The subtitle to The Invention of Russia — From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War — unfortunately now has to be followed with a question: which one? Even when the book was published in 2015, his wars were already plural (Chechnya and Georgia) but the author clearly means Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Not many books that get blurbed as “timely” are worth reading the better part of a decade later, but Ostrovsky’s is because it tells several of the deep stories about why post-Soviet Russia is the way that it is and how it got that way. As he explains, “My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the ‘meaning’ of the country, who composed the storyline, who produced and broadcast it and in the process led the country from freedom to war.” (p. 6)
The stories of Russia add up to the story of Russia, and the way that story turns out matters for the whole world. A different Russia was possible, but its leaders and leading storytellers made choices that led to its present state. A different Russia will be possible, but not until it has different leaders telling different stories. Ostrovsky knows the influence of the past, so he starts The Invention of Russia (more properly the re-invention of Russia, as it never went away and was only partly subsumed in the Soviet Union) well back in the Soviet period.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrestled with the Soviet system, knew there was only one way to defeat it: “Live not by lies,” he wrote on the day of his arrest. The paradox was that the opening-up of the media could be achieved only by engaging in half-truths. But when reality burst through that opening in the form of live television broadcasting and uncensored publications, the Soviet Union crumbled.
Whoever controlled the media also controlled the country. “To take the Kremlin, you must take television,” Alexander Yakovlev, the main ideologist of perestroika, once said. This was no metaphor, for the fiercest and deadliest battles that unfolded in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Soviet disintegration were for the television tower. In the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media. But in the end they used the media to enrich themselves and to consolidate power. (p. 7)
Then when it was consolidated, power in the Kremlin came and took the media from them and started telling entirely new stories about Russia.
“People of Yegor Yakovlev’s generation and background [his father was an Old Bolshevik senior member of the Communist Party] lived in the glow of the fire that their fathers had started in order to burn the old Russia, which eventually consumed them too. Soviet history was their family history, and they perceived it as such.” (p. 22) For this generation, which was also Gorbachev’s — although he did not come from such an exalted background — Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, the thaw that followed, and then the Soviet counterstrike in Prague in 1968 were formative experiences. They made their peace with the system, rose within its ranks, and believed to varying degrees that it could be reformed. Ostrovsky shows how both people and ideas of the Gorbachev era emerged from factional fighting, and reform attempts, of the Brezhnev stagnation.
He also makes the key point that corruption did not emerge in the 1990s: it was endemic to the Soviet system, and changing that system was an accelerant. “In everything but name, the cooperatives of the late 1980s were private firms that were allowed to set their own prices for whatever goods they produced. The only problem was that most of them did not produce anything. Instead they bought goods from state enterprises at subsidized prices and sold the same goods at market prices, keeping the profit or splitting it with a state manager.” (p. 78) By the time of mass privatization, the red directors had already stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down. This was yet another generational change. “Many of Russia’s first businessmen, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, … emerged from the ranks of the Young Communist League. Komsomol activists were young, cynical and ruthless. They had none of the idealism or the baggage of their fathers and all of the frustrations of a hungry elite constrained by the doldrums of Soviet ideology.” (p. 79) Those constraints did not last long.
In May 1989 Viktor Chernomyrdin [the] … minister for the Soviet gas industry … came to [Nikolai] Ryzhkov [the head of Gorbachev’s cabinet] with a proposal to transform is ministry of gas into a state corporation called Gazprom, swapping his ministerial position for the job of the company’s chairman. Ryzhkov struggled to grasp the logic. …
Ryzhkov assumed that Chernomyrdin had gone mad. No Soviet minister had ever voluntarily given up his perks … A smart Soviet industry boss, Chernomyrdin had sensed that the centrally planned command economy, administered through ministries like his own, was crumbling. No longer backed by the thread of coercion or the promise of ideas, ministerial orders had no power and were ignored.
A few months later Ryzhkov was gone, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Within another two years, Chernomyrdin had become prime minister of capitalist Russia, reaping the benefits of his creation. Gazprom became Russia’s largest and most powerful firm, worth billions of dollars, offering privileges no Communist Party could match. The story of Gazprom’s creation goes a long way to explaining why the disintegration of the Soviet regime was relatively peaceful, but also why its transformation was so incomplete. The economic foundation of the Soviet system was destroyed not by an external enemy or by dissidents but by the proprietor’s instinct of the nomenklatura who gladly exchanged their petty privileges for something far bigger—a piece of the pie. (pp. 79–81)
Through the Yeltsin era, control of crucial parts of Russia remained within a relatively closed circle of people. Ostrovsky shows how resources, finances, and media were mutually leveraged to give first one group and then another the upper hand. In many cases, freedom was just another word for who’s trying to take control. Some groups believed in a Russia that was more open to the rest of the world and more closely integrated with it, some wanted to try to turn the clock back to Soviet days, but all of them put their personal interests first. And the institutions that did develop proved to be — were designed to be, insofar as they were designed at all — were vulnerable to people who controlled the images. Summing up Yeltsin’s re-election campaign, Ostrovsky writes “‘Reality’ was not something that occurred in real life, but something that television portrayed, which could therefore be edited and improved.” (p. 200)
Ostrovsky goes into considerable detail about the maneuverings among press barons and natural-resource tycoons (often either allies or one and the same) during the Yeltsin years. The details show how power came to be amassed in Russia, and what it was used for. One of the choices that he laments is the use of television to drive down the popularity of Boris Nemtsov, an innovative and democratic mayor of Nizhny Novgorod who was seen as a potential successor to Yeltsin. (I arranged for his participation in a transatlantic conference in 2000, after he had left Yeltsin’s Kremlin.) Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, just as Ostrovsky was making the final changes to Inventing Russia (p. 1), his Russia a path not taken.
The path Russia did take is the second half of the book, titled “‘Image is Everything,’ and detailed in the crucial chapter “Lights, Camera, Putin.”
Yet to say that Putin’s popularity was the result of media games or that Gusinsky’s NTV lost out because it was less effective than Berezovsky’s Channel One would be as untrue as to deny it. Victories have many parents. The oligarchs’ idea that a few men could anoint the future president actually worked. But while the oligarchs, the media and the political technologists fought battles, claimed victories and engaged in cunning projects, thinking they were the prime players, real events were taking place in the country that were outside their control but not beyond their ability to exploit. As a politician, Putin might have been a media invention, but the events that turned him into a president were not. (p. 256)
Chechen terrorism gave Putin an opening, and he seized it. Ostrovsky also marshals evidence that at least some of the apartment bombings attributed to Chechens were the work of the Russian security services themselves. At any rate, that was the beginning of the ratchet between violence, state control of the media, and Putin’s personal power. At each turn, these three have fed on each other. The present war, the first phase of the war against Ukraine that began in 2014, the war against Georgia in 2008, the second Chechen war — all were chosen in part to consolidate his personal power. “For the vast majority of Russians, the  was in Ukraine was just a show provided by television. … For its Russian audience, the show was largely free of charge. The sanctions imposed by the West did not affect a majority of the population, at least initially. And the deaths of Russian soldiers who were sent to fight in Ukraine were carefully covered up and concealed. The popularity of the show transferred to Putin’s rating, pushing it close to 90 percent approval.” (p. 320)
Now that show is in its second season, and the stakes are much higher.
Putin has portrayed himself as a gatherer of Russian lands and restorer of the Russian empire. In fact, he is likely to go down in history as its gravedigger. …
Putin offered war as an alternative to modernity and the future. The forces he awakened are not the forces of imperial expansion—Russia does not possess the energy or vision required for empire building—but of revisionism, chaos and war. He may plunge the country into darkness, or Russia may yet rid itself of this post-imperial syndrome and emerge as a nation-state.
Ostrovsky writes that Russia is waiting to be invented again. What kind of Russia that will be is presently being decided on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.