IN PUTIN’S FOOTSTEPS
The Kremlin warned that if the West further expands the sanctions, the Kremlin will further increase Putin’s ratings.
—A contemporary Russian joke
On New Year’s Eve, 1999, journalists in the Russian president’s press pool had a feeling that things were going to change. They were right: the feeble and aging Boris Yeltsin, who could barely board a plane or stand for a fifteen-minute press conference, was about to deliver his End of the Year Address, in which he resigned and ceded power to his prime minister and handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin. Once head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the post-communist “democratic” version of the dreaded KGB, Putin was indeed an unusual choice, having served as the head of the government for only a few months. But the forty-eight-year-old ex-spy, who would become the youngest Kremlin leader since the Soviet Union’s founders, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, had a quiet energy that seemed boundless. As boundless as the geographic expanses contained within Russia’s eleven—yes, eleven—time zones.
After taking over from Yeltsin as acting president on the first day of the new millennium, and after winning, by a landslide, presidential elections three months later, Putin, in the year to come, held over a dozen press conferences and traveled to almost two dozen countries and at least a quarter of Russia’s eighty-nine regions, which are spread out over eleven time zones. Altogether, he was seen in public and on television more often than Yeltsin during most of his eight-year presidency.
Suddenly the press had something to report. The new stories were no longer those of Yeltsin’s Russia, which was perceived, both at home and abroad, as a weak, insignificant, and corrupt bogeyman reeling from its Cold War defeat. These were stories of an enigmatic young technocrat tirelessly crisscrossing the country and meeting with workers, farmers, and cultural figures, attending theater galas and factory openings.
All that uplifting travel—Russia was starving for the Kremlin’s attention—connected Putin to ordinary people and gave him the idea of delivering a rousing New Year’s Eve televised address to the nation. Standing before the Kremlin’s Spassky Tower, just before the giant bells rang in the year 2001, under starry winter skies in front of a large, snow-dusted Christmas tree, he pledged to counter the negativity of the post-Soviet decade and set the country on a new, positive course.
This he did. In his address, the ardent young leader looked both charming and in charge when he spoke of Russia’s great future, heroic past, and enduring spirit.
Putin had often appeared a reserved technocrat, but soon he would demonstrate a talent for finding opportunities to impress the heartland. He knew the best way to get to people’s hearts: showing them that his priority was returning Russia to the world stage as a major power of formidable dimensions.
Originally, he had an even bolder plan for his New Year’s address, and he had run it by journalists in his press pool during one of his trips around Russia. Without a hint of doubt in his voice, Putin told them that “Russia is an enormous country, a great country. We need to remember that our strength is our size. What if I were to travel through Russia’s limitless land in one night, through all its eleven time zones, stopping in each one at midnight local time to record the New Year’s message to show our nation’s greatness, our riches, the diversity of our Mother Russia, our unity, our worth?”1
Even though Russia’s time zones are exaggerated in number (there should only be seven, according to generally accepted geographic markers of Greenwich Mean Time’s [GMT] twenty-four-hour cycle, also called Coordinated Universal Time and abbreviated as UTC), maintaining them is not only a political matter; it is reflective of the national identity, state power, and international influence. Russia has eleven time zones, more than any other country, and that, as Russians would have it, bespeaks its status in a way no one can deny.
Often the time that appears on a nation’s iconic clock—Big Ben in the United Kingdom, for instance, or those daunting dials on the Spassky Tower, in Russia’s case—is a subtle way of representing where power lies. In Russia, every time zone is first referenced in relation to MSK, Moscow Standard Time, with UTC only following. Moreover, many countries don’t even adhere to the twenty-four-hour GMT-UTC’s neat meridians. China’s huge landmass should straddle five different time zones, yet operates according to just one. Inhabitants of western China, if they follow their clocks, have dark mornings and light evenings, but nobody doubts that only the Beijing time matters. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999, he decided to create a new time zone that would set Venezuela thirty minutes apart from neighboring countries. That was his way to let the world know that Venezuela was striking out on its own.
But Putin’s idea of showcasing his country’s temporal and geographic diversity in just one night was certainly unique, and it accorded with his plans to return Russia to its lost great-power status. It also sprung from what Putin knew Russians expect of their leader: something close to godlike status. Keen on creating a leader’s image steeped in tradition, history, and mythology often associated with the uniqueness of the “Russian soul”—spiritual endurance, persevering patience, belief in miracles, and material sacrifice—he wanted to be seen as the Ded Moroz (“Granddad Frost,” the Russian Santa Claus) bearing gifts of renewed national importance and self-confidence.
Capitalizing on Russia’s size—six thousand miles from east to west—Putin hoped to begin restoring his country’s grandeur, once czarist, then Soviet, and now Russian. The idea was bold and beautiful but, unfortunately, unrealizable. The young leader soon had to abandon his “across Russia in one night” plan, because covering eleven times zones in eleven hours, indeed, could only be done in a magic sleigh, not in an actual airplane.
Now, eighteen years later—it is worth recalling that he first became president when Bill Clinton sat in the White House—after last year comfortably securing his fourth presidential term with a formidable 77 percent public support,2 Putin is even more determined to present Russia as a formidable nation. In his 2017 New Year’s Address, he promised to bring all of Russia to the world stage, asserting that his country has finally “risen off its knees” and has truly become “vast, unique, and wonderful.”3 He remains firm in his conviction that his country’s geographic dimensions play a vital role in projecting power, which he has done, lately, in close-by Ukraine and as far afield as Syria.
For the past few years the world’s eyes have set on Russia, with the same intensity as they did during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, or the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union following Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika. The reasons have been manifold: Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the consequent Kremlin-supported secession from Ukraine of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics; the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections; the European and American diplomatic crisis in 2018, after former GRU spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were said to be poisoned in the United Kingdom with the nerve agent Novichok.
Putin has taken a tough stance in responding to these occurrences and allegations. He has been driving both the events and the rhetoric around them in Russia and across the globe. The very picture of a statesman, he has offered the West partnership around the world’s hot spots, be they Syria or North Korea. The more the West chastises Russia for its rogue behavior, though, the more combative Putin’s rhetoric has become.
As have so many in many countries, we, too, wanted to know how Putin’s idea of restoring pride to his once powerful nation has been playing out across its vast expanses. The great-granddaughter of Premier Khrushchev, Nina Khrushcheva, now a New Yorker, was brought up in elite circles in Moscow and is eager to see and understand her native Russia beyond the capital’s bounds. Jeffrey Tayler, living in Moscow and married to a Russian woman, Tatyana, felt the same way, his last trans-Russia journey having taken place in 1993.
Both of us wondered if the Kremlin had really managed to impose its writ on a hinterland traditionally impervious to change, but nevertheless having undergone three dramatic political and social upheavals in the past century alone. Determined to find out, in the spring and summer of 2017 we did something close to the sequential trans-Russia journey from which Putin found he had to desist. We followed, though in the warmer, more comfortable months, in what would have been his footsteps, visiting all of Russia’s eleven time zones in search of the factors—among them, natural resources, educational institutions, ethnic and religious diversity, and strategic assets—that define Russia and its place in the world. Do they, in fact, make the country an “indispensable nation,” to borrow a phrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to describe the United States? And it was not just in Putin’s footsteps we traveled; we followed the historical footprints of other Kremlin leaders, who, too, left lasting imprints on this giant land and on the people.
We announced our plans to our families in Moscow and upset them greatly. To those safely ensconced within the capital’s confines, traveling out into the hinterland—almost anywhere besides Moscow—seemed like a risky, grueling undertaking. The press in Russia and abroad had been reporting on cases of arrests or prosecution of those critical of Putin, and on animosity toward foreigners. In fact, even in Moscow we heard an occasional drunken outburst. On a bus one of us witnessed a young man in a T-shirt emblazoned with RUSSIA (in English) slur his words and shout at a group of unruffled Italian tourists, “Yankee, go home!”
“At least don’t speak English to each other!” pleaded Nina’s mother, Julia, a Muscovite. She worried that widespread Russian support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea would bring us unwanted attention. After all, it was Khrushchev who, in 1954, had transferred Crimea (Russian from 1783 until then) to Ukraine. This was at Khrushchev’s time an administrative move, which shifted control of the area from one Soviet socialist republic to another, with the aim of improving its governance—the Crimean Peninsula lies to the Ukrainian mainland’s south, without a land connection to Russia. That, of course, changed in May 2018, when the Crimea Bridge opened with pomp and circumstance over the Kerch Strait that divided the peninsula from the Russian territory.
In his Granddad Frost–type travels, Putin had planned on moving east to west, but we would do the opposite, because despite its grandstanding as a unique power, Russia’s definition of itself begins in Europe, with the arrival, in the ninth century, of the Ruriks. The Ruriks were Nordic princes who came to rule over the eastern Slavs, the proto-Slavic people speaking Old Russian, the language from which Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian would emerge. A century later, Russia further anchored its identity in Europe by adopting Christianity from the Byzantine Greeks. Moreover, once Byzantium had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the devastating era of Tatar-Mongolian rule over Russia ended in the 1470s, the country declared itself the Byzantine Empire’s successor, the Third Rome, as the last bastion of Orthodox (that is, true, spiritual) Christianity. Russia appropriated the Byzantine Empire’s emblem—its imperial coat of arms, with the double-headed eagle. From then on, the country began expanding (both east and west) thanks to the successful efforts of the early czars. Its growth was further assisted by Europeanizing reforms of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. The young sovereign undertook these reforms after visiting Europe in the late seventeenth century and encountering countries vastly more developed than his own.
The keys to understanding Russia’s geopolitics, its people and its leaders, have been the nation’s faith—the stress on the communal rather than the individual in either Christian Orthodoxy or communist brotherhood—and its giant territory and what it holds. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia shed satellite nations in Eastern Europe and republics in the Baltics and Central Asia. Abroad, it then began to be seen not as the center of a Eurasian civilization, but as an extension of the West.
The Putin decades, however, have changed that perception as Russia, once again, began to reimagine itself in civilizational, not just national or geographical, terms. The country that Barack Obama dismissed as a “regional power” after the Crimea annexation looks set to rival the United States. Not least because Russia, like the United States, occupies a “region”—a continent, actually—verging on two oceans.
Also like the United States, Russia, contrary to its convictions, does not constitute a separate civilization—civilizations, as those of Persia or China, possess independent frames of reference. Russia derives much of its identity from the West, either in imitation of it or in opposition to it. It has both striven to define itself as Western and what the West is not. The pro-Russian patriots who became known as the Slavophiles in the nineteenth century believed in Russia’s religious and spiritual uniqueness, which set it apart from the West and assured it future glory. Another group, the Westernizers, argued for the rational, European approach to Russian matters. Even though at least half of Russia’s landmass is in Asia, it does not see itself as Asian.
Russia, then, is a mutant, an oxymoron of geography, a self-enclosed empire defined by its central government and its rule over an extensive territory on which dwell dozens of peoples speaking many languages. However, Russian is the mother tongue of eight out of ten Russian citizens, and the lingua franca of virtually everyone.
Russia’s gross domestic product stands at $1,283 billion, which makes its economy the world’s twelfth, behind those of India, Brazil, and South Korea.4 It spends $70 billion annually on its military, less than China does, and only one-seventh of the defense budget of the United States.5 In economic terms, Russia hardly seems like much of an empire.
But either way, relatively few outsiders have seen much of it. How many foreigners, or even Russians, have made a concerted effort to traverse its vastness, as the American song has it, “from sea to shining sea”?
Demonized as a dictator, at least in the United States, Putin has nevertheless overseen a turn in Russia’s fortunes that was impossible to imagine during the chaotic Yeltsin years of the 1990s, often deemed democratic in the West. Stepping in to reverse the excesses produced by the collapse of socialism and the sudden introduction of the free market, Putin nationalized, or rather took under the Kremlin’s control, Russia’s hydrocarbon industry, assuring his almost bankrupt government of much-needed revenues. Aided by high world energy prices, he was able to pay pensions and salaries owed to miners, railroad workers, and teachers, and so many others whom the Yeltsin administration had largely abandoned. Under Putin, roads and bridges were built, factories began functioning, and the jobless index fell to below 5 percent by 2017,6 and this is despite the many rounds of sanctions imposed by the West after the Crimea annexation.
The Russia Putin built has largely survived notwithstanding the government’s self-punishing response when it decided to levy its own countersanctions. These retaliatory measures—blocking import of European food and agricultural products and barring certain American politicians and businesspeople from visiting Russia—hurt the Russian economy and its partners much more than those at whom the countersanctions were aimed. But such was Russia’s state of mind—when dealing with the West it often addresses matters emotionally, not pragmatically.
Such harmful actions add to the many already existing problems—an undiversified economy, graft, nepotism, aging infrastructure, in addition to shrinking space for free speech, free assembly, and the press. Despite these infringements on democracy, however, many Russians appear to share Putin’s belief that only a centralized Russia can achieve the desired greatness, or at least the mythology of it. That mythology is mostly based on the idea of Russia’s superior soul and its imperial stature as a unique nation straddling the East and West. The president recently confirmed this: “We are less pragmatic than other people, less calculating. But then we have a more generous heart. Perhaps this reflects the greatness of our country, its vast size.”7
Russia’s other enduring myth is that of a caring and benevolent czar—be it Ivan the Terrible; Peter the Great; or Nicholas I, who announced that the three pillars of Russia’s empire were pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost (the Russian Orthodox faith, absolute state power, and the people). After the March 2018 presidential elections, with Putin winning an impressive 77 percent of the votes,8 and a subsequent inauguration fit for a czar, many Russians have begun to see Putin as Putin the First.
Do the three imperial pillars of Russia’s past still uphold an empire of Putin’s present? We were determined to find out.
Copyright © 2019 by Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler