Books should generally be read as stand-alone. Read them, learn something, and move on. The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky, however, cannot be read alone, because as useful as it is, it is enormously (though not quite fatally) limited by the absence of the Soviet Jewry movement and American government policy in the narrative leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Natan Sharansky doesn’t even get a mention in the index.
That might have been grounds to reject it altogether, and it was close. But the groups Ostrovsky limns thoroughly and entertainingly are not well understood in the United States, and they should be. There is the intelligentsia and there are the oligarchs, and through cross-fertilization, some in each group become communications media masters. The intelligentsia receives the lion’s share of credit for collapsing the Soviet Union. The oligarch/media masters are credited with creating Vladimir Putin and modern Russia.
The “Fake News” in the updated title is a clear attempt to capitalize (no pun) on the current American obsession with the media, and the introduction tries and strains to make the point that both the United States and Russia have problems, but in the case of Russia, the limited number of media outlets – particularly television stations – makes the idea of a media-generated candidate a reasonable one.
Let’s start where Ostrovsky starts and later fix the problem of no Ronald Reagan, Henry M. Jackson, Sharansky, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or Helsinki Final Act.
The intelligentsia was romantic. Children and grandchildren of the Revolution, Stalinism, and WWII, they were graduating universities shortly after Stalin’s death and during Khrushchev’s “thaw.” They believed in communism as a means to social justice and the thaw “gave them encouragement and a chance to pursue political careers without becoming either murderers or victims… Most were well-educated, like-minded liberal intelligentsia, largely pro-Western and certainly anti-Stalinist.” Stalinism was considered a distortion of “true” communism. Their understanding of the depth of the perversion of the Stalinist state was clear:
Civil life is poisoned by lies. Presumption of guilt is a guiding principle. Two hundred thousand different instructions tell a person he is a potential villain. One has to prove integrity with references and certificates. Conformation is seen as a sign of trustworthiness…For thousands of years we have been ruled by people and not by laws…We are talking about is not the dismantling of Stalinism, but a replacement of a thousand year old model of statehood.
Alexander Yakovlev, later the leader of Gorbachev’s perestroika, wrote, “I came to hate Lenin and Stalin – these monsters who had cruelly deceived me and crushed my romantic world of hopes.”
They were seekers of a socialist utopia, and the 1960s were fine with them. They “did not want a return to the hyper tension of Stalinist times. It was striving for a measured, safe and comfortable life. Its main goal was to stay in power without fear of being purged.”
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the beginning of their disillusionment. If Alexander Dubcek’s “communism with a human face” couldn’t be tolerated in an ally, it wouldn’t be tolerated at home. And it wasn’t. They spent the next 20 years trying to justify themselves and their fathers (almost always fathers) for betraying the “thaw.”
Russia has always been an intensely literary society, so newspapers, journals, plays and essays were the preferred media of the intelligentsia – perfect for an intellectual class trying out new ideas. Television was a latecomer quickly understood to be able to reach across an enormous country – and who better to run it than people with a lot to say?
That’s what they thought, but they were out of their element. “Television,” said one, “must help an individual to go back to his own world, to find values outside of politics. Our task is to make politics occupy as little space in our lives as possible.” Ostrovsky adds, “But politics kept bursting in and television soon turned into a battleground.” After the collapse of the Gorbachev government and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the media threw itself behind various factions and individuals, putting out material designed to ingrain politics deeper into the system and find ways to monetize their contacts.
It wasn’t difficult.
The Oligarchs and the Change in Russia
The second half of the book is focused on the rise of oligarchs and the distribution of state assets to allies and partners of the ruling elite – and the rise of Vladimir Putin from mousy KGB official in Leningrad to Russia’s president. This, according to Ostrovsky, was planned and executed by the media monopoly that had taken advantage of Boris Yeltsin’s frail health and frequent absence from governing. Determined to cement their gains, they chose a figurehead who was not opposed to capitalism and was an avatar of Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church. When Yeltsin first appointed Putin prime minister, his rating in the polls was within the margin of error. That’s where the book becomes really interesting.
Many Russian liberals perceived Putin as an authoritarian modernizer who would restore the functioning of the state and the economy. The media saw him as a blank slate onto which they could write their own narrative…The educated, well-off, Westernized middle class saw Putin as a center-right, economically liberal president – a Russian version of Augusto Pinochet.
Ostrovsky takes us through the various media personalities – including members of the intelligentsia, some of whom became oligarchs themselves – and how they played together or in opposition to one another, always with the goal of furthering the interests of people with money. But he hedges on the actual effect of the media:
The Oligarchs’ idea that a few men could anoint the future president actually worked. But while the oligarchs, the media, and the political technologists fought battles, claimed victories and engaged in cunning projects, thinking they were the prime players, real events were taking place in the country that were outside their control but not beyond their ability to exploit. As a politician, Putin might have been a media invention, but the events that turned him into a president were not.
The Chechen Wars figure prominently here, as does the media/government control of information during the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk. But so does a rising economy and the emergence of a young, urban, and Europeanized class of people – the children of the intelligentsia of the 1950s and 1960s and the children of the oligarchs. Many of these entitled and privileged sons (still mostly sons) have been groomed to take over the companies the oligarchs acquired from the state. Wealthy and mobile, they are still looking for a “normal” life in a “normal” country – but with more money. Their halcyon days, like those of their parents 50 years ago, are presently running into increased repression by the state.
The final chapter is devoted to the closing of independent media and censorship of social media, along with an increasingly heavy-handed Putin determining what the Russian people can see to attempt to orchestrate how they will respond.
At the age of 70, Yakovlev was asked to become chairman of a television station. He wrote the epitaph of his generation:
Something peculiar was emerging in Russian life – very different from what was conceived at the beginning of perestroika. My rosy dreams died when I got myself immersed in the television whirlpool. Chasing money, constantly squabbling about who will get paid more, falsehood, lies. For the first time in my life I saw corruption in action, in its naked form.
The Soviet Jewry Problem
Ostrovsky’s version of the demise of the Soviet State is about the success of the intelligentsia, the failure of Gorbachev, and later the success of the oligarchs and finally of Putin. He does, at one point, mention a brain drain caused by the departure of 1,000,000 people from Russia. He can’t however, seem to acknowledge that they were Jews – taking with them an enormous supply of education, entrepreneurship, culture and technological skill. Moreover, the success of Soviet Jews in making their case for exodus internally and the United States as a crucial and active ally were both part of cracking the façade of a seemingly invincible Soviet Union.
To counteract the problem, read a book devoted to the rise of Jewish self-awareness and the first-parallel ,then-intertwined Russian and American Soviet Jewry movements. When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone by Gal Beckerman is useful – written in alternating Russian and American chapters. Even if you know the story, Beckerman’s detail will remind you of the hardship, sacrifice and prison time of people Ostrovsky doesn’t seem to know or chooses to ignore.
Keep in mind that one reason for the success of the Soviet Jewry movement is a counterpoint to Ostrovsky’s picture of Russians always trying to create Russia as a “normal” country. Normal countries allow their citizens to come and go at will. The combination of internal pressure by Soviet Jews to leave and external pressure from the United States to allow them to leave was more than the hoping-to-be-normal USSR could tolerate.
The Invention of Russia is worthwhile to broaden one’s understanding of the forces inside Russia that worked against the communist system, but that failed – for very Russian reasons – to create a 21st century modern state with rule of law at its core. This state has begun to regress into its nationalist history complete with peasants and the heavy hand of a rapacious governing class under an absolutist tsar.
But generally without Jews. They’re gone and that’s OK.
Shoshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.