It has become commonplace to perceive Vladimir Putin as reverting to Soviet ways. So it seemed natural, shortly after the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia, that when I ran into a woman I’d known in Moscow back in the Soviet days, I lamented that things were more and more as they had been in those bad old days.
“No,” she said, “they’re worse.”
She had been a rebel and had left Moscow as soon as she was able to, so I was struck by her response. But I’ve heard it from other Russians as well, both those who live inside and outside the country. And the more I look back on my days as a reporter in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, and the longer the terrible savaging of Ukraine continues, the more I understand what they mean.
In light of what their country is inflicting on Ukraine, it is difficult to speak of Russians as victims. That, in fact, may be one major reason many decent Russians feel that Mr. Putin’s Russia — their Russia — is worse than the Soviet state whose demise he laments. They had thought their nation free of the horrible tyranny of its past, and Mr. Putin is not only reviving that but also bringing shame and alienation to their nation.
The Soviet Union that these Russians hark back to is the one in its final years, not Stalin’s hell. In their time, the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet Union was still a repressive police state that maintained a jealous and iron control on information, art, enterprise and just about every other human endeavor. It was a far more intrusive level of repression than Mr. Putin and his security apparatus could ever replicate, given the reach of the internet and the continuing ability of Russians to travel abroad. No old Soviet dissident would deny that the physical quality of life in Russia is far higher than it was in those Spartan times.
Yet the post-Stalin years, and especially the last decades of Soviet rule, however oppressive, at least seemed to be moving toward something better. The random terror of the Stalin era had given way to a more coordinated system of control: still brutally repressive, but more predictable and less arbitrary. The highly personalized dictatorship of Joseph Stalin was replaced by a more collegial system of rule. Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me a Soviet leader probably would not have survived a disastrous decision like the invasion of Ukraine.
And as the Soviet old guard died off in the 1980s, there was a clear sense of change, which finally arrived with Mikhail Gorbachev. For those who were there, it is impossible to forget the thrill of watching people explore long-forbidden ideas, arts, freedoms and pleasures.
“We make a distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ societies, but there is also a distinction between ‘openings’ and ‘closings,’” Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist and one of the foremost chroniclers of the collapse of the Soviet empire, told me. “The generation of Soviet people in the 1970s and 1980s lived in a closed society that was opening, discovering that things that had been impossible were becoming possible. Putin’s is a period of radical closings. People are losing things they felt had finally been granted them. Openings led to hope; this system leads to hopelessness.”
Mr. Putin may not have quite the levers his Soviet predecessors had. The commercialized and globally connected society that has evolved in Russia over the three decades since the Soviet Union collapsed cannot be put back in the bottle. Nor does Mr. Putin have the Utopian ideology that enabled Soviet leaders to claim they were working for the betterment of humankind, though he has concocted a national narrative of sorts, based on Russian and Soviet history and mythology and his abhorrence of the West. What he has done instead is create a system in which everything — the government, the political police, the legislature, the military — depends personally on him.
If the most common charge used to imprison dissidents in the last decades of Soviet rule was “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” an omnibus law that at least made clear that the crime was in opposing Soviet rule, Mr. Putin lashes back at his opponents with random weapons, whether it’s his government’s apparent poisoning of Alexei Navalny or the condemnation of Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison for treason. Accusing Mr. Gershkovich of espionage may well have been motivated at least in part by fury that someone with a Russian background would dare report the truth about Russia.
The repression has redoubled since the invasion of Ukraine, making it difficult to gauge the level of resistance. Ten days into the invasion, police arrested more than 4,600 demonstrators in Russia, and hundreds of thousands of Russian men have fled the country to avoid being shanghaied into the army.
But those who resist and those who leave do not find themselves accorded the respect that Soviet dissidents were met with. Back then, non-Russian ethnic groups may have identified the Soviet yoke with Russia, but Communist ideology was universalist, and the Russians who opposed it saw themselves as allied with other oppressed nationalities, and with the West, in their struggle. Russians who arrived in New York or Tel Aviv or Berlin felt free of the taint of collusion; and since the ranks of dissidents included many writers, poets, musicians and artists, Russian culture shared in the glow of liberation.
Mr. Putin’s rule and his invasion of Ukraine have changed that. This is a war waged by Russia against Ukraine in the name of a Russian imperial claim, and it is hard for anyone or anything Russian — language, culture, background — to fully escape the stigma. It is especially galling for Russians of conscience to hear Mr. Putin using the antifascist language of World War II — the one feat of Soviet history that all its people are proud of — in the effort to destroy Ukraine.
The impact is broadly evident. Russian restaurants, including ones that reconceived their menus, struggle to stay open. Stolichnaya vodka has now been rebranded as Stoli. A limited-edition bottle wears a label with the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine, stamped #LIBERATEUKRAINE. The Metropolitan Opera in New York dropped its Russian diva, Anna Netrebko, for not renouncing Mr. Putin. I have heard academics express regret for focusing so much on Russia in post-Soviet studies. The list goes on, and it’s hard to argue against the cancellations. “Russians can say this is not my regime, but they cannot say this is not my nation,” Mr. Krastev said.
It is too early to predict how the Ukraine war will end. What is clear is that Mr. Putin, in the name of an ephemeral Russian greatness, has done great and lasting harm to his people and their culture.