Peter Conradi is the Foreign Editor of The Sunday Times. He has used his seven years as Moscow correspondent (1988-95) to inform his book Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War.

The ‘New Cold War’ label is not a new one when discussing the worsening relations between Russia and Western powers. Allegations routinely surface about Russian interference in the 2016 US election, NATO keeps a close eye over Russia’s military exploits, and all the while, Russia continues to bear the brunt of Western sanctions. There is no denying that the West’s attitude towards Russia is stony at best.

In this second part of a wide-ranging interview, Conradi discusses the Soviet Union’s chaotic spiral into free-market economics, Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia, the state of the political opposition and an interview with estranged oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

You worked in Russia for seven years. Give us a sense of what it was like there at the time of perestroika and how you think that has led to the chaos of the 90s.

I arrived there in 1988. It was an extraordinary time. The whole place was in transition, but a fairly chaotic kind of transition. The thing about the Soviet Union was that nothing really worked in the same way as it did in the West. It was almost like Alice stepping through the looking glass.

For example, you would go into a shop in Britain and the assumption was that the people in the shop wanted to sell you something. You go into a shop in Russia and the assumption was that you wanted to buy something, and if you managed to buy something, buy anything, it was a success.

I remember going to a restaurant once in a Russian provincial town and asking the waiter what he would recommend on the menu and he said: ‘Well I wouldn’t recommend anything. Nothing is very good!” And part of me thought ‘this is absolutely shocking, how can the waiter possibly say this?’ But the other part of me thought this is actually quite refreshingly honest – he was right, nothing on the menu was any good.

But underlying that was the way that a centrally planned, so-called command economy worked, which meant the kind of things one would take for granted from an economic point view didn’t work the same way in the Soviet Union. Everything was dictated by the centre. People were allowed some degree of personal property, but there were no private companies. It was all completely different.

Then Gorbachev came along in 1985 and realised that things couldn’t continue as they were. He tried to reform the system, but the more he tried to do, in a sense, the more he needed to do. It was just an enormous task to change the system and his problem was that he was doing it at a time when the country was running out of money.

Perestroika stamp poster
A Soviet stamp from 1988. On the left reads “Perestroika – the unfinished business of October (referring to the October Revolution). Right – Acceleration, Democratisation, Openness. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the points I make is the importance of the oil price. And if you actually look back over the history of the the Soviet Union and Russia and correlate it with the oil price, you can learn a lot. The oil price was very, very low: it’s one thing to carry out reforms when you’ve got lots of money to soften the blow, but when you’re having to carry out those reforms because the country is running out of money, it’s the worst possible formula. 

It was kind of a rerun of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, this attempt to create socialism with a human face. I think he assumed that by allowing a degree of democracy, people would be so grateful to him for allowing a degree of democracy that they would vote for him out of gratitude, but of course people don’t do that. So they were increasingly turning towards the opposition. He very much underestimated the power of nationalism in the non-Russian republics.

So, the country was spiralling towards a crisis and the final death blow was dealt by Yeltsin. It collapsed through 1991, there was a hard-line coup by the communists, people Gorbachev himself had appointed, who were desperately trying to keep the Soviet Union together; their putsch collapsed. Yeltsin then had the upper hand; he sat down with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus and they pulled the country out from underneath Gorbachev; they took over and set off in this new direction without him.

You paint this picture of chaos and privation in the 1990s. The book is titled ‘Who Lost Russia?’ When was Russia ever ‘found’?

The title I think needs a bit of explanation. It’s not ‘lost’ as opposed to ‘found’, it’s ‘lost’ as in ‘lost to us’. A longer version of it would be: Who is responsible for the fact that Russia, a country that we thought was going to become one of us, was going to become part of the west and part of this end of history that Francis Fukuyama was talking about in the early 1990s, did not do so?

What happened? Who is responsible for the fact that Russia has gone its own way? How have we reached a point where we – America, Britain the EU – have an increasingly antagonistic relationship with it? It’s a reference to the discussion in America in the early 1950s after China went communist – back then they asked ‘Who lost China?’

Do you think that’s a problem we have in the west, in that we feel we have these universal values to spread around the world – does that irritate the Russians and the Chinese, where they have a sense of their own unique civilisation?

Yes, I think there are two things. There is our idea that we have a universal, liberal model, that mankind is naturally moving towards, which is almost a deterministic, Marxist view of history. And then you couple that with a streak of military interventionism, or just exhortation, pushing countries along that path. That is, from a Russian point of view, seen as a lethal combination.

We in the mainstream media, of which I’m a part, are often critical of Russian meddling here and Russian meddling there, but if you flip it round and see it from the Russian point of view, particularly the George W Bush era, was an attempt to impose our values on other people militarily. Were the values being used as a cloak for the military option or did we genuinely feel we wanted people to embrace those values? Thats up for debate.

Gorbachev portrait
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who presided over the collapse of the USSR. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

That being said, are Russians that different from us? Do Russians have a completely different set of values? I don’t think they necessarily do. If you spoke to contemporaries of yours in Russia you would find that they probably wanted the same things you wanted and probably have a pretty similar view on life as you do. In Putin you have an authoritarian leader who needs something to legitimise his rule and has come up with these conservative values.

The early Putin, in the first two terms, was much more based on competence, raising living standards, this ‘never had it so good’ kind of era. Since he came back to power in 2012 it has been much more about conservative values, the anti-gay legislation, persecuting Pussy Riot, all that kind of thing. It’s all part of trying to build up a patriotic conservative following. You know, we had John Major who was trying to go back to Victorian values, and I wouldn’t say Putin is trying to go back to Tsarist values, but there is a little bit of it in there.

Do you think there is problem with apoliticism in Russia and particularly among Russia’s youth? We see that there are thousands of people at Alexei Navalny’s protests, but do these numbers translate to actual popular support for him?  

If you live in a system like that and you know that if you go out and demonstrate the police are going to come in pretty hard and knock you about. So you’ve got to be pretty determined to turn out and it’s a tribute to the courage of a lot of young people in Russia that they do turn out. Some of the earlier demonstrations in March and June had a huge turnout across more than 80 Russian cities, which was extraordinary, involving a lot of people. However, is that going be enough to actually sway things? No, I don’t think so.

I managed to interview [former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky for the second edition of this book (out in January 2018). His Open Russia foundation is trying to influence Russian politics from London, he said that there won’t be another Arab Spring in Russia because the demographics are against it. If you look at Syria, Egypt and Tunisia you had a high birth rate, and lots of unemployed or underemployed young people. Russia, meanwhile, is an ageing society. You don’t have enough young people to make a difference. If you’re in Moscow or St Petersburg there are enough like-minded people. But if you’re out in some provincial, middle-of-nowhere place, you’re probably not so likely to demonstrate.

We already know the result of the March 2018 election. We don’t need a crystal ball for that. It’s not even clear whether Navalny will be able to stand or not because he’s had a jail term. Let’s say there are two different legal interpretations as to whether or not he can stand, but even if he does, he’s just not going to make much of an impact.

Do you feel that there is a natural weariness of revolution? The anniversary of the Russian revolution has been kept very low-key. Do you think people are content to stick with what they have?

The very fact that considerable numbers of people have turned out for these protests shows that there is unhappiness. And you shouldn’t judge it merely in terms of people on the streets. Navalny has been very good with social media. There was his anti-corruption campaign, highlighting Medvedev’s corrupt property holdings and alleged villa in Italy. The Russian authorities don’t control social media like the Chinese do, so all that is floating around.

But I think that if you’ve got a determined leader in a country, controlling all the levers of power, controlling the TV, which is still where a large percentage of over 30s get their information from, however many people go on the streets, to actually topple them is very difficult.

Crimea protest Russia
“The occupation of Crimea is Russia’s shame”. Protests, such as this one in 2014, are rarely effective in changing Russia government policy and often elicit a heavy handed response. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In Ukraine, yes demographics are similar, but the people who went out on the Maidan did succeed in toppling Yanukovych. That said, they toppled him because he ran away. There was some shooting but had Yanukovych said to his secret police, ‘suppress this demonstration’, he could have done it and he could have reasserted himself and he’d probably still be there today. The feeling is that if Putin were confronted with a similar situation he probably wouldn’t hesitate in using force to break it up. That’s the key thing. If a leader is determined to hang on, he’s very difficult to topple.

If you look at the Arab Spring, the Tunisian president he buckled very quickly and went, whereas Assad didn’t. It’s almost naïve to think that a crowd on the streets will automatically lead to the ruler leaving. If you look at the regimes in 1989, the ones that fell, the leaders sort of bottled it, except Ceausescu and it ended very bloodily for him. In a sense, regimes know that their time is over, save themselves and run off.

Do you think Russia, given its size and diversity, can be governed in any way that’s not autocratic?

I put this point to Khordokovsky who replied that it’s racist to say that Russia needs a strongman. If you look back in Russian history, there are even some pre-Tsarist examples of democracy. There was also degree of devolution under Yeltsin, he set up elected regional governors which Putin has now got rid of.

But would the country necessarily breakup? Not necessarily. The Soviet Union broke up because the people that created it in the first place, Lenin and his associates, had already provided the lines, the cracks for it to break up along by creating individual nations and giving them their own republics, rather than saying ‘we are one’.

Some of the ethnic communities within Russia, Tatarstan, for example, have a degree of local nationalism, but would they really want to become completely independent? It would be a bit tricky as it’s stuck in the middle of Russia. Parts of the North Caucasus might fall off, but then they’re all very small. Everyone talks about Chechnya, but there are a whole series of republics along there barely the size of London boroughs, certainly in terms of population.

One could make an argument for the Chechen War being a key factor in cementing autocracy in Russia. However that ignores Yeltsin’s actions of 1993. When his battle with parliament which turned very bloody, he pushed through a raft of constitutional arrangements that put a huge amount of power into the hands of the president, and removed the various checks and balances. As long as you had Yeltsin there it was sort of alright, but once Putin came along armed with all those powers it was the perfect formula for one-man rule.

Interview by Alex Marrow and Joe Barnes. Peter Conradi can be found on twitter @Peter_Conradi
Part One can be found here.

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