The Russian Dream Is All About Empire

The country's old imperialist ambitions are back. If you are inside or outside, and trying to understand Vladimir Putin's 21st century Russia, keep that in mind in making your calculations.

A man protests in St. Petersburg against the introduction of Russian troops in Ukraine, in March 2014.
A man protests in St. Petersburg against the introduction of Russian troops in Ukraine, in March 2014.
Svetlana Alexievich*

MOSCOW — According to Lenin, Joseph Stalin, the founder of the USSR's Red Empire, particularly liked "spicy food." Decades later, Vladimir Putin is now the one serving up the hot plates.

Empty shelves in stores and long lines for toilet papers may be things of the past in Russia, but affluence never led to democracy in Russia. It only helped an imperialistic mindset resurface.

The Russian Dream is for the country to be a great Empire, and to inspire fear. Interviews I recently conducted in Moscow all ended with the same words: "First, the Olympic Games in Sochi, then we annexed Crimea. And now, we've won the hockey championships!"

Here, a popular joke says that "while everyone thought Russia was on its knees, it was just lacing up its combat boots..."

Over the past 20 years, the word was that we were building a Western society. Yet the fine layer that represented liberalism disappeared in the blink of an eye. We're done playing like the West. It lacks sensitivity — it's pragmatic. The West is degenerating, while Russia is all about goodness and spirituality.

Vladimir Putin has taken on the role of defending these traditional values.

Forget elsewhere, stay in Russia

Russia is now a fundamentalist nation. It is dangerous to admit being atheist, or to even start a discussion about it. Squads of volunteers track gay people in the streets and beat them up. Some may even go all the way and kill them. A campaign against McDonald's fast food restaurants started online and gathered tens of thousands of signatures in just a few days.

Patriots incite people not to take any vacation outside of Russia. Authorities even promised to pay quite a sum to those who spend their holidays in Crimea. Money flows when you love Putin's new Russia.

Speaking foreign languages has even become suspicious. Forget about the Sorbonne, go to college right here! Russian researchers are also seeing their travels abroad restricted. And the Parliament voted a special law preventing Russian orphans from being adopted by foreigners. This even applies to sick children, who vegetate in orphanages where the most basic things — bandages and iodine — are missing.

Eurasia is the new West

It seems however that leaders live in a different Russia. Members of Parliament still receive medical care abroad. They still send their children in Western universities, hide their money in Western banks, and buy real estate in Western countries.

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker.

But Russia is now turning towards the East. Eurasia, the Eurasian Economic Union aimed at counterbalancing the EU, is in vogue. We're no longer in Europe. Shows about China — now an ally of Russia — are broadcast every day on television. Pro-China opinions have increased by 40% here, in only one year.

The Kremlin openly says that West has always been, and will always be, Russia's first enemy. It is accused of everything, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl disaster and the sinking of nuclear submarine Kursk. The Internet? An invention of Western secret services. The dollar? A piece of paper with no value.

And Crimea for sure belongs to Russia.

Russia has thrown a challenge to the world. It is becoming a rallying point for all anti-Western forces across the globe. It has strengths —nuclear weapons and energy resources. The country's triumph has gone to its head and reminds one of 1930s' Germany. The latest polls show that 71% of the population is now hostile to the Western world, particularly the United States.

Time to leave

As a result, a new wave of emigration has begun — the largest since the fall of the USSR. The best of us, the ones who thought they were building a European Russia, are leaving. And if they don't leave themselves, their children are moving abroad. It has become more and more common for Moscow schools and hospitals to hire Tajik or Uzbek teachers, or doctors. The Russians have left.

You don't need to read the papers to understand what's going on in Russia today. Just listen to the people waiting in front of Moscow's European consulates. I asked some of them the eternal Russian question, "what to do?". Everybody replied by saying it was time to leave. "In the 1990s, we dreamed of turning Russia into a Western country," said one of them. "I worked for the Memorial Society. We gathered evidence of the appalling repression under Stalin. But now, there's no need for that. Some want to turn Volgograd back into Stalingrad."

"The strongman who will restore the Empire is back in vogue," said another one. "That's a defeat to me."

"I'm leaving because I'm a lesbian," a woman explained. “My friend and I have two children. I don't want them to be taken away from us and put in an orphanage." Another Moscovite said that his father was anti-West, "and he says that only traitors are leaving Russia now."

“But I hate it," he added. "We're the biggest country in the world. We're a population of slaves that go to church and make the cross sign while the nation is stealing and killing. I wrote that I was pro-Maidan on my Facebook page. You wouldn't imagine the mud-slinging and hatred that it brought! This happens online for now, but it's only a matter of time before it spreads to the streets. I'm afraid there could be a civil war..."

We're choosing war instead of peace. We're choosing the past instead of the future. The phone rang while I was finishing this piece. "I’ve read your books and your articles. I’ve seen how you drag Russia through the mud," said a voice. "You people are a "fifth column!" Traitors! We’ll remember each and everyone of you. Your hour will come soon!"

I hung up and went to the window. My impression was that what the person said was already starting.

*Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian-born author and investigative journalist whose work has focused on Soviet and post-Soviet society.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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