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Barred by Moscow

Putin's Russia has turned insular and paranoid—it won't even give me a visa

By Thomas de Waal   July 2006

I am a Russophile. I have spent much of my adult life in Russia. Half the books on my shelves are in Russian, a good proportion of my friends are Russian. I met my wife, another English Russophile, in Moscow. The great Russian authors have shaped my worldview. So I find myself in the curious position of reflecting on how I came to be denied a visa to visit the country I love.

I have good connections in Russia, including in the foreign ministry. In Russia, when one door closes you can always try another. So to be barred for the launch of the Russian-language edition of my book on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is a blow, but it may not be a permanent one.

My refused entry is, however, a symptom of a much wider trend, which is that Russia is turning in on itself and lashing out at the outside world. Other recent western visa refuseniks include Bill Bowring, a lawyer who has given advice to human rights organisations and counsel on Russian legal reform; several people involved in defending the beleaguered oil company Yukos against the Kremlin’s wrath; Irene Stevenson, an American labour activist who has lived in Russia for ten years; and most bizarrely, William Browder, a major investor and self-confessed fan of President Putin. All, I know, are people who care about Russia, but have crossed the authorities in some way.

Several foreign journalists have been refused accreditation and those working in Moscow are now subjected to the kind of pressure we all hoped had ended in Soviet times. During the last Chechen elections, the BBC Moscow office sent round an internal memo asking BBC programmes in London not to interview Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled pro-independence official now a refugee in Britain, fearful of how the Russians might respond.

My sin, as far as I can tell, is that ever since 1994, when I first saw Russian atrocities in Chechnya, I have criticised Russia’s Chechen policy—while also condemning terrorism and recognising Russia’s real security problems. But my long-standing view—that the violence in the north Caucasus is a catastrophe for Russia that erodes its dignity, security and what is left of its democracy—continues to be vindicated. As my friend Andrei Piontkovsky put it, “Moscow started by wanting to make Chechnya part of Russia, but has ended up with Russia becoming part of Chechnya.”

Russia is not the Soviet Union, and I have found common ground on Chechnya with several Russian officials. Last year’s report by Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s personal troubleshooter for the north Caucasus, contained views even more apocalyptic than mine.

The trouble is that over the last few years, the space for political debate in Russia has narrowed to the point where there is only one public point of view left: the Kremlin’s. The media belongs either to the state or to friendly state-backed businesses, such as Gazprom.

I see this as a hangover from the 20th century in which the Soviet Union (and then Russia) simultaneously felt itself to be a major superpower and a vulnerable state. National power and military strength were equated in crude “realist” terms—if they are afraid of us, we are strong.

The chaotic experiment with democracy in the 1990s was so mismanaged that it convinced many Russians that Stalin had been right. A recent opinion poll found one quarter of Russian young people saying they would definitely or probably vote for Stalin were he running for president.

Putin’s promise has been to rebuild Russia as a “great power,” and in narrow realist terms he is succeeding, having tamed the business oligarchs, shut down debate in the media and used high energy prices to stake Russia’s claim to be an international force again. But this camouflages Russia’s much deeper troubles: long-term demographic decline, a growing Aids crisis, and Russia’s unexorcised past. Fifty years ago Anna Akhmatova wrote, “The prisoners are returning [from the gulag] and two Russias are looking one another in the eye: those who sent people to the camps and those who were imprisoned there.” Those who sent people to the camps have never been held to account.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of years Russian foreign policy has become increasingly perverse, whether in its support for anti-western dictators, such as Alexander Lukashenko and Islam Karimov, or—after years of criticising the west for being soft on terrorism and its sponsors—abruptly inviting the Hamas government to Moscow.

This promises to make the G8 Summit in St Petersburg in mid-July an awkward event. Of course, US vice-president Dick Cheney’s recent rebuke to Russia for its democratic failings, en route to a friendly visit to undemocratic, oil-rich Kazakhstan, did not help. Russians, even liberals, do not like to be lectured by foreigners. “I, of course, despise my fatherland from head to toe,” said Pushkin. “But I am annoyed if a foreigner shares that feeling with me.”

But Russia is not Uzbekistan. Its culture and outlook is still profoundly European. Many of the same Russian officials who denounce Britain as a hostile power and the British embassy as a nest of spies send their children to British private schools and buy property in Kensington. I have not noticed any of them rushing to send their children to be educated in Tehran, Tashkent or Pyongyang.

Nor is it Saudi Arabia. It is a great country, not because of its gas reserves or nuclear weapons or power to bankrupt Georgian winegrowers. It is great because of its great culture, minds and traditions. If Europeans can hold their nerve and keep up a conversation, there is still plenty of common ground.

In the meantime, they cannot take Pushkin or Tarkovsky or Shostakovich away from me, and my Russian friends—if they can persuade the British consulate to give them visas—can always come and visit me.

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