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26 February 2015

Vladimir Putin has torn my family apart

I grew up in a family of Soviet intelligentsia, but the relentless propaganda from Russia’s state-controlled media has convinced my father that I am not a patriot. I am a disappointment.

By Jana Bakunina

During the long Russian winter my mother watches a fair amount of TV. Earlier this month Russia’s main channel broadcast the highlights of Sochi Winter Olympics; now the channels are beefing up their schedule with old Soviet films, commemorating the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is referred to there. When I ask her if she watches any current affairs programmes discussing the war in the Ukraine or the dire economic consequences of the fall in the oil prices or the western sanctions which saw the rouble taking the plunge, she answers curtly: “We agreed not to talk about Putin.” My mother is sick of my attempts to open her eyes to the way the state-controlled media packages news into one-sided stories featuring Putin the Saviour, defending Russia against the ills of the west. I sigh and change the conversation. I don’t want to lose another parent. Not with my father not speaking to me at all.

In my father’s eyes, I have been brainwashed by the western media, dancing to the tune of the White House. It’s the US that is set on world domination, which gives arms to terrorists, as long as they are based on the right side of the oil fields. It’s Nato that is unhappy about Russia building up strength both in economic and military terms, and putting things in motion to destabilise Putin’s growing influence in world affairs. The fact that I am equally as wary of Washington as I am of Moscow does not matter at all. I am the daughter of Russia who abandoned her motherland, who received a British education and stayed in London rather than returning home. I have worked for American and European companies, enriching the rich, neglecting my duty to help Russia grow its economy. I am not a patriot. I am a disappointment, the latter conclusion deriving as much from my childlessness as from my feeble sense of civic duty.  

My father’s infatuation with Putin is absolute. Russian television has broadcast enough films, entertainment and educational programmes to ensure that the words “homosexual” and “paedophile” are used interchangeably, making it impossible to disagree that “it is essential to put in place measures which provide for the intellectual, moral and mental wellbeing of children, including a ban on any activities aimed at popularising homosexuality… including instilling distorted ideas that society places an equal value on traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.”

The power of the government and the church are so closely webbed that an act of protest inside a cathedral still provokes only anger and condemnation, without a single pause for thought. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko is so blatant in his desperation to make close ties with the US that it is easy to take sides and close your eyes to the Russian weapons and troops being transported over the border to aid the separatists. The image of the strong president, “an authoritarian project in the process of succeeding”, is a much more compelling picture than a caricature of democracy. This is a country with no real political opposition and no culture of parliamentary debates, where absolute power is not confined to history books.

It was not always like that. I grew up in a family of Soviet intelligentsia. My grandparents, my aunt, uncle and my father worked in academia. My mother’s side of the family were engineers, doctors, accountants and lawyers. Unlike my grandfather, my father did not join the Communist Party despite the obvious advantages in terms of career prospects. He was somewhat of a rebel, organising the first disco at the Ural State Technical University (then Ural Polytechnic Institute) in early 1970s Sverdlovsk. When Perestroika came, my father took advantage of the new political and economic climate and set up a joint venture with a European partner. Over the decades of his entrepreneurial journey, he experienced Russia’s dispiriting bureaucracy at first hand, as well as the institutional pressure on small enterprises, the tax police and the criminal elements that were eager to extort, corrupt, and take advantage of legal loopholes. Natural resources are rightly considered a curse for improving productivity and developing a grassroots culture of entrepreneurship. My father suffered many knockbacks as a businessman, and perhaps he’s had enough.

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Putin is an eloquent speaker and a skilful politician. I do not dispute that. He is also credited with restoring Russia’s economic might, but the effect of the drop in world oil and gas prices has demonstrated that during his 15-year reign Putin had hardly developed Russia’s economy beyond the exploitation of its natural resources. After the rouble tanked, the story of Great Russia is being fed with past glories such as the Sochi Olympics and the Great Patriotic War. Last year, Russian drivers pimped their cars with ribbons and slogans “Thank you, grandfather, for the victory”; Russian Facebook users decorated their profiles with the same paraphernalia. The years 1941 to 1945 were the most significant in Russian history, impossible to forget or ignore, but the renewed narrative aimed at boosting national pride is masking economic hardship and social tensions. Sadly, the propaganda machine seems to be in mint condition. The split in my own family is a result of that.

What the state-controlled media cannot manipulate is human stories. My cousin is worried that his son, a 20-year-old student at one of Moscow’s universities, may be sent to the war zone if the government changes conscription rules. Military education classes are now weekly and mandatory for male students. My other cousin is thinking about folding his business, having been badly affected by the fall in the rouble. My former English teacher is struggling to make ends meet, with her pension now barely covering rent, food and medicine. She remembers eating vegetable peel fritters as a child during the war and wonders whether history will repeat itself: “We made soup from nettle in spring of 1945. Perhaps we’ll end up where we came from.” 

Jana Bakunina (@ladieswhoimpres) writes for Ladies Who Impress and Life Tonic.

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