Russia – termed by Churchill as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – is actually nothing of the sort. Thus argues the latest book by the respected BBC journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, which involves the author traipsing the Russian steppe and taiga all the way from Murmansk in the north-west, via St Petersburg, Moscow, the Caucuses, and the Trans-Siberian railway, to Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.
Attitudes towards Russia tend to differ markedly around the world, and the EU itself struggles to form a cohesive viewpoint of the bear on its doorstep. On the one hand Russia holds – for the moment at least – the EU’s main source of gas and oil reserves and likes to play geopolitics with its energy. Ukraine and Belarus have had their supplies cut in the recent past, leading to EU member Bulgaria also feeling the chill at the start of this year.
On the other hand, Russia is – well – Russia. In his book Dimbleby argues that, far from being democratic, the current Putin regime is “crypto-fascist.” The “ordinary people” who Dimbleby interviews initially reject this assertion, and then when pushed go on to prove it to be true.
The fact that political opposition is repressed, and what opposition there is was basically invented by Putin to aid appearances? Not a problem! The fact that press freedom is severely curtailed and Russian journalists who speak their mind on issues such as Chechnya are murdered on their doorstep? Well, they had it coming.
Even the well-off urban middle classes seem to reject the idea of democracy – at least the Western version of it. In a glorious contradiction, they argue that democracy is not all that great anyway because “you can’t get rid of them once they’re elected”. With or without electoral fraud, Putin (or his successor Dmitry Medvedev – but we know who pulls the strings in the Kremlin) would probably be elected anyway, but when the Russian public sphere bows to your every wish this is hardly surprising. Welcome to democracy Russian-style.
The book received some negative reviews on Amazon, and in truth The Lobby didn’t expect much beyond the superficial. In fact, Dimbleby does manage to delve a little deeper into the Russian psyche than most travelogues of the Palin variety (Michael, not Sarah). Still, one was left with the feeling that the non-Russian speaking Dimbleby (despite having lived there during the Cold War!) was – instead of an insider – very much an outsider trying his best to look in.
The EU will certainly relate to that feeling as it prepares itself for another possible oil crisis later in the year and future skirmishes on the Georgian frontier.