Russia seen through the eyes of an Italian "explorer": Stefano Tiozzo

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Despite the wide media coverage dedicated to it, Russia remains a huge "puzzle" that is not easy to interpret. Stefano Tiozzo is a naturalist photographer and world explorer, having had the opportunity to visit, thanks to his work, a large number of countries documenting his travels through his photographic art.

In 2017 he married in Russia and has since divided his time between Moscow and Turin, his hometown. Over time he developed a deep knowledge of Russia, its people, its varied cultural world and, of course, its politics; knowledge that today shares with us in this interview.

What were the stages in your life and career that brought you into contact with the "Russian World"?

The first contact is what we all had, namely cinema. Mostly Hollywood-style cinema that was heavily affected (and still is affected today) by the stereotypes imposed by the Cold War. For me, Russia was that of Rocky IV, of Hunt for Red October, so to speak.

My first trip to Russia was the central stop on one of my most famous trips, Turin-Beijing. It was 2015, the 70th of the Great Victory, in a freshly annexed Russia of Crimea, with all the diplomatic disaster that ensued. I remember two emotions of that trip very clearly: the first, the realization that I was in a country very different from how I imagined it and how I saw it painted in our media; the second, the sad realization that I, of that country, knew absolutely nothing.

I returned to Moscow a second time in 2017, but not as a tourist, but to marry my wife, a well-known Russian singer of Cabardine origin and adopted Muscovite. Since then I live in the capital, and I wanted to immediately follow up on those impressions of my first trip, trying to decipher the twisted and fascinating Russian reality.

I studied the history of that country, I breathed its atmospheres, I learned the language, I began to listen to their politics in the original language, and to try to get in every way into the Russians' heads to understand how they were different from we Europeans, and a world that I never imagined before has opened up before my eyes.

What is right and wrong in the perception and narrative that we have here in Italy and Europe of Russia? In your opinion, what was the "point of no return" that gave us to the present situation?

Right, honestly not a lot. The image I see in Europe of Russia is always distorted, partial, with a big beacon on the negative aspects of a reality full of contrasts, aimed in such a way as to hide all the causes and phenomena that determined Russia and the Russians today.

We Europeans, as we know, have always suffered from "Eurocentrism": here, when dealing with Russia, the first fundamental mistake that is committed is considering Russia as one of the many European countries. Russia is not Europe, (in its historical and cultural significance) and never has been.

Many others result from this misunderstanding. It was easy to understand this in the times of the USSR, when Moscow and its surroundings were a completely different world from ours, but after the fall of the Union, and the very rapid western and capitalist conversion of the newly formed Russian Federation, the distinction almost disappeared in our imagination , facilitated by Russia's rapid loss of international prestige in the 90s.

Putin's twenty years (for now) has reversed this paradigm, brushing up on some of the stylistic features of the Soviet era to which a large part of the Russian people are still closely linked. Hence the misunderstanding, which had its climax, as well as its point of no return, during the crisis triggered by the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

How much of the old Soviet Union continues to live in today's Russia, in terms of ideology, power management and "propensity to hide problems under the carpet"? And how much instead in people's material life?

We cannot speak of today's Russia by excluding Putin from the equation; a central figure in defining the new identity that Russia has perhaps still been looking for since 1991. In this process, the Soviet legacy is noted several times. Putin himself, KGB school, is a product of the USSR, and of its international politics, and in his speeches he makes absolutely no secret of wanting to restore ancient principles adapted to the new world in which Russia operates today. This can be seen in many aspects, but above all the desire to reposition Russia at the top of the Olympus of the world powers, especially from a military point of view, stands out clearly. There would be a lot to say about it, starting from apparently marginal details, such as the restoration, at the beginning of the Putin era, of the historical national anthem of the USSR appropriately rekindled in the text by the same writer who wrote the text in the time of Stalin and Brezhnev (Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov, ed).

In addition to this detail, the distinctive features of today's Russia that are in clear continuity with the USSR are an institutional communication focused on a proud national belonging, on historical values ​​and in general a clear contrast to the Western bloc, in a sort of re-edition Cold War 2.0. All this was also sanctioned by some of the amendments to the Constitution just voted in the referendum at the end of June: priority of national interests on international treaties, emphasis on the historical origins of the Russian people, ban on territorial negotiation (with all due respect to Crimea and the Kuril islands) , prohibition of historical revisionism on the events of the Great Patriotic War, and, as a final seal, the formal consecration of Russia in the role of legitimate heir of the USSR on a geopolitical level.

As far as material life is concerned, it is no longer possible to imagine anything different between today's Russia and the Soviet one. Those who visited Moscow in the 80s and return to it today hardly realize they are in the same country: today's Russia is totally devoted to western-style consumerist capitalism, in which the people have plunged headlong and without a belt. security, even more than in the West. This is mainly true for cities, much less for the countryside, which in Russia has always been a reality very far from the urban one, two worlds that traditionally suffer from a great mutual lack of communication. Where the main Russian metropolises easily stand up to Western competitors (London, Paris, New York) on every level, the Russian countryside looks more like that of a developing country, even though it no longer has anything of the Soviet past.

In your personal experience, did you find more interest and curiosity from Europeans towards Russia or from Russians towards Europe?

There is no doubt that we Europeans are far more intrigued by Russia than it is the other way around, and the reason is very simple: we know absolutely nothing about them, they know much more about us and they have a well-defined image.

Whenever I ask the question "where do you live?", "In Russia" I meet a face and an almost shocked look in my interlocutor, as if I had told him that I live on Mars. At that point, whatever my interlocutor is doing, typically he stops, opens his eyes wide and begins to fill me with questions, curiosities of all kinds, from politics to everyday life. On the other hand, if a Russian says that I am Italian, he smiles on average, as if I had given him good news, and begins to sing the praises of the "Bel Paese", of how much he likes Italian films and music, of how much he would like to come on holiday to us, but never anyone who has ever asked me anything about how we live in Italy, about the disputes between Renzi, Salvini, Berlusconi and Di Maio, or similar things.

There is also another, more subtle, sometimes unconscious reason. We perceive Russia as a great country, with a weight and relevance far superior to ours, and somehow whether we have feelings of admiration or hatred, we always look at it from the bottom up. They perceive themselves in the same way, so in the eyes of an average Russian, Europe is seen as a set of cute, nice little stars, an excellent holiday destination, but not very relevant. Much greater is the interest aroused by the other great powers, China and the USA.

In the "media war" who took the most aggressive approach? Do you find that the image of Russia given by our media or the image of Europe given by the Russian media are more distorted?

On this point I would say that both sides are particularly partisan, at times more us, at times more them, but adding the scores I would describe it as a draw: just as in Europe everything in Russia that is negative makes news and bounces on all newspapers, in the same way in Russia there is great space for all the news and speculations that can cast a shadow over the European Union.

The recent pandemic was an excellent example, from this point of view, a good exercise to do would be to read today the news of the first days of March that came out in Europe and those that came out in Russia. To note, in this sense, the well-known typically Russian phenomenon of communication under trace, the famous "fake news" spread via social networks and the "troll factories", which however never touch institutional communication, or the main TV and newspapers.

Since the time of the Crimean crisis, the tone of the media debate has undoubtedly tightened considerably, fueled by the uncomfortable terrain of sanctions. Here, the treatment of sanctions on Russia in the media is the paradigm of this clash in the field of information: in Europe sanctions are often praised and painted as very effective in containing the Russian threat, while in Russia they are not only told as something useless, but even as a favor received by the EU, thanks to which Russia was forced to learn how to produce what previously mattered, effectively strengthening its economy.

At the cost of falling into the sentences made, I think the truth is in the middle.

When it comes to Russia it is inevitable, sooner or later, to speak of President (former Prime Minister) Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. But who is Putin really? What does this man represent for the Russians?

Who is Putin really? I think we will know in a few decades, when the long-term results of the approach that it has given and is giving to the country will be evident.

Putin is undoubtedly the symbol of this "Third Phase" of Russian history, after the imperial phase whose symbol was Peter the Great, and the Soviet one embodied by Stalin, and it is curious to note how Putin closely resembles these aspects of communication and character. his two predecessors.

Putin is an extremely interesting character, a white fly in the panorama of today's great international leaders, both in a positive sense (his culture and his preparation often make his colleagues pale) and also in a negative one: let's not forget that being for 20 years at the leading the largest country in the world, it necessarily implies dark sides, especially in a reality where the underworld is so intertwined with the high spheres of power, such as post-Soviet Russia.

Putin was a real salvation for the Russians: he took over the country in the worst moment of its recent history, the turbulent 90s where Russia, in addition to being an international cinderella, faced the consequences in a short time geopolitics of the collapse of the USSR, a wild rush to privatizations that generated the sad phenomenon of the oligarchs, crime, poverty and chaos spread across the country, led by a Yeltsin who in a very short time had burned the heroic image acquired during the coup of state in 1991. Putin takes over the country in 2000, manages to restore order, grow the economy, improve the standard of living of the Russians and, above all, return to Russia that leading role on the international arena to which the Russians they are so close.

The peak of the consensus, which exceeded 93%, was in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, perceived by the Russians as an unprecedented strategic masterpiece in the country's recent history.

In summary: in the eyes of the Russians, Putin represents stability, strength, and sovereignty that produce the much sought-after international respect.

Putin today faces a big drop in consensus because of the succession of economic and currency crises (especially in the aftermath of the sanctions and today because of the pandemic) and due to growing opposition in the cities, which increasingly want a democratic lifestyle- western, but we still speak of a 60% consensus in the lowest estimates. I don't know how many leaders in the world can boast similar numbers.

How much of Putin's popularity is due to the genuine support he has as a statesman and how much is due to the traditional Russian propensity "to obedience to the leader"?

Here too there is the risk of falling into commonplaces, but the story is clear: Russia is a country that in terms of structure and geography needs a strong, charismatic and authoritarian leader. Russia is an immense country, it crosses 11 time zones and within it dozens of ethnic groups live together that have literally nothing to do with each other, such as traditions, culture, and even as a language. On closer inspection, the Russians are only part of this huge multi-ethnic cauldron that still today in some ways recalls the empires of the ancient world.

It is impossible to govern a country with these characteristics without strong leadership, and in this sense to the question I answer that one thing often fades into the other: Russians really like having an authoritarian leader, and once they recognize it, they are very happy to follow its guide. In Putin's case, his role in international politics in the eyes of the Russians is such as to justify all the huge gaps in domestic politics: the feeling of security and protection that Putin is able to convey to his people, often surpasses any other sentiment, especially far from the big cities (which, in hindsight, should be considered as separate states, divorced from what Russia is in its real extension).

What is the reason for the apparent "love" that the Russians have for Italy? Do you think that the Italian political leadership could strive to find a way to use this "attraction" as a lever to protect our international interests?

The Russians have always loved Italy. If we exclude the sad period of the fascist invasion of 1941-42 (in Russia with the term "Fascists" are considered all the invaders who took part in the German-led Operation Barbarossa during the Second World War, ed), Russian history is always tied by a thin thread of love towards our country.

A few examples on the fly: the architects who built the Kremlin are Italian, as are most of the buildings in St. Petersburg. The greatest exponents of Russian literature loved Italy and described it as a dream place in their works, from Dostoevsky to Gogol, passing through Chekhov.

Then Italian cinema, which in Soviet times was among the very few western-style exceptions admitted by heavy censorship. The same goes for music, especially the imagination that revolves around the Sanremo festival.

We then think of the relationship between VAZ and FIAT. The largest communist party in Europe at the time of the USSR was Italian, and it was in Italy that Lenin's only bust was found on this side of the "Iron Curtain". And many examples of this type could be made for each sector.

The Russians love us, and any Italian who visits Russia can verify it with his own eyes. But if we put politics in the middle, things get much more complicated as talking about Russia today means turning your back on the European Union.

It is not for me to say what is better, but it is obvious that any sovereignist party will find a strong international supporter in Russia, and its main antagonist in the EU. As long as Russia and the EU are two opposing blocs as they are today, any discussion of Italian domestic politics will first of all have to consider this, that is, which side to stand on.

There are those who argue that our interests are better protected within the EU, and those who argue that they would be much more protected if we brought the example of Brexit into our home. Without forgetting the glaring case of last year's Russia-League relations, we saw it very well during the pandemic, when a brief agreement between our Prime Minister and Russia to receive medical / military aid triggered panic among the fringes more pro-European and Russophobic politics and public opinion. Here too, we are faced with a scenario reminiscent of a faded, nuanced and less sharp version of Italian historical bipartisanship where DC meant West and America, and PC meant USSR and Communism.

Today's world is confused, there are no longer such clear sides, the right sometimes becomes left, and vice versa, but the basic concept has remained roughly intact.

What future do Russians see for their country? What could be the trajectory that Russia will take in the near future?

As I said, Russia has always been characterized by a strong lack of communication between cities and countryside, therefore the answer is different depending on which Russia we consider. I do not think rural Russia has great aspirations for change that go beyond an improvement in living standards in terms of wages and pensions: my perception is that for them national and patriotic pride prevails over any other speech. The urban reality is different, especially in cities such as Moscow and even more so in St. Petersburg, where the push towards a Russia more similar to western democracies is increasingly strong, and indeed is accentuated by the Putinian twenty years, which now seems ready to transform itself into an abundant thirty years.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are cities devoted to turbocapitalism in its highest expression, even more than in the West, and their inhabitants will not be willing to tolerate a Russia that takes a step backwards in this direction: any attempt to isolate Russia from the network commercial and cultural established in recent years with the rest of the world will have to clash with this wall, which precisely does not exist outside the major metropolitan areas.

Since Russia has always been a country with strong traction in its capital (remember the proverbial "Moskva Gavarìt" of Soviet memory) I think it will be the latter tendency to prevail in the long run, but it is not so obvious, history tells us teaches that in Russia everything can change at any moment.

To conclude, I wanted to offer you 3 quotes about Russia. The first is by the British statesman Winston Churchill: "Russia is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery that lies within an enigma". The second is by the Russian political scientist Vitaly Tretjakov: "We are too big and too Russian to give up our role in the world". And the last one and myself: “Russia is an empire. However you take it and from any angle you look at it, either Russia is interpreted through the lens of its imperial identity or it will never be understood ". How much do each of them, in your opinion, represent the "truth of Russia"?

Difficult choice, all three sentences represent an aspect of the truth, but having to choose, I would trust Churchill, for the simple fact that the sentence reported is applicable to everything that represents Russia and the Russian people "in toto", not limited to its international and geopolitical role. In fact, Russia is not just Putin, military parades, diplomatic crises and conflicting political realities: Russia is made up of people, ethnic groups, cultures that intertwine like the threads of a huge skein impossible to unravel, where, no matter how hard one tries , it will never be possible to have a satisfactory overview, but only partial visions can be accumulated in series, sometimes totally in contrast with each other, but which still remain part of a single large unit. This is why Russia is so fascinating: as soon as you have the desire or the good fortune to overcome the wall of prejudices or even worse of hasty judgments, what appears before your eyes is a universe so multifaceted that it is really difficult for any curious person not to suffer the magnetism, well aware that a lifetime will not be enough to solve this puzzle wrapped in mystery inside the enigma ... After all, Russia, like life, is not a destination, but a real journey.

Photo: Stefano Tiozzo