Putin's Strategy Is To Glorify Russia's Past, Journalist Says To preview this Sunday's presidential election in Russia, NPR's David Greene talks with reporter Shaun Walker about his new book The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past.

Putin's Strategy Is To Glorify Russia's Past, Journalist Says

Putin's Strategy Is To Glorify Russia's Past, Journalist Says

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To preview this Sunday's presidential election in Russia, NPR's David Greene talks with reporter Shaun Walker about his new book The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past.


With so much focus on Russian meddling in the U.S. election, that country has its own presidential election coming up this Sunday. And let's spend a few minutes now in Russia with Shaun Walker.


Walker is a journalist for The Guardian newspaper. And for years, he has chronicled the lives of Russian people.

GREENE: And that includes a recent trip he took to the city of Irkutsk, which is a six-hour plane ride east of Moscow. He saw firsthand how hard Russians are struggling to get by. Some didn't even have the money to feed their habit.

SHAUN WALKER: There was this horrible story of people drinking something called Boyarishnik, which is basically a hawthorn-infused bath tincture that many Russians drank because it contains quite a lot of ethanol, and it's cheaper than vodka. And the people that drank it basically began to have this massive failure of their internal organs. More than 80 people died. So it was this sort of fairly extraordinary and grim story that I went to look into.

GREENE: Now, as he reported that story, Shaun Walker noticed something else - World War II everywhere. Even though it was seven decades ago, the Soviets' role in defeating Hitler came up in conversations. There were images all around.

WALKER: I was in the hospital talking to the doctor who had treated all of these patients. And on his desk, he has a big victory flag. You leave the hospital, there's an ambulance with 1941 to 1945 emblazoned on its side. I would open the local newspaper on, you know, just a random week in February, and you would find three double-paged spreads about the war, veterans and so on. Putin and the government have used the victory of the Second World War as a kind of national building block to put Russia back together again. And this starts off quite organically when Putin comes in in 2000.

GREENE: That's right. This war narrative was all Vladimir Putin's plan. Walker writes about this in his new book called "The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia And The Ghosts Of The Past." Putin is expected Sunday to win another six-year term as president. There's very little doubt. Stifling dissent in Russia certainly helps, but Putin has also cemented his popularity not by offering new ideas but by reminding Russians of past glory. It's almost like manufactured selective amnesia - forget the bad, remember the good.

WALKER: It's become an integral part of Russian psyches.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Russian).

WALKER: I remember sitting through the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the Sochi stadium in February 2014. We had this beautiful evocation of Czarist Russia with dancing and aristocrats and classical music. And then we had this quite sexy portrayal of the Soviet industrialization of the '20s and '30s with pounding music and a locomotive coming into the stadium.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Russian).

WALKER: And then everything stopped. And you got this sense that in the 53 years between 1961 and 2014, there was nothing that the Russians felt they could put on display as something they were proud of.

GREENE: Walker talked about 2014 there because it's a year that Putin gave Russians a new reason to feel proud. He annexed Crimea from Ukraine. This weekend is the four-year anniversary of that event that angered the world. It's also Putin's re-election day - no coincidence there. Walker says Putin wants to remind voters that he's trying to make Russia a first-tier nation again.

WALKER: You can kind of put the whole of Putin's time in power - you can see it through that lens. When he first comes in, he thinks maybe becoming a first-tier nation is going to be possible by being brought into the tent by cooperating with the West. He even talks about Russia maybe joining the EU or NATO one day in the future. And as time goes on, when he realizes this isn't going to work on his terms, that sense of being a first-tier nation only becomes achievable to him by confrontation. But it all fits into this sense of - to be a bit cliched about it - making Russia great again.

GREENE: I'm just amazed that you're talking about a leader who is having trouble figuring out what sort of future to promise to Russians. It's all backward-looking. It's looking to taking over Crimea in 2014. It's looking all the way back to World War II. Is that a sustainable strategy?

WALKER: Well, I think that's a big question. I think one of the really incredible successes about Putin and his messaging to Russians is that this is a leader that's been in charge for 17 years - 18 years nearly now - and he's still able to portray himself as the man who is fighting the system rather than the man who is embodying the system. So you will go and talk to people, and they will give you a litany of complaints about their lives, about the way they're governed, but then there'll come a point and they'll say, well, at least Putin is trying to do something about it. If it wasn't for Putin, we would have chaos.

GREENE: As we head into this Sunday, I mean, it seems a foregone conclusion who the winner is going to be. Is there any suspense whatsoever? I mean, should we - are there any questions to be answered when people go to the polls?

WALKER: Very little I think. I mean, I think there are two big questions really. The first is turnout; the second thing that I think is going to be interesting to watch is whether we see any protests and what kind of protests we see after the election. So we're not going to see millions of people coming onto the streets. But I think the Kremlin will certainly be worried if we see hundreds or even tens of thousands of people coming out because, you know, they've got six more years to go without really a sense of a big idea to implement.

GREENE: I just have to ask you, I mean, you first went to Russia I believe when you were a teenager, right?

WALKER: Yeah, that's right. I actually arrived in Russia for six months before I went to university in January 2000.

GREENE: And now you've written a book. You're leaving the post and starting a new post in Budapest. I just - as you leave Russia, how as a journalist are you reflecting about this country?

WALKER: I mean - so I think it's been a really extraordinary period that I've been there, and I'm trying to put the Putin era into the longer historical context to see him as this quite natural figure who emerges after the collapse after the 1990s. You know, he is to some extent the director of the story, but he's also a character in the story. He has his own experiences that make him think and act the way he does. But I think, you know, now 18 years in with another six, 24 years of Putin, it's becoming such a warped system, and it feels like a system that's really running out of ideas. So I'm sort of leaving Russia and, on the one hand, feel very happy that I never have to go to another Vladimir Putin press conference again, but I'm always going to be keeping one eye on the country. And I'm absolutely fascinated to see what comes after Putin.

GREENE: Shaun Walker, thanks so much for talking to us.

WALKER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


GREENE: Shaun Walker is a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper and the author of the new book "The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia And The Ghosts Of The Past."

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