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Inventing Russia

Arkady Ostrovsky

The Russian-born British journalist reveals the web of elites that elevated Putin to power.

Sophie Mackenzie
Sydney Opera House

Each week, we'll be deconstructing the people and the movements that made them as part of Antidote, the Opera House's newest festival of ideas, art & action
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Russians often joke about wishing they’d have been friends with Putin in the 1990s, as they’d be billionaires by now. The period during Putin's rise experienced high levels of personal wealth for those around him. But this isn’t far from reality – until 1991, Putin’s neighbour, Yury Kovalchuck, was deputy director of Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute. Now, as Putin’s personal banker, Kovalchuck’s net worth is $1.9 billion.

It’s no secret that Putin has secrets, and Russia holds them tight to her chest. With this mystery comes curiosity, and the beguiling history of the Soviet Union has fascinated outsiders for decades. Even in the post-Cold War era, the West continues to ask – is Russia a threat? Or perhaps now in Trump’s America, is Russia a ... ‘frenemy’?

Information that is openly shared about Russia is often carefully controlled by Putin, the media and the country’s security services. To counter this, Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian-born editor for the Russian and Eastern European editions of The Economist, explores the invention of Russia by examining its post-Soviet path – events like the Chechen wars, Mr. Boris Yeltsin firing of his own Parliament, and the Beslan school hostage-taking and how they led to the emergence and acceptance of Putin’s authoritarianism.

“The path towards a free society has not been simple," Putin once said. "There are tragic and glorious pages in our history." In Ostrovsky’s book The Invention of Russia: from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, the ideas, myths and invented histories that Russia championed during its chaotic search for a ‘new’ image are unravelled. 

“In 1999 politics was replaced by political technology, citizens by spectators, reality by television,” Ostrovsky writes. “Media managers could [then] create a president out of someone nobody had ever heard of… [they] did not try to educate or engage the majority of the country in politics.”

Ostrovsky maintains that Putin is an instinctive man who knew Russians and how their values, like security and pride, could feed into a false sense of Russian greatness. That greatness rested on the Kremlin, and was dependent on people “mind[ing] their own business and stay[ing] out of politics – something they gladly did.” Ostrovsky’s claims are without moral judgment, and instead, backed by objective anecdotes and interviews with a cast of Russian characters. In a complex web of responsibility between the media, intelligentsia, oligarchs, politicians, criminals and the public, Ostrovsky provides the compelling account of why and what Russia is – free of white noise.  

To hear Ostrovsky's account on the invention of Russia, join us on Sunday, 3 September at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival.

“The path towards a free society has not been simple. There are tragic and glorious pages in our history.”

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

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