Russia Will Remake Itself. But It Has to Crumble First.

For Ukrainians, the war has meant hell on earth. Countless lives shattered. I watch in horror as my friends there hide out in bomb shelters. Schools, hospitals, residential buildings destroyed by bombs, innocent people reportedly shot dead in the street as they attempt to escape to safety. It is immeasurably cruel, unfair and devastating.

For Russians, there is the fear and disgust at watching Mr. Putin’s ruthless campaign, which will inevitably raise the civilian death toll. There’s also the feeling of helplessness of not having been able to stop it and the shame of being from the country of the aggressor.

And unsurprisingly, Russia has been catapulted into a dark hole. Many foreign companies — clothing and credit card brands, car manufacturers and tech corporations, fast food and retail chains — have suspended operations, affecting every corner of the economy. The West’s sanctions have mostly cut Russian civilians off from the global economy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has ensured that Russians who express opposition to the invasion face persecution: A new law punishes anyone spreading anything it deems “false information” about the war with up to 15 years in prison. This crackdown on freedom is not new to Russians, but it has reached a peak of absurdity: Standing in the street with a flower or a blank sign now gets you loaded into a police van.

Between arrests for speaking out, censorship, rumors of martial law and relentless propaganda, it’s as though we had landed straight in the Stalin era.

The Russia I knew has been erased. What’s coming next is dark. The U.S.S.R. gives us some clues of what it might be like — but even then, there were some flickers of hope.

As my parents’ stories and my archive show, many Soviet citizens found ways to thrive in what was essentially a giant social experiment. Yes, they had to deal with bread lines, news (and propaganda) supplied by the state-controlled, Orwellian-named Pravda (Truth) newspaper and a persistent fear of nuclear war. But they continued to create art, make scientific discoveries and build families and architectural masterpieces. There was a great deal of humor, beauty and creativity behind the Iron Curtain.


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