‘The Invention of Russia’: Post-Soviet path to a new autocracy

Anyone who has spent time in Russia over the past 30 years should be deeply grateful for Arkady Ostrovsky’s fast-paced and excellently written book, “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War.”

Too often, the story of post-Soviet Russia is presented through a Western prism as a clash of good Westernizers and evil reactionaries, or as a lamentation about what the West could, and should, have done once it “won” the Cold War. Ostrovsky doesn’t waste time on that. A first-class journalist who has spent many years covering Russia for the London publications The Financial Times and The Economist, he is also a native of the Soviet Union, with an instinctive understanding of how politics, ideas and daily life really work there.

In Ostrovsky’s book, the West plays a minor role — as a utopia for liberal intellectuals, a scapegoat for Vladimir Putin or a place of exile for fallen oligarchs. His is an insider’s story about how the uniquely Russian contest of ideas, myths and invented histories shaped the chaotic search for a new Russia, once communist rule crumbled — from Mikhail Gorbachev’s illusion that Soviet rule could be reformed and democratized, to what Ostrovsky calls the “hatred and aggression” of Putin’s kleptocratic state.

In “The Invention of Russia,” those primarily responsible for Russia’s “emergence from authoritarianism and for its descent back into it” and the great dramas that accompanied it — Boris Yeltsin’s firing on his parliament, the Chechen wars, the hostage-taking in a Beslan school — are the Russians who invented (as the book’s title proclaims) a progression of narratives, either in print or, more powerfully, on television. It was there, on the media front, Ostrovsky argues, that the real struggles over Russia’s future were fought.

“Russia is an idea-centric country, and the media play a disproportionately important role in it,” he writes. Accordingly, it was when Gorbachev first lifted Soviet censorship and allowed reality to burst through the communists’ alternate reality that the Soviet Union crumbled. After that, the first battles were over the history that the communists had so aggressively sought to conceal: “The liberals and their hard-line opponents fought over the past as if they were fighting for natural resources.”

Later battles over control of the media and successive versions of Russian identity led to Putin’s full control of national television and revival of an image of a Russian state great and strong.

I spent many years as a reporter in Moscow, and yet Ostrovsky’s original and trenchant observations repeatedly had me exclaiming, “Of course, that’s how it was!” His riff on the failures of the intelligentsia, for example, ends with this pithy indictment: “Used to raising toasts to ‘the success of our hopeless cause,’ it did not know what to do when its cause succeeded.” Of course!

Or this about the powerful media magnates who arose under Yeltsin: “They dressed like a Westernized elite, spoke like one, sent their children to Western schools, but they lacked the most important attribute of an elite — a sense of responsibility for, and historic consciousness of, their own country. They behaved like caricatures of capitalists in old Soviet journals.”

That’s what made for so much confusion among Western watchers as Russia floundered in uncharted post-Soviet waters. We used terms like businessman, politician, democrat or journalist to describe the people who came to the fore in the new Russia, but, in fact, we were only looking at something far different and usually far less savory.

There were no real politics. “The media did not try to educate or engage the majority of the country in politics,” Ostrovsky writes. That suited Russians just fine, as Putin, the old KGB operative, instinctively understood. He offered security, pride, imported goods, travel abroad and a false sense of Russian greatness. “All the Kremlin asked in return,” Ostrovsky says, “was for people to mind their own business and stay out of politics — something they gladly did.”

The post-Soviet myths had no place for any collective atonement for the terrors of Soviet history. That, Ostrovsky writes, would have raised the question nobody wanted to ask, let alone answer: “Who was responsible for the Soviet experiment and the suffering it brought?” The only honest answer, he offers, would be “everyone.”

Serge Schmemann, a member of the Times editorial board, was a correspondent in Moscow for 10 years.

“The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” by Arkady Ostrovsky; Viking ($30)