Book review: “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” explains how the Russian elites have used control over the media to shape perceptions of national identity ever since the era of perestroika.

What kind of place Russia becomes will depend on the next generation that comes to invent it. Photo: GettyImages

Arkady Ostrovsky’s “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” is one of a number of recent works that deals with the forging of a new post-Soviet Russian identity in the Yeltsin and Putin eras. There is some thematic overlap with the works of Kathleen E. Smith (“Mythmaking in the New Russia”) and even David Satter (“It was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway”) when it comes to discussions of the Soviet past during perestroika and later.

But Ostrovsky’s main focus is altogether different. Ostrovsky, who has covered Russia for both The Financial Times and The Economist, hones in on the decision of a handful of media experts and business elites who were able to have an inordinate amount of influence over public perceptions and opinions during the 1990s. This is an original approach and shows just how the Russian public was manipulated by the political, business and media elites.

While factually, there is nothing particularly novel or explosive in this work, Ostrovsky focuses on topics that have been overlooked in previous narratives and clears up many contentious and confusing points about Russia in the 1990s. Perhaps most importantly, Ostrovsky is able to smoothly bridge the ideological transition between Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, and explain Putin’s celebrity status within Russia.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "National Identity: The 25-year search for a new Russia"

Ostrovsky explains in great detail that one of the dilemmas of Yeltsin’s presidency was a lack of cohesion within the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no longer any sense of pride, no unity in the country. Attempts to create a national identity under Yeltsin were a failure. What Western commentators saw as the triumph of democracy with Yeltsin’s win over his rivals in 1993 and 1996 was actually something else, something much more sinister.

Contrary to Western expectations of an emerging middle class, involved civil society and citizens passionate about democracy, there were some very different forces at play. Ostrovsky writes, “Yeltsin’s victory was not a triumph for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and property rights. Rather, it was the triumph of those who has invested in and stood to benefit most from it — the tycoons and media chiefs."

This is a point often overlooked in narratives about the Yeltsin era, even when the full scale of the corruption within Yeltsin’s inner circle is acknowledged. “The Invention of Russia” also shatters the perception that the Yeltsin presidency was liberal or democratic. While Yeltsin’s ruling style differed from Putin’s, Ostrovsky clearly illustrates the consolidation of power and rampant corruption in his cabinet, as well as tightening control of the media, even in the late 1990s.

Another subject where “The Invention of Russia” triumphs as a narrative is in its elucidation of complex topics. Putin’s popularity and approval within Russia is a point of confusion for many Western reporters, writers and commentators, who are baffled by the man’s appeal. Ostrovsky deftly demystifies both Putin’s initial appeal for the Russian public and his enduring popularity.  

In this work the author deftly identifies the reasons why ordinary Russians were craving a Putin figure in the late 1990s in the wake of the deep disappointment with neo-liberal reforms, corruption, mass scale privatization of government assets, and general lack of stability. Putin was a familiar face to many Russians, the kind of man who could clean up the mess of the 1990s and save Russia from the mess that “New Democracy” had created.  

However, perhaps the book’s greatest accomplishment is that it works as a cohesive social narrative that takes readers from the confusion of the early perestroika years, through the turbulent 1990s and into the Putin era, all the while expertly analyzing different political and social forces at play. This structure allows Ostrovsky to explain why certain media narratives and certain dogmas were more effective with the public as well as why the oligarchs and other media moguls implemented certain ideological approaches to achieve their political goals. This gives the readers an even bleaker portrayal of the deep cynicism of the 1990s, but also sheds light on Russia’s modern media campaigns.

The conclusion of the book continues to focus on the themes of media control explored throughout the narrative. According to Ostrovsky, the Soviet-like sense of “us vs. them” reiterated in national news broadcasts permeates the country. Russia’s new national identity is a mix of Soviet nostalgia, political aggression and anti-Western sentiment.  

The author quotes the now deceased Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in 2014 as saying, “I can’t remember such a level of general hatred as the one in Moscow today. Not in 1991, during the August coup, not even in 1993. Aggression and cruelty are stoked by the television… The Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and fighting. People are set off against each other.”

Ostrovsky uses the examples of the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts to illustrate just how effective the Russian media has become at instilling this very particular point of view to its citizens. These conflicts allowed the country not only to demonstrate a sense of independent foreign policy, but also to illustrate to its citizen the danger facing Russia and its allies from abroad. This is the situation in which Russia finds itself now.

Ostrovsky’s conclusions are not optimistic, but neither are they dire. He writes that, “Putin offered war as an alternative to modernity and the future. The forces he awakened are the forces not of imperial expansion… but of revisionism, chaos and war…the only consistent feature in Russia’s history is its unpredictability. It may also be its saving grace… History does not have a will of its own, and what kind of place Russia becomes is not predetermined but will depend on the next generation that comes to invent it.”

What the future will bring to a country that has been told is in an ideological battle with the rest of the world is difficult to say, but Ostrovsky’s hope seems to be with the next generation of leaders, not with the present elite. Whether or not this will indeed occur, only time will tell.