To the Union Jack pub on Potapovsky Lane for a US election night party. The jolly Muscovite Trump supporters who organised the event had gone to the effort of providing girls with tight–fitting Trump-Pence T-shirts and Make America Great Again baseball caps. In pride of place beside the bar hung a specially commissioned triptych of oil paintings — heroic Soviet-style portraits of Russia’s new heroes: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.
Among the guests were a group of young men from Tsargrad TV, Russia’s popular new Orthodox nationalist channel. Sporting neatly trimmed beards and sharp suits, they were a Russian version of Republican evangelicals. In one corner was a motley collection of middle-aged American right-wingers, identifiable by their lapel buttons and red ties. The foreigners were feted lavishly, as communist fellow travellers once were. For these chaps, Vladimir Putin has become a kind of Che Guevara for the anti-establishment right, the leader of a worldwide movement whose time, they believe, has come.
Perhaps rashly, I had accepted a series of invitations to appear on Russian TV talk shows. The very first thing Putin did on coming to power in 2000 was eliminate independent television stations: the looking-glass worldview projected from the nation’s screens remains the cornerstone of his power today. Russian TV is a strange world where nothing is true and everything is possible, in Peter Pomerantsev’s memorable phrase. Naturally, all channels were in a lather of excitement about the triumph of Trump and, apparently, the forthcoming disintegration of Nato and collapse of the West.
Owen Matthews discusses Russia’s reception of the Trump victory
I was told by grateful TV producers that while pro-Putin Americans are two-a-penny, there is a terrible dearth of foreigners in Moscow willing to take a pro-western line on their show. I quickly realised why. My role appeared to be to act as a human punchbag — and also to answer personally for the multitudinous sins of the West, from the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 to America’s ‘aggression’ in Ukraine in 2013. I found myself momentarily stumped by this last, but was quickly enlightened: America apparently orchestrated the Maidan revolution in Ukraine that brought a ‘fascist junta’ to power, from which the Crimean people fled to the protection of Russia. And by the way, the US obviously wants to take over Iraq and Syria and only Russia stands against the march of American global hegemony. Advancing into that barrage felt like going over the top into raking machine-gun fire.
It got worse. By Friday, Russian TV was joyously showing footage of anti-Trump riots across the US, calling it an ‘uprising’. One of the axioms of Russian TV is that no demonstration can be spontaneous. Every revolt, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to the Maidan Square in Kiev to downtown Portland this week, must be the work of sinister secret forces working for Hillary Clinton. The US tried to stoke popular risings to destabilise Russia, but now the ‘Orange boomerang’ (named for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution) has rebounded on America, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zaharova told us gravely.
An ad from Craigslist offering $15 an hour to people willing to ‘Stop Trump’ was triumphantly flashed onto the screen as evidence of a Hillary conspiracy to overturn the election result — until I pointed out that the ad’s purpose had been to encourage voters to go to the polls, three days previously. Momentary confusion reigned until the host came back with a spirited response. ‘With what we know about Hillary’s corruption and America’s flawed voting system, I don’t think you have anything to teach us about democracy or thieving politicians.’ Cut to an ad break.
One of the hosts asked me jokingly if I enjoyed this kind of ‘gladiatorial combat’. I felt more like an early Christian facing the lions, vainly shouting about the truth making you free. But in fairness I was encouraged to say whatever I liked — and it was really broadcast live, to Moscow, with no time-lapse.
After a few shows I got a few lines off pat. ‘You realise that all this stuff about Syria and America is all cooked up to distract your attention from the staggering thievery of Russia’s leaders?’ and ‘Russia’s economy is the 12th largest in the world and shrinking fast — it’s time to get over the pain of this phantom limb that’s your lost empire and work out how to pay your pensioners.’ And so on.
Slightly to my surprise, the producers seemed delighted by these zingers. Perhaps many of them are simply clever conformists who don’t wholly believe the party line. On the day of Trump’s victory, an editor came up to me in the corridor with a concerned expression. ‘Embarrassed for the idiocy of your countrymen?’ she asked consolingly, taking me for a Yank because I work for Newsweek, an American magazine. ‘Now you know what Russians feel like.’
After all this, facing off against the veteran Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinov-sky felt almost refreshing. At least he’s occasionally honest. ‘The only reason you like Trump is because you wish America harm,’ I ventured. ‘I spit on America,’ he agreed.
Meanwhile, outside the TV studio, Moscow flourishes. The city centre has been fitted with new granite pavements complete with cycle lanes, newly planted trees and even swings for grown-ups. There’s city-wide Wi-Fi and a thriving hipster foodie culture. Thanks to Russia’s self-imposed ban on imported foodstuffs, local chefs have been forced to become locavores, with brilliant results that have transformed Moscow into a gourmet destination. Of course these are just the playthings of a small metropolitan middle class — but compared with the grim, almost post-apocalyptic Moscow I found when I first came to work here in 1995, it feels like progress. Nonetheless, Moscow’s European makeover made me feel nostalgic for a lost future — one without Putin’s return to power in 2012 or his disastrous miscalculation over Crimea that herald-ed Russia’s plunge into nationalism and self-delusion.
My talented Oxford friend Louise Mensch has tweeted that ‘Russia has nothing. Russia is joyless.’ You are quite wrong, Louise. The arts still burn bright. The brilliant Gogol theatre, the Garazh museum of modern art, the upcoming Moscow Art Triennial and a slew of small galleries and theatre workshops ignore the official doom-mongering.
None of this makes up for the casual racism, the institutional homophobia, the scary rising fringe of ultra-nationalists who refuse to be co-opted by the Kremlin. Modern Russia may be deluded, aggressive and possibly dangerous. But never joyless.
Owen Matthews is a contributing editor to Newsweek.