“Congratulations/sympathy for being placed on the Russia sanctions list,” a colleague wrote in a text message. That’s why I found out that I am now on the Kremlin’s enemy list – banned from entering Russia.
Realizing that I may be visiting this country for the last time reminds me of my first trip in 1987. It feels like Russia is back in a full circle — back to the dictatorship, aggression and isolation that defined the Soviet era.
In 1987, the Soviet Union was dying—though we didn’t know it at the time. I was in Moscow covering arms talks between the US and the Soviet Union. For local reporters, the big story was the opening of the country’s first private restaurant. Things were changing, and this was reflected in the almost joking attitude of then-Soviet spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov.
Typical Gerasimov later used a joke to actually announce the end of Soviet imperialism. The Brezhnev Doctrine is Moscow’s self-proclaimed right to invade its neighbors to ensure they remain in the Kremlin’s orbit. When asked in 1989 if it still applies, Gerasimov replied that it has been replaced by the “Sinatra Doctrine” – everyone can do it their own way from now on.
This development has shocked young people Vladimir Putin, when he was a KGB agent stationed in East Germany. He later recalled bitterly that when the East German communist regime collapsed around him, he had asked for military support only to be told “Moscow remained silent”.
By the time I started visiting Russia more often — around 2004 — Putin was already in charge. On the surface, the country has changed beyond recognition. The State Hotel near the Kremlin — the Soviet-style junkyard where I lived in 1987 — is now too flashy and expensive to consider.Statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky removed from central Moscow Fallen Monument Park.
The change in the fortunes of the Solzhenitsyn family symbolizes the transition from absolutism to globalized capitalism. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for his novel about the Soviet gulag and was forced into exile. His son Yemolay is now a McKinsey consultant based in Moscow.
But the fact that so much has changed from the communist era makes it easy to overlook how much remains the same. Beneath the consumerist Western surface, authoritarianism, violence and imperialism remain fundamental to Putin’s way of governing.
Political opponents of the regime are still persecuted and sometimes killed. The leading liberal I met in Moscow and London, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered near the Kremlin in 2015. Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea. As these actions show, Putin and his followers never really accepted the independence of a country that once belonged to the Soviet Union. Countries such as Poland that once belonged to the wider Soviet bloc fear that the instincts of Russian imperialism still extend to them.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a scholar close to Russian leaders, once told me that Putin’s main motivation was the fear that Russia might lose its great power status for the first time in centuries. With the 11th-largest economy in the world (measured by nominal GDP), the Kremlin’s remaining great-power pretensions are based on the country’s military might and nuclear weapons.
The elite’s reverence for war in 2014 dialogue In the Russian parliament, he attended with Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of Duma member Vyacheslav Molotov, who was Stalin’s foreign minister . When we discussed Russia’s relationship with the BRICS countries, including Brazil, Nikonoff told me that Brazil has a big problem as an ally: “They don’t understand war. They’ve only fought one war in their history.” That’s Paraguay,” he added dismissively. Putin’s annexation of Crimea was a modest step in Nikonov’s view: “Molotov would invade Ukraine and occupy it within a week.”
In fact, Putin has the same arrogance and aggression towards Ukraine. That led him to dangerously underestimate the resistance Russia would encounter when it launches a full-scale invasion this year.
In the Putin era, as in the Soviet era, imperialism abroad went hand in hand with oppression at home. For years, Russia under Putin has provided more room for political dissent than the Soviet Union. I witnessed massive anti-Putin demonstrations on the streets of Moscow in 2012 and 2019. But Putin used the cover of his extraordinary military operation in Ukraine to ultimately stifle any domestic political opposition. Thousands of people have been arrested for taking part in anti-war demonstrations, and an opposition movement led by the imprisoned Alexei Navalny is disintegrating.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also plunged the country back into international isolation, a feeling of isolation deeper than that experienced by the Soviet Union. In 1987, I took a direct flight from London to Moscow. Those flights no longer exist. I’m not optimistic that they will recover anytime soon.