How to Read Russia

First Person Lessons

The sudden reset in Russia relations has thrown everything up in the air.

Banners include "democratic" and "independent press". Moscow, May Day 1990.

The return to Cold War rhetoric is familiar to those who experienced it in the past, but for many it’s unfamiliar.

Amidst the fog of war and disinformation, how can we understand what is happening in Russia today? What is true and what is false? And how can we know what Russians are really thinking?

When it comes to the information landscape, channels of communication have changed and state-sponsored propaganda is distorting reality.

There are no more independent media; social networks are restricted; criticism of the military or mention of the war in Ukraine has been criminalised, and state TV channels spew out poisonous narratives night after night. 

It seems an unbelievable and hopeless turn of events.

State Capture

And yet, those of us who remember the Soviet Union recall there was no such thing as a free press then. Dissidents operated underground or risked imprisonment, and state slogans adorned every main street and building. 

Looking back at the days behind the Iron Curtain can be instructive. 

Anti-West propaganda was everywhere. The USSR looked like a militarised, captive society. But beneath the facade, artists, musicians, scientists, and writers were exercising their freedom of thought and conscience. 

The European Parliament named the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in honour of just such a Russian, scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. 

In the 1980s, human rights activists, Jewish refuseniks, religious groups and many others relied on foreign journalists, diplomats, activists, academics and visiting travellers to transmit information about their activities, their well-being and whereabouts, to relatives and supporters in the West.

Press freedom was non-existent then, so it was a regular topic on the diplomatic circuit. 

Reading the News

As a British diplomat in Moscow, I read state newspapers to monitor official policy announcements, and the reports of foreign correspondents to keep up to date on less official developments. 

The international press community were pioneers in those Cold War days.  It could reach people and parts of the USSR that diplomats couldn’t.

Martin Walker, who wrote a series of slice-of-life articles for The Guardian, was one such journalist.

His 1989 book Martin Walker’s Russia: Dispatches from The Guardian’s Correspondent in Moscow, is a fascinating collection of insights into the daily lives of ordinary Russians. 

The British diplomat’s newspaper of choice for coverage of Russia at the time was The Independent, founded in 1986. Its award-winning foreign correspondent, Rupert Cornwell, wrote a regular column ‘Out of the USSR’ which gave an equally revealing snapshot of life in the communist era. 

In a turn of events which shows just how far Russia had come, that newspaper was bought in 2010 by a former KGB officer and Russian diplomat who served in London. 

It is now owned by his ennobled son, Baron Lebedev of Siberia, along with London’s Evening Standard. 

Over the Airwaves

We also listened to the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, using short wave radios. 

I recall late nights in Moscow catching reports of the unfolding 1990 Gulf War  – including a threatened strike on Israel by Iraq – feeling far away and yet affected by events. 

Russian intelligence services had picked up Iraqi student chatter that suggested our commercial office premises could be a target, so we had to decamp to the embassy residence directly across the river from the Kremlin.

Following increasing cuts to the BBC’s World Service over the years, I was gladdened to see the service boosted recently to help more Russians access news about the war in Ukraine. 

During the Cold War years, many Russians who spoke English well confessed to learning it from the World Service, so we knew they listened. 

No doubt they will be relying on it and other accessible foreign media sources again for more independent news of their own country.

On the Ground

Today, the international press corps is having to tread a careful path. 

With BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford banished from Russia, longtime Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg is doing his best to show the reality of life for Russians right now through short clips, translating and explaining Russia’s state media.

Rosenberg is also posting cameo videos from Valentina’s newspaper kiosk to keep us in touch with the (wo)man on the street, though one wonders how long they will continue. 

Of course, we didn’t have mobile or smart phones back then, and correspondents had to file their copy over a fixed line, usually by telex. 

I recall a Sun reporter on a trip to Armenia with Margaret Thatcher asking me where he could file his copy, at a restaurant stop in the middle of an earthquake-destroyed landscape. 

Reflecting the influence of Rupert Murdoch, it was mandated by the Conservative government’s press office that The Sun should be top of the Foreign Office’s daily press clippings (we didn’t have internet access or PCs in those days) so it was no surprise they were on the trip. 

I’m not sure how influential that directive was on foreign policy, however. As I recall, the BBC was given access to a specially installed fixed line, whilst The Sun had to wait until they got back to Moscow or London to file. 

Freedom of Information

Media pluralism and freedom of the press were roundly supported in diplomatic dealings with Russia. 

In 1989, the UK hosted a month long Freedom of Information conference for the Conference on Security and Cooperation’s gathering of member countries from East and West Europe, the US and Canada. 

The British delegation included Channel 4, Scotland’s Sunday Mail as well as editors of The Independent, The Economist, The Times, and film producer David Puttnam who was in touch with his counterpart Russian film directors.

Later the same year, we attended another OSCE conference, this time on human rights, in Paris. It was a difficult negotiation to secure greater freedoms between East and West, coming on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and a matter of months before the Berlin Wall came down. 

We met in committees of the EU 12 and NATO 16, with open plenary sessions providing the floor for more formal speeches and exchanges with the Russian and East European delegations. 

I recall the Hungarians were the interlocutors leading the way toward human rights reforms in the East. How times have also changed for that country. 

Most memorably, over an informal UK-Russia lunch in a discreet Paris restaurant, a senior Russian negotiator wrote in ink on the cuff of his shirt sleeve the name of an imprisoned dissident we raised. 

“When my wife washes my shirt she will ask who is this woman, and I will remember her name,” he declared. She was subsequently freed. 

My point is that one way or another, we managed to communicate and meet with people who wanted to talk and make progress. Including government officials.

Word of mouth and face to face contact was the most important means to do that, and may still be today.

Language and Literature

When I visited Ukraine as a student in 1984, we were treated to a tour of a local Young Pioneer camp in the forest outside Kyiv. 

Upon our arrival, a group of fifty or so Russian language, literature and history students, we were serenaded by a brass band welcoming us. 

We were led inside with smiles and then faced with the sight of children’s paintings plastered all over the walls depicting US bombs and caricatures of Uncle Sam threatening war on the USSR. 

It was our first encounter with the dissonance between state-sponsored propaganda and the human reality of personal contact. This was both.

A further reality check awaited us when we encountered a group of teenage boys in the street. They were clearly curious and wanted to talk. 

The kids especially wanted to know how we managed to breathe with all the smog in the UK, and how we could stand to wear breathing apparatuses everywhere we went. 

Our denials of needing masks seemed to fall on deaf ears, but there was a grain of truth in the story. 

They had probably been told about London’s great fogs from the days of the industrial revolution and coal fire heating, or perhaps read translations of Sherlock Holmes or the novels of Charles Dickens.

It’s not dissimilar to how westerners have been influenced by Russian and Soviet literature: the battle scenes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the brutal poverty of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the romance and revolution of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, to name just a few. 

We have an image of Russia and Russians in our minds that may not reflect reality. Arriving in Saint Petersburg in search of the cultural museums and country estates of Russian writers I had read, I found myself asking where the society they wrote about is. 

Alternatively, we may invoke images of  Siberian prison camps from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, which we read in school. 

Perhaps the most prescient piece of Soviet literature is the dystopian science fiction work by Yevgeny Zamyatin. We is a 1921 projection of the crushing impact on the individual of the approaching Stalin police state and is said to be the inspiration for  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. 

We was banned, subsequently copied and passed hand-to-hand as ‘samizdat’, marking the beginning of a prolonged period of underground self-publishing by dissident writers. 

The reality of Russia is, of course, somewhere in between all the above. 

Hitler’s World Tour

A striking highlight from those student trips to Kyiv and Leningrad has resonance for today’s Nazi and fascist narratives. 

Make no mistake, the loss of an estimated 20 million Soviet citizens in the Second World War is etched in the region’s history and on the population’s psyche. As is the terrible siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad. 

Whilst this collective trauma makes it easier to manipulate Russian public opinion with spectres of the return of Nazism, it also makes the siege of Mariupol and the blanket shelling of Ukrainian cities and towns by Russia all the more shocking and indefensible. 

An indication of the strength of anti-Nazi feeling in Ukraine was demonstrated when one of our student group, a history student no less, decided to wear a t-shirt with the words ‘Hitler World Tour’ and the dates of key campaigns: Stalingrad, Leningrad, etc, emblazoned on his back, in the ironic style of a rock band tour. 

He was apprehended by a Ukrainian, in a citizen’s arrest, and taken to a local police station. Later that evening, he was released, and the whole group was grounded for the rest of our stay in Kyiv.  

We received a collective punishment for being insensitive to the suffering of Ukrainians at the hands of the Nazis.  

One last anecdote to help read Russian behaviour. As exchange students in Leningrad in 1985, we were compelled to march with Leningrad University students past the portraits of the Communist Party leaders in Palace Square, the site of the Tsar’s Winter Palace and of the 1917 uprising.

Did it mean anything to those young people marching? Holding slogans aloft, most students were just interested to get back to the hostel to crack open a bottle of wine or vodka, since it was a national holiday and an opportunity to drink in defiance of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol policy. 

Just five years later, on May Day in 1990, crowds filed freely past the leaders of the Communist Party assembled atop Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square. 

It was a less formal occasion, with balloons, but also some unexpected banners, advocating democracy, a free press, progressive deputies, and even freedom and clean air brandished by young men wearing gas masks. Air quality was an issue even then. 

It wasn’t that long after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Nuclear submarines were leaking radioactivity in Russia’s arctic ports and fallout from weapons testing in Kazakhstan had become public knowledge.

In Russia, things are not always what they seem. So, can we be sure from what we are seeing on our screens or hearing from Russian colleagues, friends and relatives about the state of mind of the Russian people? 

Are they supporting the ‘special military operation’, or choosing to keep quiet about the war and wait for the crisis to pass? 

If we consider the French vote for Marine Le Pen, Trump supporters refusing to accept his election defeat, and half of Britain’s electorate voting for Brexit, we should not be surprised that a majority of Russians are being persuaded to support their president. 

If you read Sputnik or watch Russia Today in countries where they’re still available, you will see the same images we see on our screens of President Zelensky and his team walking around the streets of Kyiv and destroyed towns in Ukraine. 

Except the voiceover is explaining that the ‘Nazi’ Zelensky and his band of marauding fascists are terrorising the Ukrainian people and destroying the country.  

It takes critical thinking and mental resilience that most of us don’t have to understand that kind of framing.

And yet, Russians grew up being lied to by their leaders, taking official news and slogans with a pinch of salt, and assuming the opposite was true of anything they were told by the state. Eventually, the truth will out.

That’s why it’s helpful to look back to a time when Russians lived without independent media, in a society imbued with anti-West propaganda, and still found ways to question state influence and look beyond their borders. 

If they managed to do it then, maybe they can do it again. 

Can we predict the future of Russia? If we have learnt anything these past months it is to expect the unexpected. That’s why it’s important to keep channels of communication open, however difficult it may seem. 

We need to be prepared for whatever comes next. 

Photograph courtesy of Natalie Sarkic-Todd. All rights reserved.