The Invention of Russia
From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's WarBook - 2015
WINNER OF THE CORNELIUS RYAN AWARD
FINALIST FOR THE LIONEL GELBER PRIZE
FINANCIAL TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR
"Fast-paced and excellently written...much needed, dispassionate and eminently readable." -- New York Times
"Filled with sparkling prose and deep analysis." - The Wall Street Journal
The breakup of the Soviet Union was a time of optimism around the world, but Russia today is actively involved in subversive information warfare, manipulating the media to destabilize its enemies. How did a country that embraced freedom and market reform 25 years ago end up as an autocratic police state bent once again on confrontation with America? A winner of the Orwell Prize, The Invention of Russia reaches back to the darkest days of the cold war to tell the story of Russia's stealthy and largely unchronicled counter revolution.
A highly regarded Moscow correspondent for the Economist, Arkady Ostrovsky comes to this story both as a participant and a foreign correspondent. His knowledge of many of the key players allows him to explain the phenomenon of Valdimir Putin - his rise and astonishing longevity, his use of hybrid warfare and the alarming crescendo of his military interventions. One of Putin's first acts was to reverse Gorbachev's decision to end media censorship and Ostrovsky argues that the Russian media has done more to shape the fate of the country than its politicians. Putin pioneered a new form of demagogic populism --oblivious to facts and aggressively nationalistic - that has now been embraced by Donald Trump.
From the critics
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In contrast to Yeltsin, who. . .saw Russia as a nation, Putin saw it first and foremost as a state -- and himself as its guardian.
Russia would never become a second edition of Britain or America, where liberal values had deep traditions. Russian had its own core values. These were patriotism, collectivism, "derzhavnost" -- tradition of being a great geopolitical state power that commands the attention of other countries -- and "gosudarstvennichestvo," the primacy of the state.
"For Russians, a strong state is . . .the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change."
The idea ofAmerica as a utopia, literally a no-place, a dream, had long been ingrained in Russian culture. . . For much of the 1990s, America had served as a model, an inspiration and an anchor. The 1998 crisis showed the futility of this dream. The bombing of Serbia crashed the dream itself. The West ceased to be an anchor. . .Russia was on its own. America turned into a scapegoat for all the troubles that the Russian people had experienced over the previous decade.
The biggest event of Primakov's short term in office was the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO forces. On March 23, 1999 -- the eve of the NATO strikes -- Primakov was in the air, on his way to Washington to negotiate financial aid for Russia, when he learned that the airstrike on Belgrade was imminent. In a powerful gesture, loaded with symbolism, Primakov ordered his plane to turn around over the Atlantic and fly back to Moscow. . . .
Primakov's U-turn was not just an expression of the government's frustration with America's policy toward Serbia and its disregard for Russia's opposition to airstrikes. It captured something far more significant -- a general change in attitude toward America and the West among the Russian general pubic. . . .
How could this unremarkable man [Putin] with no charisma, unmemorable features and weak voice be seriously seen as a successor to Yeltsin?
But it was precisely the contrast with Yeltsin that made Putin "sellable" to the Russian public. The popular support for Yeltsin, boosted by the threat of the Communist victory in 1996, had started to decline as soon s that threat was removed and had been completely undermined by the 1998 crisis [collapse of the Russian ruble]. Nearly half of the country felt that Yeltsin's years in power had brought nothing good to the country; what they had brought was economic crisis, inflation and the collapse of theSoviet Union. Only a quarter of Russians credited him with freedoms and democracy. The majority wanted him to go.
The early 1990s was a wild and entrepreneurial time, when anything seemed possible. The state was weak and private initiative strong. It was, perhaps, the freest time in Russian history. As Vladimir Yakovlev said, "We were like kids in a kindergarten with real machine guns."
The end of the Soviet Union produced none of the cultural vitality that had accompanied its birth in 1917. . . .Lacking a new project or even a vision of the future, Russia searched for a mythical past.
"Kommersant"  fought against Soviet ideology, but its own rejection of Soviet culture -- dissident or official -- was deeply ideological. Anything that was touched by Soviet aesthetics was out, regardless of its content or artistic merit. . .they threw out an entire layer of culture that contained among other things, strong antidotes to nationalism and totalitarianism. By doing so, they severely damaged the country's immunity to these viruses, making it easier, a decade later, to restore the symbols of Soviet statehood.
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