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Russia Turns 30

An interview with
View Of Cathedral Against Cloudy Sky

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. So much has changed in Russia. And yet, so little is different. What’s next?

President Vladimir Putin has placed Russia at the center of the global stage as one of the West’s principal antagonists. This week, Altamar hosts Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen are joined by Julia Ioffe, former Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker and Foreign Policy, to help us understand where Russia goes in the next decade. 

Born in Moscow, a graduate of Princeton University, and a participant in Columbia Journalism School’s Knight Foundation Case Studies Initiative, Ioffe won a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Russia in 2009, where she worked as a foreign correspondent. 

Obsessed by the United States

Thirty years on, how should we assess the impact of the disappearance of the Soviet Union? “I think that the global impact first was the independence of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union and the economic collapse that it triggered in part because the system was already bankrupt,” says Ioffe. 

“It created a lot of hardship for many of these republics that became independent states, and then globally, it kind of removed Russia for a long time from the global stage as a power broker and as a counterbalance, as some would say, to the U.S., or as proponent allies of the U.S. would say, a kind of stick in the eye of the U.S.,” continues Ioffe.

“From the Russian point of view and from the point of view of [President] Putin, it became what he called a unipolar world, where there was just one country, the U.S., making all the decisions basically for everybody else,” added Ioffe. “And because of that, when [President] Putin came to power in 1999, he made it his objective, which he spelled out quite openly, to re-establish Russia as a counterweight and a counterbalance to the U.S., and to create a multipolar world where the U.S. doesn’t have unlimited power.”

Thriving on Tension

Tense relations have become the norm when it comes to Russia, both domestically and internationally. In Russia itself, [President] Putin seems to thrive on tensions and silencing his opponents, and like elsewhere, he has effectively used culture wars to quash the opposition and, if necessary, to rewrite history. 

“There was a lot of room left in Russia to rewrite history over and over and over again. You’re seeing it now with the Kremlin trying to dissolve the NGO called Memorial, which was the first civic organization formed in the Soviet Union during the Perestroika era. That was a way to chronicle and document the crimes of the Stalin era. Putin has also rehabilitated Stalin and Stalinism and has portrayed him as an effective manager. … And it’s seen as a good history that the Soviet Union was a good thing,” comments Ioffe.

Internationally, Russia’s relations are also filled with tension. “I think it’s harder for Western Europe than it is for the U.S. to deal with Russia. And even the U.S. isn’t dealing with Russia very well. … For Western Europe, they’re physically closer, they are more economically connected to Russia, and becoming more so with the impending opening of [the gas pipeline] Nordstream II. We’re seeing the effects of all this play out on the border between Belarus and Poland and in Lithuania that used to be under Moscow sway,” answers Ioffe. 

Beijing and Moscow

One relationship that is capturing the attention of analysts worldwide is the new honeymoon between Beijing and Moscow. How real is that? 

“The Soviet Union used to see China as its little brother in the revolution, and [former President] Mao Zedong hated that and stuck it to [former Premier] Khrushchev as often as he could, then China broke away from the Soviet Union’s influence and chartered its own path, especially as the Soviet Union collapsed.

“Russia thinks they can partner with China against the U.S., but I don’t know that they want to play second fiddle to the Chinese the way the Chinese would want them to, because it seems that Beijing looks down on Russia now, much the same way that Russia used to look down on China. I don’t think there’s as much affinity there as people in the West think. And there are definitely some inherent tensions that will spill out in the future,” explains Ioffe.

Russia’s Neighbors

“Can you give us a breakdown of the state of play in the former countries of the Soviet Union? Some are now part of the EU and NATO, while others lean to Asia. Who are winners and losers?” asks Altamar’s Muni Jensen. 

“I would say the Baltics have definitely been winners. They were pretty quickly accepted into the EU and NATO, and I think they feel the protection of that very strongly. Being in the EU has certainly raised living standards in those former Soviet republics. … I think Georgia has also been a winner in this. Even with ups and downs and struggles and political vicissitudes, they’re still a thriving democracy and they’re still charting their way forward, even though they’ve had a big chunk of their territory bitten off by Russia,” answers Ioffe. 

“I would say that Ukraine was emerging as a winner, but now it’s bogged down in a war with Russia, a frozen conflict that periodically threatens to become hot again. … The Central Asian countries, or Central Asian republics, are all over the map. I think Kazakhstan has done really well, even though it’s basically an autocracy. Turkmenistan has become this kind of almost North Korean-style fiefdom with its own governing theology, and Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, is feeling the destabilizing effects of everything happening over the border.”

10 Years On?

“I think Russian 10 years from now looks a lot like Russia now. I like to quote a much smarter person than I, Michael Eickhoff, a film director and screenwriter, who said that over the last hundred years, Russia has shown us that it basically likes one form of government, which is a wide-reaching bureaucracy with a charismatic leader at the top who has a cult of personality around him. 

We had the czar with his bureaucracy. We had the Soviet Union and the general secretary with his bureaucracy and cult of personality around him. And now we have [President] Putin with his bureaucracy and the cult of personality around him. That’s what Russia likes, and that’s what Russia is going to keep building for itself. No matter what kind of ideological wrapping is put around that.”

Julia Ioffe

Former Moscow Correspondent for The New Yorker and Foreign Policy

Julia Ioffe was born in Moscow, graduated from Princeton University and was a participant in Columbia Journalism School’s Knight Foundation Case Studies Initiative. Ioffe won a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Russia in 2009, where she worked as the Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker magazine as well as Foreign Policy. She’s currently a founding partner and Washington correspondent for Puck News.

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