Editor’s Note: Stanislav Kucher is a journalist and former Russian TV presenter. He has previously worked as Editor-in-Chief of the Snob multimedia platform, Chief Political Analyst and Creative Director of Kommersant-fm all-news radio network, Anchor at Sovershenno Sekretno TV channel and Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler (Russian edition). He lives in New York. The views here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In the summer of 1991, I was a 19-year-old journalist hitchhiking across America with a friend, on assignment for a Moscow newspaper.
The Soviet Union at that time was still alive and seemingly strong. But the iron curtain had already risen – at least for reporters – and I hurried to see with my own eyes the “evil empire” Soviet propagandists had been frightening us with since childhood.
In early September, a few weeks after the unsuccessful attempt by communist hardliners to overthrow then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, my friend and I were invited onto a C-SPAN call-in show to offer a Russian viewpoint.
“Are you afraid of a possible comeback of communism in the new Russia?” one caller asked.
“We are a different generation of Russians who have experienced totalitarianism, are already traveling the world and seeing the difference,” I answered. “Besides, what about those born in the 1990s who grow up in a new free Russia? No, we will never allow a totalitarian revenge.”
How wrong I was. Almost 10 years later, a KGB officer settled in the Kremlin, dreaming of the revival of imperial greatness. Twenty years later, half of my high school friends were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. And now, 31 years later, soldiers fighting in Ukraine are the very same ones born in the 1990s’ “new free Russia.”
When American TV presenters ask me today why, according to opinion polls, 83% of Russians support President Vladimir Putin, I know the answer. And it’s a little more complicated than 22 years of government propaganda.
Today, millions of Russians support their president and are ready to justify everything the army is doing in Ukraine – including atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol and Kramatorsk.
Among them is my former college mate who studied at one of Russia’s best universities and has a successful diplomatic career. On his Facebook page he calls for the army to bomb Ukraine and finish off the survivors with artillery.
Or the childhood friend who I played with in the backyard of our apartment building in Orel, western Russia, who considers Ukrainians to be puppets of America. Putin, he says, is the only leader capable of saving Russia.
His nostalgia for the empire is relatively new — growing up, he loved American action films and read American detective stories. Unlike my college mate-turned-diplomat, who never hid his imperial views.
As for those born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are the generation of Putin, not his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. They are the children of authoritarianism, not democracy.
The economic reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin were so financially and socially painful for the majority of Russians, that by the end of the 1990s the words “democrat” and “reformer” were perceived by many as offensive.
The liberal politicians who had carried out those reforms were seen, at best, as populist losers, at worst, enemies of the people.
After a decade of unpopular reforms – including price liberalization and privatization – and bloody regional conflicts in the post-Soviet space, “stability” and “security” became the most desirable goals of the people.
In the Russian mindset, these concepts have been associated for centuries not with political competition, checks and balances, a free press, an independent court and other attributes of democracy, but instead with phrases like “father of the nation,” or a “strong hand” capable of restoring order in a vast country that had veered off course.
It was precisely such a leader that Russians saw in Putin; a young native of the special services, who, moreover, in the best autocratic traditions, was personally introduced to the people by Yeltsin as his successor.
The long-awaited stability did come. At the beginning of the new millennium, energy prices soared to unprecedented heights, good news for Russia’s fossil fuel exports. Finally, the mechanisms of the market economy launched in the 1990s began to fulfill their potential.
Russians became so engrossed in active consumption that they did not notice, turned a blind eye, or even approved of Putin’s gradual treading on the young shoots of democratic freedoms that had just begun to sprout under Yeltsin.
By the end of 2004, there were no nationwide television networks independent of the Kremlin left in Russia. And political commentators, like myself, who refused to swear allegiance to the new government were squeezed off the air.
I remember very well the advice from my journalism teacher, a television veteran and founder of the first private television company in Russia (which incidentally, lasted less than a decade).
“Think carefully about what is more important to you,” he said. “To be a free, but poor journalist, or a rich representative of the ‘second-oldest profession.’ “Because Putin is here for a long time, and you will grow old under his rule.”
Not that I wanted to be poor, but I wasn’t going to become the kind of prostitute for corrupt journalism my teacher implied. I criticized the Kremlin’s policy on all platforms, wherever possible. In 2018 I finally decided to leave and work in America.
Meanwhile a new generation of Russians – those born in the 1980s and 1990s who graduated from school or college in the 2000s – also needed a big idea to aspire to.
They didn’t have to wait long, because it was something Putin had cherished ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union – the revival of its former greatness through confrontation with the West and the construction of a new “Russian world.”
Government propaganda successfully promoted the myth that it was the West led by America, that had brought Russia to its knees in the 1990s. The main goal of the West was the breakup of the new Russia – much like the collapse of the Soviet Union once was.
NATO became the principal scarecrow in this narrative. And all those who aspired to NATO – like Georgia and Ukraine – were deemed traitors and potential enemies of Russia.
By the time Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, he was seen by most of his countrymen as the most popular national leader since Joseph Stalin. And much like the days of the Second World War, the words “chief” and “motherland” became synonymous.
After a humiliating defeat in the Cold War and an unsuccessful democratic experiment, the Russian people, corrupted by years of Soviet “imperial might,” saw in Putin the power that they “deserved.”
The 2022 invasion in Ukraine further convinced the obedient majority of Russians that the “father of the nation” keeps his word and is on the right track.
Of course, Russian society is not homogeneous. Even among those who support the American-phobic and anti-Ukrainian propaganda myths, there are bitter disputes.
When Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said in a recent interview with Sky News that the Russian army was suffering heavy losses and the war needed to end as soon as possible, many “patriots” called him a traitor.
And then there is the minority who publicly oppose the war and go to demonstrations; a real risk in today’s Russia, since amendments to the criminal code spell harsh penalties and up to 10 years in prison. These are the people who can one day make Russia a country whose flag no one will be ashamed of.
More broadly, Western sanctions have certainly hit Russians. But this blow has turned out to be really painful for the minority higher classes who have traveled abroad, have foreign passports and took advantage of the “fat zeros”— the economic boon times between 2001 and 2010.
We are now living in an era where the average Russian perceives any criticism of their leader as an infringement of their own human dignity, an attempt to return them to the state when they felt inferior.
This is Putin’s main political and psychological victory. Putin did what only one Soviet leader had done before him: tied his political longevity to the self-esteem of the Russian people.
In the Russian authoritarian consciousness, self-deception about the horrors unfolding across the border is better than the deadly truth. That if someone is to blame for their problems, it is not the West, or Ukraine or even Putin.
It is themselves.