Dispatch From Russia

Dispatch From Russia

A few hours after the United States launched its first missile attack against Baghdad, I spoke to 400 students and faculty at Moscow’s largest university of commerce and economics.



A few hours after the United States launched its first missile attack against Baghdad, I spoke to 400 students and faculty at Moscow’s largest university of commerce and economics. The mood in the packed hall was tense. My theme: the loyal opposition to war in America. The eager questions came in rapid-fire sequence: Will this war destroy the United Nations? How can a democratically elected President wage an unlawful war? Why does the Bush Administration treat us like a province of a new American empire?

These students are Russia’s Westernized elite–the country’s future leaders of commerce and business. Yet their anger at America was palpable, and expressed most vividly in the antiwar resolution they had drafted and unanimously adopted earlier that morning. “We demand an end to the war…. We demand the resignation of the Bush Administration, and the exile of George Bush and his family from the United States.” It continued, “Bush and his team of aggressors should be brought before an international tribunal and charged with crimes against humanity.” The resolution was delivered by hand to President Vladimir Putin that afternoon.

There are various opinions in Russia’s political elite and media about the factors behind America’s “imperial” war against Iraq. But one of the most startling for an American draws a sharp parallel with the former Soviet Union’s behavior abroad. The Brezhnev Doctrine, as it was called from the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, asserted that countries in the Soviet orbit–primarily in Eastern Europe–had only “limited sovereignty,” and therefore that Moscow alone had the right to decide the nature of those countries’ political regimes. This was, it is pointed out here, an early version of Washington’s current doctrine of pre-emptive war and regime change, and thus the talk in Moscow about “Bush’s Brezhnev Doctrine.”

While Russians overwhelmingly oppose the war–a poll taken hours after it started shows that 71 percent view US actions against Iraq as the greatest threat to world peace and 93 percent opposed the bombing of Iraq, while positive opinion of the United States has fallen dramatically, from 68 percent to 28 percent in the past month–few have taken to the streets to protest. The weekend after the war began, about 2,000 members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Walking Together braved Moscow’s subzero temperatures to rally outside the US ambassador’s residence. They carried several thousand blue containers of oil. “We are ready to bring as much as is needed,” the group’s leader said, “to meet American needs and stop the war.” Across from the US Embassy, about 300 largely elderly demonstrators waved banners and placards reading Veto to War and USA–International Terrorist No. 1. A small group of schoolchildren later joined the crowd and sang a song written for the occasion: America parasha, pobeda budet nasha, or “America is trash, victory will be ours.”

Russia’s small street protests reflect the people’s resignation, alienation from politics and mass impoverishment. “In the past several years,” one young protester told me, “many have come to believe that street demonstrations are useless. They have done nothing to improve our lives, and most people believe the Kremlin doesn’t care about public opinion. It’s what we call ‘managed democracy’ or ‘constitutional dictatorship.'” “After all,” he continued, “if people don’t go out to protest against Russia’s war in Chechnya, the cancer on our country’s soul, why should they protest against America’s war in Iraq?”

While the streets may be relatively quiet, a political struggle rages inside the Kremlin. Since September 11, President Putin, the ex-KGB colonel whose soul Bush once looked into so admiringly, has come under high-level attack for his professed strategic alliance with the United States. Many Russians believe that Putin’s national security policy has consisted of giving the Bush Administration concessions that have been met only by broken US promises and imperial aggrandizement–from the garrisoning of American troops and bases in central Asia to the shredding of the ABM treaty. “He has sold out our country and betrayed our national interests,” a former Putin supporter told me. Opposition to the US war in Iraq has allowed Putin to reposition himself as a defender of Russia’s national interests. The day after war started, in a nationally televised address, Putin went further than even antiwar European leaders such as French President Chirac in denouncing US actions as a “big political mistake” that threatens international security and will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

The key question facing Russia today is whether its opposition to the US war against Iraq will end Putin’s increasingly frayed partnership with Bush, and open the door to some new kind of cold war. The day I left Moscow, the US ambassador was called to the Foreign Ministry–for the first time since 1996–in protest against US U-2 overflights along Russia’s border. Accusations that Russian companies have sold Iraq military equipment have raised a diplomatic storm. Broadcasts and papers once fiercely pro-Western are gloating about US military defeats and tactical failures. And the three main television stations, all state-controlled or pro-Kremlin, were quick to broadcast the Al-Jazeera tape showing American POWs. Commentary on radio and TV talk shows mocked Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s invocation of the Geneva conventions and described White House efforts to censor US newscasters as America’s “new McCarthyism,” a term used frequently these days by Russian journalists, who think they see parallels between Brezhnev’s Russia and Bush’s America.

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