Victory Day Parade in Moscow
(Victory Day – World War II celebration in Russia, May 2022)

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced tremendous corruption, poverty,  lawlessness, food and other consumer goods shortages, among many other negative occurrences.  These aspects that are normally discussed when dealing with decade of the 1990s, however, there is another major circumstance that needs to be stressed, the loss of identity.  Former Soviet citizens and soldiers immediately lost their affiliation to the only country they had known and asked themselves, “who are they?”  Since 1991 people were required to reformat their view of national ideology, the geopolitical balance, and for over 250 million people their psychological makeup.  The result people was that were ripe for manipulation to fill the void of their loss of identity with the passing of the Soviet Union.  Shaun Walker’s book THE LONG HANGOVER: PUTIN’S NEW RUSSIA AND THE GHOSTS OF THE PAST explores how Vladimir Putin attempted to fill that void and “forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia.”

As the Moscow correspondent to the Guardian holding a command of the Russian language, Walker has the sources and language skills to present a concise and searing argument that will allow the reader to acquire a true understanding of the underpinnings of Putin’s propaganda when applied to the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine.  Though written in 2018, the narrative presents a clear argument that is difficult to find fault with.  The focal point of Walker’s book centers around Putin’s strategy of turning the Russian people toward World War II, the Great Patriotic War as a means of reuniting the Russian people and gaining support for his imperial ambitions.  In order to accomplish this Putin, Walker argues, must eradicate certain historically factual events from the pre-war and war periods that do not reflect very highly on Joseph Stalin and the former Soviet Union.  The need to create “willful amnesia” among Stalin and Putin’s victims was required.  In Walker’s account the concept has been applied extensively and effectively.

Vladimir Putin at Victory Day
(Putin attends Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War)

Walker clearly describes the tableau of the 1990s concluding with Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999 and the failure of the “decade of democracy.”  As people lost their savings and pensions, dealt with the Chechen war and terrorism it created a yearning for stability and normalcy.  Despite the fact that oil prices increased in 2004 resulting in a promising standard of living in the major cities, the vast majority of people living in towns and the countryside across Russia’s Eurasian land mass, poverty, drugs, addiction, and disease remained pervasive.  Putin believed that the poverty and divisions were a symptom of a broader malaise.  For Putin, the health of the state was most important and if Russia’s station in the world could be regained, people’s well-being would automatically improve.  Putin was tapping into the long held Russian political creed that fetishized the strength of the state and sovereignty.

In all of Russian history there has been only one event that could catalyze Russian unity and create the foundation to bring the country together – the victory in World War II.  Walker concludes that “pride in the defeat of Nazism transcended political allegiance, generation, or economic status, and had been used by later Soviet leaders to cement the regime’s legitimacy.  Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country.”

Map of Kherson, Ukraine

From the outset Putin had to deal with the “truths” about the pre-war and war periods unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.  With archives opened people began questioning certain events; i.e., the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its side agreements to seize half of Poland and other areas; Stalin’s purges of the 1930s which included the officer class reducing the effectiveness of the Soviet military at the outset of the war which led to disaster throughout 1941; admission to the Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish officers; and the massive deportations that took place in the east.  Nationalities like the Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Germans and other smaller groups were deported to central Asia and Siberia.  This involved thousands of soldiers when the war was not going well, but it was a priority for Stalin.  If Putin’s narrative of the Great Patriotic War was to be accepted, many of Stalin’s actions and the plight of the deported nationalities had to remain unexplored and forgotten.

The rhetoric Walker describes reflects an amazing campaign of misinformation and warnings about what was to be believed and what was to be whitewashed.  Even the meaning of “Victory Day” was altered as “under Putin gradually but inexorably the day became less about remembering the war dead and honoring the survivors, and more about projecting the military might of contemporary Russia.  The message was one of unity, around the idea of a resurgent victorious nation,” especially after the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In describing how this was achieved Walker travels throughout the Gulag and interviews survivors of the prison system and family members who know what happened to relatives.  Interviews and travel with people like Olga Gureyva who spent years in the island prison of Kolyma, arrested at 17, spent over a decade in captivity working in freezing tin mines; Petr Nechiporenko, a Professor at Kiev State University who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War but was arrested and accused of being a fascist terrorist who was turned in by colleagues and killed; Eveniya Ginzburg, the Russian writer and Gulag chronicler is arrested and sent to prison as a supposed Nazi terrorist for over a decade, just scrape the surface of the thousands upon thousands imprisoned and died in the Gulag.  But people like Walker’s guide, Ivan Panikarov who built a museum in his own home describing the Gulag argued that Stalin’s crimes may have been necessary to industrialize and defeat the Nazis.  Many of the people who Walker interviewed wanted to forget the past and move on as it just hindered the development of a strong Russia.  Walker’s description of what they wanted to forget is in line with historians like Robert Conquest and Amy Knight, along with Russian writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman. 

(Stalin’s deportations from Estonia during WWII)

Walker mentions an interesting point that although Nikita Khrushchev’s De Stalinization speech of February 1956 created hopes of a more liberal Russia, he focused on the crimes of the Communist Party, and the vast network of camps was never discussed publicly.  Walker also asks an important question; was everyone guilty in perpetuating the system?   He concludes that there “were many varying shades of guilt and innocence. But almost everyone was at least partially a victim, almost everyone was at least partially a perpetrator.”

Putin’s strategy helped create a feeling of victimhood and martyrdom which would be offset by his perception of a successful Winter Olympics at Sochi, coming to terms with the Chechens after two wars and numerous terrorist attacks, and the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008 when Ukrainian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to join the European Union and turned down a trade arrangement with Moscow, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Western media attacks assisted Putin in creating the narrative that the west wanted to blunt any attempt by Russia to return to greatness.  Putin turned loose his domestic media to carry his message and the FSB and company made sure that protest and the wrong mind set would not get out of control.

The latter half of the narrative focuses on the evolving conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.  He zeroes in on Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, and the eruption of further conflict in the industrial Donbass region.  The developing conflict between Ukrainian and Russian identity is presented within an excellent historical perspective and analysis.

(Joseph Stalin)

If one examines Putin’s justification for invading the Ukraine on February 24th of this year it is clear he is turning to the Great Patriotic War as he accused the Kyiv regime of being made up of Nazis that had to be rooted out, and Ukraine was not a country because it was part of Russia and wanted to be reunited with its countrymen.

Walker has written a well-researched, provocative, and insightful book whose arguments seem accurate.  He uses the voices of authentic everyday Russians to tell his story.  He is careful to avoid viewing the west as morally superior.  Further, he provides a clear picture of Putin’s mindset and how he recaptured the faith of the Russian people in the state as well as in his leadership.  In Putin’s mind he has created a mindset for a whole new generation of Russians who will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin finally leaves the Kremlin.  In the final analysis it is clear that though Walker authored his book in 2018, he foresaw the events of 2022 which are playing out in front of our eyes.

(Victory Day – World War II in Russia, May, 2022)


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