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In 1999, Vladimir Putin seemed to many like a golden boy who would make Russia prosperous and new. He did – by strangling democracy. Now, his war in Ukraine threatens a new kind of Iron Curtain

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BRYAN GEE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE PHOTO: REUTERS

Molly McCarron is a writer who once studied in St. Petersburg and worked in Moscow.

1999

It was a beautiful summer, leading into a “golden autumn,” as they say in Russian. I can’t remember whether it was before or after the re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino that the announcement of another prime minister – the third? the fourth? – in two years was made. But right away, this one was different. Nobody in Moscow seemed to know anything about him. Within days he was everywhere, his round golden head on every newspaper in every newsstand and on every screen, and no one had a bad word to say. He looked like someone you could trust, a strong man, people said. They even praised his eyes, which disturbed me from the beginning: a creepy, too-light, unsympathetic blue. “It’s like the second coming of Christ,” a baffled diplomat of another Western country said to me, and though I wasn’t around for the first one, I tended to agree.

The campaign for the presidential elections had been under way for months, officially or unofficially. Boris Yeltsin, at the end of his term, was puffy, alcoholic, corrupt and ineffective. Rumours swirled that a state of emergency would be called in order to postpone the vote, though years later it’s hard to remember why that might have been. The government had defaulted on its bonds the year before and ATMs had stopped working for a while.

Since I’d last been in Russia, two years earlier, the ruble had been revalued and lost a couple of zeroes at the end. Mafia shootings in public places seemed to be abating; a few stray dogs remained in the streets. Paint marks were still visible on the U.S. embassy, left over from protests about Kosovo. Oil was at US$20 a barrel. The early flush of democracy had slid sideways and everything was, if not as unnervingly chaotic and precipitously declining as in the early nineties, kind of crappy.

The golden dawn of the golden boy didn’t last long. Over several nights, beginning early in September, several apartment buildings were bombed, killing hundreds of residents. Two of the buildings were in Moscow. No state of emergency was called, but this was what everyone had been expecting, the shoe that had been aloft for so long dropping down at last.

The bombings were blamed, officially, on Chechen terrorists. Hundreds of darker-skinned residents of Moscow were rounded up in markets, on the street, in the metro, where policemen stood and waved them aside as they alighted from subway cars and the rest of us pressed on and pretended not to notice. The second Chechen war began.

Back home in Canada at Christmas, I saw the news about Mr. Yeltsin bowing out early, handing over the reins to his hand-picked prime minister, while I lay sick on my sofa with the Sydney A flu.

More than 20 years later, after rigged elections, after the Putin-Medvedev-Putin switcheroo, the many changes to the Russian Constitution, it’s hard to remember just how significant a shift the events of 1999 were – that things weren’t always like this, that there was a time before.


Moscow, 1999: Rescuers search the ruins of an apartment building levelled by an explosion, one of several Russians would face that year. Mr. Putin, the incoming replacement for president Boris Yeltsin, said Chechen rebels were to blame; his retaliatory war in Chechnya would boost his popularity.ALEXANDER MEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ljubljana, 2001: Mr. Putin reaches to shake hands with U.S. president George W. Bush after talks in Slovenia's capital. The leaders tried to bring their countries closer in the post-9/11 era, but Mr. Bush also irritated Moscow by backing NATO's admission of ex-Soviet states in Eastern Europe.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press


2002

Three years later. 9/11 in the rearview mirror. Oil at US$25 a barrel, the early stages of an upward march to break US$100 in 2008. New café chains in Moscow. I’m visiting friends and am shocked to find a piece of cake and a coffee come to $14 Canadian at a Starbucks-style chain. There are fewer men with shaved heads and leather jackets in the streets. Russian stocks are hot. Western brands are everywhere again, the financial collapse already a surprisingly distant memory. So many more cars, parked at odd angles in every available space, spread over the sidewalk head to tail, parked diagonally along the curb.

The train I take between Moscow and St. Petersburg is a modern one that has a television playing a glossy, patriotic historical movie at a crashingly loud volume. But on the way back, our train is old and the conductor offers – for a self-enriching, but relatively modest price – a private compartment to any one of us crammed into the second class coupé compartments. We’re four to a bench facing each other in a tiny space, and it turns out there’s an empty compartment two down. I crack, not able to imagine the hours knee-to-knee with strangers, and get my private room. It turns out to be infested with cockroaches that I raise my feet up to avoid: retribution for exercising my Western privilege.

The oligarchs who emerged in the nineties are still around and ascendant. A Canadian friend of a friend works for one, the joke being he might become one himself in time. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos, an oil and gas concern, is being hailed as a case study in corporate governance. The NTV television network has been raided and Kukli, its satirical show with political puppets based on Britain’s Spitting Image, is no more, but there is still dissent and discussion and free parts of the press.

The streets of beautiful, crumbling St. Petersburg have started to get cleaned up and repaved; parts of Nevsky Prospekt look almost shiny. The 300th anniversary of the city is the following year, but the real reason for the makeover is the still-new President Vladimir Putin, loyal to his hometown.

I stay at a mid-range hotel that is trying to transition to the new economy of foreign tourism. It has a glossy, cardboard brochure printed in an elegant script on heavy stock, but it only takes cash and still has dezhurnayas, women who watch over each floor and to whom you hand over your keys when you leave.

In the breakfast room at the hotel I speak to a group of rural Australians one morning, full of enthusiasm for a city I’m delighted to be in once again.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I swoon.

“I think it’s awful,” one of the women says. “Everything’s falling apart and it’s dirty.”


Moscow, 2007: Members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement celebrate Mr. Putin's victory in parliamentary elections. Mr. Putin didn't run for president because of constitutional term limits, but when his ally Dmitry Medvedev won, they reached a deal that critics said made Mr. Putin leader in all but name.Misha Japaridze/The Associated Press

Moscow, 2012: Opposition supporters rally the day after an election that returned Mr. Putin to the presidency, made possible by constitutional changes under Mr. Medvedev's presidency. Critics alleged widespread voter fraud in the race, which Mr. Putin won with nearly two-thirds of the vote.Denis Sinyakov/Reuters


2013

Fourteen years after the arrival of Vladimir Putin, and busts of Stalin are back on sale. There’s a man on our river cruise who wears a t-shirt with a picture of Mr. Putin’s too-pale eyes and a seemingly inspirational/terrifying quote that I can never get close enough to read. Religion is back in a big way: crosses and headscarves abound. The free press has shrunk to a few outlets: Ekho Moskvy, the radio station; TV Rain, but they keep getting into trouble. There were protests of the flawed election process in 2011 that were bigger than anything in 20 years, but the clampdown, and the disorganization of the opposition, have succeeded in suppressing further action. The presence of police and military, which has always been substantial, seems even stronger now. OMON – riot police – show up in formation outside a subway station one day, just another exercise, and we nervously walk the gauntlet of masked, armed officers holding machine guns.

High-speed rail links Moscow to St. Petersburg, but once you get there you can still rumble through Vasilyevsky Island in an ancient tram. Stray dogs are gone from the capital cities. They still roam the streets in Irkutsk, though, where you can also still buy the powdered instant coffee with milk, Maccafe, that fuelled my 1990s studies.

I take my husband to see Sennaya Ploshchad. When I’d studied in St. Petersburg, it had been a muddy, seething, Dickensian/Dostoyevskian market selling food, along with consumer goods from China and Turkey. “Sennaya Ploshchad in the 1990s resembled a scene of utter chaos,” begins a description in an academic paper. It has been razed, replaced with a clean concrete square and a neat glass box to the side. Kiosks, once a major source of consumer goods, their offerings stacked up and taped to every inch of window, are being kicked out of pedestrian underpasses, which are now echoey tunnels. There are new parking rules in Moscow and the sidewalks, at least downtown, are passable once again.

We meet an old friend for a drink in St. Petersburg. He is middle class: he works for a foreign firm, owns his apartment, regularly travels abroad, especially to Spain. He drives us to a basement bar. I talk about studying there in the 1990s. We speak in English so my husband can be part of the conversation. My friend’s English is as imprecise as my Russian.

“Nineties was the best decade,” he says, somewhat wistfully. I ask why – St. Petersburg is more prosperous now, and life seems easier in many ways. Also, Russians are supposed to hate the nineties – that’s why they welcomed Mr. Putin, the theory goes, and accept the trade-offs of his now-authoritarian rule. His answer is vague, but comprehensive.

“It was just – most free.”


Perevalne, Ukraine, 2014: Pro-Russian soldiers march through a Ukrainian military base during the invasion of Crimea, a region Mr. Putin had long claimed Russia gave away by mistake in Soviet times. Pro-Russian rebels also seized power that year in parts of Donbas, an eastern region of Ukraine.Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press

Moscow, 2018: Mr. Putin, then a candidate for president again, speaks at a celebration of the fourth anniversary of Crimea's seizure. Mr. Putin's leading rival, activist Alexei Navalny, wasn't on the ballot in 2018 because of an embezzlement conviction he said was concocted to silence him.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images


2018

It’s the World Cup. We take a brand-new tram in Samara, a city where part of the Soviet space program was based. I’d wanted to visit because, thanks to the space connection, Samara was a closed city until 1990: no foreigners allowed. It’s set on a broad stretch of the Volga and features a beautiful, untended Art Nouveau core. A young man has a seat on the crowded tram and offers it to me. I’m standing with my husband so say it’s OK. He speaks in English, I respond in Russian, then realize he is excited to have a chance to use his language skills. I ask him if he is heading to the match. No, he says. He is just riding the tram so he can see the visitors. I’m thrust forward by the crowd so I’m hovering over him, and hear him make a call. “There are so many foreigners here!” he’s saying. “So cool!”

The giddiness and excitement of the international event and the convenience of travel are a thin veneer, though, beneath which Russia is more of an authoritarian state, and Mr. Putin more of a megalomaniac, than ever. It’s been almost 20 years since he appeared in the Kremlin, and now you can’t even get out of the airport without seeing his photo. I turn on the TV to watch the news the second night we are there. There is a single story: Putin. Mr. Putin speaks strongly and decisively while meeting someone: his Cabinet, some oligarchs. Mr. Putin goes to church. Mr. Putin meets a foreign dignitary. Mr. Putin watches a soccer match. The same clips, over and over, on every channel.

The newscast reminds me of something. On an earlier visit I’d come across the Russian version of those kitschy birthday cards with a DVD, called “If you were born in [year].” My friend and I were both born in 1971, and I imagined it would be fun to see what was on the news in the Soviet Union at the time. It was an eventful year in terms of world news, overall. The Vietnam War continued and, in North America, so did the vigorous anti-war protests. The Pentagon Papers were published. Idi Amin took power in Uganda. Pierre Trudeau said something like “fuddle duddle.” Jim Morrison died. We put the DVD in the player back in her Moscow apartment, and grew drowsy as a 20-minute cycle of non-news unrolled. Successful harvest. Five-year plan. A friendship festival of some kind. Brezhnev. We’d forgotten, in the intervening years, about propaganda. The Soviet media didn’t report “news.”

Neither, by this point, does Russian state television. In 2018, repression is widespread. The state is strong again, but it’s rotten, like it was decades before, a regime built on graft and loyalty to one person that might collapse again into chaos if the head is cut off. Five years before this visit, Alexey Navalny was allowed to run, openly, for mayor of Moscow. His volunteers handed out flyers in the street. This seems unthinkable: now, it’s managed capitalism in a police state. Nothing like a free society.


St. Petersburg, Feb. 24, 2022: A demonstrator shows a 'no war' sign from a police bus after protests denouncing the invasion of Ukraine launched earlier that day. Russia would introduce strict censorship laws and shut off social-media sites that might give Russians information about the invasion.Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press

St. Petersburg, March 7, 2022: Pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard with a Z – a cryptic symbol used by supporters of Russia's invasion – and a slogan reading 'we don't give up on our people.' The Z is coloured like a St. George's ribbon, a Russian military and nationalist symbol.AFP via Getty Images


2022

A friend in Russia puts a Ukrainian flag on their social-media profile early in the morning the day after the bombing begins, before most people here in Canada have even heard the news. I wonder, as the Russian government pursues its monstrous, heedless military campaign in Ukraine, if it will come down; even the tiniest sign of dissent is being repressed. The flag stays put. Responses to it are mixed: a thumbs-up, puzzlement, whataboutism of various stripes.

I’ve been fascinated by Russia for most of my life, one of those oddly specific interests that emerge in childhood, like mastodons or maps. The first time I visited was on a school trip in the last years of the Soviet Union. The curtain was still iron and being there felt unreal, like an expedition to another planet we might never get to see again. But things changed just a few years later and I went back to study, and to work, and kept returning in ways that felt more and more normal over the years. Already, it’s feeling more remote again. As Russian independent media is crushed, social-media access is restricted, and Western media pulls out, a veil has been pulled back in place. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in Russia.

Everything is terrible and we don’t know what to do, writes a friend. They’re horrified by the war. They know they’re not in physical danger, unlike the Ukrainians. But their lives are shattered. “It was great when there was hope that we were part of the world,” they say. “And we were!”

Ostorozhno, dveri zakryvayutsya. “Careful, the doors are closing.” It’s what the recorded voice says on Russian metro systems before the train leaves a station. Cities like Samara are no longer closed. Instead, Russia is a closed country.


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