At the Ivangorod-Narva border crossing, the last glimpse of Russia is of a sprawling fortress and the first sight of Estonia is another fortress on the other bank of a slender river. They’re almost comically close: People with strong arms could have a game of catch between the ramparts.
But the proximity is deceptive — the psychological distance between Estonia and Russia is immense and only widening. The countries that once were part of the Soviet Union took radically different paths after the USSR’s collapse.
Estonia largely fulfilled the wish of its former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves to become “just another boring Northern European country.” With low-key determination, Estonia remade itself into a model of order and ease, enticing to startup companies and “digital nomads.”
Russia initially cultivated lively debate and flamboyantly welcomed the world, then gradually choked off freedoms and closed itself off while its citizens fled and uneasy foreigners felt compelled to leave. In 2022, it launched a war against Ukraine that sharply intensified the growing isolation.
I spent 24 years on one side of the Narva River as a Moscow-based correspondent for The Associated Press, cheered by Russia’s steps forward and disheartened by its retreats into anger and animosity.
Now assigned to Estonia, I sit on the other side and try to parse Russia’s lost promise — seemingly both inexplicable and inevitable.
My first neighborhood in Moscow was full of startling scenes. Prostitutes milled outside an emergency clinic. Among the locals trying to scrape together money was a woman who peddled smoked fish and bras. A shop that nominally sold flowers was stacked to the ceiling with bags of dog food.
For a foreigner getting paid in a stable currency, this was engaging black comedy. For Muscovites, it was a daily burden of unpredictability and embarrassment. Rather than reconstructing lives, Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika had undermined many of them; economic “shock therapy” was therapeutic only for some. Eight years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia still appeared unable to get a grip.
Amid it all, there was plenty of fun to be had, but it didn’t feel so much like coming-of-age joy as a last revel — garish casinos lit up main drags and kiosks perched on almost every corner, offering vodka and beer 24/7.
The political scene was lively, if disorderly, with seven parties and about two dozen independent lawmakers holding a marked array of views. National broadcasters covered politics intently, often tendentiously, and some weekend news shows were considered must-see TV.
Vladimir Putin’s sudden ascent to the Kremlin as acting president on New Year’s Eve 1999 was startling but suggested some welcome order was coming. His televised message, coming hours after a sad and ill Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation, praised Russia’s moves toward “democracy and reform” and promised continued freedom of speech and conscience.
He later dropped hints of an unusually accommodating outlook. In an interview before his inauguration, he was asked if Russia could become a member of NATO and responded, “Why not?” In his early days, he also promised to pay off Russia’s debilitating Soviet-era debts. If not exactly likeable, he at least appeared steady and reliable.
This was the side of Putin that induced U.S. presidents to speak well of him — notably George W. Bush, who claimed to have a “sense of his soul” and considered him trustworthy.
Another side emerged early in his presidency as authorities went after major news media controlled by troublesome tycoons: NTV, the national station most critical of the Kremlin, came under the control of the state natural gas monopoly, and Channel One was controlled by the infamous Boris Berezovsky, who soon fled the country.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man who headed the Yukos oil company, was pulled off his jet in 2003 and sentenced to prison in a trial seen as revenge for his ambitions to challenge Putin.
Laws restricting political gatherings and crimping potential candidates’ ability to get on the ballot followed. Putin-adoring youth groups arose seemingly overnight, derided by some as “Putin-Jugend,” a play on the name for Nazi youth organizations. Putin began revealing a deep ethnonationalist strain, declaring that Russia had the right to protect Russian-speakers no matter where they lived.
The quality of day-to-day life was rising as steeply as civil life declined. A country once known for dingy desperation sprouted gargantuan shopping malls; formerly disdainful waitresses became polite; parks got their grass mowed. These immediate, tangible pleasures likely soothed many Russians’ concerns about politics.
But it was more than simply trading principles for a shopping trip to IKEA.
Ideology had rarely served Russians well — Communism, czarist divinity, the immiseration of millions in the transition to capitalism. Opposition forces were undermined by factional disputes and dull or disreputable leaders. Protests arose, but were violently put down by police; a night or two of being crammed into a reeking jail cell discouraged turning out a second time.
Alexei Navalny — inventive, principled and full of bravado — for a few years appeared to be the galvanizing figure who could bring the opposition together. In 2021, he boldly returned to Russia after recovering abroad from poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin; he got as far as passport control before being seized and now appears likely to spend at least another two decades in prison.
It looked like Russia’s nadir, until Putin launched the war on Ukraine, citing amorphous threats from the West, contending the Jewish president was a Nazi and proclaiming manifest destiny.
A regime that avidly sought Western investors and longed to show off for visitors so much that it poured tens of billions of dollars into an Olympics and soccer's World Cup, had made itself a pariah.
A few days after the Ukraine invasion began, Russia enacted lengthy prison terms for spreading discrediting “fake news” about the operation. Foreign journalists bolted. They started coming back a few months later, sensing they weren’t targets but always looking over their shoulders.
Then Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal was arrested on charges of espionage.
“Once leaders grow to rely on repression, they become reluctant to exercise restraint for fear that doing so could suggest weakness and embolden their critics and challengers," analysts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs. "If anything, Putin is moving Russia more and more toward totalitarianism.”
That was published one day before the June 23-24 mercenary uprising that initially made Putin look weak. Two months later, the leader of that rebellion, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed along with other top officials of the Wagner private military company in a suspicious plane crash, although the Kremlin has denied any involvement.
A frequent explanation for the country’s fall into autocracy and oppression is “Russians want to have czars,” as if this were encoded in their DNA. That’s glib and dismissive, a cousin of the chronic Kremlin complaint that Americans inherently suffer “Russophobia,” suggesting that sanctions punish Russians for who they are rather than for what they do.
National culture surely has a role, however. Estonians avoid extremes; their national cultural icon is minimalist composer Arvo Pärt, whose pieces can seem barely there. Russians swing for the fence, loving the sweeping effusions of Tchaikovsky and the dissonant drama of Shostakovich. Although adjacent, they have little in common.
But just upriver from the Ivangorod fortress, a couple of old-timers watched their fishing poles and joshed with each other. Though their words were indistinct, their barks of laughter were clear on the Estonian side, easily crossing a cultural chasm at the speed of sound.
Jim Heintz has covered Russia for The Associated Press since 1999.