There were a lot of us in Moscow, back then. Silly, millennial Euro-Brits, trying to be journalists, floating through a boozy world of “hackpack” drinks and Russian liberals. We were there on cooked visas — fixed in Kyiv — dreamers and weirdos who had OD’d on Russian history or Red Alert II, shuttling in and out to London. We’d sit round tables in bars on Bolshaya Nikitskaya, smokey, at three in the morning with all our Russian friends. Muscovites we loved and hung out with: hilarious diplomats, risk-it-all reporters or moody minigarchs’ daughters.
In the late 2000s, we drifting twenty somethings took our freedom for granted. You might have a friend doing something unclear in Shanghai. Somebody else appeared to be rather bored learning Arabic in Aleppo. You could go to any of these places. Never realising we were living in a low-key golden era: a time when things were more or less open and alright.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
It felt so easy. We went so casually to these places. Now, never again will we spend long afternoons smoking in the French Institute moaning how dull it is in Damascus. Or get drunk in the hutongs by the Drum Tower in Beijing talking big money dreams and see Hong Kong for the first time and think — I could live here forever. We might go back there, someday, and stroll, like we did, through Aleksandrovsky Sad. But never will the ground feel solid beneath our feet.
Because that Moscow I knew — nocturnal, daring, drunk — has finally been destroyed completely. Since we watched him — there’s only been one “him” in Moscow for a very long time — declare “a special military operation” at 5:45 in the morning. Half of those characters I used to drink with were all WhatsApping in shock: He’s actually done it. Now we are watching a map turn from one country’s colours to another. It’s so horrifyingly simple. It’s happened so many times. And even tweeting that what he’s doing in Ukraine is a war could mean fifteen years in prison. But then: even with all those MAs in Russian Studies we couldn’t conceive of it.
Minute by minute the collapse of Russian capitalism is coming through in Telegram alerts. Apple leaves Russia, Netflix suspends operations, so has Louis Vuitton, brand after brand after brand pulling out until, even though my job is to analyse this stuff, I can barely make sense of the sanctions and capital controls that have cut Russia off from the world. And somehow I’ve ended up at a think-tank Kremlin labelled an “undesirable organisation” and that means I can’t even phone half the people I want to because I’m nervous what it might mean for them. Russia has gone through the looking glass and I can only see my time there like Stefan Zweig. A world of yesterday.
Now, a decade of obsessions make sense. Vladikavkaz. Vladivostok. I would look at these places on that incredible map and know I had to get there. I’ve often wondered why I let that emotion carry me for so long but only now, belatedly, do I realise I was running out of time. I kept on going back to this spot in the Urals, pulled by some force, shuttling on the platskart wagon onwards to Siberia, to stop at this monument, the obelisk on the Europe-Asia border.
I kept wanting to stand there, each time I went east, at this point in the forests. Almost like a premonition. I’d read a story (I didn’t even care whether or not it was true) in a history book that grabbed me. It was about the Decembrists, those officers, exposed to Europe and the enlightenment, in the afterglow of the Napoleonic War, who rose up in St Petersburg for something like a constitutional monarchy. It was a moment Russia could have turned — who knows who she would have been had they succeeded — but of course, she didn’t. And they were exiled, so many of them with everything they had to give, to Siberia. They had stopped here: by the cross on the continental border and wept. Knowing they would never see Europe again.
Now people can barely even get there. Friends are booking flights to Tashkent. The FSB are interrogating them at the border. Others are panicking; there are hardly any flights left: they’re all booked up, everything’s grounded, sanctions have closed allied airspace in every direction. And these are same people, the same generation, who only ten years ago, were marching happily through Moscow, raising money and fighting corruption, only to dash their heads, just as the Decembrists had, when it frightened Him, when it enraged Him, when He turned out not to be this pathetic topless clown — he was Gollum in all of the memes — but truly a beast. Those were the protests that set it in motion: the squeezing of freedom, the arrests, the filetting of journalists, until now we have this.
Why did I refuse to see it at the Tretyakov Gallery? The whole of Russian history is laid out in wall-sized gold rimmed portraits of autocrats: Nicholas I to Joseph Stalin. Each saying: there is something both very fragile but very durable about repression in this state. Something undying about the spooling “organs” as you say in Russian: security forces with shifting names like the Cheka, NKVD, KGB — who have always supported these tyrants, more or less, since they were founded as the Oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible for the task. Men just like him.
Millennials were Putin’s Decembrists. Back in 2011, young Moscow crackled with a kind of giddy excitement that it was happening — that this generation, if it just tweeted, if it just Facebooked and posted enough — could topple Him. This energy that youth, technology, the world as it was and was becoming — would simply prevail. Because who was He really? Just some squinting little bureaucrat in a pinch. Alexei Navalny, he looked so young, he was far away from prison, yelling at the big protest on Prospekt Sakharova, flanked by liberal celebrities screaming: “Rossiya Budet Svobodna” — Russia will be Free. I believed him.
What is Russia’s future? I must have asked everyone, every EU think-tanker, every sallow faced-Western diplomat I met in Moscow the same question. Like it was the only one that mattered. The answers came in a hundred and one theories, not one of them, it pains me to say, as mad and dark and pornographic as where we are now in Ukraine. I was swamped with academic gibberish such as “competitive authoritarianism” or “mimetic institutions”. They didn’t say that Napoleon is always with us, that in every generation, there’s a leader who has grabbed such control over his society, whose mind is so set on glory, he has to invade somewhere. Like it’s a role coded into the human species in some way we’ll never understand.
Instead, I was told Russia was a “BRIC” or a “normal middle income country” and now all I see is the absolute intellectual poverty of looking at things only in data sets. We should have listened to the one thing — in that language of Fyodor Dostoevsky — that Russian culture has always revered as holding that gift of vision. That is to the prophetic power of art.
The writer Vladimir Sorokin, with his long, flowing grey hair, was one of the first people who “knew”. He was woken up one morning to be told, His creepy but still little comic youth movement, were chucking his books into a giant toilet. One placed right outside the Bolshoi Theatre. Then they started harassing him. A strange woman came to his house saying she’d got an order to fit his windows with prison bars. The doorbell rang and there was a sack of his books: each stamped porn. Then the prosecutor called. They’d opened a case against him, this satirical novelist, who’d written these weird, funny scenes, about a Stalin clone fucking a Khrushchev one — for pornography.
Then something came over him like a fugue state. He got in the car, with his wife, and they drove north, out of Moscow, out of Russia, until they were in Estonia, in the woods. And then after that he wrote. It was like a trance. Like he was vomiting bile. It had taken him five years to write a novel and this one had come in one month. Published in 2006.
I read it around then on one of those trains, The Day Of The Oprichnik, those swamps and forests, flashing past on a visa run: my mind half seeing tanks that had been there in the second war world between the birch trees. In this book, The Tsar, at last, has been restored. The country walled off behind a Great Russian Wall: only pipelines sticking out of it. It’s this latter-day Opritchnik’s hours: this fured agent hard at work murdering a boyar, gang raping his wife, then visiting a clairvoyant in the name of The Tsar. One day in 2028. But it’s a fake Empire: utterly dependent on China. Their characters have crept onto everything and even the Tsarina makes sure to educate her son in Mandarin.
I put this book down but it never left me. A feeling like I had seen the future. And now — its pieces falling hour by hour — everyone I know in Moscow is living in it. I don’t know for how long.