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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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