By Patrick McAlary, Research Assistant

Mary Hockaday, Master of Trinity Hall, opened this event on understanding Putin’s Russia by remembering the twenty-five-year prison sentence handed down to prominent Russian opposition figure and Trinity Hall Alumnus, Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment—for spreading ‘disinformation’ about the Russian military of all things—in the dark shadow of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that few have truly understood Putin’s Russia. This event addressed this incomprehension by bringing together panellists with experience in politics, culture, and media, to probe Putin’s Russia.

Exposing the writing on the wall

Sir Laurie Bristow, President of Hughes Hall and onetime British diplomat to Russia, highlighted that events in Afghanistan and Ukraine had thrown old truths into flux and had shattered the shared delusion under which ‘the West’ had operated, a delusion on the nature of conflict in the modern world. This delusion was based, as Sir Laurie pointed out, partly on a refusal to listen. While Russia’s invasion took ‘the West’ by surprise, Putin’s 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference clearly outlines his own opposition to the post-Cold War system. Despite a longstanding belief that Putin is on the way out, no one can rely on any ‘overthrow’ of Putin, as the abortive Wagner rebellion lead by Yevgeny Prigozhin showed, and it is likely that Putin’s eventual successor will represent more of the same. As such, it is vital to get inside the head of the hardened KGB man who has went to war with not only Ukraine but with the rules-based system. For this, Sir Laurie explained, we need experts who can understand Russia and the countries that once made up the Soviet Union: their languages, cultures, and histories.

Dr Rebecca Reich, Associate Professor of Russian Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge, echoed the sentiment that scholars working in the field of Russian studies saw a Russia that they wanted to see. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has provoked a reckoning within the field and a period of reflection for Russian and Slavic scholars about understanding Russia and looking at the past.

(Dis)continuities in opposition

Dr Reich drew out continuities and discontinuities between the situation in Russia today and in the past. She highlighted how in the Soviet period, opposition figures framed their protests in the language of law. Following the approach of Alexander Esenin-Volpin, who quoted the constitution at his captors to illustrate their flagrant violations, oppositionists treated the written law as an impartial set of duties and obligations against which individuals should hold not only themselves, but the state. In collecting unofficial transcripts of trials, defendants could make their case far beyond the court and in the future court of history. This effort to document trials still happens today, albeit through the vehicle of social media. However, a key difference is that the Soviet Union took its written law more seriously than modern Russia. ‘Law’ is now transparently used for political means and oppositionists have moved from illustrating how the state disobeys its own laws to pointing out the illegality of the law as it stands—they reveal the bones of an illiberal system encasing itself in liberal language.

The geopolitics of Russia’s war

James Coomarasamy, presenter of Newshour on the BBC World Service and previously a BBC correspondent in Moscow, explained that while ‘the West’ generally takes a hard line on Putin, China and countries from the Global South have been less willing to condemn Putin. The view of the West on Putin, Russia, and Ukraine is not shared globally, and even within the so-called ‘West’ it is important to be mindful of different views. For instance, in the US, Republicans are sceptical about providing funding for Ukraine. Russian influence has been growing in sub-Saharan Africa, where Russia, a neo-imperialist power, has ironically been able to cultivate a status as an anti-Western power engaged in an ‘anti-imperial’ enterprise for its own ends.

Sir Laurie emphasised that the world is going through multiple transitions at speed simultaneously. A China-Russia ‘friendship without limits’ is emerging as part of a geo-strategic competition with the US and, as indicated, this encompasses the Global South. While 140 countries, many from the Global South, lined up to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, few have acted with Ukraine in terms of applying sanctions. Each country has its own individually calculated set of interests and this does not necessarily take the view of ‘the West’ into account. This idea is embodied in a statement made by the Indian foreign minister, S. Jaishankar: ‘Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems’. As Sir Laurie explained, we have operated under ‘the rules based international system’. Senior Russians have claimed that this has never existed and that the West made it up for their own interests—whatever the merits of this claim the simple fact is that it has just ended, and we are not yet aware of what this means.

The situation inside Russia

Mary Hockaday asked the panellists to give a sense of how the war was viewed within Russia itself. Dr Reich explained that there is no homogenous public opinion and divided views into three rough categories:

  1. a sizeble minority that is very pro-war, but not necessarily pro-regime;
  2. another sizeable minority that is anti-war—this is the liberal opposition—but have been unable to speak out since the outbreak of the full-scale invasion;
  3. the majority that are not particularly happy about the war (see its impact on travel and economic security), but many of whom—not all—are pro-regime.

Dr Reich suggested that this last group could potentially move from their pro-regime stance. James Coomarasamy emphasised that it is very hard to speak about the war within Russia and that this was getting even more difficult. While initially there were people to whom a correspondent could turn to for comment, the numbers have dwindled. This also points to the huge challenges that come with reporting inside Russia. Evan Gershkovich, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, has been detained on espionage charges since March 2023 and many international correspondents have left Russia altogether. The BBC’s presence has waned from a large BBC Russian Service that occupied two floors of a building to nothing more than a handful of individuals. Sir Laurie also noted the difficulties associated with acquiring information, given that analysts and commentators cannot travel freely within Russia. Returning to the theme of a distorted view of Russia and Putin, Sir Laurie warned against confirmation bias.

Mary Hockaday brought the discussion on Putin’s Russia to a close by quoting a letter from Yevgeniya Kara-Murza, the wife of the imprisoned Vladimir Kara-Murza:

‘I am deeply grateful to Vladimir’s alma mater for honouring him today, making sure he is not forgotten despite the Putin regime’s efforts to completely isolate him from the outside world. After years of giving his voice to hundreds of political protesters in the Russian Federation, Vladimir has become one himself. Since September 21st of this year, he has been held in a punishment cell of a maximum-security prison colony in Omsk, Siberia about 3,000km away from Moscow. A man who survived two assassination attempts by FSB operatives and is suffering from a serious medical condition because of that is being held in complete isolation in a cell that is 3 meters by 1.5 meters with a bed that is affixed to the wall from 06:00 to 22:00 every day. Sharing your life with a person of integrity is not always easy. For such people there can be no compromises in matters of principle, which is absolutely admirable, but trying at times for those who love them. I couldn’t be prouder of my husband for having this kind of integrity and I couldn’t wish for a better example for our kids.’

As Ms Hockaday explained, the exercise of remembering Vladimir Kara-Murza’s plight and the experience of other political prisoners is always worthy our time.