On Monday 23 May, we spoke with Russia expert Gijs Kessler, affiliated with the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. A specialist in the social and economic history of the Soviet Union and Russia, Kessler lived in Moscow between 2002 and 2016. He recently published his book "Russia: country that wants to be different".
It was a fascinating conversation on a so very topical subject. Kessler was asked about the origins of his interest in Russia, the reasons for writing this book to the social history of the country in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The social problems within Russia and mindsets among its people clearly have an impact on the present.
Importantly, Kessler wrote his book before the invasion of Ukraine. A choice has been made by him since 24 February not to rewrite the book, which means that current knowledge of the situation has therefore been deliberately not incorporated. Kessler did not seek explanations for the invasion. As a result, of great value are precisely those facets of the book: causes are described without a the current 'glasses'.
Is the title correct?
Kessler's old college friend, our director Arjen Berkvens, noticed one thing in particular after reading the book: the title. According to him, the entire book was precisely about Russia's quest to become a "normal" country, as well as Russians' desire to do so. So why was the title "Russia: country that wants to be different" chosen? Watch it interview back for the answer to this.
How are Russians coping with the current crisis?
A number of questions from the virtual audience naturally led to discussion of the current situation in Russia. Kessler addressed the lack of collective responsibility in Russia. Precisely because Russians have absolutely no influence on national politics, they also do not feel responsible for Putin's misdeeds. You can't blame Russians for that either, according to Kessler.
To suit another question, it was also about Putin's support among Russians. Kessler stressed that it is mostly not support based on ideas, but on mere self-interest. Once self-interest disappears, support can collapse. Yet among Russians who support Putin, there is also always a sense of "just choke on it" towards the rest of the world.
An insight into a yet unknown country
These were just three of the many interesting topics of conversation. All in all, we can look back on a very nice conversation between two old friends, on a very relevant topic, but so with a different angle from many other discussions today. Russia is incomprehensible to many and everything is different than it seems. Kessler fleshes this out in his book.