In Depth

Is Russia turning back into the USSR?

Many young Russians are scrambling to ‘adjust to a country they hardly recognise’

Barely three weeks into Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, many young Russians are scrambling to “adjust to a country they hardly recognise”, said Felix Light and Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times. Some 14,000 people have been arrested at anti-war protests across the country; rumours swirl of police seizing people’s phones to check what they’ve been reading. Access to social networks like Facebook and Instagram is blocked; Twitter is “severely restricted”. On top of that, 300 foreign brands – including, as of last week, Disney and Uniqlo – have pulled out of Russia, an exodus that has cost thousands of Russians their jobs. For those who recall the dark days of the Soviet Union, this newfound global isolation must feel all too familiar; for the rest, “the speed of the country’s descent into pariah status has been dizzying”. 

Many Russians now feel they have no choice but to flee their homeland, said Ben Judah in The Sunday Telegraph. Already, up to 200,000 of its “brightest and most dynamic” citizens have left primarily for Georgia and Armenia; many more, fearing the dawn of “a dark new era” of repression and ruin, will follow. They’re right to worry, said Larry Elliott in The Observer. Crippled by sanctions, Russia’s economy could face its sharpest decline “since the collapse of the Soviet Union”. There are already warnings Russia will try to repay the $117m interest it owes to foreign lenders in roubles – a move that would be viewed as a de facto default and an admission that it cannot service foreign debts. 

The danger is that the West’s plan to financially squeeze and isolate Russia backfires, said Charlene Rodrigues in The Independent. Even some moderate Russians are starting to turn against the West as sanctions bite; older people nostalgic for the USSR are actually attracted to the idea of getting “more self-reliant” and less Western-facing. “Putin had to be sanctioned”, said Sunny Hundal in the same paper. But the corporate exodus from Russia in recent weeks, along with Putin’s crackdowns, means “a generation of Russians will grow up with limited access to Western culture and ideas.” That will be bad not just for Russia, but for everyone.

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