The writing is on the wall.
Russian History According to the Crimean Calendar
A New Period of Russian History Kicked Off in 2014, But There Is No Proof It Will Last for Centuries
April 11, 2018
In a recently published article, Vladislav Surkov argues we should regard 2014 as the first year of a new calendar, the beginning of a centuries-long era of “political solitude” that emerged after a long period of ambivalence on Russia’s part. Although the thoughts outlined in the article are primarily Mr. Surkov’s personal convictions, they do in some way describe the outlook of Russia’s supreme political elite, to which Mr. Surkov certainly belongs, and they are interesting only in this sense. Among other things, his take suggests that, after 2014, nothing comparable in importance to the events in Crimea has happened nor will happen, meaning Russia seemingly experienced the “end of history” in 2014.
2014 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year of Vladimir Putin’s most memorable achievement. Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to many changes both at home and abroad, but what mattered most was that it was accomplished easily, quickly, and bloodlessly, and led to an incredible surge in the president’s popularity due to the fact that a large segment of society rallied around him. The more alarming the circumstances of spring 2018, the dearer to the president and his entourage are the memories of the happy spring of 2014. Surkov’s article can read as a belated reiteration of Faust’s “Stay a while, you are so beautiful,” as a reluctance to accept the inevitability of change and the ephemerality of all “forevers.”
The flip side of the myth of a new era’s beginning is the fear 2014 was actually the culmination of modern Russian history and things will only get worse in the future. The tendencies of recent years have fully confirmed this fear. Only four years have passed, but the spring of 2018 is nothing like the spring of 2014 in terms of feeling and mood. Russia is not on the offensive; instead, it is on the defensive. The west’s pressure on it has been multiplying and causing palpable problems for the economy. For the first time in four years, the country’s leaders have been forced to acknowledge the dangers posed by US sanctions and give up repeating the argument that all sanctions are a boon to the economy. It is no wonder. In 2014, the sanctions were much weaker, and given the euphoria in the air, they went almost unnoticed. Besides, in 2014, it was still possible to believe the sanctions were temporary. They would be lifted in the very near future, the west would swallow what had occurred, and everything would go back to what it had been. In 2018, the euphoria has long vanished, and if there is still talk the sanctions will soon be lifted, it should be put down more to inertia and confusion than anything else. Although it was intentionally timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Crimean triumph, the presidential election did not produce anything comparable to the inspiring impression generated in the wake of Crimea’s annexation. The celebration of Putin’s electoral victory lasted only ten days, cut short by the disastrous shopping mall fire in Kemerovo and the official day of mourning announced in its aftermath.
Russia cannot look forward to proud “political solitude” in the coming years or at any other time. The modern world is too small for anyone to isolate themselves, especially on their own terms and inside borders of their own choosing. At home, especially among the elite, one can still live in the past for a time and pretend this is still the triumphant year of 2014. One call still pretend Russia is threatening everyone, denouncing everyone, and demanding a reaction from everyone, and that it has centuries and millennia ahead of it. In fact, however, it is Russia that is threatened, Russia that is denounced, and Russia from whom everyone demands a reaction. There are no grounds for supposing this onslaught will wane in the foreseeable future instead of intensifying. Russia’s main trump card in 2014 was its willingness to engage in confrontation and brinksmanship, which the west was not willing to do. That card has now been trumped in turn. After a long period of wavering, the leaders of the Nato countries have also proven capable of engaging in deliberate escalation and frightening their opponents with determination. This seems to have been a major surprise to the current regime in Russia.
A new phase in modern Russian history undoubtedly began in 2014, but there is no proof it will last for centuries and be a time of endless rapture over the annexation of Crimea. For the time being, everything points to the fact it will end much more quickly than many of us would imagine and in such a way that we shall not want to remember 2014 at all.
Fyodor Krasheninnikov is a political scientist who lives in Yekaterinburg. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader