For my parents’ generation, the day they all remembered was the day FDR, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. For my generation, it was the day JFK, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. What made it a touchstone wasn’t just the pain of the loss, but the universality with which it was received all across America. Like the shock of 9/11. Everyone who was sentient then, remembers how it felt when they learned what had happened.
For the generations of Russians now in their thirties or older, it was December 25, 1991, the day Soviet hammer and sickle flag last flew over the Kremlin, the day the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, came to an end. In a single day, Russians had, in the words of Oliver Bullough, “lost an empire, lost an economic system, and lost a political structure, all at once.”
Bullough used those words in a review of our guest Shaun Walker’s new book, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, a book which begins with Putin’s recollection of the Soviet collapse, as he experienced it as a beleaguered KGB man under threat of mob violence in the East German city of Dresden.
Putin’s willingness to share his piece of the lowest moment in most Russians’ political memory serves two purposes: it expresses personal solidarity and introduces a political program.
What Putin hated most about being menaced by the Dresden mob was the disrespect shown towards him and the Russian state. Then came the realization that his government was too weak to do anything about it, and in Putin’s analysis, the weakness came from the many divisions in the disintegrating Soviet state and its successor, the Russian Federation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.
But the problems suggested a cure – Putin’s program: make the Russian nation strong and respected again by bringing it back to unity.
Military spending in support of an assertive foreign policy has, in Putin’s opinion, made Russia a great power again, and so has the appearance of national unity, even if it’s taken a censored media and an oppressed opposition to hide the cracks in the façade.
Russian political unity may have its flaws, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t carefully constructed. The Putin Plan to revive the Russian nation-state is at the heart of The Long Hangover.
Shaun Walker is the Guardian’s central and eastern Europe correspondent. Previously, he spent more than a decade in Moscow and is the author of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past.