How history caught up with my Russian academic friends

After the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, I wrote to friends in Russia, asking if they needed help. Most of them replied on Telegram, the medium preferred by those who fear their emails might be monitored.

One was desperate for a UK tourist visa for his son, who was of conscription age. Another needed cash because her Visa card no longer worked. Would I send her some through Western Union? A young and talented historian wanted to withdraw an article I had translated and submitted for him to a scholarly journal in America because he feared that its publication might get him into trouble at his university under Vladimir Putin’s foreign agent law, which obliges Russian citizens to register as “foreign agents” if they are supported from abroad.

There was not much I could do for them. The British consulate was overwhelmed by applications from Ukrainians. Western Union suspended transfers to Russia on March 24, by which time my friend had fled to Yerevan, Armenia, where Russians could still use their credit cards. As for the young historian, I did not hear from him again.

When I think of the situation of my friends in Russia, of the future they have been denied by Putin’s war, I feel shame, frustration, anger and most of all sadness on their behalf. They all, I’m sure, abhor this war — even if they do not dare say so in their messages to me.

Many are concerned for their own Ukrainian relatives. One Moscow friend has gone to help her family repair their badly damaged flat in Mariupol, which still has neither power nor water. Another old acquaintance from St Petersburg is giving half his income to the ad hoc groups that have sprung up to support the thousands of Ukrainian refugees in the city. Maybe those I’ve not heard from are now in jail, or just too scared to get in touch, following the mass arrests of antiwar protesters and the passing of new laws criminalising criticism of the government and “false reports” about the “military operation” with sentences of up to 15 years.

A black-and-white photograph shows a side view of two people seated on stage, apparently giving a talk. Meanwhile, in the wings, behind a curtain, a man is asleep in a chair
Waiting in the wings: a talk at the Writers’ Union of the USSR, 1990 © Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos

My friends are in a minority — the quarter of the Russian population that does not support the war, as far as one can tell from the polling. They all belong to the intelligentsia circles of Moscow and St Petersburg, a world apart from the provinces, where most people get their news from state TV.

The gulf between these two worlds is historical. It was the fundamental problem of the 19th-century revolutionaries and democratic reformers, as it has been a major reason for the failure of today’s intelligentsia to play a more decisive role of national leadership since the collapse of the Soviet regime. The social background of the intelligentsia may have broadened greatly in the intervening period — the revolution cut its roots in the nobility — but in education and outlook it remained just as isolated from the common people as before. In that isolation is its tragedy.

I have worked in Russia for almost 40 years. My first trip there, to study Russian, was in 1983. The next year, I arrived with a group of British Council exchange students at Moscow State University for the first of what turned out for me to be three years of graduate research. The main building of the university was a vast complex of residential “zones” connected by a central hall, at that time filled by tables laid out for the World Chess Championship (Karpov vs Kasparov), where the best student players would gather with their sets in the evenings to analyse the latest moves. My first meal in the canteen was a bowl of greasy borshch with a cockroach floating on top.

I was researching for my PhD at Cambridge. The title of my dissertation was “The Middle Volga Peasantry in the Russian Civil War” — a topic that amused my widening circle of intelligentsia friends, whose attitude to peasants was Chekhovian, and bemused my KGB minders, who ran the special room for western scholars in the State Archive of the October Revolution, where I did most of my work.

Without access to the archive’s catalogues, we could request only files whose numbers we had found in Soviet publications: that was the method of control. We were not allowed to eat in the canteen in case we fraternised with Soviet historians and archivists. But there was a flaw in the system: the archive had just one toilet, the place where everybody went to smoke. I soon discovered that my western cigarettes could be exchanged with a certain archivist for the unpublished numbers of the files I was not supposed to see.

In this black-and-white photo from 1990 of two back-lit figures conferring in a corridor
Corridors of power: membership of the Writers’ Union was granted only to writers who had the approval of the authorities © Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos, 1990

With the arrival of glasnost there was no longer any need for subterfuge. From 1986, the catalogues became available and western scholars were allowed to work with Soviet colleagues in the general reading room and, in some cases, in the archive’s stacks, where there was no limit on the quantity of files we could receive. I began to number archivists among my friends, and even dated one of them.

This was an exciting time for foreigners in Russia like myself. It seemed at last that the country would rejoin the European world it had left in 1917, and that we could join our intelligentsia friends in their struggle for democracy. In my own field of historical research, which played a crucial role in shattering the myths of Soviet power, we were able to support our Russian allies by importing western books, helping writers to get published in the west, and inviting them to international conferences.

In 1990, for example, my friend and mentor Viktor Danilov, a leading scholar of the Soviet peasantry, came to Cambridge on a fellowship at Trinity College, where I was teaching at that time. At the height of the Khrushchev Thaw, in 1964, Danilov had exposed the catastrophe of Stalinist collectivisation in a book withdrawn from the printing presses on the day of Khrushchev’s ousting from power. Danilov was dismissed from his academic post.

For the next 20 years, when the Brezhnev regime defended Stalin’s agricultural policies, Danilov was regarded as persona non grata, if not quite a dissident, by the Soviet establishment. Foreigners who wished to consult him had to do so in the presence of a KGB official. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, his fortunes changed and, with the support of western colleagues, he published several volumes of important documents on collectivisation before his death in 2004.

The climate for historical research began to change in Putin’s second presidential term from 2004 to 2008. The drift towards authoritarianism was underpinned by the Kremlin’s growing control of the history taught in schools and presented in the media, where it imposed the narrative that Russia had been strong when its people were united behind a strong state and leader.

There was a bitter ideological struggle over Stalin, where the recent revelations of historians such as Danilov — along with the work of public bodies such as Memorial, which had been collecting testimonies from the victims of the Stalinist repressions since the late 1980s — were condemned as “antipatriotic” by the regime’s ideologists, who wanted to restore a sense of pride in all of Russia’s past, including the Stalin years.

At this time, when I was working with Memorial on an oral history project that would form the basis of my book The Whisperers, a history of private life in Stalin’s Russia (published in 2007), I was making five or six trips every year to confer with my colleagues and interview survivors of the Stalin years. The first sign I detected of a change in attitudes was on a lecture tour of Russian universities arranged by the Oxford Russia Fund (a charity established with money from the oligarch turned Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky to provide grants and books to Russian students and universities) in 2008.

A black-and-white photo of people sitting in chairs inside a club setting, one of them asleep, another watching TV
In the frame: inside the Writers’ Union, membership of which was virtually obligatory to get published © Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos, 1990

During questions following my lecture at a university in the Urals, I was attacked by a professor who declared that I, as a foreigner, had no right to write about the Stalinist repressions, let alone to lecture them about that chapter in their history. I declared a certain sympathy for the professor’s point of view (this was a story the Russians really ought to write) but asked him if he cared to name a single Russian scholar who had published anything remotely comparable to my own project with Memorial, at which point he stormed out of the lecture hall.

I came across a similar resentment from some colleagues in Russia, including one of the senior researchers at Memorial, who told me when I gave her a copy of The Whisperers that my name should not be on the cover of the book because I was a foreigner. By this time I was getting used to hostile emails from Russians (some of them were no doubt Kremlin trolls) who accused me of spreading lies about the Stalin era (no one in their families had been repressed) or said that I was “colonising Russian history” in a way that robbed the Russians of their own more positive and patriotic memories.

Among the people I had counted as my friends, there were also signs of this nationalist turn. One of the first people I had got to know in Moscow was a celebrated poet who at that time, in the early 1980s, was in the outer circles of the liberal dissidents while retaining her position in the Union of Writers, which guaranteed her livelihood. The last time I saw her was in 2012, when she told me how important Putin was for the salvation of Russia, a country that had been brought to its knees by the Americans, bent on its destruction, she believed. Since then I have seen her writings in support of the invasion of Ukraine, articles equating anti-Russian views with fascism. Nobody I talked to was able to explain her transformation into a Putin cheerleader.

Age is certainly a factor in the way the Russians have reacted to the changes under Putin, judging from the conversations I have had with friends. Those old enough to recall the Brezhnev years were generally inclined to remain sanguine about the drift towards dictatorship because, overall, their situation remained better than before.

One friend whom I’ve known for 30 years liked to counter my concerns by pointing out that Boris Yeltsin had started the assault against democracy (by shelling the Russian parliament building in 1993), that Putin had some decent policies, and that the real situation in the country was more complex than presented in the western media, which focused only on the darkest aspects of life there (a complaint I often heard). “Life goes on, we shall survive,” he liked to say.

It was typical of the stoicism I had encountered many times in those who had lived through far worse times. Reflecting on our conversations now, I think that in these small accommodations to the worsening reality, a mental compromise that many made, there was a gradual weakening of the educated public’s will to resist the autocratic turn.

A black-and-white photo of a high Gothic-style window letting in light on a restaurant
Diners’ club: the restaurant of the union’s Central House of Writers © Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos, 1990

The moment when collective resistance might have worked came in 2012 with the demonstrations against Putin’s rigged election as president for a third term. The mass rallies in Moscow united young professionals, the new post-Soviet intelligentsia, who saw no future for themselves in a country permanently ruled by Putin and his nominated successors. The protests were dispersed by the brutal crackdown that followed, with harsh new laws against unauthorised demonstrations, arrests of opposition leaders and the introduction of the foreign agent law. The opposition movement retreated from the streets and took to social media.

Many Russians moved abroad, while those who stayed became more careful in their actions and their words. It was as if the memory of previous waves of repression, going back to the Great Terror of 1937, had created a “genetic fear”, passed down through the generations within families of the repressed, and that once the warnings of a new wave of repressions had been heard, that legacy of fear kicked into operation, inhibiting resistance to the state. In my conversations with such families while working on The Whisperers, I heard many of the younger family members describe this “genetic fear” as a vague but menacing anxiety that held them back from public life, from all political activity, and influenced their lives in many ways, from their choice of friends and spouses to the careers they pursued.

Looking back, it now seems that the democratic changes from the years of glasnost had been living for a while on borrowed time. They had been surfing on a wave and were bound to be dragged under by the deeper currents of Russia’s autocratic history. I am not suggesting that this was determined from the start. Only that we vastly overestimated the leadership potential of the westernist intelligentsia, the academics, writers, scientists and journalists who had pushed for those reforms and remained the major social force committed to a real break from the Soviet past.

The intelligentsia we had befriended (and perhaps idealised) turned out in the end to be a weak and isolated caste — weakened by the state and isolated by its own refusal to collaborate with it — whose influence was never as significant as it and its allies in the west believed. Beyond Moscow and St Petersburg, in rundown towns and villages, the same old Soviet mentalities (an unquestioning acceptance of the state’s authority, low material expectations, social conformism and so on) could still be found.

A black-and-white photo of two men embracing at a restaurant table
Comradely embrace: two of the union’s members greet each other © Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos, 1990

Today, the institutions of that democratic caste are hanging by a thread that can be cut at any time. The last independent radio and online TV stations were all closed down in the first weeks of the war, leaving Telegram as the only platform for uncensored news. The free universities are continuing to operate, as far as they can, but need to keep a low profile, lest their international connections draw attention to them as “foreign agents”, which could lead to their closure.

The foreign agents law was used last December to close down Memorial. In June it was widened to include as “foreign agents” not just public bodies and individuals receiving finance from abroad but anyone considered to be influenced by foreigners — a threat so broad and arbitrary that almost anyone could fall foul of the authorities (which is why I have not mentioned any names).

Many thousands of young Russians have fled abroad, mostly to Armenia, Georgia and the Baltic states, since February 24. The exodus of IT specialists, whose skills are most easily transferable, is especially striking: in April, the Russian Agency for Electronic Communications estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 had already left, with up to 100,000 more expected to follow. No doubt many of them will be hoping to return to Russia soon. But that too was the hope of the émigrés who left Russia after 1917, and very few of them returned.

There is little that the west can do to help those still in Russia who oppose the war. Perhaps the most important thing is not to punish them for Putin’s war through blanket bans on Russians coming to the west, by barring them from our universities, or by cancelling Russian culture in our theatres and our concert halls. We need to help them study their own past, free from the Kremlin’s controlling narrative, so that they can see a different path from Russia’s past to its future.

One day, we must hope, the Putinist regime will be removed. At that point, if it is to avoid repeating it, Russia will depend on a new class of leaders from the scattered ranks of its intelligentsia. These are the Russians who should be our friends.

Orlando Figes’s ‘The Story of Russia’ is published on September 1 by Bloomsbury

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