20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: Novaya Gazeta speaks with writer and frontline veteran Daniil Granin; Alexander Rubtsov weighs in on the way the Russian authorities use Victory Day to promote their own agenda; Denis Volkov discusses the long-term effects of the Bolotnaya protests; and Abbas Gallyamov suggests a strategy for the Russian opposition. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


On May 9, more than 800,000 Russians joined the Immortal Regiment march in Moscow, according to the Interior Ministry. By marching with placards and photos of their family members, people paid tribute to their heroic deeds during WWII. Photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS. 


Novaya Gazeta: What Does It Mean, 42 Million Dead? It’s Not a Number—It Is Solitude.   

  • Novaya Gazeta interviewed writer and frontline veteran Daniil Granin, 98. Below are some interview excerpts.
  • Daniil Granin: “In the initial years after the war we were not permitted to talk about how it all started in 1941. I was happy at that time, I was excited to be a part of the war. In fact I couldn’t imagine myself not taking part. It seems a bit silly when I look back, of course. We said goodbye to our loved ones and promised to be back within two months.”  
  • Was that due to faith in yourself or your country?
  • DG: “Confidence in both myself and our inevitable victory. We didn’t know anything about war. Not only were our political leaders fooled — lied to by the Germans and led into a trap — but we were, too. We went to war unarmed, both literally and spiritually.”
  • Where did you get the hatred from in order to fight?
  • DG: “From German soldiers. They left behind them scorched trees, ruined towns and people hanging from gallows. Why? What was their purpose in this war? This war was not fought in order to capture land. No, they were on their way to Moscow to destroy Russia… In the first year of the war much was unclear. They gave us bottles with incendiary powder, but where were the weapons? Where were the planes? The question that kept cropping up was: “Where is everything?” The feeling that we were not ready for war was growing.”
  • And the retreating Red Army soldiers didn’t have anything? They went home hungry?
  • DG: “They only had their rifles… There’s a side to war which is spoken of only years later and historians find difficult to use. The war that I survived has nothing to do with documents. It was more of a miracle. It’s a story of soldierly brotherhood. A soldier’s mentality changes from bravado, to hope, to fear of impending catastrophe. You begin to understand that you are capable of killing a German. I have no idea how we won, there was such hopelessness that even many years later it was shameful to recall it.”  
  • “The history of the war is not just about destruction and loss, but about the changing psychology of the soldiers. It was still changing right up until victory. When we reached Prussia it was already a totally different war. This part of the story has not been adequately expressed as it is not accessible to historians.”  
  • Was Leningrad more important than Moscow in the war?
  • DG: “It was more important to Hitler from earlier on. He believed that the root of Bolshevism was in Leningrad and even mentioned it as a key factor in the plans for “Operation Barbarossa.” Hitler believed that if Leningrad could be captured, then the resistance would crumble. It became apparent after the war that the story of Leningrad inspired soldiers on all fronts, that people fought to the death to defend the city. Stalin did not say a word about the deaths in his victory speech. Not even a mention, no toast. It’s unforgivable.”  
  • Recently new numbers of the Soviet losses in WWII were released—41 million 979 thousand people. What do you think about them?
  • DG: “That number shocked me. It requires a different kind of approach, a different way of thinking. The numbers have been rising throughout the decades, and the war was followed by countless lies about the numbers… But what is 42 million? It is not a number. For those who are still alive, it is solitude. I don’t have anyone to mark the victory anniversary with. I have no one left from my school years, my friends and fellow soldiers are all gone. They didn’t die of old age, they died in the war. With them died a part of my youth, a part of my life.”  
  • What’s the most important thing for you today when you think about the war?
  • DG: “Victory was stolen from us. I had a conversation with Helmut Schmidt, a great historian who himself fought in the war and saw everything. I asked him: “Why did you lose the war?” He answered immediately “Because the United States entered the war.”  I cannot understand where this version comes from. Then I understood: to lose to America is far more flattering than to lose to the run-down USSR. American propaganda since captured this and it has become the accepted story in schools in the West. This is a great injustice, it’s wrong.”

Новая газета, «Что такое — 42 миллиона погибших? Это не цифра. Это одиночество», Нина Петлянова», интервью с Даниилом Граниным, 8 мая 2017 г.


Vedomosti: As Long As There Is No War

  • Author: philosopher Alexander Rubtsov.
  • Rubtsov discusses the meaning of the propaganda surrounding one of Russia’s most treasured holidays—Victory Day (May 9), which celebrates victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
  • The most worrisome sign, in the author’s opinion, is how the real meaning of remembering the horrors of war, so that they are never repeated, has been hollowed out by the current regime. And the notions of “war” and “holiday” have been dangerously approximated.
  • As grief is devalued, war becomes the only tool left to the regime to mobilize the public. This new “memory politics” is styled as a pompous celebration “with elements of a military сarnival,” points out Rubtsov.
  • Another dangerous sign is the way WWII is portrayed on television. On the one hand, everything is balanced, with all the rights words being said. But on the other, the blatant project-style approach to capturing the Victory Day on TV is irritating.
  • Yet another dangerous trend associated with the way the regime is using WWII to connect with the public is the growing re-Stalinization (more Russian people now have favorable views of Stalin than 10 years ago—about 50 percent, according to recent polls).
  • The overall result of the current policies, argues Rubtsov, is a catastrophic change in the public consciousness. As the memory of the actual war horrors fades and is essentially betrayed, the images of military celebration become more and more attractive to the public.
  • Rubtsov concludes by posing a rhetorical question: what would have become of the Soviet Union if there had been no WWII? Would there be any other reason for unity and pride in today’s Russia? It seems that elevating a past war is only a way to compensate for the wretchedness of the present.

Ведомости, Лишь бы не было войны, Александр Рубцов, 10 мая 2017 г.


RBC: The Wave Effect: How the Government Responded to the Bolotnaya Protests

  • Author: Denis Volkov, sociologist at the Levada Center.
  • For many, the Bolotnaya case is a symbol of the increasing government pressure on society. It began with searches conducted on the leaders of the protest movement, followed by arrests of random protesters.  
  • There is a view that the Kremlin’s harsh reaction instilled fear in people, making them scared to stand up and protest again. However, that is not an entirely adequate explanation. Most Russian were not aware of the trials of the protesters, and only 10 percent were willing to use the term “political prisoner” to describe these people.  
  • But if the Bolotnaya case has influenced anyone, it is first and foremost political activists.  The Russian protest movement has in fact grown. Opposition protests in the capital now often attract tens of thousands of people.  
  • It was not fear but the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2014 that rolled back the mass protests. The Maidan events had a much larger effect on society, argues Volkov, as people didn’t want similar events ravaging Russia.
  • The annexation of Crimea also helped to soften the protest movement, increasing the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the population by raising Russia to great power status.  
  • On closer inspection, it seems that Russian society has responded to what is going on with civil initiatives; many of which have become a part of daily life. It is clear that Russian society is not simply a passive entity, submissive to the will of the authorities.  
  • For instance, the May 6 Committee, organized by participants in the Bolotnaya protests, has made sure that the events have not been forgotten, and a number of civil initiatives have supported it.  
  • The protest wave of 2011-2012 was fuelled not only by mass discontent, but also idealism, striving for mutual cooperation and the desire to make Russian society better. A part of this became a reality.
  • Society’s reaction to five years of pressure proves that Russian society is much more complex and stronger than previously thought.  

РБК, Волновой эффект: как власть ответила Болотной площади, Денис Волков, 6 мая 2017 г.


Republic: Marathon for Navalny. How the Opposition Has to Act to Succeed 

  • Author: political scientist Abbas Gallyamov.
  • Despite the surge in protest activity in Russia, Gallyamov argues that the government’s mobilization resources substantially exceed those of the opposition. Since it is impossible to overthrow the regime, the opposition will need to fight to transform it, even though few believe it is doable.
  • The example of post-Franco Spain proves that in fact it is, writes Gallyamov. The notion of “we can’t live like this anymore” became a consensus point shared by both the public and the elites.
  • If the Russian opposition manages to reach such a consensus point by 2024, Putin’s successor will inevitably launch democratic reforms. It should be a priority not to target Putin or Medvedev personally, but rather discredit authoritarian practices in general (e.g. the “strong hand” style, political thuggery, etc.).
  • Quoting Huntington’s The Third Wave, the author notes that compromise is a crucial characteristic of the 1974-1991 (“third wave”) democratizations. Removing the idea of Putin’s immediate resignation from the agenda will help the opposition reduce the current tensions.
  • Gallyamov also suggests that the opposition should reject the idea of jailing all members of the regime the moment it assumes power. In fact, getting into power is only possible through negotiating with the regime, not through defeating it.
  • The author concludes that the Russian opposition has to realize that it has embarked on a long-term “marathon” mission. To reach the finish line, it may need to sacrifice its immediate interests and some popular support for the sake of the end goal—building a democracy.

Republic, Марафон для Навального. Как должна действовать оппозиция, чтобы добиться успеха, Аббас Галлямов, 8 мая 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.