Summer is a great time for books, and this year my beach reading was Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. The book is a critical look at the way the World War II victory has been elevated into a national idea in contemporary Russia.
Walker knows his subject well. He has studied Russian and Soviet history in Oxford, has spent a decade as a Moscow correspondent for the Independent and the Guardian, and speaks the Russian language fluently. The style of the book reflects the eloquence of a journalist and the thoroughness of a historian. Walker makes the story personal by explaining it through the stories of real people who were affected by the events.
I found the general thesis of the book so interesting that I decided to make a summary of it as part of this review. As a result, it turned into a really long book review. Walker’s analysis is a valuable contribution on the topic of nationalism in Putin’s Russia, so it was worth the effort to dive into the substance. The account below is my interpretation of Walker’s argument as it is presented in the book. On a few occasions I have drawn on other sources. One of these is a newspaper article that Shaun Walker wrote a few years ago, and another is a source that Walker references in the book, but which I preferred to angle a bit differently than he had done.
The creation of a myth about Russian victory
In The Long Hangover, Walker presents a convincing argument about the role of the war victory as a unifying myth in modern Russian culture. He explains his theory well, and the lens of the victory provides a useful analytical tool for understanding contemporary Russian nationalism.
The central point is that Vladimir Putin has exploited the victory to restore a sense of patriotism and national cohesion. The popular version of the great patriotic victory has achieved almost religious status as a sacred legend, which can justify just about anything.
In the early years after the war, few people romanticized the experience. Everyone had personal traumas related to the war, and the authorities actively tried to avoid commemorations. Supposedly, Stalin was jealous of the attention given to military leaders and didn’t want to lionize figures like Georgy Zhukov. There was a big victory celebration in 1945, but then there weren’t any victory parades on Red Square for more than two decades. Victory Day was made a normal working day, and the authorities promoted Labor Day and Revolution Day as national holidays instead.
During the Brezhnev years the economy stalled, and leaders sought legitimacy through historic achievements. Victory Day parades were introduced, but their character was different from today. They weren’t pompous celebrations of power and greatness, but solemn remembrances of sorrow and horror.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was deeply traumatizing for large parts of the Russian population. In 1991, the Russians experienced a triple loss. The political system imploded, the imperial periphery seceded and formed new states, and the home country itself – the Soviet Union – ceased to exist. By the early 1990s there were few committed communists in Russia, but that did not make the collapse any less traumatic. The Soviet Union was the cornerstone in people’s identity, and without it there was void instead of meaning. The following economic crisis and the perverse distribution of wealth in the new capitalist society contributed to the sense of meaninglessness.
By the time Putin took over, Russia was deeply divided. It still wasn’t clear what kind of country modern Russia should be, and a war in Chechnya had led to de facto independence for a part of the country. There was a real fear that the whole thing could fall apart if a new unifying national story was not found.
Walker notes that especially the younger male demographic seemed to struggle. Many men who were coming of age as the system collapsed did not have the resources to deal with the emotions of the 1990s. For that reason there is a disproportionate number of confused and angry middle-aged men in Russia today. These were the people who were especially susceptible when Putin came along and offered a meaningful national narrative.
Putin’s story was about victory and past glory, but Russia’s history in the 20th century is not rich on things to be proud of. The 1905 and 1917 revolutions are a mixed bag in a historical perspective, and the communist achievements within economics and workers’ rights are hard to celebrate after the system collapsed. Indeed, it is easier to find things that one could be embarrassed about: The weaponized famine against Ukrainians in the 1930s, Stalin’s purges, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the sorry preparedness of the Red Army before the Nazi invasion, the mass deportations, and the occupations of neighboring states within the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
But Putin did find a practical narrative of greatness and patriotism: The war victory. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s there was a short golden age of Russian historical research. Archive doors were opened for researchers, and there were opportunities to publish critical details about Russia’s past. The country seemed on a path to reconciliation with its past. But historical soul searching was not compatible with Putin’s project.
Shortly before becoming acting president at the turn of the millennium, Putin wrote an article in which he analyzed Russia’s problems. Putin clearly saw the poverty and divisions of the 1990s as a symptom of the weak state. He blamed the Soviet period of being too ideological in its approach to economics, but he also believed that if Russia could regain the global power of the Soviet Union, then people’s well-being would automatically improve.
So patriotic sentiment became the cure that would save Russia, and a strong government would be the tool. As Putin explained:
“Patriotism. This word is sometimes used in an ironic or even abusive sense. But for the majority of Russians it has kept its original, entirely positive meaning. It is the feeling of pride in one’s fatherland, its history and achievements. It is the ambition to make one’s country more beautiful, more affluent, stronger, happier. When these feelings are free from national arrogance or imperial ambitions, there is nothing reprehensible or stagnant about them. It is a source of courage, perseverance, strength of the people. Without the national pride and dignity that come with patriotism, we lose ourselves as a people, the ability to achieve great things. […]
The government, its institutions and structures always played an exceptionally important role in the life of this country and its people. For the Russian, a strong government is not an anomaly, not something you fight against, but a source and guarantor of order, the initiator and main driving force of all change.”
Later, in his inaugural speech on 7 May 2000, Putin elaborated on his mission to unite the Russians:
“I consider it my sacred duty to unite the people of Russia and to gather citizens around clearly defined tasks and aims, and to remember, every minute of every day, that we are one nation and we are one people. We have one common destiny.”
Characteristics of the victory myth
Shaun Walker describes personal encounters with the victory myth and its profound consequences. It is obvious that as a historian, Walker is deeply troubled by the blatant abuse of history for political purposes.
He shows how Vladimir Putin’s government has changed the nature of the victory narrative and turned it into a modern legend about Russian greatness. Gone is the solemn remembrance of suffering that characterized the war memory in the Brezhnev era. Today, victory parades showcase Russia’s military might, slogans about the war are all around, Disneyland style Patriot Parks turn the war into a family event, children attend military-patriotic clubs, and modern events are framed in the light of the Great Patriotic War.
Putin’s war story is black and white: The Soviet people saved the world from the tyranny of Nazism. They suffered more than any other people and endured through a collective display of heroism and patriotism. Everyone in Russia can relate to this story. All families suffered, all communities contributed to the victory. Putin lost his own brother in the horrible siege of Leningrad.
There is no room for grey nuances in this version of history. Everything can be reduced to simple categories. Either you were a patriot, or you were an enemy. The story was appealing to many Russians who experienced the confusion of the 1990s. Putin’s glorification of the collective Russian struggle meant that most people could see a role for themselves in a positive historic narrative. Their grandparents had defeated Nazi Germany and restored the country even stronger than before the war. Everyone wants to see themselves in a good light, and Putin delivered an argument in perfect tune with the needs of many Russians. It was easy to draw parallels between the suffering of the 1940s and the present collapse of the country. Then, the Nazis had been beaten because patriotic Russians stood up for their country in its time of need. Now was the time to do it again.
Factually, the victory myth is largely wrong. Even though some aspects are true, the combined image of history is so twisted that it does not qualify as valid. Facts are cherry picked, complexity is reduced, and opposing views are suppressed. Putin’s version of history cannot contain that the same people who defeated the Nazis also committed atrocities themselves. It requires that even the worst of Stalin’s barbarity be painted in a light where it is seen as at least a necessary evil for the greater good.
So the freedom of historical research of the late 1980s and the 1990s has ended. Archives have been closed, dissenting voices silenced, and critical inquiry halted. As Walker notes, it became a moral outrage to subject the sanitized version of history to scrutiny, something reminiscent of holocaust denial in the West.
Ironically, there were two simultaneous movements in seemingly opposite directions. There was a surge in public fascination about history, but at the same time it was seen as unpatriotic to do serious historical research. The result was a flood of pseudo-historic books with more or less fictitious fables about past heroes. The obsession with ‘remembering history’ became an excuse to willfully forget the history, or at least distort it. Walker mentions several instances where he personally encountered such pseudo-historic knowledge in action. Not uncommon is the notion that a Western plot against Russia has played out for centuries, and that Nazi Germany was part of a greater project to attack Russia. Some even seem to believe that Britain had joined with the Nazis against Russia or had capitulated early on in the war, leaving it to the Soviet Union to save the world.
Putin’s legacy will be with us long after his departure
The Long Hangover takes the reader on a journey through post-war Russian history. Walker delves into the facts and exposes the shallow nature of the popular Russian understanding of history. Western myths about Russia get their share of scrutiny in the book, and Walker shows that much Western analysis is naive and ignorant. But he targets the Russian myths about themselves and the world as worse, as something which is intentionally fabricated to arouse the public and to prohibit self-reflection. In this way, The Long Hangover is a good source of knowledge about modern Russian and Soviet history as well as a theoretical argument about the war story as a tool for Russian national sensemaking.
The book is to a large extent built around interviews and personal stories from people who were involved in the historical events. Walker masters the art of the interview, and one has to admire his ability to make people open up. His writing style is touching at a personal level and makes the reader engage emotionally. For example, the story of Olga who was a victim of the Gulag deportations almost brought tears into my eyes, and the interview with Alexander Khodakovsky left me wondering at the reflexive abilities of a separatist leader in Donetsk. The short meeting with Anton, a twenty-two-year-old political nationalist in Irkutsk, made it clear that the fetishized story of the war victory has taken root in the younger generation, and that it will be with us for a long time after Putin leaves.
The Long Hangover is an exceptionally good book. Some months ago, I reviewed Gerard Toal’s book Near Abroad — Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus. Together, these two books supplement each other well, arriving at similar conclusions from different angles. Toal uses the approach of social sciences and the scientific framework of critical geopolitics, and Walker scrutinizes history and makes it personal through interviews, anecdotes, and reflections.
The image is not encouraging. Putin’s legacy will hang over Russia many years into the future. In many ways his narrative is simpler than the ideological tenets of communism, and it doesn’t include some of the self-contradictions. The Soviet state glorified revolution and revolutionaries, but its actions had to prevent any actual urge to protest among its citizens. Putin’s message is about stability – stabil’nost’ – so any state collapse is inherently bad regardless the character of the state. The message is coherent with his government’s actions to quash opposition.
Putin set out to unite the people and build a nation on an idea of patriotism. In this mission he has largely succeeded. But he also stymied attempts for Russians to make peace with their Soviet past. The processes of reconciliation that other nations have gone through do not take place in Russia. Instead, Putin has cynically exploited the Soviet history to justify why it is necessary to be harsh on opposition. He has created a culture where patriotism is equated with support of Putin, and he has used the World War II victory to imply that Russians must again unite against a foreign threat. Even if Putin goes away, these ideas are ingrained in a generation of Russians.
This is the basic message in Shaun Walker’s book. If the topic interests you, The Long Hangover is a great book, which I highly recommend.