In Vienna in early April, 60 journalists – most of them Russian, young, newly stateless, and recently jobless – attended a conference organised by the now banned Russian NGO, the School of Civic Education. Its centre and staff, similar to thousands of other anti-regime Russians, have been moved to the Baltic states, and in this case Latvia. I have been associated with the NGO for 30 years since I lived and worked in Moscow
The assembled journalists opposed the regime of President Vladimir Putin. Prior to the war in Ukraine, they worked as best as they could under what the Russo-American writer Masha Gessen has called Russia’s “inexorable march back to totalitarianism”. And now most cannot work at all: the opposition media in Russia has been effectively destroyed.
The conference was an often moving occasion. The high spirits of clever and opinionated young journalists as they compared experiences; their arguments periodically deflated when they were reminded of their plight: exiled from their country.
The school brought in writers to address them who had experience in dissenting writing and journalism. The Russian political analyst, Kirill Rogov, told the assembled journalists that even in exile, “we have to continue what we see as ‘our’ Russia when and where we can. Leaving allows us to do something which we can no longer do in Russia”. “Our” Russia for Rogov and others like him, is a country in which at least some of the basic democratic freedoms – crucially, freedom of speech and publication – are observed. Maxim Trudolyubov, a columnist and editor – who now works as a freelance since he was dismissed from his role as head of comment on the daily newspaper Vedomosti – said that “we tried… to analyse Putin’s moves from a rational point of view. But increasingly, we understood that there was a shift of the Kremlin from reality to the creation of their own reality”.
The tone of the speakers was unwaveringly bleak. The Bulgarian-born writer Ivan Krastev warned that “Putin genuinely believes that the Russians and Ukrainians are one people. He is not prepared to recognise the sovereignty of any of the neighbouring states”. Mikhail Minakov, a Ukrainian scholar was in monitory mood: “There is a political frailty all over Europe. A latent conflict with the West brings together China and India – and this anti-Western solidarity brings in the Arab states.” The independent historian Sergei Medvedev gave the most chilling view – that “the Kremlin created a post-Soviet, post-modern illusion, but with it came Russian fascism. We didn’t take it seriously. The Kremlin’s elite people have a daughter in Oxford, a yacht in Sardinia, [we thought] ‘they don’t want to ruin that’. But we were wrong. They are serious.”
The conference was off the record: the speakers agreed to be quoted, but the young journalists preferred not to be – a sign of the time, a fear that they, or their families in Russia may suffer. Rogov commented: “My parents say, ‘now I understand what happened in Stalin’s time: if people talked freely, they were lost’”. Shortly before the conference a lengthy post had appeared online from an untraceable but clearly hostile source, replete with photographs, denouncing the school, all of its work, organisers and collaborators – including me.
Shortly after the conference ended the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment, the last remaining centre of free analysis and commentary, was told to close on 18 April. The closure silenced, amongst much else, the opinions (on that site at least) of the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov. He wrote in one of his last pieces that in the past few years “the Kremlin’s ‘spin dictatorship’ was degenerating into something more uncompromising and repressive. Putin… has become increasingly embittered and ruthless, as has his system, based on the complete subjugation of the political and economic establishment and the silent assent of the masses.”
These observations, and the young journalists’ experiences, are witness to a repression of free speech qualitatively different from that in other authoritarian or totalitarian states. In China, North Korea, Egypt and others, the monopolistic party has a defined narrative, of which criticism is not allowed. Russia, with its habitual creativity, has added another layer – that of fantasy, irony, a kind of sinister playfulness. Yet as Kolesnikov, Medvedev, Rogov and Trudolyubov attest, this concoction – while keeping and increasing its distance from the truth – has now become the guiding ideology, as important to the ruling group as Marxism-Leninism was to Stalin.
The public relations genius who developed this post-modern layer in the first decade of Putin’s rule – 2000 to 2010 – was Vladislav Surkov, who briefly served as deputy prime minister. He understood that to successfully depart from any genuflection to truthfulness, the administration had to disperse clouds of lies, fantasies and conspiracies, like chaff countermeasures used to confuse and divert rockets.
“Political life, by 2004, was packed full of simulacra, doubles and pacifiers, creating the illusion of pluralism and a wide range of choice. It will go into the textbooks as one of the most colossally successful swindles of historic magnitude.” This admiring description came from Alexander Dugin, who with Alexander Prokhanov, salvaged the Eurasianist movement from early 20th century obscurity in disregarded pamphlets of aristocratic and bourgeois émigrés. In an extraordinary piece of historical reconstruction in his 2016 book Black Wind, White Snow the journalist Charles Clover traces the tortuous paths that these ideas took over a century to end up in Putin’s Russia.
Prokhanov, the older of the two and whose forebears included persecuted Christians, had a political career which reflected the ideological chaos of the last years of the Soviet Union and the first decades of Russia. Successively a hard-line communist, a far-right nationalist (the two positions merged) and, most fruitfully, an influencer of Putin, who lauded him publicly; Prokhanov later teamed up with Dugin to push a modernised Eurasian line. Dugin, who comes from a high-ranking military family, is a political philosopher who has travelled widely to study European thinkers – most influential was the French political philosopher Alain de Benoist, who followed the same quest for a modernised nationalist ideology as Dugin. Some of Dugin’s ideas – especially on the evils of globalisation –were taken on by politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
They all seek a world purged of liberals, who they believe are gradually losing power. In his most recent work The Great Awakening vs the Great Reset , published in 2021, Dugin opposes the “modern Western paradigm” composed of such elements as “democracy, liberalism, human rights, LGBT+, robotisation, progress, digitalisation and cyberspace”. The “Great Awakening” of his title is the dawning realisation that the universal domination of the West, liberalism imposed by force, must now be seen as the main enemy of an alternative civilisation – Russia – and defeated.
The Russian imperial legacy of dominating and partially submerging with Siberian tribal societies, especially the Mongols, has meant, according to Dugin, that Russians’ genetical make-up marks them out as fundamentally different from Europeans. Europe remains only a small part of their heritage, and its ideas now threaten to infect Russia. “We are a victorious people,” Putin told a rally in 2012, a little before his re-election as president. “It is in our genes, in our genetic code. It is transferred from generation to generation, and we will have victory!”
A year later, in a speech to the Valdai International Conference, Putin attacked what he saw as a decaying West “we can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including Christian values… they are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships.”
Crucially, Ukraine must be forced to recognise this – “We are one people!”, the Russian president insisted, at the end of a 7,000-word essay published in 2021, dedicated to proving that point. Yet he writes that “what Ukraine will be is up to its people to decide” – while at the same time “it is important for us to understand that our partner is defending its national interests… and is not a tool in someone else’s hands to fight against us.” Ukraine is free to decide it is part of Russia.
This is another example of the phantasmagorical reasoning that Putin uses to justify the present war. It is, as Clover states, “a geographical border round a separate truth…via culture, it (is) the conquest of reality itself”. The Kremlin says that the Eurasian civilisation is the home of at least all the eastern Slavs – Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians, by far the largest part of the former Soviet Union – and they will seek to annihilate anyone who does not submit to it.
This is the extra dimension that Russian authoritarianism has added to the standard suppression and punishment of speech that is part of a usual dictatorship. A journalism of fact and diverse opinion – which democrats and oppositionists have sought to practice and promote – has been pushed out by TV talk shows whose rabid presenters, led by Vladimir Solovyov of Russia’s First Channel, scream monstrous insults at those who oppose the Ukraine war. A journalism of truth can exist underground in dictatorships: but where truth itself is just one more story, which happens to have lost the battle with a superior force, it can scarcely gain any value. The well-worn admonition of the former American politician and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is directly challenged: facts are opinions, and opinions facts – when a ruthless power proclaims them as the foundation of its civilisational state.
The young journalists in Vienna at times expressed a dread that they would never live in their homeland again. Yet this was matched with a determination to have their voice – and the facts – heard and seen in the state that has rejected them. Less urgent than guns, tanks and planes, a journalism whose purpose is understanding reality rather than spreading confusion and cynicism must be worthy of our support.