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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends with veterans a memorial ceremony, to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle of Kursk, in Kursk, southern of Moscow, on Aug. 23, 2018.ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images

Among the things that a few years living in Russia taught me was how deep Russian pride runs.

One time, during the Soviet presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, I visited the town of Kursk, where, in 1943, the greatest tank battle in history took place.

My driver, Valery Vasechkin, pulled our mud-caked Volga to a halt at that desolate battlefield where two million troops and 6,000 tanks had clashed, with the Soviets ultimately prevailing over the Nazis.

A boxer in his youth, Valery was a muscular guy who rarely showed emotion. He got out of his car and, wearing only a windbreaker, walked into the wind-whipped cold and stood on the frozen plain for what seemed like 10 minutes, just staring. When he returned to the car, I could see tears glistening in his eyes.

He lit a cigarette and spoke of the battle as the decisive one of the Second World War, of how much he owed his countrymen for their sacrifice. We drove off, soon passing patriotic billboards that highlighted decisions of the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and declared: “Let’s Fulfil Them Comrades.”

Our trip included a stop at the estate of Leo Tolstoy, where he wrote War and Peace. His gravesite was out in front of the house, with no monument to mark it. A lone person there, a woman in an orange head scarf, spoke angrily of what Mr. Gorbachev was doing to the country.

Others elsewhere did the same. In the city of Voronezh, residents complained bitterly of Mr. Gorbachev’s release of political prisoners Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov. The city was steeped in military history: It was where Peter the Great’s flotillas were constructed, where Russians stopped the advances of Napoleon, and where 45,000 residents were killed in a horrendous massacre during the Second World War.

The country’s war history, over the course of hundreds of years of defending its massive landscape, has been staked in the hearts of the people of Russia. At meals, Russians still make several toasts to their war dead and military heroes.

Memories of that trip got me wondering what Valery Vasechkin would be thinking about the war in Ukraine today. His patriot blood runs so thick I can only imagine him approving of what his murderous tyrant of a leader has done.

There are conflicting reports on the degree of support Vladimir Putin has in Russia. A survey by the independent Levada Center polling firm showed, incredibly enough, as many as 70 per cent supporting the Russian army’s actions in Ukraine and almost as many supporting the direction of the country. Russians’ self-esteem – their stubborn pride – probably explains a good part of it. The post-Cold War freedoms ushered in by Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost policies lasted only a couple of decades before Mr. Putin reversed many of them. They were a blip in the country’s 1,000-year history – not enough to change mentalities, to weed out what’s been bred in the bone.

And certainly not enough to overcome the drenching of brainwashing propaganda that Russians have been subjected to by Mr. Putin as a result of his nearly complete takeover of the country’s broadcast media over his two decades in power.

To a people with a long history of being under threat, Mr. Putin has been able to make Russians believe they are under threat again with exaggerated rhetoric about Western encroachments. While some moves by the U.S. and its allies have been provocative, the notion that they somehow justify his invasion – which has triggered the biggest war on European soil in 80 years – is outrageous.

Of course, Russians are hardly the only ones vulnerable to wild disinformation campaigns; Donald Trump’s manipulation of the Republican Party regarding election results and so much other rubbish is a fine illustration. In the U.S., the communications system is reckless, too out of control; in Russia, it is too under control.

It was uplifting last week to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s display of valour and determination in his address to the U.S. Congress. It’s been heartening to see the heroic fight put up by his people and the punishing losses they have been able to inflict on Russia’s running-scared military.

But hopes that Mr. Putin and the Russians will simply give up the fight and sue for peace are scant. It’s just not in the character of Mr. Putin or his people – his Valery Vasechkins. They can, as they have done for centuries, absorb huge losses.

In 2022, Mikhail Gorbachev died, both literally and figuratively. The old Russia is back – and it’s likely here to stay.

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