Arkady Ostrovsky’s Book The Invention of Russia

I believe that every book finds us at the right moment. Arkady Ostrovsky’s hardcover book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War sat on my bookshelf for several years until I realized I needed to read it. That happened earlier this year, when Mr. Ostrovsky published his 8-part podcast, Next Year in Moscow, in which he talked to people who had left Russia after the war began. The people he talked to ranged from famous actresses to those who had never led public lives but were unable to stay in the country that launched a criminal war against their neighbor. Guests told Ostrovsky about how the war changed their lives, how they felt when they learned about the beginning of the war, etc. Most importantly, together with the host of the show, the guests tried to find an answer to the question, how could the war have happened at all?

I started looking for information about the podcast host and thus learned about his book and discovered that I had already purchased the book many years ago, namely when Russia annexed Crimea. The onset of the Russian invasion and full-scale war in Ukraine was the backdrop against which I read the book and which highlighted the depth and accuracy of Mr. Ostrovsky’s dispassionate but empathetic observations.

Arkady Ostrovsky’s position as an observer of Russian politics is unique. He was born in Russia and is a native Russian speaker, but was educated in the UK. Arkady has a doctorate in English literature (Cambridge University, 1998). When he returned to Russia as a journalist, first at the Financial Times and then as bureau chief of The Economist, the country was undergoing dramatic change. He observed and experienced Russia’s transformation firsthand, but was able to see things from a different perspective than journalists who had no experience of life behind the Iron Curtain. The combination of a deep understanding of Russian culture and politics and the ability to distance himself allowed Ostrovsky to notice and correctly diagnose the symptoms of social diseases that many journalists and public figures overlooked because they were too immersed in political events.

The Invention of Russia is not just a chronicle of events that have taken place in the post-Soviet space over the past three decades. What began as Russia’s great transformation toward freedom and democracy and was greeted with genuine enthusiasm by people on both sides of the Iron Curtain has turned into authoritarian militarized madness in just thirty-odd years. How did it happen?

The book explores the ideas and ideologies, sentiments and cultural drivers that determined the vector of Russia’s development after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the political, social, and cultural problems described by Ostrovsky in this book seem to be eternal problems that Russia has been trying to solve for centuries, such as the never-ending dilemma of whether Russia should adapt a “Western” (“European”) way of life or preserve its uniqueness and maintain the status quo, where the state always suppresses the free and open exchange of opinions, the independence of local communities, and denies any values of individual life and freedom. It is fascinating to see how debates on these issues have not lost their urgency in Russia over the centuries.

At the same time, Ostrovsky captured unique periods in the newest history of Russia, and did so with all the delicacy and accuracy necessary for a good documentary work. Unique was the narrow window of opportunities when Gorbachev came to power. The state crimes of the past could be properly discussed in the media, and the criminals could be brought to justice (similar processes are depicted in the movie Argentina 1985, for example). This could be done even later, during the first year of Yeltsin in power. But instead, the society was on endless TV series and entertainment shows, adapting western consumerism, but not social institutions. 

Ostrovsky showed the ideological vacuum that engulfed everyone in the post-Soviet space. When the Soviet Union collapsed, society had to search for an answer to the question: what is Russia? What does it mean to be Russian? And since this was not just a philosophical question, but a task set by the state, various groups of media creators and political technologists began to invent Russia, guided by things that do not always lend themselves to a noble definition.

In a situation where ethical and moral norms were seriously undermined, if not lost altogether, the people who had power over the minds of voters and the media chose the “nothing is real, everything is possible” approach and did not include ethics in their game at all. The reality constructed by the media became more important than the actual reality, and although the media gods most often had good intentions, the consequences of this decision – the truth is what was told on TV – proved to be devastating.  In part, the processes set in motion then explain why many Russians still believe the propaganda and support the war against Ukraine. 

Reading the book, I mentally returned to my childhood and youth. I witnessed the events that Ostrovsky describes in his book, although I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes.  I discussed the book with my husband, and his memoirs about that time resonated with Ostrovsky’s words, too. If you ask me whether you can trust this book in terms of historical accuracy, I’d say yes, you can. 

The author not only utilized a huge media archive, but also supplemented it with his private interviews with Russian politicians and media personalities. This personal voice makes the narrative exceptionally engaging. The book has drawn criticism from (mostly) American readers who like to see Putin as a noble fighter against globalism and postmodernism. Nothing could be further from the truth, since Putin himself is one of the most cynical spawns of postmodernism. Ostrovsky did not say so explicitly, but he clearly showed how the media played a role in Putin’s rise to power, and how the same media destroyed the civil society that had not yet been born in Russia.

If you want to understand the tumultuous processes that have taken place in Russia over the last forty years, this book is a must read. If you want to find out what led to the war that Russia started against Ukraine, this book can give you some good explanations. Finally, this book is a wake-up call for all of us, a reminder that no society is safe from the danger of turning into a totalitarian, criminal hell.