear understanding of private space and personal boundaries can hardly distinguish the line between oneself and another person. Such a person projects his or her feelings and thoughts onto others, and even onto the state, and despises the privacy of those who do not agree with his or her way of thinking.

When your own self merges with another’s self, and even with the current regime, then any attacks and criticism directed at the government feel like a personal insult. People caught in this crisis of identification do not understand that you can be fond of Russian birches, Pushkin, Chekhov, and Nabokov, and at the same time dislike the authorities’ actions, or that holding this position doesn’t mean you don’t love your motherland.

What should we do in such a situation? Well, we should live consciously. Learn our history. Keep being informed.

Sometimes I think that something might be wrong with me. Maybe I’m unable to accept reality as it is? Because I truly cannot. Apparently, the reality in Russia today is that you can either blend into the state or run away from it. In my case, this means that I will probably have to leave the country.