- The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past
- By Shaun Walker
- Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $32.95
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the typical Western narrative tended to portray it as a simplified Cold War zero-sum game: Where communism failed, the West won, and liberal free-market capitalism triumphed. There is some truth contained in this perspective. But the fate of millions of individuals that make up a nation is never just a simple tale about economics. Mythologies, heroes and history can often mean more to individuals than clear facts.
Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer, reminds us about these peculiar paradoxes of history in the opening chapter of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. The book attempts to comprehend the existential void that the Russian people have experienced since 1991.
The socialist state was miserable, economically stagnant, totalitarian and lacking any democratic accountability. And yet, as this intriguing and original tome clearly demonstrates, a number of individuals across Russia now lament such a life with rose-tinted nostalgia. This comes as little surprise. As Walker explains, 15 per cent of the Russian population – more than 20 million people – currently have incomes below the poverty line. Thirty-eight per cent, meanwhile, have problems affording food and clothing. The drastic poverty has arisen from a mixture of Western sanctions and fallen oil prices.
Walker’s well-researched and insightful book is a compelling read for two reasons.
First, because the journalist uses the voices of authentic everyday Russians to tell this story.
The interviews are often in gritty settings and usually confrontational. Ordinary citizens speak from the heart, predominately after copious amounts of vodka and tears, confessing with honesty the tragedy that is the struggle of their everyday existence.
The book’s other strength comes from the author’s solid use of historical archival evidence.
There are some fascinating accounts here of individuals being packed off to Siberia during the Stalinist era, without trial, for so-called fascist collaboration. Walker consistently weaves these stories across the book to understand the contradictions of present-day Russia. It’s a country where Vladimir Putin’s former KGB pals buy up global real estate across the West, and holiday on private jets and luxury yachts. Meanwhile, many ordinary workers in the Russian heartland drink themselves to death on poisonous bath fluid, because they cannot even afford the cheapest vodka on the market.
Walker’s narrative is broken into two sections.
The first half looks at Putin’s central mission when he took office in 2000: to control the population by forging a new national myth. Specifically, one concerned with the noble heroics of the Red Army during the Second World War. However, as Walker correctly points out, there is a distinct lacuna in this myth regarding key epochs of Soviet history: namely, the heinous crimes of high Stalinism; the suffering of millions in the gulags in Siberia; and the totalitarian nature of the Marxist state itself, where freedom of conscience was a crime, punishable by death.
The latter half of the book then looks at the unfolding of the conflict in the Ukraine in 2014, focusing on Kiev’s Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea and the eruption of further conflict in the industrial Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. This jostle between Ukrainian and Russian identity is treated with brilliant historical context and analysis.
Walker also compares and contrasts Russia’s and Germany’s Second World War legacies respectively. Germany has been forced to confront the moral failings of Nazism and the Holocaust head on. Russia, conversely, has been allowed to indulge in selective amnesia for the purpose of nation-building.
Walker avoids the usual pitfalls that many Western journalists tend to indulge in when writing about Russian society. Namely, viewing the West as morally superior in comparison.
The Long Hangover documents the enormous power of nation-state mythologies, which have the ability to shape a political culture, cause wars and, crucially, control the lives of millions of ordinary citizens, who are often blind to the real truth behind these fabricated myths of history.
JP O’Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic who writes regularly on politics, history, literature, society, the environment and technology, for numerous publications around the globe.