Russia’s new iron curtain

A majority of Russians today seem content not to join the rest of the world.

From St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, a new iron curtain has descended across Eurasia. Behind that line lie famous cities and the populations all around them, subject in one form or another to a very high, and in some cases increasing, measure of control from Moscow. 

Regrettably, today we’re thusly forced to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous 1946 Iron Curtain speech, as the Kremlin has pulled down a curtain around Russia once more. However, this iteration of the infamous drape leaves those inside even more isolated than during the time of the Warsaw Pact. 

Those behind the Iron Curtain, as it existed in the 1970s and 1980s, could be denounced, even arrested, for simply trying to listen to Western radio stations, and authorities would try to prevent such listening in the first place by jamming radio signals. Indeed, authorities back then restricted most aspects of personal freedom. And Western correspondents, for their part, were kept under surveillance, risking expulsion if they reported uncomfortable facts. 

“When I think back to those days, it was a sense of hopelessness, because you couldn’t realize your aspirations individually. And collectively, as Latvians, we couldn’t realize our aspiration for independence,” Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defense minister until last December, told me. That hopelessness also included the near certainty of being sent to prison or a labor camp if one advocated freedom, a fate experienced by countless brave dissidents.  

For Balts in the 1980s, this sense of hopelessness, and the Kremlin’s arbitrariness in exercising its control, also extended to mandatory military service in the Soviet armed forces — even though international law forbids occupiers from enforcing military service on citizens of occupied territories. But what could the young men of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do? They had to serve. Pabriks himself served two years in the Red Army. 

“The Red Army, in those days, was incredibly corrupt,” he said. “A lot of the equipment didn’t work, and some officers sold Army equipment to make money for themselves. . . For us conscripts from the Baltic republics, it was a schizophrenic experience. They didn’t like us because they thought of us as Western Nazis, but on the other hand, we were respected because we were well-educated. . . Many conscripts from the Central Asian republics and Siberia didn’t even know how to read and write, and came from really desperate circumstances.” 

Though citizens in the Soviet Union often helped one another, life behind the Iron Curtain was indisputably harsh. But today, the Kremlin is erecting an even sturdier curtain around its country — perhaps even around a few of its regional allies as well. 

Though Russians can currently still access global Internet content and even buy a range of Western goods, if they hold positions of power and voice dissent they may also mysteriously fall from windows or die in other enigmatic ways. A law passed last year can send individuals to prison for the sole crime of spreading “false news” about the Russian military. And very few Western reporters now remain in Russia because — like Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich — they may find themselves arrested on espionage charges, which can lead to up to 20 years in prison.  

“It’s a surreal feeling, observing what’s taking place in Russia,” said Māris Riekstiņš, Latvia’s ambassador to Russia until earlier this year, when the country downgraded its ambassador post in Moscow. “I see elements that are similar to what we had in the Soviet Union, for example people who think differently being put in prison or having to leave the country. There’s no free media left, and there are restrictions on gathering with others. The Soviet authorities applied the law in an arbitrary manner, and now Russia is returning to that arbitrariness.” 

Speaking at the closing session of his trial in Moscow earlier this month, Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza told the court, “I’ve been surprised by the extent to which my trial, in its secrecy and its contempt for legal norms, has surpassed even the ‘trials’ of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and ’70s. And that’s not even to mention the harshness of the sentence requested by the prosecution, or the talk of ‘enemies of the state.’”

Kara-Murza, who is accused of high treason, spreading “false information” about the Russian military and being affiliated with an “undesirable organization,” faces a prison sentence of 25 years. Since his trial is being held behind closed doors, Kara-Murza’s wife made the text of his statement available to international media. 

While Russian citizens used to be able to travel abroad as well — unlike Soviet citizens — now that too is becoming harder if they want to visit Western countries.  

The presence of Western businesspeople — once the surest sign of Russia’s integration with the rest of the world — has also been reduced to a trickle, as no expat executive wants to risk the fate of Mike Calvey. The American investor, who had been working and living in Russia since the early 1990s, was so fond of the country that he remained when many others left. Then, two years ago, after a business dispute involving a magnate well-connected in the Kremlin, he was handed a 5.5-year suspended prison sentence

Amid all this change, however, it’s ordinary Russians’ hardened attitudes that form the steeliest part of this new, and thicker, iron curtain. 

“Many people feel that this is the time to beat the West, and they’re content living behind this new iron curtain,” said Riekstiņš, who also had to serve 18 months in the Red Army. “In many cases, this is the result of the government propaganda that’s being relentlessly shown on television. Imagine watching this day after day, month after month, year after year. Of course, it will have an effect.” 

According polls by the Levada Center in Moscow, 83 percent of Russians currently approve of Vladimir Putin’s performance as president, and only 14 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, 66 percent believe the country is heading in the right direction, 73 percent have a negative view of the United States, and 69 percent have a negative view of the European Union. 

Riekstiņš had already noticed hardening minds when he took up his post in Moscow in 2017 and made a point of watching Russian television every day. “The negative attitudes vis-à-vis the Baltic states, the U.S., the U.K., and similar countries were very strong,” he observed. “During Soviet times, there just wasn’t this high degree of venom. The discourse about the Soviet Union’s adversaries was much more civilized than what we hear now, and ad hominem attacks of the kind we see today on Russian television were completely [un]acceptable,” he added. 

Every country has public figures that are willing to offend. But, Riekstiņš said, “such people are not invited to address audiences again. In Russia, they appear on television again and again and again and again, talking about eradicating Ukraine and dropping nuclear bombs on other countries.”  

And this willing — enthusiastic, even — participation of ordinary Russians in their country’s isolation from the Western world may, in fact, be this new iron curtain’s most chilling aspect. “Today you can’t close a country like you could in Soviet days, but today the Russians conduct brainwashing through nationalism that they just didn’t do in Soviet days,” Pabriks said. 

“Back then, they had to hide it and pretend they were internationalists.” They also pretended to be in favor of peace — so much so that Soviet leaders participated in sundry international summits and gatherings. But now even that pretense is gone. “Today, you’re arrested if you say you’re in favor of peace!” Riekstiņš exclaimed. 

And because this new iron curtain exists in people’s minds and isn’t simply a system imposed on them, it will be far harder to dismantle. 

To be sure, countless citizens of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries believed in their countries’ regimes and way of life too, but in the end, their desire to be part of the rest of the world proved impossible for the regimes to quell. Today, by contrast, most Russians appear content not to join the world, with many clearly wishing for other countries to join them behind their iron curtain.

It is, it seems, an imperial state of mind.