The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin is Sovietizing Russia. It is becoming the country my family fled in 1976.

Communist Party supporters in Russia hold a picture of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a rally on Defender of the Fatherland day in Moscow on Feb. 23. (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When my mother, grandmother and I left Moscow and came to America in 1976, we were astonished by the abundance of consumer goods. Stores not only had toothpaste and toilet paper — they had multiple brands. No more lining up for meat! Or butter. Or shoes. Or anything else. Bananas, an unobtainable luxury good in the Soviet Union, were a supermarket staple in the United States. But what stayed with me the most as a child was the deep-fried deliciousness I discovered at a temple of haute cuisine called McDonald’s. I had never tasted a french fry or a Big Mac before! I was in small-kid heaven.

Fourteen years later, those still living in Moscow could taste Big Macs and french fries for themselves. The first McDonald’s opened in Pushkin Square in 1990 — a sign that the Soviet Union was being transformed into a Western, capitalist society. So what does it say about the current state of Russia that McDonald’s just announced that it was suspending operations at its 850 Russian restaurants?

With his barbaric invasion of Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has pushed “rewind” on more than 30 years of Russian history. The faltering steps Russia has been taking since the late 1980s to develop an open society have been erased in the blink of an eye. In just a few weeks, Russia has gone from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, and its economy has been disconnected from the West. This isn’t quite Stalinization — Putin isn’t sending millions to the gulag — but it is definitely Sovietization. Now the most sanctioned country in the world, Russia is returning to the kind of backward and repressive place that my family fled in 1976.

In the West, both the far left and the far right revile “globalization.” Well, Russia today is a case study in what happens when a country “de-globalizes.” Russians are losing access not just to McDonald’s but to Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Ikea, Visa, Mastercard, Apple, Goldman Sachs and all the rest. The stock market is closed. The ruble is in free fall. A debt default is likely. There are long lines as Western stores close, and grocery stores are rationing flour and sugar. Putin is now threatening to nationalize the assets of Western companies that are leaving Russia. If he carries through on his threat, few Western companies are likely to return.

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Life probably hasn’t changed much — yet — for the bulk of ordinary Russians, but this is a traumatic upheaval for the urban middle class. They had acquiesced to Putin’s illiberal rule because they counted on him to provide stability and prosperity after the tumultuous 1990s. They could live with not choosing their own leaders if, in return, they could choose any vacation spot in the world. The richest Russians — the oligarchs — lived in a Gucci bubble: In return for supporting Putin, they got to accumulate fabulous riches in the West. Now their yachts are being confiscated, and they are getting all of the downsides of Putin’s mercurial rule with little of the upside.

Putin is not a democratic politician who needs to win votes, but, like any despot, he is eager to brainwash his population. So he is cracking down on dissent, snuffing out the last remnants of a free press and banning American social media sites. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, there were always Western reporters in Russia. But now Western news bureaus are shuttering and few sources of independent reporting remain.

The lies of Putin’s lackeys would make Stalin blush: The United States is training migratory birds to fly from Ukraine to Russia to distribute “bacteriological weapons.” Ukrainian victims of Russian bombing are “crisis actors.” The Ukrainians are shelling their own cities. Russia’s foreign minister even denies that Russia attacked Ukraine. It is now a crime in Russia to call the war a war; it’s a “special military operation.” The only war Putin mentions is the economic one being waged on Russia. This is Orwellian — or, more accurately, Putinian.

Presiding over this catastrophe is the most powerful and most isolated Russian leader since Stalin. Putin sees few of his own aides in person anymore — and when he does, he makes them sit as far away as possible. He is said to spend most of his time at a sprawling compound midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg with its own solarium, bowling alley, golf course, swimming pools and saunas, where he can nurse his grievances in solitude.

While claiming to be fighting “neo-Nazis,” Putin is creating his own fascist cult whose symbol is the letter Z, which is painted on Russian military vehicles invading Ukraine. He appears to view himself as another great czar — the second coming of Peter the Great — reviving the Russian empire. In fact, he is destroying not only Ukraine but also Russia in pursuit of his mad dreams of imperial glory.

Watching the dismal, depressing events of recent weeks, I am immensely grateful to my late mother for bringing me out of the Soviet Union. I grieve for all those still trapped in Putin’s prison.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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