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On Tuesday the 20th February the Henry Jackson Society hosted Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and the author of The Long Hangover, in an event titled ‘The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past’. The event held at the House of Lords by kind invitation of the Rt. Hon Lord Risby invited Shaun Walker to discuss his book and explore Russia’s Soviet past and the implications it holds for the country’s future.
Shaun began his talk by introducing the premise and format of his book, an exploratory piece which covered the 18 year period of Putin’s governance, travelling to breadth of the country to meet and understand how Russian’s perceived their own turbulent history and what affects such a history had on the contemporary national identity. He articulated Putin’s concerted efforts to overcome the ‘psychological trauma’ of the collapse of the Soviet Union by moulding a reinvigorated sense of Russian nationhood and re-establishing post-Soviet Russia to first tier status. Mr Walker elaborated on the Kremlin’s mobilisation of militaristic pride in the victories and sacrifices of Russian soldiers during WW2, or The Great Patriotic War, as a building block for this national identity. This ‘restorative nostalgia’ as Shaun put it, erased or diminished the crimes and horrors of Soviet Russia in WW2 and throughout the Soviet era, and instead mythologised history to fit into the valorous militaristic narrative being constructed for post-Soviet nation building. In doing so, Shaun argued, Putin was channelling the patriotic sentiments from historic war successes into the modern Russia’s socio-political narrative, where the rhetoric of winning and valour was applied to contemporary conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, and enabled any criticism to be illustrated and censured as unpatriotic. Shaun concluded that while Putin had developed a quasi-national identity around the unifying support of WW2 victories and sacrifice, the focus on history and the past had stunted its economic and social development, denying Russian’s the opportunity to come to terms with its problematic past and truly move forward past the Soviet era.
After a round of applause thanking Shaun for his insight, the Rt. Hon Lord Risby invited questions from the audience on a variety of themes to further explore the topic. One questioner asked Shaun about the cult of personality built up around Putin, and his assessment as to whether his popularity was as infallible as was made out. Shaun responded, articulating that while Putin enjoyed high electoral support, and a large proportion of this did support Putin directly, a large percentile simply saw no other options across the Russia political landscape and supported him by default. Additionally, Shaun expressed how the Kremlin had consolidated power to either directly organise faux opposition to feign democratic competitions or invalidate any legitimate alternatives to make them seem unfeasible. Another question revolved on the influence of Russian cyber operations, in a nod to allegations of Russian interference in recent Western elections. Shaun responded that recent Western hysteria regarding Russian hacking had probably exaggerated their actual abilities, projecting fears and binary explanations where the truth is probably more nuanced.
The Henry Jackson Society would like to thank Mr Shaun Walker, the Rt. Hon Lord Risby and all those who attended to make the event such an informative and knowledgeable discussion.