Coming back to Russia in the spring of 2016, I am all ears, eyes and soul. I want to see the changes on the ground after Russia was battered by sanctions and other diplomatic consequences as a result of its policies – particularly its claims on Crimea and military intervention in Syria. Russia’s attempts to accelerate the coming of the post-Western order – specifically, a multi-polar world with powerful anti-American allies trumpeting victorious slogans – have cost Russians dearly. True, the same morose aura I encounter on the underground train is merely a sign of the continuing depression of recent years. And there are the same people on the streets – they marry, give birth and go to work – so things seem to be at the level of the ‘usual normal’. Yet there are so many layers of reality – taking shape in the media, on the Internet and in public discussions among intellectuals; in ‘kitchen talks’ about politics that we inherited from the Soviet era as a quiet way of expressing our disenchantment; in witch-hunts against NGOs that are suspected of conducting political activities with foreign funding; in the unheeded warnings by the watchdog Transparency International; the list goes on. These aspects of reality also exist, even if not everybody sees or gives them any importance. All the while, people talk about needing values, identity, religion and ideology almost surreally alongside the need for investment into various industries, infrastructure and improved living standards.
Located at the plexus of Europe and Asia, Russian identity continually fluctuates between both Slavophile and pro-Western tendencies, a phenomenon that is at times painful and disturbing. Our disputes still divide us, reminding us of the centuries-old standoff between ‘West’ and ‘East’. The term ‘vatnik’ – derived from the name of an iconic Soviet uniform jacket issued during the Second World War – is now applied to the so-called patriot, ‘an outspoken follower of Putin, who aims to compensate his meaningless life by glorifying the motherland’ (as defined by the online translator Multitran.ru). The term was coined as a response to the government’s crackdown on Russia’s liberal opposition and the so-called ‘creative class’ and was meant to be insulting. However, now it is getting more common for supporters of Putin or the Russian government to adopt the term proudly, especially in response to Russia’s policies in Ukraine and Syria.