by Renee Earle
When McDonald’s opened its restaurant on Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square in 1990, a line of thousands of Russians eager to have a taste of the West snaked around several blocks. The company’s recent decision to suspend its operations in Russia is a sad symbol of the rapid deterioration of Russia’s links to the West caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
As we watch the increasingly horrific spectacle of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians dying in a senseless war, it may be difficult to think also of the Russian people. Nevertheless, in our support for Ukraine’s fight against its aggressor, we should not overlook their plight. Putin undoubtedly has supporters at home even as he engages in a war proving disastrous for his own country, but even more Russians are victims of a ruthless and relentless dictatorship. In the short term, they are unavoidably suffering as the global community levies harsh sanctions against the Putin regime. In the longer term, that same community should be prepared to offer the Russian people a way back.
As a public diplomacy officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the early 1990s, I saw how many Russians welcomed the prospect of living as people in much of the rest of the world. In those years, a diplomatic tit-for-tat barred Russian nationals from working inside the embassy. American officers consequently not only carried out normal diplomatic functions, but also cleaned offices and cars. One great benefit of the do-everything-yourself period was answering all the phones ourselves, as it put us in direct contact with scores of average Russians. In the public affairs offices, we fielded calls from artists, writers, broadcasters, and educators proposing joint ventures with American counterparts. These budding entrepreneurs had mastered the term “joint venture” but not always the modalities required for a successful business partnership. Sadly, many of these ventures never materialized, but the ideas and enthusiasm were everywhere.
The U.S. Freedom Support Act provided 15 billion dollars in the two decades that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain to help the people of the former Soviet Union transition to democratic institutions and free market practices. U.S. technical assistance ranged from exchange programs and support of emerging democratic institutions to American Business Centers opened by the U.S. Commercial Service. George H. Bush appointed a new ambassador, Robert Strauss, who had previously served as U.S. Trade Representative, to promote investment from American business. We provided information to those geared up for change, including TV programming for emerging independent broadcasters. Audiences devoured programs about the West, even a 12-part series on the U.S. constitution dubbed into Russian.
Many years of central control ensured that understanding of what it would take to achieve so complete a transformation of government structures, markets, and ways of thinking lagged far behind Russian eagerness. Our own expectations were also unrealistic in the face of the challenge, not only in Russia but even in Central Europe where traditions of democracy and market economics were stronger. Autocracy in Russia has a very long history. Corruption continued to plague systems and societies in the entire region. Moreover, many of our programs designed to ensure the success of this transition ended prematurely, leading to escalating disappointment on both sides. Still, although the transition was never completed in Russia, there were significant successes which laid the groundwork for the protests we see in Russia today.
Putin’s muzzling of free media has once again pulled down the information curtain on the Russian people, a familiar playbook in a country that already afforded limited freedom of expression. I remember the eerie feeling of seeing only repeated broadcasts of Swan Lake on all TV channels throughout the USSR during the 1991 attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. The plotters had taken over the media and no information was available anywhere.
In the dawning era of glasnost, as independent broadcasters began to operate, similar tactics were used by those opposed to the new openness. Unlike today’s blatant assault on information access, however, the Soviet government of the late 1980s and early 1990s did not openly force broadcasters out of operation; rather, local governments, who owned the property from which they operated, raised the rent beyond any affordability, thus forcing them to shutter operations themselves. In all cases, limiting information continued as the primary and necessary objective to keep authoritarian leaders in power and people in check.
Ramp Up VOA and RFE/RL
In this environment today, many Russians are showing tremendous courage in protesting the war in Ukraine, facing real and immediate danger as Putin threatens to purge them as traitors. To support their efforts, at a minimum, let us ramp up Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts and online reporting. RFE/RL’s (Radio Svoboda) local operations succumbed to Russian fines over its refusal to be identified as a “foreign agent,” but RFE/RL has continued reporting on Russia and its war from outside the country. Devising new ways to evade Russian jamming, censorship and Internet blocking will once again be required.
While assistance to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees is the unquestionable priority today, we should not wait to design a new strategy for shoring up democratic forces in Russia. The many Russians willing to fight for even the modest progress made over the last decades will need encouragement and assistance. Those Russians lucky enough to have the means have already fled Russia. This is predictable and understandable, but a “brain drain” of democratically minded Russians only leaves behind millions in greater need of support.
As history has shown, not least in Europe after WWI, winning a war successfully includes avoiding undue pain for a struggling population on the losing side. While the “color revolution” that Putin so fears may be a long way off in Russia, it is not too early to encourage a new generation of democratic forces. This will continue to be an immense challenge for both Russia itself and those who hold out hope that Russia too may one day be part of a Europe whole and free, but it is certainly in our interest to foster democracy in a nation of almost 150 million people on the doorstep of Europe.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services. She currently serves as the Publisher of the American Diplomacy Journal.