TALLINN, Estonia — Vladimir Putin has compared himself to Tsar Peter the Great. But to travel through Eastern Europe is to see how much he instead caused Russian influence to shrink.
I traveled through Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – and it is clear that Putin has succeeded in uniting almost everyone against Russia. Even Russian speakers, who often felt loyalty to Moscow, are now fundraising for Ukraine.
One of my first memories is of a trip to Poland in the 1960s to visit my grandparents (Kristof is short for Krzysztofowicz). What I remember is that communist Poland seemed endlessly bleak and depressing. Later, when I started traveling through Eastern Europe as a law student and aspiring journalist, my main impression was that in the communist bloc you don’t need color film.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who was in Vilnius for the NATO summit, told me that when he first visited the country in 1979, he had the same impression: “It looked like everything had been whitewashed with gray paint. It was dreary and lifeless.” Flash forward, and today these countries are almost unrecognizable: lively, colorful and much richer than Russia. Poland has become a high-end manufacturing base for Europe, and Intel recently announced that it will build a $4.6 billion chip factory near Wroclaw.
“Poland could serve as a model for countries in the east,” Mark Brzezinski, the US ambassador to Poland, told me. And Russia was a different kind of model.
“Putin’s actions since February 2022 have proven the thesis that Russia under Putin is interested in leadership by terror and authoritarianism,” Brzezinski added. “For other countries of the former Soviet bloc, if they ever wavered about joining the West, they must have had an enlightening experience.”
The improvements in the Baltics were as pronounced as those in Poland. Estonia is now a jewel of Europe, the global model of a high-tech and prosperous “e-state”. It has fueled countless high-tech startups, including Skype, and as I walked through Tallinn, the capital, I shared a sidewalk with a robot delivering takeout to a nearby home.
In contrast, Russia and the places that remained in its orbit like Belarus and Transnistria remain gloomy and oppressive. A glimpse from that side of the abyss: One of the bravest journalists in the world, Elena Milashina, who reported on human rights in Russia, was recently attacked in Chechnya; thugs beat her, shaved her head, poured dye on her and left her with brain damage.
Putin claims to be a champion of the rights of Russian speakers, whose families often moved to neighboring nations when they were all under Soviet rule. And historically many were allied with Moscow and had grievances against the post-communist pro-Western governments. Now Putin has reversed that. His invasion and behavior embarrasses many Russian speakers and makes them rethink their allegiance.
In Lviv, Ukraine, Oleksandra Kabanova told me that she and her husband are native Russian speakers who have always spoken to each other in Russian. But after her husband joined the Ukrainian Army last year to fight the Russian invaders, they switched to Ukrainian, even if she sometimes struggles to find the right word.
“It was far too toxic to continue speaking Russian,” she said.
Putin’s invasion paradoxically strengthened the Baltic countries, which until last year faced fundamental challenges. Each had a seemingly indigestible Russian minority, plus NATO’s real-life commitment to protecting these countries was uncertain — especially during Donald Trump’s presidency. (A nightmare for leaders in the region is that Trump is re-elected in 2024, potentially wrecking NATO, cutting aid to Ukraine and saving Putin from himself.)
Putin also revived NATO. It has added Finland and is moving to include Sweden, and there is a renewed commitment to Article 5, which would see all NATO countries rush to fight any Russian incursion. As for the Russian speakers, they are finally digested.
“The majority of our Russian speakers are with us,” Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told me. “They clearly see that life here is much better than life in Russia.”
The mood in the Baltics is reflected by a huge poster in Riga, Latvia, showing Putin’s face as that of a skull-like monster.
The fundamental truth is that Putin has weakened Russia. It appears to be in a long-term economic and demographic decline that Putin has accelerated. Russia’s only claim to importance is its nuclear arsenal; as they say, it’s “Burkina with nuclear bombs.”
Driving through the countries that Moscow once ruled, through societies now united against him, I’m willing to bet that Putin will not be remembered as a modern Peter the Great. Rather, he will go down in history as the leader who broke his country: Vladimir the Lilliputian.