‘Russians Are Volcanoes With Snow-Covered Slopes’

For more than a decade one of the finest foreign correspondents in Russia, El Mundo’s Daniel Utrilla last year quit his job and went native. Here, excerpts from a much longer interview he gave to Spain’s Jot Down magazine: observations by a Russophile in an increasingly Russophobic world:

What are things like in Russia? How is the present economic crisis affecting the country?

On the subject of the present crisis, I was having dinner the other day with a friend, and she said this sentence that struck me; for me it perfectly defines the Russian soul. She said, “We’ll go back to eating potatoes if we have to, but we’ll still be with Putin.” This is what sticks out for me in the crisis. In Spain, the government gets blamed for the crisis, and we end up with [the rise of radical third party]Podemos. An impossibility in Russia. Putin’s popularity grew exponentially with the seizure of Crimea and now with the economic crisis it has gone even higher.

In Russia, the interpretation is that external factors have brought on the crisis. When the ruble began to collapse, the former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, now director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, said that the United States was attempting regime change by way of sanctions, attacking the ruble, and manipulating petroleum prices via OPEC. And he said this before the ruble started really getting the shit kicked out of it. I am not saying that this was true or false, but that is how the crisis is being interpreted.

Won’t Putin eventually get the blame though?

The western press seems to be selling the idea that the regime is teetering, but the truth is I don’t see a hint of that. The Western press has lots of designs on Russia. The other day, in Putin’s huge press conference, he said that others are always trying to pull the claws of the Russian bear, but the next day he said something more interesting: he said that in the face of Russia’s attempts to maintain its independence, there are forces which constantly oppose it, for the mere fact that “we are Russians.” I don’t know if he expressed it in those exact words, but I agree with him. Sometimes Russia is criticized simply for being Russia. I see a lot of joyousness about the fact that its economy has run into trouble. In that joy I sense racism.

There is a kind of generalized antagonism toward Russia. It is true that in many cases, the country’s bad reputation is well earned, given things like the war in Chechnya, but in other aspects it is unjustified. When the Russian oil company Lukoil tried to buy [Spain’s] Repsol, there was a brutal debate here[in Spain], a campaign to put a stop to the purchase. I remember hearing a well known guest on a talk show whose final argument was that “it’s because they are Russians,” and that was why the purchase couldn’t be allowed to happen. For me, that is racism; there is no other word for it.

In the ‘90s, the leader of the Communist Party, Zhuganov, used to complain that Russia lacked a productive industrial sector, and was betting everything on exporting raw materials; he said the whole model needed to be upended. Has anything been accomplished along those lines?

Putin himself has recognized that the economy has not diversified, that it still depends enormously on petroleum. Hydrocarbons cover 70 percent of the country’s budget. It is clear that the issue is still unresolved. Russia has some very strong industrial sectors. Rockets; right now they are the only ones who can carry astronauts to the space station. Science; they have bet big on the Skolkovo Innovation Center, which wants to be another Silicon Valley, with a big bet on nanotechnology. And weapons; they’ve got new models of the Kalashnikov. But clearly, when oil takes huge gouges out of your budget, everything suffers. In other areas, I don’t really see them developing or innovating.

This is the first crisis that I have lived, you might say, as a Russian. When you are working as a Western journalist, and things happen, you almost jump for joy. Because a hundred Euros buys you more rubles, and everything is cheaper for you. But now, I am working locally, and getting paid in Rubles. In the last collapse I had a sensation that was new to me: vertigo. The Russians have gone through feeling that periodically starting in 1991, then in 1998, and then again in 2008. They are used to feeling the ground abruptly shift between their feet. Not me.

They take it better. They have a strength for dealing with crises that we lack. And above all, their crises are very sudden; in Spain we could see ours rolling toward us, destroying employment, productive capacity, and everything else, but it moved forward like a glacier. In Russia, no: one day you wake up and suddenly, ‘Fuck, I am not going to be able to go anywhere for vacation this year!’ Or worse things. But they get by, they help each other out. They are stronger.

Is it true what they say about Slavs band together more when they are dealt a bad hand?

In Russia, this is a trait that they miss from the Soviet days. In the Soviet Union, when there were fewer resources, if you were a dentist, you would trade services with your plumber. That kind of thing persists in the villages and out in the provinces, but in Moscow not so much. It is a less friendly city.

A friend of mine told me that Russians are so backwards that there are still bookstores everywhere.

(A laugh) They read a lot, and they do it on paper. It is something they really can brag about. When you are on a train, the guy sitting next to you might offer to share what he’s eating with you, and what you’ll end up talking about, the one topic you can bring up that you can guarantee anyone will have an opinion on, is the novel. It doesn’t matter what your social class, whether you’re an engineer or a peasant. The day Solzhenitsyn died, I met a peasant who had read him; I was talking to him, and the conversation turned to Garcilaso, Cervantes…he had read them all. Me, it makes me jealous. He was a peasant holding a scythe.

[…]

And then you look at the image of the Russian in the movies, hiding in the shadows like Dracula, people with the mentality of a robot, cold, unfeeling, and you realize how totally wrong stereotypes are. It’s not that the Russians have no feelings; they actually feel more than you do. They are more sentimental in every sense. They experience falling out of love with an unhinged passion, the ‘Ana Karenina syndrome,’ as I call it. You see scenes in their relationships…here in Spain everything is rationalized more; even relationships are more calculated. There, everything is more spontaneous. The first illusion that falls away when you plunge into this society is that they are cold. Russians are volcanoes with the slopes covered in snow. Theirs is nothing like the culture of the Scandinavians or Germans.

How do you interpret what has happened in Ukraine?

When I was in Barcelona, I read a newspaper headline that startled me, that I didn’t understand. I had to read it several times. It said “Nato Builds up Forces in East in Face of Russian Advance.” They were interpreting the incorporation of Crimea as a Russian advance. But look, if anyone has advanced in a direction since the fall of the USSR, it is NATO, which has bases on Russia’s borders. They promised Gorbachev that NATO would not advance, and immediately afterward that’s what they did. The US missile defense shield is going to be installed under their noses. Why, the Russians ask, is the strategy against communism being pursued against a Russia that is no longer communist?

As for Ukraine, Russia’s interpretation is that there was a coup d’etat there against a legitimate president. Probably he was not well loved by the people, but you have to remember, I covered those elections in 2010, and the polls were cleanest since the end of the USSR.

A social movement was trying to do what Maidan later did [overthrowing the government in 2014], but without violence. There were a million people out, and not a single injury. It was very beautiful. But Orange power collapsed under the weight of internal struggles, the rivalry between [Ukrainian nationalists] Timoshenko and Yushchenko. In 2010, I asked Yushchenko if it came down to it, would he prefer [fellow nationalist]Timoshenko or [‘pro-Russian’] Yanukovich, and he said Yanukovich, who in fact ended up winning. His electoral victory put a clean and peaceful end to a conflict that had begun in accusations of vote rigging. At minimum, the Orange revolution had democratized the electoral process and forced the rerunning of the elections. Even Timoshenko withdrew her grievance.

So Yanukovich was a legitimate president, and then what happened? He ran into a coup d’etat supported by the European Union and the United States. With the German foreign minister goading people out onto the streets. Can you even imagine a Russian minister yelling “Down with Rajoy” at a Spanish demonstration?

And then last February, Yanukovich signed a pact with the opposition, in the presence of ministers from the European Union, the United States, and I believe the Commissioner for Human Rights of Russia, and gave up power. He committed to early elections and to withdrawing the troops who were surrounding the Maidan demonstrators. And the next day, the presidential offices were attacked, the destruction of the regime began and Yanukovich fled. In Russia, they complain that all of this has been forgotten, that it is presented as if democracy triumphed and ‘see, here it is.’ When the nationalist government took power, the United States came to offer a hand. ‘What happened?’ Moscow asks; had things already moved too far to take a step back? There were policemen who had been killed, by snipers who to this day have not been identified. There was a frantic call from the Estonian foreign minister to [EU representative] Catherine Ashton, saying the shooters might have been from the opposition…

Anyway, the Russians hold to this position that there was a coup d’etat backed by the United States, and that from that moment this nationalist government has taken very polemical measures, such as repressing the Russian language, that they are not respecting Ukraine’s complex identity, that is a Frankenstein state, very difficult to keep in balance. Yanukovich, for all of his defects, really was a president who represented this ambiguous position required of a president in such an unusual and divided country, with its Russian speaking east and a nationalist western region that was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Poland.

And it all began because he had refused to sign the treaty with the European Union. And afterwards, Russia decided to protect Crimea, a territory they consider historically part of Russia. Khrushchev had gifted it to Ukraine like someone might gift an intercontinental ballistic missile. If we wanted to digress a bit, we could remember that in his day Tolstoy fought in Crimea against the armies of Britain, France and Turkey, that it was in Crimea that Nabokov hunted butterflies as a child, and that actually, his first entomological work, published in 1920, was Butterflies of the Crimea.

Describe the political spectrum in Russia now.

It is difficult to interpret the Russian political panorama in a Spanish key. Here we have the right and the left, but in Russia, a conservative might well have a very strong social policy. Putin, as soon as he came to power, buried the debate about taking Lenin’s mummy out of Red Square, which Yeltsin had wanted to do at any cost; he also revived the music of the Soviet national anthem, and the army’s red flag. Someone on the right would have done none of this. He is very multifaceted. When we Spanish journalists interviewed him, he explained that he had taken the decision about the mummy because the moment had not yet arrived: because people over fifty years old had carried membership cards of the Communist Party and were nostalgic for the days of communism.

I asked the Human Rights Commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, why there were so many nostalgic for communism in Russia, while in Spain there is none of that for the Franco years. And his response was very illuminating: he said many Russians live worse off now than they did before; in other words it all comes down to the economy. There is nothing more. Even though the Communist Party still carries the torch of the historical Soviet Communist Party, you cannot really talk about right and left in Russia.

At one point you wrote about how as soon as Putin took power, he put an end to the problem of street children, of the orphans of Moscow sprawled on the streets sniffing glue…

I remember doing stories on the street children, but when I wanted to do the same thing on hospices, no one was interested. Putin also tried to improve the situation of the pensioners, and of the war veterans, who are dying off. But the most important things I think were in the symbolic, in the anthem and the flag; regaining Russia’s prestige as a superpower is something that Russians really care about; in that sense he has been practicing a policy of social psychology.

Because for Russians, the economy is not the only important thing. They have suffered a lot, but psychologically, they depend a lot of the idea of continuing to be a power in the world. I have interviewed many Second World War veterans, and the truth is that it really pains them that their country has lost its status. The fact that for example, NATO could bomb Yugoslavia and Russia could do nothing to stop them, that really hit them hard. Sometimes I think that whether their pensions were lower or higher, although it mattered to the family, wasn’t as important for them as the prestige of the country. Economically, they have lived through much worse periods.

The fact that Putin, having come back to power, chivvied Obama into not bombing Syria over the chemical weapons accusations, or that he gave Snowden asylum, really sticking it to the imperium, that nourishes a lot of people. It is a politics of social psychology, although to my taste, there continue to be huge gaps no matter how much Putin bloviates about how much the average salary has increased and things like that. It is true that there is a middle class now which didn’t exist fifteen years ago, but there are huge inequalities that you can see right on the streets, even if there aren’t anymore orphans lying in them.

The problem is that the West doesn’t like strong Russian leaders. Right now, Gorbachev is strongly criticizing Obama, and I don’t believe the western media is covering him at all, or at least not with the kind of fervor they do when they talk about him as the leader who put an end to the Soviet Union.

Kerry says that the Ukraine conflict is not like Rocky IV [in which the American boxer invades Russia], but I think it is exactly that. Russia was hit below the belt several times, and it is still being punched, from Yugoslavia to the color revolutions. Russia responded with what they did in Syria and with Snowden, and a lot of people think they are now being punished for it.

And then there is this image of Putin as an ex-spy. What he wouldn’t have given to be a real spy! But he worked in East Germany, exactly the country where the real spies didn’t go; it was the rear-guard. Putin was a bureaucrat, he was not in the juridical organs of the KGB. Even Solzhenitsyn justified him, before his death, saying that Putin was restoring to Russia a dignity that Yeltsin had dynamited. But these things that Solzhenitsyn or Gorbachev say generate no interest; they only get quoted when they attack their country.

[…]

What is the role of the Orthodox church in society?

Being Orthodox is not like being a Catholic. The very foundations of the Russian state are impregnated with the Orthodox religion: the founding moment of the state is symbolized by the baptism of Prince Vladimir in Crimea. Religion is the other face of the state, as you can see in the fact that, within the walls of the Kremlin, palaces are mixed in with cathedrals. To say “I am Orthodox” is a kind of patriotic declaration, almost a synonym of being Russian. Being a Catholic is more universal. Orthodoxy, in fact, is in direct opposition to the power of the Catholic pope. Nevertheless, a large part of society, after being communist, has no practical faith, even if they go to church. Anyone older than thirty was taught in school that God does not exist. That is very difficult to change.

 

[…]

Obama has been a great disappointment, particularly to the Russians. One of his first decisions in foreign relations was to “hit the reset button” [with Russia], and he proposed an ambitious disarmament program to them. Hillary Clinton gave a red “reset” button to Lavrov, and next to the button, a misspelled Russian label, instead of reading ‘perezagruska’(restart), they wrote ‘peregruzka’, which means ‘overcharge.’ A symbolic anecdote, but very telling. Now relations between the two countries are at their worst point since the fall of the Soviet Union. With Bush Jr., it was not like this, I remember him even saying that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen into his soul: it was Hillary Clinton herself who replied that KGB spies have no souls.

But is the belligerence ongoing?

I think that what is happening to the Russian economy was the objective, and Ukraine was the instrument. Even McCain, who was himself goading Maidan on, says that the objective was to weaken Russia. If it were not for Ukraine, it would have been something else. And in the end it is human beings who are suffering. There are no bombs being dropped [between Russia and the USA], but the dynamic is very belligerent. Russia gets sanctioned for supporting the pro-Russians, but who is sanctioning the US for supporting the non-Russians? Where is the legitimacy? Is it god who is talking through Obama? It is as if they were to put sanctions on me, born in Madrid, for supporting Real Madrid. Who are the Russians going to support if it isn’t the pro-Russians?

Nevertheless, what happened with Crimea was a really audacious play. I think Obama was off his rocker; it all happened in a matter of days. A coup in Kiev and then in a lightning gambit, Crimea returns to Russia. Putin’s popularity jumped to 80 percent.

I remember that when things got serious in Maidan, Putin was watching a hockey match between Russia and the United states at the Sochi Olympics. Always, when there has been a conflict, like the Ossetia war, there is an Olympics going on in the middle of it, a moment when all conflicts are supposed to be on hold. Russia was working on improving its image and the Sochi Olympics were a key piece of this campaign, their first Olympics since the [1980] Moscow Games, which the US boycotted. And the treatment of the western press with Sochi was the same one they did on the magazine covers in 1980: the Olympic rings represented as handcuffs, the Russian bear drooling…in the end everything came off fine, but the shit they threw at them in the lead-up, nobody can wash away.

I have been a soccer referee, and I have gotten cursed out when I went onto the field. And I thought “I know I’m bad at this, but at least let me demonstrate it first.” With Russia it is the same thing. They get whistled off before it begins. The Russian feels disliked.

Álvaro Corazón Rural