La Russophobe remembers only too well how Russians, supposedly friendly to the West at the time, reacted when NATO soldiers intervened to prevent genocide in Bosnia by Serbia, Russia's much-loved little brother. Suddenly, supposedly friendly Russians were in the streets burning American flags and proving to the world that they had just been waiting for the opportunity to display their continuing hatred and belligerence towards all things Western, all things democratic, all things successful -- even while accusing the outside world of being anti-Russian.
The Times of London's key Russia reporter Mark Franchetti reports that nothing has changed in Russia. What sweet words of encouragement, what friendly overtures, what manifestations of love and support could the West have shown Russians that would magically have prevented them from deciding that Stalin, who betrayed the West with a secret deal with Hitler, destroyed his country and brought it to its knees within a few decades of his demise, was a "wise leader."
It was obvious from the day that Russians chose to elect a proud KGB spy as their leader, doing so on the word of Boris Yeltsin, a man whom they nearly universally pledged to despise, that Russia was a lost cause. That it would go down exactly the same dismal, failed path of self-destruction as many times as it took to end Russia just as the USSR had ended, thumbing its nose proudly at the West all the while. The West was warned, but it decided to "give Putin a chance" and view him as a "transitional figure," and this is the result, the same result that obtained with Lenin and Stalin. And the greatest irony of all is that now, when many in the West finally awaken and see the Evil Dr. Putin for what he is, their criticisms are attacked by the same crazed Russophiles who allowed the USSR to rise and torment the globe for decades as being impulsive, and failing to have given Putin any chance at all to show his true colors.
STRUTTING beneath the gilded vaults and glittering chandeliers of St Petersburg’s Konstantinovsky Palace, President Vladimir Putin was all smiles and bear hugs yesterday as he greeted the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies.
The first Kremlin leader to host a G8 summit, he was determined to show that although oil-rich Russia is flexing its muscles again, it has embraced western democratic values.
But a markedly different attitude to President George W Bush, Tony Blair and the other leaders prevails away from the summit in the city’s crumbling side streets. Trust in the West and above all in America has given way to deep-seated suspicion and angry resentment among ordinary Russians.
Asked on the eve of this weekend’s summit how they viewed America, 58% of Russians polled described it as a unfriendly country. In a further sign of the gulf between Russian and western opinion, 50% now believe that Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator blamed for more than 20m deaths, was a wise leader.
The western leaders, who are staying in luxurious mansions in the palace grounds with their own private swimming pools and saunas, are expected to put to Putin their concerns about the erosion of press freedom and human rights in Russia.
The Kremlin’s response will be icy, in line with a decidedly anti-western message being pumped out by the state-controlled media.
“The days when Russians marvelled at the West are long gone,” said Alexei Venediktov, one of Russia’s most liberal journalists. “Now, as in Soviet times, most people here think they are surrounded by enemies who want Russia to be weak. Democracy, western-style, has become a dirty word.”
The expansion of Nato into eastern Europe has led to Russian fears of military encirclement and the geo-political rivalry between the Kremlin and Washington has seeped into virtually every topic of discussion at the summit — particularly the seething tensions over the Middle East and the North Korean missile crisis. Even the much anticipated agreement to admit Russia to the World Trade Organisation ended in failure yesterday.
Western suspicions abound about Russia’s determination to use its natural gas exports to reassert power over Europe. Russia, meanwhile, accuses the West of meddling in the affairs of Ukraine and Georgia, where it claims western funding sparked popular revolutions.
Another source of tension will emerge today when Putin is expected to ask Blair to help secure the extradition of the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has asylum in Britain, to face fraud charges in Russia.
Anti-western views about these and other matters can be heard everywhere. Even liberal radio phone-in programmes are filled with the sound of ordinary Russians voicing anxieties about American intentions.
Nowhere is the shift in opinion more palpable than in St Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace. In the early 1990s under Anatoli Sobchak, its liberal mayor and Putin’s political mentor, the city was considered Russia’s most progressive. Today only four of the 50 members of the local assembly are liberals.
Some of Russia’s most shocking killings by neo-Nazi gangs have taken place within a few miles of the manicured lawns where the G8 leaders and their spouses are being entertained.
The victims are no longer confined to dark-skinned immigrants, however. White Russians are being murdered for their pro-western views.
In November Timur Kacharava, 20, a philosophy student and anti-fascist activist, was stabbed to death outside a bookshop in the city centre. “It’s hard to imagine this sort of killing happening a few years ago,” said his mother Irina. “Fascism and nationalism are growing in St Petersburg and across Russia.”
Daniil Kotsubinsky, a human rights activist, said: “Once St Petersburg was a real island of democracy. Now it's one of the most corrupt and criminal cities in Europe. Anti-western feeling is stronger than at any time since the Soviet era.”
Putin is determined that the extremists will not embarrass him as he plays statesman this weekend. Nationalists such as Yuri Belayev, head of the ultra-nationalist Freedom party, were ordered to leave the city for the summit.
Belayev, a former policeman, makes no secret of his hardline views: he openly supports the killing of immigrants. On the cover of his latest book, This Is How We Will Win, he is shown pointing a gun at the head of Valeria Novodvorskaya, an outspoken democrat.
Few Russians would endorse Belayev’s violent message but according to pollsters, nearly 60% support the slogan “Russia for Russians”, which he and fellow nationalists have adopted.
To understand the growing resentment towards the West, one need simply walk up any side street in the centre of St Petersburg. Away from the newly repainted facades of boulevards that have been spruced up for the G8, more than 700,000 people are living in komunalkas, dingy and cramped Soviet-era communal flats shared by several families.
“When communism fell there was a sense of euphoria,” said Vitali Kachayev, 61, who lives with his wife in one room in a flat shared with seven other people. All feel cheated by the past promises of pro-western democrats such as Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
A former factory manager, Kachayev receives a monthly pension of £50 and survives by picking up the odd job. “We thought democracy meant that soon we’d live better. And we looked to the West in awe. But for people like me life only became harder. Democracy and freedom are luxuries.”
“We had corruption under communism too,” added Andrei Petrienko, a taxi driver in the same komunalka. “But then a bottle of vodka was enough to sort out a bureaucratic problem — now you need a week’s wages. Call that democracy? As for the West, we soon realised it would rather see Russia on its knees than strong again.”
The neighbours’ suspicion of western values is shared by many among the fast-growing middle classes.
“There is no doubt that relations between the West and Russia are frostier now,” admitted a western diplomat.
“The summit is the perfect photo opportunity for Putin to play buddy with all the other leaders. But the message is: Russia is back and it’s not particularly well disposed towards the West. The irony, of course, is that Putin is far more liberal than most of his countrymen.”