Putin’s Orphans: Reasons to fear a dark turn in Russia

The Moscow subway. (Photo from Flickr by Stefan Schlautmann)
The Moscow subway. (Photo from Flickr by Stefan Schlautmann)

After teaching my Friday night class near the Kremlin in Moscow, my habit was to buy couple of beers at the streetside kiosk, walk to the subway and a choose a seat on the train with the least possible chance of being leaned on, robbed, arrested or vomited on.

The midnight train would fill up with the odor of alcohol on the breath of the passengers going home from their night out, mixed with perfumes and the heavy sweet stench of hormones.

This was my favorite time of the day…the end of it. The night, when Moscow came into her own.

On this particular night, a group of skinheads stumbled into the compartment, shouting and drinking, and sat down in my section with their vodka bottle and cans of beer. I wished I’d hidden my guitar on the rack above. Guitars and musical instruments always attract the attention of drunks.

Like I said, the train was full of people who, like me, had had a drink. But this group was mean drunk, fighting drunk.

The section was made up of two long seats facing each other. There were four of them opposite facing me, and three squeezed next to me. I was squashed into the corner. One of them grabbed my guitar, but his friend told him to put it back.

I tried to gaze out of the window as the train pulled out of the station to Lobnya, a journey of about 45 minutes, but the light in the carriage just reflected everything back inside, so the window was more like a mirror showing the bare skulls of the four young men opposite, even down to the details of their scars.

He stood up, spilling his beer on me as he leaned over me proclaiming how Russia was going to “nuclear bomb” the whole world.

I had never had any real trouble during my years in Moscow, and had always been left alone. At first I thought it was because Russians preferred to target each other rather than foreigners, but it wasn’t always true. I had learned to blend in and my facial muscles could mimic the Russian poker face, the deadpan frozen mask, which kept emotions well hidden.

But this only worked during the day. At night it slipped off, and people drank to make it slip off. There was no longer anywhere to hide and we were stuck in the long raw pit of pheromones.

Young men in Russian navy uniforms outside a Moscow train station. (Photo by Joe Kilroy)
Young men in Russian navy uniforms outside a Moscow train station. (Photo by Joe Kilroy)

There are always a few boys in groups like this who escalate, and two or three passive ones who will go whichever way the wind blows. There are often a couple who try to keep the pack in check and stop them going too far. The group lives in the tension between the two types of leader, the peacemaker and the destroyer.

The destroyer in this group started to bait me, asking me where I was from.

I spoke Russian with him, but he started to rant about Putin, shouting that Russia was the best country in the world and they were going to “F*ck the USA, f*ck Germany, f*ck Britain and f*ck France!”

There were several others who he went on to f*ck — I can’t remember the whole list. I think it included China.

Europe would be first, he said, because we were all “gay.” The Russian slang word is “pederasti.”

He stood up, spilling his beer on me as he leaned over me proclaiming how Russia was going to “nuclear bomb” the whole world.

The passive ones in this group stared at me with dead eyes. The one with intelligent eyes gave me a knowing look as if to say, “Yes, I know it’s sad that my life has come to this, I did quite well at school and wanted to be something better but, you know, friends are friends at the end of the day. We have compulsory military service here and it’s hard to shake off the guys you get billeted with.”

I ignored the beer spill, and the ranting, as he leaned over and asked me if I knew Russia was the greatest country in the world and that Putin was the greatest leader, and that he could “fuck over that n****r Obama” any time he wanted to.

I said I liked Russia very much but didn’t want to be around when any nuclear war took place, and I hoped what he was saying wasn’t true.

“We Russians just deserve some f*cking respect!” “Yobanii Uvazhenyie!” he shouted at me, his spit spraying my face. “First we’re going to f*ck Berlin, then we’re going to f*ck London!”.

The group started a chant of “RO-SSI-YA!” “RO-SSI-YA!” punching the air with their fists, as they stood up to get off at their stop.

This train journey happened in early 2014, just a couple of months before I left Moscow.

Until then, I had never been so close to these types of ultra-nationalist ‘Putin orphans.’ I couldn’t take seriously the idea that Russia would really start sending its pale-faced raggedy conscripted boys to die anonymously in Ukraine soon.

Russian people had been slowly wound up into this state of nationalist fever over the previous four or five years. I just hadn’t noticed it until that night on the train.

Months later, after the annexation of Crimea, I remembered the boys on the train. At the time, I had thought they were just drunks who didn’t mean or even really understand what they were saying. I hadn’t taken their words seriously.

But now Russian TV channels were showing the same hysterical aggressiveness in speeches by members of the Russian State Duma, and it finally clicked for me. Russian people had been slowly wound up into this state of nationalist fever over the previous four or five years. I just hadn’t noticed it until that night on the train.

Terrorist attacks in Europe were followed immediately by gleeful vitriol from Russian TV personalities and politicians.

Dmitry Kiselev, the most famous Russian TV presenter on Russia’s main state-run TV channel boasted, “Russia is now the only country that is easily capable of turning the USA into nuclear ashes.”

Some well-known Russian politicians like LDPR (Russian Liberal Democratic Party) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said after the terror attacks in Paris and Nice that, “Terror acts all over Europe are very beneficial to us, let them all die and perish!”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying that the “terrorist attacks in Europe are happening because the Western countries are continuing their policy of isolating Russia.”

Last August, members of the Moscow Duma listened attentively to a rant not far off from what I heard on the train, by the same leader of the “Russian Liberal Democratic Party,” Zhirinovsky. He called for Paris to be “burned down” and for Berlin and Germany to be “obliterated by nuclear missile strikes,” shouting “Bomb Germany! Bomb it! From Russian airfields just bomb the whole of Germany until nothing is left! Not one stone! Not one German!”

And just last month, on December 13th, in response to the world’s horror at the pictures of dead children emerging from Russian bombing in Syria, Russia’s representative at the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin claimed that, “Hundreds of photos from Syria are not real, they are staged, they deliberately sprinkled dust on their children to make them look like bomb victims.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia on December 23, 2016. (Photo from Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia on December 23, 2016. (Photo from Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin)

When I got home to my flat in the Moscow suburbs, that night on the train three years ago, I made myself a cup of tea and stared for a long time out of the window at the snow falling through the bare branches of the trees.

I had been shocked by the words of those boys, and shaken by their aggression. But also I could not help feeling that like all vitriolic threats, they masked a deep sense of failure and low self-esteem. There was such a desperation in their eyes and their words, as if all their hatred of the U.S. and Obama really just sprang from an abyss of spite and malevolence which had its source in envy and jealousy.

Russians are constantly being pushed by their government and media to measure themselves in comparison to the U.S.

There is a famous Ukrainian joke that goes something like: “Russians always think that they are at war with America. They are always fighting against the U.S. sometimes in Georgia, sometimes in Ukraine, sometimes in Syria. Maybe we should buy them an atlas.”

There’s a deeper meaning here: Russians are constantly being pushed by their government and media to measure themselves in comparison to the U.S. People in the Soviet era believed the U.S. was the promised land, and dreamed of being able to have such a life of material wealth and prosperity.

In the 1990’s Russia had the chance to take a new path, free itself from the sludge of Soviet stagnation, and to build a new kind of life for itself and maybe even compete with the U.S. After living in Russia for almost a decade, I have many personal stories that attest to the fact that Russians are capable of such great things.

But instead, Russia now finds itself skidding back into the same sludge, driven there by apparatchiks who were cogs in the same cold grey broken machinery, and whose only way to hang onto their vast stolen fortunes is to use its controlled media to create the myth amongst its people that all Russia’s problems are caused by America.

Instead of Russian people being allowed to build a country that can be proud of its achievements, they are manipulated into a delirium of desperate patriotism based on the adrenaline of vitriol and blame.

Instead of being able to know the satisfaction of building something good in the world, they are goaded and manipulated into a hysterical frenzy at the idea of having the next best thing; the chance to destroy those who they envy and resent, and who they are being pushed to blame for the decline of their country.

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3 Comments

  1. Yet even after such atrocities, the ‘World ‘ is still allowing Russia to stage one of the planets biggest sporting event , the 2018 World Cup.
    Shame on you gutless leaders.

  2. Money Jerry. It’s how Putin usually manages to suck up his hoards of sycophants and ball washers. Agree. We have been gutless and guileless. We have no idea what level of bravery it took for those Baltic States and Ukraine to break away from Mordor, and it looks like they will be left in the lurch. Ukraine had the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which she gave up after signing the Budapest Memorandum 1994 which gave those states security assurances if they were attacked by a foreign power. And now look what that treaty was worth. It is shameful for us to treat Ukraine etc as if they were just part of the Russian Gulag Empire without any right to self determination, and nothing more to aspire to than to remain in its morbid grasp.

  3. Drunken teens returned from a football match and began to tease the foreigner. They showed rudeness and started to frighten. In fact, they were bullying and wanted to fight, but there was no resistance. Teens
    Several times chanted Russia-Russia and left.
    Why did they show aggression? Probably their favorite football team “Spartacus” lost again))).
    The guys in the subway of a foreigner. They started the listing of all the important countries of Europe and remembered the United States. They tried to guess which country the foreigner came from. If a foreigner said: “Guys, go ahead … I’m Serb (Italian, Irish, Greek, Norwegian
    …. I’m not interested in politics, these teenagers have changed the tone and aggression disappeared. But the foreigner retained the intrigue and the
    Demonstrated to him, how they are love, and are ready to fight for it in any part of the world. Then they decided to remind that Russia is a nuclear power and will be bombed by everything if the West and the United States offend Russia. That’s the whole story about stupid teenagers and a frightened foreigner. And it was not necessary to say that you love Russia. These guys were rude. In vain you said that you love Russia. Recognition of love for Russia was superfluous in this situation. Ignore … or a hard, calm answer.
    In the photo the young Nakhimovites (cadets of the children’s naval school) They are future naval officers. These boys will not show rudeness to foreigners. They are the best part of the Russian youth.

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