- - Sunday, February 18, 2018


By Shaun Walker

Oxford University Press, $29.95, 288 pages

Fellow writers take note: Your work is being monitored every day by a Russian agency that formerly was part of the Russian SVR foreign intelligence service, successor to the KGB of the old Soviet Union.

Officers examine the world’s press, searching for instances of what they term to be “Russophobia,” loosely defined as anything critical of the regime of President Vladimir Putin.

The agency’s director, Igor Nikolaichuk, maintains what is tantamount to an enemy list, ranking other nations’ hostility to Russia. One listing he displayed to Shaun Walker, author of this insightful look into Mr. Putin’s Russia, ranked Austria as the most hostile, followed closely by the U.S.

Depicting the West — and its “controlled press” — as an enemy scheming to overthrow Russia is one of the methods enabling Mr. Putin to maintain a considerable popularity. He is essentially unopposed as he seeks a fourth term in March, which would keep him in office until 2024.

Mr. Walker, a reporter for the Guardian, a British newspaper, has worked in Russia for two decades. His portrayal of Mr. Putin’s rule is based on interviews throughout Russia, from the Pacific shores to Europe. The man has astounding courage — seeking out, for instance, Chechen thugs who would happily put a bullet into his head.

One important element of Mr. Putin’s popularity is his evocation of people’s bravery in defeating Nazi Germany — a rare unifying event in the country’s turbulent history.

By depicting Russia as once again under siege by enemies in the West, he strives to revive the national unity of the World War II era.

To “prove” this thesis, the chap who runs the press-monitoring operation pushed the theory that Germany’s Angela Merkel was planning a Fourth Reich, a successor to Hitler’s Third Reich.

To many in the West, Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea — which became part of Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR — was aggression, pure and simple.

But Mr. Putin cast the action as necessary to protect Sevastopol as a base for the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet; otherwise, it could be lost should Ukraine join NATO. He claims, with no substantiation, that a majority of residents of Crimea prefer Russian rule.

One Walker interview was with Vladimir, “a failed furniture salesman” who became a leader of the “resistance force” that seized Crimea on behalf of Russia.

“Vladimir” brimmed with conspiracy theories fostered by the Putin media. Mr. Walker listened in amazement when the man said he should “know that the Queen of England has a stone made by Jews under her throne, which is what made her so powerful “

Do journalists in the Russian state-controlled media put any credence in the conspiracy theories pushed upon them by their government?

Mr. Walker writes of a “prominent Russian state television commentator” — the author graciously leaves him nameless — who “speaks frequently about ‘fascist’ Ukraine and its threat to Russia, using the tropes of the Second World War in the service of this new war.”

But over drinks, Mr. Walker relates, the commentator disavowed such a thesis, stating that the Ukraine turmoil was “a cynical battle between different oligarchs.”

“But what about your commentaries?” Mr. Walker asked. “America? Don’t be silly,” the man said, “that’s all just for the television. Nobody really believes in that, it’s just a rallying point for the masses. We need to invoke patriotic spirit somehow.”

Another part of the Ukraine propaganda — no other word will suffice — is that the American State Department spent billions of dollars stirring the Ukrainian separation movement.

Another Guardian writer, John Pilger, bought into the yarn, writing about a violent incident in Odessa in 2014 as one of many “US-orchestrated attacks on ethnic Russians in Ukraine.” He claimed that the Americans had turned Ukraine into a “CIA theme park” and were trying to goad Russia into war.

Mr. Walker writes, “Pilger was one of a small but influential body of thinkers in the West, who bought the Kremlin’s talking points on Ukraine uncritically, convinced that what they were seeing was a replay of the Cold War and the nefarious hand of Washington abroad.”

The first years of Mr. Putin’s reign, Mr. Walker witnessed a fairly strong economy. But circumstances changed when the price of oil collapsed.

Once-thriving clusters of factories fell silent, into a dark grimness that Mr. Walker described as “industrial pornography.”

As an example of the wrecked economy: In the Donbass region of Ukraine, printed fliers solicited women with hair longer than 30 centimeters to come to a salon and have it chopped off. Traders would sell it as hair extensions to be marketed elsewhere in the world.

As Mr. Walker comments, “It was one of the most depressingly personal things a woman could feel the need to sell; the very presence of the adverts seemed an affront to dignity.”

Such is life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A discouraging read, to be sure, but an incisive look at reality Russian-style.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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