A conversation with Ilya Budraitskis on how the invasion of Ukraine has transformed Russian society.
Ilya Budraitskis’s collection of essays Dissidents Among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia (2017) won praise in the Russophone literary world for carving a new path against both liberalism and illiberalism in Russia. Its English translation was published a month before Russia invaded Ukraine—just in time to serve as a guide for the political dynamics gripping the country.
Three months into Vladimir Putin’s war, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and 14 million have fled their homes. Facing a growing crackdown on dissent, thousands of Russians have also moved abroad. Budraitskis is one of them. He continues to publicly oppose the invasion from outside Russia and recently launched a multilingual media outlet, Posle, with colleagues from several post-Soviet countries. I spoke with Budraitskis about how the invasion is transforming Russian society and what lessons should be drawn from this moment.
Naomi Cohen: The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have imposed a long list of sanctions on Russia, including removing Russian banks from the SWIFT banking system, a ban on oil imports, a ban on Russian flights, a high import tax on certain products, and an even longer list of bans in the private sector, including on Russian cultural production. These sanctions don’t just take aim at Russian oligarchs; they also seem to target ordinary Russians with the intention of provoking anger against Putin and his invasion. Do you think the sanctions will achieve the goal of hurting Putin’s popularity—which already seems to be falling—or will they make the precarious even more precarious and increase the severity of repression? For example, food delivery workers in Moscow who recently protested a cut to their poverty wages faced a crackdown. Will we be seeing more of this?
Ilya Budraitskis: Before the war began, most of the independent unions were already destroyed or marginalized. Now, they will be targeted more, even if they are just protesting against cuts in their workplaces, which are happening very intensively in the auto industry and in some other industries that are affected by the sanctions.
On the question of whether the sanctions could provoke anger against Putin: definitely not. They only prove Putin’s claim that the sanctions are a part of the war started by the West against Russia. Most people are not able to understand what restrictions come from whom. For example, many Russians believe that the ban on Instagram is a part of American sanctions, but it is not; it is part of the Russian defense strategy against American influence.
If you look at Russian propaganda, there are two main ideas about the sanctions. The first is that they are part of the war against Russia, and we should suffer and stay proud and resist the sanctions together with the government. That is a powerful idea. Another important element in the state propaganda—it could sound strange to you—is that the Western economy is suffering more from sanctions than Russia is. There are a lot of articles in the pro-government newspapers that say that Western Europeans are suffering already because of the increase in prices. That gives most of the Russian audience a very perverse image.
Cohen: It overblows the importance of the Russian economy.
Budraitskis: Yes. Also, there is an argument behind this idea: because the West is suffering more from its own sanctions, it will stop the sanctions soon. That corresponds with another idea: that the war, or “special operation,” will end soon.
Cohen: But the bureaucratic class, who are the most behind Putin and the invasion, also stands to lose the most from these sanctions.
Budraitskis: Yes, they will lose something, but they will not lose as much as ordinary people, of course, because they will not lose their jobs. They will probably lose in their level of consumption. They will not travel abroad. But their jobs will be safe because of their loyalty. And that is much more important for them than the consequences of the sanctions.
Workers in the big enterprises, especially those related to the auto industry, the metal industry, and so on, will be very affected by sanctions—they already are. Most international companies will just close down their factories. Renault, which controls part of AvtoVAZ, the biggest car manufacturer in Russia, recently decided to sell its factory in Moscow. There are thousands of workers in this factory. Renault sold it to the government for one ruble, a symbolic price, and the future of the enterprise is unclear. The government said that it will transform the factory to produce Russian cars. But how it will work under the sanctions, under international isolation, is very hard to predict.
Cohen: Workers haven’t been fired yet. There haven’t been mass layoffs.
Budraitskis: They’re not fired yet, but they’re on unpaid vacation. It’s a strategy of social stabilization, borrowed from the practices of Russia in the 1990s. During shock therapy, most workers were not paid for months, but they kept their jobs, so they didn’t protest too much.
Cohen: Putin has used a lot of historical references to justify the invasion. As a historian, which counter-reference do you find most helpful to describe this moment? You’ve written extensively about historical continuity in left-wing dissidence in the Soviet Union. Do you think there are any parallels to be made now with the Soviet Union—perhaps Cold War posturing or the Soviet invasion of Hungary? Or would you point more to recent post-Soviet or even non-Russian examples?
Budraitskis: If you want to make parallels with other moments in Russian history, I think the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century would be much more useful. That was a moment when the Russian empire overestimated its power. There was a united front of Western nations against the country. And Putin’s arguments are much closer to the Russian arguments behind the Crimean War than the Soviet worldview. It was about the ignorant West, spiritual values and the light of true Christianity, and taking back historical Russian lands.
Some weeks ago, I read one of the fragments from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s diary, a kind of personal newspaper he published in his later years. If you want to understand the essence of Russian conservative thinking and chauvinism at the highest level of expression, you need to read these diaries.
There was a letter about the Russian-Turkish War in the late 1870s, which was won by Russia. Bulgaria became independent because of this war. The main Russian justification for this war was to help the southern Slavic people who were suffering under Muslim domination, which was supported by the West, especially Great Britain. The main argument was: “You Westerners are always talking about human rights, freedom, self-determination, democracy, and so on. How about the freedoms of our Slavic brothers who are suffering under the terrible, backward Ottoman Empire? Or are these people not human? That is why we should restore the Russian flag to the holy city of Constantinople, to liberate it from the barbaric forces that have ruled it for centuries.”
You have all the elements of Putin’s narrative already there: we liberate someone, and this liberation is not recognized by the West because of the hypocrisy of the West, showing the lack of universalism in their discourse about democracy and human rights.
If you look to the arguments behind the Soviet invasions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, they were totally different; the main argument was a defense of socialism from counterrevolution. In Ukraine, you have no universalist arguments; you have this anti-Western messianic rhetoric. You have the overestimation of your own abilities, your own power, and you have a miscalculation of the real balance of forces in Europe and in the world.
The main lesson of the Crimean War was that you can’t have all the Western countries against Russia. You need to have some allies among them. The next Russian emperors heeded this lesson, forming alliances with Germany and then France under Alexander III. But it seems that these lessons are not relevant anymore.
There is an idea in Russian propaganda that, in some ways, Russia is now in much better condition than it was during the Soviet Union. And if we lost the first Cold War, we will win the second. That was an important part of the political imaginary of the Russian elite, even before the invasion: that they’re stronger than the Soviet Union.
Cohen: Opposition to Putin has gained momentum these past few years, especially as seen in the protests of the Moscow city elections in 2019. What has happened to that opposition today? You said in an interview shortly after the invasion that the past year’s repression has prevented the formation of an organized antiwar movement. Public criticism of the war instead seems to be spontaneous and limited in scope. Who are these protesters? Where are they now? And do you see the invasion of Ukraine radicalizing them or leading them to cut off their attachment to Russia?
Budraitskis: The majority of the participants of the antiwar protests were nearly the same as the participants of the protests against the arrest of Aleksei Navalny in 2021 or against fraud in the Moscow elections. They are mostly young people who were already politicized, who already trust the opposition media much more than official propaganda.
Over the last three or four years, a stratum of active, educated young people in the big cities was formed that believed that their protests could be effective in some way. Up until the moment the war started, they believed that they could probably not stop the war, but they could somehow affect a broader audience.
This did not happen. You can’t participate in political protest with a purely pessimistic perspective. After a while it became clear that these protests have become socially and politically diminished. Many people were detained, some were expelled from their universities, some people lost their jobs. Of course that brings about a pessimistic atmosphere.
I don’t think that these people were radicalized by these events, because they were quite radical already. There were some moderate participants in these protests who had some illusions about the nature of the Russian government. But the main problem was that the broader layers of the population were not involved in these protests and were not attracted by their agenda.
Cohen: What developments have you seen among antiwar Russians who are organized, and have been organizing for a while? What is it like to all of a sudden all be working on the same issue, sometimes in the same few cities outside of Russia? Are those on the left finding an opportunity for new alliances?
Budraitskis: The war provoked a very deep division inside the Russian left, increasing already existing divisions. The leadership of the Communist Party expressed full support for the war, as did some more radical Stalinist groups. At the same time, some members of the Communist Party, including members of the Moscow city parliament and some other regional counselors, took the antiwar position. Some of them were already expelled from the party because of this position. It was clear that two camps of the Russian left already existed.
But it’s definitely not the best moment for recruitment or for creating new alliances, simply because there are no conditions for it. The regional elections that should happen in the fall probably will be canceled.
Cohen: What about alliances with other political groups outside of the left? Have you seen antiwar sentiment bringing them closer?
Budraitskis: Politically, the Russian opposition is destroyed. You have some people who are in prison, and some people who left the country. You can’t say that any opposition exists, because all of the structures have been destroyed. And this left that we’re talking about, they are just small groups of people who express themselves on social media.
Cohen: At the same time, there’s the opening of new media, especially with a lot of Russians going abroad and facing less censorship. You are opening your own new media organization. Is this a revival of an unorganized opposition, or at least of an interest in creating alternative media?
Budraitskis: Many new projects are starting now, because a lot of journalists lost their jobs, moved abroad. Some old media outlets were destroyed, and some individuals from the old media started new ones. The main problem is that most of them have no clear political platform. Or they are politically not very different from each other.
If you look at most of these new projects, they invite the same line of experts. You have, I don’t know, twenty old liberals who already left Russia presenting on all these different YouTube channels. They’re talking the same talk: that the main problem in Russia is that there was no decommunization thirty years ago. That’s why the KGB restored itself, and Putin is a Soviet zombie who is trying to occupy the world. These ideas, they’re like zombies themselves. They were produced by the previous generation, but somehow they are catching people who are twenty years old.
If we can propose any kind of alternative, maybe it could attract some people who before were mostly influenced by this liberal media. But of course, our task is not just to catch these people, but also to find a way to talk with people who are outside of this liberal sphere of influence, this liberal political culture.
Cohen: Do you find that being outside of Russia has helped you draw connections with Ukrainian counterparts or counterparts from other post-Soviet states? Have people you have met while abroad influenced your ideas or led to the creation of new projects?
Budraitskis: Yes, of course. It’s important especially to have voices from Ukraine. And if you work under censorship inside Russia, it’s absolutely impossible.
We can’t try to predict the how this censorship logic in Russia will develop. There is already a law [that imposes restrictions] on non-friendly countries—most countries of Europe. Also, we have a new version of a foreign agent law, according to which you could be recognized as a foreign agent simply because you distribute some influence from abroad; it doesn’t matter if you gain money abroad or not. If we publish an interview from a person from Germany, we could be easily recognized as a foreign agent. Which really turns your life into hell.