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Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part III: The Leader and Society: Prospects for Change

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part III: The Leader and Society: Prospects for Change

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In the third and final part of my essay on Russian civil society, I examine what the Russian people want in a leader and how well Vladimir Putin is doing in that role. Next, I look at what society wants: Is it willing to continue with current conditions, or does it want fundamental change? I conclude with a commentary on the efforts of the leaders of the protest movement to bring about change and the prospects for real transformation.


The Leader and Society

What Do the People Want in a Leader?

I concluded Part II of this essay with a section on nostalgia for the Soviet Union and an observation that Joseph Stalin’s approval rating related to his role in Russian history has been growing in recent years and has now reached 70 percent. I also noted that when Putin acts in a more authoritarian manner, Stalin also become. We saw this after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.

This begs the question: What type of ruler do the Russians want?

The Russian word vozhd’ means “leader.” It is an ancient word that was frequently used to describe a chieftain or a head of tribes. Over time it has acquired a special meaning. Today, the word implies a leader who personifies strength, power, and ultimate authority. Stalin was referred to as vozhd’. He personified the concept of an infallible leader who inspires awe and adulation and who demands obedience and unquestionable loyalty.

Does Putin also deserve to be referred to as vozhd’? Does Putin want to be perceived, if not openly referred to, as vozhd’? Do the people want to have a vozhd’, and do they see Putin as a leader with the qualities of a vozhd’?

The Russian propaganda machine has not been hesitant to elevate Putin to an exalted position and has referred to him at times as vozhd’. Although he did not use that term, then-Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin famously said in 2014, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” Now, as Chairman of the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament), Volodin has made another obsequious statement about Putin. On June 18, 2020, Volodin said, “After Putin will be Putin,” implying that Putinism will outlive Putin himself. After Putin was elected president for the fourth time in March 2018, Margarita Simonyan, head of the English-language RT television network (formerly known as Russia Today) said, “Before, he [Putin] was simply our president, and it was possible to change him. Now he is our vozhd’, and we will not let that be changed.” Statements such as these contribute to an effort to build a personality cult around Putin like the one that surrounded Stalin. The ubiquitous portraits of Putin; the songs of adulation from pop singers as well as ordinary citizens; the fawning of toady TV personalities; and the extensive memorabilia with images of Putin are designed to promote Putin—the authoritarian leader—as vozhd’.

But does Putin accept this adulation and see himself as vozhd’? A man who has ruled as an authoritarian for more than 20 years and appears to be ready to rule until 2036 understands the necessity of being perceived as the undisputed leader and recognizes that a personality cult is unavoidable and can be useful. But Putin is not Stalin. He does not rule in the same manner. He does not have the absolute power that Stalin had. Some would argue that Putin is quite weak and maintains his control by balancing a complex and precarious network of competing forces of power within the government, security forces, and the oligarchs. In other words, he may more closely resemble the Wizard of Oz than the vicious Stalin. Finally, Russia is not the Soviet Union. The latter was a totalitarian state; the former is much weaker and is authoritarian but not totalitarian. Because the word vozhd’ is so closely associated with Stalin and all the negative baggage associated with the late dictator—the terror, the mass murders, the deportations of entire ethnic groups to the harsh climates of Siberia and Central Asia, and all the other crimes of his regime—Putin eschews the title of vozhd’. He much prefers to be seen as an effective leader, a good manager, and a wise president who is guiding his country toward a better future.

As for the people, 75 percent of Russians still want their country to be led by a “strong and powerful leader,” according to a Levada Center poll published on its website on February 25, 2020. Specifically, “49 percent think Russia needs a strong hand all the time (down 9 percentage points from November 2018) while another 26 percent think it is needed some of the time, for example at present (up from 22 percent on 2018).” Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, believes that the results of the poll reflect Russians’ traditional view of the “good tsar” versus the corrupt bureaucrats and local officials. He explains:

The people think that a strong leader can offset the corrupt bureaucracy. Our party system is fictitious and does not reflect the interests of the people, so they don’t have a vision of where the country is going. The desire for a strong leader reflects the people’s disorientation and dissatisfaction with the authorities and their hope for a leader who can ensure social justice and somehow rein in the bureaucracy. Such is the nature of our political culture—holding on to illusory hope for the future and exasperation with reality.

But not everyone shares this need for a “strong hand.” The same poll reveals that the percentage of respondents who are opposed to placing all power in the hands of one person “under any circumstances” has risen from 18 percent to 22 percent.

Assessing Putin

If Putin does not see himself as a vozhd’, and considers himself, instead, to be an effective leader, a good manager, and a wise president, how does society assess his job performance, and do the people trust him to lead the country in the right direction?

After more than 20 years as head of state, Putin has lost much of his appeal. Polls show that the Russian people are growing increasingly tired of him, and focus groups have described Putin to pollsters at the Levada Center as “tired, getting old, and simply exhausted.”

Because the national euphoria of the Crimean annexation in 2014 has worn off, and as deteriorating economic conditions have become a reality for many Russian citizens, Putin’s rating has been in steady decline. Pollsters assess Putin’s standing in two categories: trust and approval. Putin’s trust numbers have been falling since 2017. A Levada Center poll published at the beginning of June 2020 ascribed to Putin a trust rating of only 25 percent. This was down from 35 percent in February 2020 and from 59 percent in November 2017. Those who trust Putin the most are pensioners and less educated citizens of all ages. Meanwhile, there has been an interesting change in support from young people. Just a few years ago the youngest Russians were among Putin’s most active supporters. Today, they show much less interest in him.

Putin’s approval rating remains high, but it is slipping. In February 2020, the Levada Center reported that the president’s approval rating had been holding at 67–70 percent for the past six months. A poll conducted in April 2020, however, showed a drop to 59 percent, and it stayed at the same level in May 2020.

The Levada Center explains the difference between the two ratings in the following manner:

Trust is based primarily on an evaluation of the social sphere; approval is tied to foreign policy, to rhetoric about ‘patriotic concerns.’ That is, the different roles of the president—in domestic and foreign policy. The rating for foreign policy activity is high; but for domestic policy, it is gradually declining.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, further clarifies the distinction. “The changing fortunes of Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings can be summarized as follows: essentially, most Russians approve of the president’s work, but voters increasingly take a dimmer view of him personally.”

Although the Russian people are growing tired of Putin, there is a general sense of ennui and apathy within Russian society that there is no alternative to Putin—there is no one waiting in the wings who could take up the reins of power. Those who continue to support the president (59 percent is still not a bad rating) cite the lack of an alternative and, according to Volkov, it also can be attributed to a significant decline in the share of the population that has any interest in politics. Volkov notes:

We are witnessing a growing sense of apathy and distance from political engagement—even while doubts are mounting as to whether Putin has any attractive vision of change to offer Russian society. Therefore, the president’s support in Russia today is increasingly linked not to any positive appeal, but rather to growing indifference and detachment, and the conviction that there simply is no alternative to Putin.

Samuel Greene of King’s College London and Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina conducted a recent study of the relationship between Putin’s hold on power and the need to maintain public support. They found that even in an autocratic state such as Russia, Putin’s power relies in large part on the degree of support he receives from the population. The weaker that support, which could reverberate within the elite as they witness a weaker Putin, the more tenuous Putin’s grip on power may be. Therefore, it is not surprising that Putin periodically makes certain gestures to garner popular support. During a period of economic downturn that directly affects the lives of ordinary citizens, this becomes an even more urgent task.

Two critically important events from Putin’s perspective were planned for April and May 2020 to rally the population, to set a course for the future, and to revitalize pride in the country. The first was a national referendum on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which was originally adopted in 1993 under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The vote was scheduled to take place on April 22, 2020. The second event was a grandiose military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which was to be held on Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, 2020.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Russia forced the postponement of both events to July 1 and June 24, respectively. This postponement was not just a change in the calendar of events and a delay in Putin’s effort to recharge his image. It was also accompanied by the pandemic’s destructive blow to the economy, a sluggish reaction by the government to the outbreak, and Putin’s self-isolation from society, in which he almost entirely disappeared from view as the national leader and delegated responsibility for the pandemic response to regional authorities. Rather than contributing to an upsurge in enthusiasm for the president, the unexpected turn of events further weakened Putin’s image.

The referendum on approving amendments to the Constitution[1] was more of a symbolic gesture than a legal necessity. The Constitution with the new amendments had already been published before the voting began. The only official requirement was the approval of the amendments by the lower and upper houses of the legislature and Putin’s signature, which had already taken place. But Putin wanted more. He wanted the entire nation to voice approval of those changes to the Constitution. To rally the population to vote “yes” in the referendum, a nationwide campaign was launched with billboards, commercial advertisements, and endorsements from celebrities blanketing city and rural streets, apartment houses and office buildings, and radio, television, and social media. The Moscow city government even offered residents the chance to win gift certificates for voting in the referendum.

Many of the slogans urging citizens to vote distorted the truth about the amendments, were blatantly absurd and even encouraged overt prejudices. Ilya Shepelin reported for TASS that the slogans suggested that the constitutional amendments were so vitally important “that even Russia’s animals would not survive another day without them.” Furthermore, voters were told that “this is the only way to show due respect to Russia’s few remaining World War II veterans who have waited their entire lives for this glorious opportunity to change the country’s Constitution.” One truly offensive advertisement showed a young man “luring” a young boy into his car as the boy’s parents stood by helplessly. The narrator said a vote for the amendments would protect Russia’s youth from the clutches of homosexuals.

Early voting began a week before the official date of July 1. In addition to the many official polling sites, social media showed pictures of numerous informal polling locations, including a park bench, a tree stump, a children’s sandbox, a car trunk, and even a grocery cart. Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, said that if an election official was present at these informal sites, voting was valid.

Ballot box stuffing, which has been verified repeatedly over the years by CCTV cameras at official polling sites, undoubtedly figured in the total count of this referendum. Multiple voting was documented during early voting. A prominent anchor on independent Dozhd’ (Rain TV) announced on air that he had voted in person and then voted again online. Shortly after the broadcast, the reporter was visited by the police. Despite the numerous blatant cases of voter fraud, there was a limit as to how much the authorities would permit public disclosure of voting abuses as they sought to help to satisfy the Kremlin’s goal of achieving a sufficiently high approval of the referendum and a national commitment to Putin’s constitutional changes.

Among all the promises and slogans, the rallies and celebrity testimonials, the most important change to the Constitution was largely ignored, namely, the amendment to “zero out” Putin’s previous terms as president and allow him to serve two more six-year terms, which would continue his presidency until 2036, at which time he would be 84 years old. This amendment removed speculation that had been circulating over the past several years about what would happen when Putin’s current term as president ends in May 2024. The only question that remains is whether Putin, now that he is legitimately permitted to run again, will decide to do so. When asked this question in recent interviews, Putin has indicated that he is considering that option.

On July 2, 2020, the Central Election Commission reported the official results: 77.93 percent of voters endorsed the constitutional amendments, and 21.36 percent opposed. Voter turnout was nearly 68 percent. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the vote “a triumphal referendum on confidence in President Putin.” Critics of President Putin called the vote a sham, riddled with corruption and fraud. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the results “fake and a massive lie.”

The Kremlin’s major objectives in holding the referendum were to boost Putin’s ratings and to reassure the people that the government remains in good, competent hands. The initial result of the voting was a public relations victory for Putin. But what will be the effect in the long term? If the people are growing tired of Putin, and if Putin is perceived as tired himself and increasingly detached from the people, and if there does not appear to be any plan to move Russia forward toward a more prosperous, more democratic future, will Putin be able to sustain his position within the power structure? And can he maintain the support he needs not only from the elite but also from society until 2024 and beyond? Four years may not seem like a long time, but much could happen in the interim to alter the dynamics within Russian society and the Kremlin. There may be an initial bump in Putin’s ratings as a result of the referendum, but other factors, many of which are not yet known, can have an unpredictable influence on the course Putin may be setting out for himself and the country.

The second major event Putin had to postpone was the Victory Day parade scheduled for May 9 but held on June 24. The latter date was selected because it was on June 24, 1945, that Stalin held his parade marking victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War. However, Putin’s June 24 parade was not the grandiose event that he had planned for May 9. Because of the pandemic, most invited world leaders were unable to attend. Those who did were mainly from countries of the former Soviet Union, the internationally unrecognized Georgian breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the president of Serbia, and the Serb representative of the three-man presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The annual Victory Day parade is one of the most celebratory and solemn events on the Russian calendar. It is meant to mark the Soviet Union’s glorious victory over Nazi Germany—a victory that cost the lives of more than 27 million Soviet citizens. The parade commemorates both the triumph and the loss. For citizens of the Soviet Union—not just Russians—this is a day of great national pride but also one of mourning over the personal loss of loved ones, of honoring the immeasurable sacrifices of those who survived, and a reminder of the horrors of war and that war must never be allowed to happen again.

The parade is also an opportunity for the Kremlin to show off its military might, to display its latest weapons systems as tanks, missiles, and artillery pieces are paraded across Moscow’s Red Square and aircraft fly overhead. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic onlookers lined the parade route this June 24 as 14,000 troops marched by, including contingents from India and China and a formation of young Russian female warriors attired in white miniskirts. The privileged few got to view the show from the shadow of Lenin’s tomb, among whom were VIP international guests and a dwindling contingent of veterans of the Great Patriotic War, most of whom were packed closely together and were not wearing masks.

After Stalin’s parade in 1945, there were only four more Victory Day parades during the remaining years of the Soviet Union. In 1995, President Yeltsin made the celebration an annual event, and it has been one ever since. For many, the solemnity of the event remains, but for others, its growing politicization is of concern. This year’s delayed parade amplified this concern. President Putin came out of isolation to oversee the parade and to deliver his traditional address. Muscovites and visitors, not to mention the aging veterans, were put at risk of the coronavirus, which continues to ravage Russia, to satisfy the ego of one man—Putin—in the view of many of his critics. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin told Moscow’s residents not to attend the parade but to watch it on television. This did not deter thousands of citizens, most without masks, from lining the streets to watch the spectacle.

The parade went relatively smoothly, but there were several unfortunate pre- and post-parade events that were highlighted on Russian social media and even on state television. During the parade practice, images of a tank tearing up the pavement on Moscow’s main street—Tverskaya Street—as it maneuvered a turn caused an outcry among many about the annual high cost of repairing the damage to Moscow’s streets. Following the parade, a Russian personnel carrier caught fire and had to be towed away, and a World War II-era tank fell off a flatbed and tumbled onto the street.

The most exceptional, and one could say sensational, post-parade event was the appearance on TV channel Rossyia-1 of Alexey Navalny—Russia’s leading opponent to Putin and the Kremlin’s bête noir—who in a short video clip on the program 60 Minutes criticized the exorbitant cost of the parade and the growing political nature of the event. “What the hell do we need a parade for?” Navalny said. “Everyone in the country knows that all this madness is done for one person only.” Until that moment, Navalny had been banned from appearing on state media, and Putin and his close associates refused even to utter his name. Although Navalny was roundly criticized by the program’s co-hosts and most of the panelists, his brief appearance on Rossiya-1 is mystifying.

Why did the state media offer him airtime? Is this another Byzantine maneuver by the Kremlin to address the growing concern of the people at a time of economic troubles, or are other motives at play? It is hard to tell, but one thing appears to be clear: Putin, in the minds of many, is no longer the strong, macho, bold leader he and society believed him to be in years past. Will the delayed Victory Day celebration and the referendum on the amendments to the Constitution inject fresh blood and vigor into the Russian president’s performance and ratings? Unclear. Too many other issues that Putin has failed to adequately address or has delegated to others have weakened him, and he may not be able to reenergize a regime that is becoming increasingly calcified.

What may work in his favor, however, is that the calcification that affects his regime also penetrates deep into much of Russian society. Putin’s emphasis on conservative family values (viz., the marriage amendment to the Constitution) and close state-church ties play well with many Russians. When combined with the widespread political apathy of the Russian population and their priority for stability, it is not surprising that, although Putin’s approval rating has dropped, 59 percent of the population still approves of his performance as president.

In their recent study, Greene and Robertson offer an interesting explanation for this support that is often overlooked by Western reporters:

Quite a few Russians buy into Putin’s…[policies]not because they are duped but because the values he claims to hold are, in fact, their values. In our polling, some 70 percent of educated urbanites said that being a part of the Russian state was important to their personal identity, and large majorities supported anti-LGBT legislation and opposed immigration. Many Russians were conservative nationalists well before Putin seized on that identity. Others, however, back Putin and his policies because they want to avoid falling out with their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Indeed, we find—using personality profiles—that the biggest supporters of Putin’s agenda are not conservative Russians but instead people who are highly “agreeable”: basically nice people who care a lot about getting on with others and not causing offense.

Is Change in the Offing?

President Putin appears to be setting a course that may provide him job security until 2036 but without yet offering a robust program to move the country forward. But is Russian society prepared to accept 14 more years of autocratic rule dominated by a corrupt, mega-rich elite, an overbearing bureaucracy, and growing economic and social ills? Or is society capable of and willing to apply enough pressure to bring about change to the existing system and fundamentally alter it?

On the eve of Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, there was an impressive groundswell of opposition that manifested itself in months of demonstrations and protests in the streets of Moscow and other cities. The air was electrified with hope for real change—hope that tragically proved to be naive as the Kremlin cracked down viciously on opposition leaders and innocent bystanders alike.

As quickly as the enthusiasm and excitement erupted, it evaporated into disappointment and defeat. Most opposition leaders were either arrested or curtailed their overt activities. Ordinary citizens who had come out onto the streets and marched with slogans such as “Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free,” retreated to their apartments and resumed their daily lives as if the months of demonstrations had been nothing more than an aberration. Doldrums set in. Two years passed as Russia continued to struggle to emerge from the economic collapse of 2008.

Then Putin and Russian society were tossed a lifeline, an injection of nationalistic morphine and LSD, when Putin’s “little green men” seized Crimea from Ukraine and Putin triumphantly announced that Crimea has been “reunited” with the Russian Federation. The economic pain was numbed. Rabid nationalism and illusions of superiority replaced traditional Russian apathy. Putin’s approval rating soared to more than 80 percent. Russia experienced a high that carried over until the start of President Putin’s fourth term in 2018. But no high—be it physiological or psychological—is sustainable; there is always a low waiting around the corner. The high created by the “Crimea effect” began to wear off as troubling economic problems forced Russians to face a new reality. Nationalist fervor could not put food on the table, provide for the inadequacies of poor health care, an underfunded educational system, decaying infrastructure, and a government that was unwilling and unable to address the urgent concerns of the people. For the first time since 2012 change appeared as an increasingly important imperative. But was Russian society ready for change? Were the leaders of the opposition forces within civil society ready and able to try again to push for change? And most important, did the people and the opposition leaders have a vision for the future?

Is There a Vision of the Future?

The challenge opposition leaders face in rallying citizens to protest and demand change is exceedingly difficult when so many people remain passive, apathetic, and resigned to accepting deteriorating social and economic conditions—indeed, when so many are pessimistic about the future not only of the country but also about their personal lives. In August 2019, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that 62 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation considered the situation in the country unfavorable for planning for the future. Their negative assessment was based on instability in the country, rising prices, low wages, and meager pensions. Only 28 percent of the respondents believed that conditions were favorable for planning for the future. The article pointed out that over the previous year, the number of pessimists had increased by 4 percent, and the number of optimists had decreased by 5 percent. Less than a year later, in February 2020, the Levada Center conducted a similar poll. It found a further decline in confidence in the future and in the belief that the country was moving in the right direction. Only 19 percent of the respondents replied that they had a “fairly clear idea” about the country’s future.

This pessimistic assessment shows up not only in public opinion polls but also in the media. An editorial published by the Moskva New Agency on January 19, 2019, said:

Today, ordinary people survive on their own and bureaucrats also act on their own, enriching themselves as much as they can. Neither the lower social strata nor the elites have any vision of the future. The absence of such a vision generates a deficit of historical optimism, pushing the system toward a debacle.

This absence of a vision is perhaps best captured in a meme that has swept Russian social media. A young Russian-speaking Canadian recently visited Russia and wrote his impression of the country on Facebook. He said: “Russians are strange. They don’t want to think about the future. They are not allowed to talk about the present. Therefore, from morning to night they keep picking away at the past.”

What Do the People Want?

Russia is at a complex juncture. This essay has explored the many elements in the political leadership and society that are competing to influence the Russian body politic. Maintaining the supremacy of the Putin regime, its survival, and its tight grip on power is the paramount objective of the Kremlin. Whatever rivalry, infighting, and internecine conflicts exist within the ruling elite have been subordinated to the elite’s paramount objective.

Society, on the other hand, is split into various interest groups. The overwhelming majority of the population remains apolitical, passive, and pessimistic, but within civil society, there are small groups of political, economic, and environmental activists who are unswervingly dedicated to bringing about change. These groups share a common disdain for the Putin regime, but they differ significantly in vision, strategy, and tactics. In recent years, there have been sparks of political activism that have sought to impact the course of Russian history. In most cases, those attempts failed, as we witnessed in the winter of 2011–2012. More recently, we have seen that some citizens are more willing to get involved in social and economic protests if they believe that action or inaction by the authorities is directly impacting their personal lives. If the leaders of civic action groups within Russian society can find a way to merge the energy and ambition of these disparate groups, their chances of bringing change to Russia could improve.

For those Russians who are growing tired, and even angry, with the socio-economic conditions in the country, there appears to be an increased desire to play a more active role in the country’s development. Change for most Russians means improvements in their daily lives, a higher standard of living, and better social services. Although most Russians recognize that political change is fundamental to improving their living conditions, they are still reluctant to push for radical changes that could jeopardize stability in their lives. Throughout the earlier years of the Putin regime, most Russians favored stability over change. This was particularly true following the economic collapse of 2008.

Since 2017, it became apparent that views were changing. According to a poll conducted by the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences of 4,000 respondents from all regions of Russia and published in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on July 4, 2019, the proponents for change (51 percent) slightly exceeded those who favored stability. The report provided a breakdown by age group: among those 30 and younger, 62 percent favored change; among those 31 to 40 years old, 51 percent called for change; those in the age group 41 to 50 were equally divided between change and stability; those over 50 wanted stability. Geographically, those who were proponents of change live mainly in large cities, regional capitals, and (surprisingly) in rural areas. Those who wanted to maintain stability reside in smaller cities and towns. Among those who favored change, 42 percent favored radical change, according to a Levada Center poll in August 2017, and 41 percent preferred gradual change. A year later, those numbers increased to 57 percent favoring radical change and 25 percent for gradual change. By November 2019, proponents of radical change had grown to 59 percent.

However, to pursue change—be it gradual or radical—a specific program must be articulated, and an organization headed by a charismatic leader must emerge. Moreover, for society to follow such a leader, there must be a tipping point and a trigger. To date, these prerequisites are largely lacking.

Putin’s latest effort to gain widespread national support for constitutional amendments, including one that ensures his ability to rule until 2036, is an attempt to walk society back from a possible tipping point and to lock the trigger. But will it work? Will society be willing to accept 16 more years of the same ruler, the same elite clique, the same corrupt bureaucracy, the same or worse living conditions? Or will a movement and a leader emerge to bring about transformational change? Some are trying to make this happen.

The Protest Movement

The Murder of Boris Nemtsov

On February 27, 2015, opposition leader and former politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead by assassins as he was walking across a bridge with his girlfriend just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Two years later, five Chechens, who had been paid 15 million rubles to kill Nemtsov, were found guilty of his murder and were sentenced to prison. It was never determined who ordered Nemtsov’s murder, but many government critics suspect that the order came from a powerful person, perhaps someone in the Kremlin, perhaps Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Nemtsov’s murder delivered a powerful blow to the already weakened protest movement.

Nemtsov was a highly respected intellectual and a strong, politically well-connected young leader. He had experienced a meteoric rise in his career as a liberal politician in the 1990s—becoming the first governor of the Nizhnii Novgorod region and then ascending to the post of deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation.

After Putin rose to power and ended attempts by the Yeltsin regime to create a more democratic, albeit at times chaotic, society, Nemtsov joined forces with other prominent opposition figures, such as Alexey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Sergey Udaltsov, and Ksenia Sobchak, to oppose the increasingly authoritarian policies of the Putin regime. He led the protest demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and was an outspoken opponent of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. In fact, on the day Nemtsov was murdered he was planning a protest demonstration against Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

After a swift government crackdown and arrests that followed a large anti-Putin demonstration at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the opposition movement, which never had a clear political platform, lost significant momentum. Udaltsov—a leftwing firebrand—was arrested and sentenced to four and one-half years in prison. TV personality and socialite Sobchak, the daughter of the Yeltsin-era mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, whose deputy at the time was Putin, withdrew from active political opposition life and focused on her TV and socialite roles, although she did advance her candidacy for president in the 2018 elections. Yashin continued his political activity but also attempted to direct it through legitimate municipal channels. Only Navalny remained at the forefront of the opposition, focusing on his vigorous campaign to root out and expose through YouTube videos and social media the widespread corruption of senior government officials.

The murder of Nemtsov marked the end of an era.[2] With civil society’s opposition forces largely leaderless, Putin’s regime becoming more authoritarian, and jingoism and euphoric nationalism over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for, and involvement in, the war in Eastern Ukraine engulfing the country, Russia appeared to enter a political hiatus. Large-scale demonstrations ceased. The focus of the country was elsewhere. Society turned inward as the people focused on the challenges of everyday life.

A makeshift memorial at the site of Nemtsov’s assassination was erected immediately after his murder. Although the authorities repeatedly remove it, people return undeterred to rebuild it. Portraits of Nemtsov, flowers, candles, and other mementos appear almost magically overnight despite the authorities’ efforts to erase all reminders of the horrible crime. But the memory of Nemtsov—what he stood for and died for—lives on. One wonders what would have been had Nemtsov lived to continue the fight for a better Russia.

A Resurgence of the Protest Movement: Is It Becoming More Radicalized?

The hiatus in the protest movement and the demands for change did not last long. Several factors came together to drive people back onto the streets: The “Crimea effect” was wearing thin, economic and social tensions were increasing, and municipal elections were scheduled. The summer of 2019 saw a resurgence of the protest movement, but it was noticeably different from the events of 2011–2012.

The spark that set off demonstrations in Moscow was the refusal of authorities to register opposition figures who sought to run for office in municipal elections scheduled for September 8, 2019. But the kindling ignited by the spark were the grievances surging around the country: increased economic hardships, callous policies of the local authorities that jeopardized the environment and health of local inhabitants, and rising frustration with the failure of the government to treat people with basic human dignity and respect.

At the same time, the security forces were getting stronger and more brazen. Several years earlier, Putin had set up an elite force called the National Guard (often referred to as “storm troopers” because of their elaborate protective garb) under the command of his former bodyguard. They were to play a critical role in beating protesters during the upcoming summer protests.

In early June 2019, a journalist by the name of Ivan Golunov was arrested on false drug possession charges in retaliation, it turned out, for his work in exposing government corruption. It was later determined that the security services had planted the drugs. The outcry from many segments of Russian society to this injustice was so loud that the authorities had to back down and release Golunov. The police officers directly involved in Golunov’s arrest were eventually punished.

The loud response to Golunov’s false arrest was a reaction to the widespread extortion tool used by the police to plant drugs on unsuspecting individuals to extract a bribe, seize a business, or apply pressure for a variety of nefarious reasons. As Alexander Baunov explained in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, “The protest against Golunov’s arrest [was another indication that] Russians want to be rid of the mafia-like grip the security services have over their everyday lives.”

The public outcry to the trumped-up charges against Golunov testifies to the fact that the authorities are not immune to public opinion, at least when there is extensive publicity surrounding a case. As human-rights advocate Olga Romanova wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Center in December 2019: “Despite all the skepticism, it seems that public opinion does play a role in the degree of repression in each particular case.” She cites the importance of “public support, [press] attention to the case, the involvement of high-profile people, and professional solidarity [among the accused’s peers].” Such support can influence the severity of the sentence given down by the judge.

In the earlier cited study by Greene and Robertson, the two scholars also noted the role public opinion plays in a broader perspective than just in the judicial system. They noted that,

[I]n general, public opinion plays an underappreciated role in Russian politics.… This reliance on popularity makes Putin vulnerable. Being too harsh on protestors could easily lead to a backlash in public opinion. But being too soft might encourage even more demonstrations against the evident corruption and mismanagement across Russia. As a result, the Kremlin often acts tough, then backs off.”

Public opinion manifested itself in a way not to the Kremlin’s liking on July 27, 2019, when thousands of Muscovites turned out in response to a call from opposition leader Navalny to protest against the Moscow authorities’ refusal to register several opposition candidates who sought to run for municipal office in elections scheduled for September 8. Navalny himself was arrested several days in advance of this unauthorized demonstration and sentenced to 30 days in jail to prevent him from leading the demonstration. Despite Navalny’s absence, the demonstration took place. Other opposition figures, some of whom had not figured prominently in the 2011–2012 wave of protests, rose to prominence at this time. One of the most outspoken was Lyubov Sobol—a lawyer, an activist with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, and an aspiring candidate for municipal office whose name the authorities refused to allow on the ballot. She had just ended a 30-day hunger strike to protest being barred from the elections. She was also briefly detained.

The July 27 protest was followed by almost weekly demonstrations throughout August—some authorized, others not. The ostensible reason for the demonstrations was to protest the abuse of the electoral process, but many of the protestors also chanted slogans against Putin, demanded freedom, and called for the end of political repression.

A demonstration that was held in Moscow on August 10 was the largest protest in Russia in eight years. Estimates placed the crowd size at more than 60,000. Riot police and the National Guard “storm troopers” were out in full force. Thousands of protesters—including even young children—were arrested. Many were badly beaten. Based on the size of the demonstrations, the cohort of participants (many more young people than in earlier years), the apparent lack of fear of many of those beaten and arrested,[3] it was clear that the protestors were increasingly willing to come out onto the streets over issues such as abuses of the municipal election process that in the past did not arouse much interest. The fact that there was such a strong and violent reaction from the authorities indicates that they were seriously concerned that the protestors were becoming radicalized. The crackdown was orchestrated mainly by the Kremlin rather than the Moscow city authorities, who were responsible for the municipal elections, out of the concern that if the national government did not take forceful measures now, there could be bigger confrontations during the parliamentary elections in 2021 and the presidential election in 2024.

These concerns were not unreasonable from the Kremlin’s perspective. As prominent Russian commentator Pavel Felgenhauer explained,

The vast 80 percent majority that did not turn out [to vote in the Moscow City municipal elections on September 8, 2019] may appear indifferent and passively neutral, but it theoretically could sway in any direction. This social/political situation is somewhat reminiscent of the late 1970s-early 1980s, when economic stagnation and rabid anti-Western Cold War rhetoric resulted in widespread public indifference and passivity that, several years later, suddenly transformed into a wide pro-democracy and anti-corruption movement that broke up the Soviet Union.

At that time, protest demonstrations started small but rapidly grew into massive protest movements around the country. Now, the Kremlin is deeply concerned that history could repeat itself. The only response it seems able to take to counter this possible threat is repression and the use of increased authoritarian measures.

The authorities, like civil society, are aware that the protest movement is changing. This is evident in the differences between the events of 2011–2012 and 2019. Tatyana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center compared these two events. She argued that the response by the authorities to the two periods of demonstrations was significantly different because of their understanding of the nature of the protests, the political position of the Kremlin leadership (in 2011–2012 Medvedev was about to end his presidency and Putin was on the verge of returning to that position, while in 2019 Putin was firmly in power, had been reelected the year before for his fourth term as president, and the economic and political mood in the country was very different), and by 2019 there was much more uncertainty about the future of the country, both on the part of the authorities and the people. Stanovaya wrote that while the authorities perceived the 2011–2012 protests as principally a domestic issue, they saw the 2019 protests as part of a global assault against Russia, which represented a much greater threat to the Putin regime and its agenda. This required a mobilization and consolidation of political power and a much harsher response to stem what could be a serious threat to the Kremlin.

Stanovaya noted that after the protests of 2011–2012, the Kremlin’s initial response was to offer some concessions. Specifically, it undertook several reforms to the political system that included a return to gubernatorial elections and a reduction of restrictions on political parties. After the 2019 protests, the Kremlin was in no mood to offer any concessions. Harsh prison sentences for arrested protestors and tightening pressure by the security services on civil society activists were the response this time.[4] This resulted in further isolation of the regime from society. In concluding her analysis, Stanovaya recognized that “the current construction of the regime looks as solid and sturdy as ever, but this solidity,” she emphasizes, “translated into a lack of flexibility and resistance to change, which is itself becoming a structural risk to the future of the system.”

Prospects for Change

Russia has entered very uncertain times, and it is risky to venture a prediction whether the Putin regime will be able to hold on to its authoritarian model of power and whether society will remain docile or erupt in an uncontrollable way. There is little doubt the Kremlin will continue to pursue its familiar methods of maintaining control: discrediting the leading opposition figures as crooks who lie and steal on the orders of foreign governments, limiting reforms to give citizens just the bare minimum to improve their living conditions, while applying harsh pressure on those elements in society that seek change. Furthermore, the security services under the direction of the Kremlin have increased repressions since the referendum on the constitutional amendments was held, and they have arrested several prominent individuals on charges ranging from treason to murder.

How society will react is the more intriguing question. There appear to be two schools of thought about how civil society may develop in the coming years. The predominant belief is that despite periodic anger and even short-lived protest outbursts over the authorities’ arbitrary and unfair policies and practices, there will not be any large-scale protests soon, and society will remain largely docile, passive, and indifferent.[5] The lack of a popular charismatic opposition leader who could mold flashes of anger into a formidable protest movement that merges urban political protests with broader socio-economic discontent; the failure of past protests to make any significant progress; and the harsh measures used by the security services against protestors, civil society organizers, and even innocent victims have left much of Russian society indifferent and resigned to a continued gulf between the rulers and the ruled. This sense of despair cuts across all age groups. Perhaps what is most distressing is that it even deeply affects the very young. According to the pro-government All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion, 71 percent of youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are not optimistic about the future and see hard times ahead.

Masha Lipman, a leading Russian analyst, as quoted by Fred Weir in the Christian Science Monitor on August 22, 2019, summarized the status of the protest movement after the series of demonstrations earlier that month. She said:

There is nothing in terms of a movement that people can identify with in the long term. When the wave subsides, as it did before, it leaves nothing behind in terms of political organization and trusted leaders to sustain it. Of course, nobody wants a revolution. People are rightly leery of any big-time political turmoil. Evolution is preferable. But I don’t see much prospect on the horizon of reaching a society of law, checks and balances, and democracy. I don’t think I will live to see it.

The other school of thought is more optimistic about the prospects for change. It believes that society, over time, will take a more active role in protesting against the authorities, which will result in change—change that may only be incremental but might be more radical. Adherents to this view are not naive and fully understand the enormity of the task of transforming Russia. On the contrary, they are quite realistic because many of them have personally felt the wrath of the authorities, have been beaten, arrested, and served time in jail. This has only honed their resolve to work even harder for a better future for Russia.

Although Moscow remains the focal point for the protest movement, activists are encouraged by resistance to the Putin regime taking place in other parts of the country. Most recently, the epicenter moved to the Russian Far East and the city of Khabarovsk. On July 9, 2020, the governor of the Far East Region, Sergey Furgal, was arrested along with four others on charges of murdering several businessmen in 2004–2005—charges that many are convinced are politically motivated. But even if proven true, residents of this, the largest city in Russia’s Far East, are less concerned about the charges (many believe Furgal is innocent) than they are about Moscow’s heavy hand in this affair.

Furgal is a highly respected official in a country where this is a rarity. He is viewed by the people of his region as hard-working, honest, and responsive to their needs. He was elected to this post in 2018 as a candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party (a semi-opposition party headed by the firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky), garnering 70 percent of the vote and overwhelmingly defeating the candidate of the United Russia Party—the party of Putin and the majority party in the Russian legislature.[6]

Furgal’s opponents resent his popularity and the damage he has done to the dominant influence the United Russia Party has had in this region for years. Aleksandr Kynev, a political scientist quoted by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said that “they tried to dig up dirt on him from the moment he was elected—during this time, several searches were conducted, and friends and business partners were detained. It seems they didn’t find anything, so they tried to tie him to events from 16 years ago.”

On July 11, an estimated 30,000 residents of Khabarovsk—a city with a population of 616,000—took part in the largest demonstration in the region in recent history. They were showing their support for Furgal and demanding that he be freed. Although the demonstration was not authorized, the police did not interfere, and there were no arrests. Demonstrations continued for weeks, grew in size, and showed no sign of ending. Protesters insist they would continue to demonstrate until the authorities agree that Furgal’s trial would take place in Khabarovsk, where the alleged crimes took place, and not in Moscow. Similar protests in support of Furgal took place in other cities of the Far East Region.

After Furgal was arrested, Putin dismissed him as governor and replaced him with Mikhail Degtyaryov, a member of the Furgal’s Liberal Democratic Party, but not a resident of the Far East Region. Putin’s move further angered the protesters who rejected Degtyaryov’s appointment as another arbitrary move imposed on them by the Kremlin.

But the demonstrations were more than just about the injustice the citizens of Khabarovsk believed had been done, they were also about a broader list of grievances that are shared by many other Russian regions: economic decline, rotting infrastructure, the overbearing attitude of the United Russia Party, the indifference of Moscow to the plight of the regions, and fatigue with Putin and his rule. One of the slogans frequently heard in the Khabarovsk demonstrations is “Putin is a thief”—a popular chant that echoes past protests in Moscow and other cities. Other signs and chants that fill the streets of Khabarovsk are “I/We = Furgal,” “Freedom,” “Moscow, get out!,” “The Far East is ours!,” and “Putin, step down!”

Although the protests were technically illegal, the Khabarovsk governor’s office issued a public statement after the protest on July 11 thanking the people for their support. “We stand with you, and we respect you, and it means a lot,” the statement said in part.

Russian social media lit up with messages from around the country voicing support. Russian Twitter was buzzing with tweets from residents expressing their support for Furgal and for all that he had done for the region. They voiced their admiration for a governor who listened to the people and worked to improve their lives. When Furgal was arrested, messages went out on social media, and signs were posted in apartment building entrances calling people to come out onto the streets to show their solidarity. Tweets reported that although people were anxious, not knowing how the authorities would react, they nonetheless came out in droves. They felt energized by the comradery of the swelling crowd. They took pride in the fact that they were doing this as citizens of Khabarovsk, and they did not care how Moscow might react. It was their city, their governor, and their decision to protest.

As the protest demonstrations in Khabarovsk continue, there was growing support for them in many cities and towns around the country. The Levada Center conducted a poll on July 24–25, 2020, of 1,617 Russians and found that 45 percent of the respondents had a positive view of the protests, while 17 percent had a negative view. Twenty-six percent were neither for nor against the protest. When asked if they would participate in similar protests in their region, 29 percent said they would.

Among those Russians who find hope for the country in what is happening in Khabarovsk, few have captured this feeling better than Alexander Gorbunov, a popular blogger who writes under the name “Stalingulag” on the social media site Telegram. In a post on August 1, 2020, he wrote:

For the twenty-second day in a row, despite the pouring rain, thousands of people continue to take to the streets of Khabarovsk. Basically, there is nothing to add here; the Khabarovsk residents have said it all themselves. You just need to note that in 2020, when apathy struck every living thing, when the feeling that everything here was and will always be like this, that all hope for change is dead, there is Khabarovsk, which knows what is right and every day defends what is right. If truth is on your side, then you must defend it. After all, you are right, what could be more important than that? The naive belief that good will triumph is what our cynical society, which has forgotten how to dream, is so lacking. This seems to be obvious, but the sense of one's own righteousness and of some kind higher justice, which we have lost, is the gift that Khabarovsk has bestowed on the entire country. This is the brightest thing that has happened in this crazy year.

Although the demonstrations in Khabarovsk may disappear from the headlines as quickly as they appeared, for those in the Kremlin who are concerned about any signs of discontent that could threaten central control, the events in Khabarovsk must be troubling and could be a harbinger of future challenges as Putin and his cronies struggle to maintain their increasingly sclerotic authoritarian rule. One of the Kremlin’s greatest fears is that regional protests could be successfully harnessed by the political opposition in Moscow to create a formidable force against the Putin regime. As Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer explained. “If…widespread social frustration begins to merge with opposition activism in the capital, the seemingly granite-solid structure of Putin’s political system may begin to crack.”

An equally troubling concern for the Kremlin is that opposition to the failures and arbitrary rule of the authorities is becoming increasingly spontaneous as anger and frustration over a multitude of socio-economic and political issues build. Russia has experienced numerous catastrophic shocks and tumultuous changes in the past that grew out of uncontrolled eruptions of popular frustration and anger. Moscow’s response to both organized and spontaneous challenges to its rule has been to respond with brute force and to crackdown harshly after suppressing the opposition. There is no indication that the Putin regime in 2020 intends to respond any differently.

Those who continue to fight for change and have no intention of giving up the fight against the authoritarian Putin regime find strength in the words of former president Yeltsin who said: “You can make a throne of bayonets—but you can’t sit on it for long.” Similarly, the prominent Russian-American opposition leader and close friend of the deceased Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, wrote in The Washington Post on August 15, 2019, that

[L]ike so many authoritarian regimes have in the past, the Kremlin is disregarding a fundamental historical maxim: When power cannot be changed at the ballot box, it will, sooner or later, be changed on the streets. We are not at that moment yet—and the Putin regime still has a formidable resource in its security services…. In the longer term, …no amount of state-driven coercion can, in the end, stop a strong enough public sentiment.

Are There Looming Signs of Change?

Given that Russian society has generally been marked by relatively weak and suppressed civil society activism and largely passive responses from the population at large, but has also at times experienced eruptions of pent-up anger and outrage that morphed into major, sometimes violent, events, are there any indications now that the situation and attitudes within Russian society are shifting in a way that could be more conducive to change?

Valery Solovyev, a scholar at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), believes there are. Solovyev argues that a major political crisis in Russia is “inevitable.” He came to this conclusion because he is convinced that “a qualitative change in the mass consciousness” of Russians is taking place and that they “have come to believe that radical changes are no longer precluded.” Solovyev acknowledged that maybe “only one percent of the population will in fact take advantage of these possibilities; but as in 1989 [the year the Soviet empire began to crumble], that will be enough once the overwhelming majority has gone from acceptance to anger about what the powers-that-be are doing.” Radical change, or revolution by another name, is not made by the majority but by a militant minority who is able to exploit the grievances of the majority and rally the masses. Solovyev believes that social consciousness in Russia is changing. People are losing hope in the future for themselves and their children and are growing increasingly angry. Solovyev concludes that “the future is no longer pre-ordained. It has begun to change,” and people are beginning to realize that “the situation in which they find themselves is neither inevitable nor permanent.”

People are also more willing now to take responsibility for their lives and the conditions under which they live. They are less reluctant to voice their disagreement with the authorities and to participate in demonstrations, as we have seen over environmental issues, election fraud, and the most recent mass protests in Khabarovsk. In an interview last year with Jacob Heilbrunn of The National Review, Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of the popular newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, pointed to recent changes in Russian society. One noticeable change is a shift in what people consider most important in their lives. Before Putin’s reelection in 2018, material demands were people’s top priority. Now, according to surveys conducted in 2019, personal freedom has risen to the top priority. Remchukov claims that 59 percent of the respondents to a poll cited “no limitations on personal freedom” versus a good economic situation as their highest priority.[7] What surprised Remchukov even more was that 84 percent of the respondents to the same poll said that they want to personally contribute to the improvement of the situation of the country. “We’ve never had such a mood,” exclaimed Remchukov.

Remchukov explains this change in attitude by the growth of the middle class and an understanding of the responsibilities that come with the attainment of this status. Remchukov describes the Russian middle class as “the class of responsibility.” “It is the class that cares about the future, the future of their children; it doesn’t avoid responsibility; it [is] less dependent on government assistance and government money.” Whether this optimistic assessment will translate into action to improve the personal lives of Russian citizens and the overall welfare in the country is another matter entirely.

Journalists, sociologists, and students of Russian society see other hopeful signs that reinforce the view that attitudes are changing, and they view these changes as largely positive. Some note that society is shifting its emphasis away from the state-dominated ideology toward a national identity and patriotism that find their roots among the people and create new unifying principles that could be building blocks for the future. According to Yury Saprykin, a journalist who covers popular Russian culture, a new formulation of a national idea that he calls local patriotism, is being developed at the grassroots level. It is being spread through YouTube videos and social media, by hip-hop artists, and in the work of street artists. Saprykin describes this local patriotism as “a feeling of belonging not to a sovereign abstraction, but to a specific place that needs to be treated with care, respect, and attention.” He sees this feeling of belonging leading to

[A] learned skill of cooperation, of joint participation in actions of social significance, of joining forces with neighbors, colleagues and likeminded people for some kind of meaningful goal. This goal can be fighting against tree-felling in the park in front of your house, helping the nearest kindergarten, or defending an unfairly detained classmate.

We have seen manifestations of this local patriotism in the protests against actions by the authorities that would harm the environment or take away parkland to build a cathedral.

Saprykin argues that the rebirth of a national idea in the form of local patriotism is also being expressed in a more open approach to past state crimes and the initiative of local and national campaigns to remember and honor the victims of Soviet political repression and incompetence. Of particular note has been the discovery by the younger generation of the horrors of the Chernobyl disaster, as portrayed so vividly by the HBO miniseries. The lying, arrogance, and malfeasance of the Communist Party and the Soviet government from the highest levels down to the local authorities to cover up the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant continue to manifest themselves today in numerous ways. For many, particularly the younger generation, they have had enough.

Saprykin ends his analysis of changes in Russian society on an optimistic note. In his article for The Moscow Times on August 20, 2019, he argues that “ultimately, we are seeing that the national inferiority complex that is characteristic of the older generation (and which, perhaps, informs much of Russian foreign policy) is becoming obsolete. And it is this gap between the authorities and society that is perhaps the most heartening news at the end of the 2010s. This is a society that is ready to accept and make sense of its history and identity without waiting for these principles to be handed down from above, a society that is capable of taking responsibility for its life instead of waiting for the state to solve its problems.”

Saprykin’s analysis is not just an academic assessment. It is supported by the myriad posts on Russian social media; discussions and arguments among Russia’s youth in cafes, coffee houses, and university classrooms; and debates in Russian liberal, non-state media that illustrate the dynamic complexity of Russian society. This complexity is largely missing in most Western media that tend to report on just two dimensions of the Russian domestic scene—the Putin regime and an amorphous but mainly passive society with a vocal but mostly ineffective protest movement. At some point, the manifestations of this complexity will most likely play a pivotal role in the struggle between stagnation and change—a struggle that will inevitably be waged in Russia. Only the dynamics are yet to be determined. They may be peaceful and gradual, or they may be confrontational and violent.

Professor Solovyev of MGIMO outlined five symptoms of what he called a “looming crisis” in Russia. They are:

  • A qualitative change in mass consciousness,
  • Destruction of propaganda as an effective tool,
  • Crisis in the personal leadership of Putin,
  • Crisis in administration at all levels and in all sectors, and
  • The attempt to organize a transition in this turbulent situation.

Although it can be argued that there has been an intensification of contractions within some, if not all of these symptoms—most notably, I would argue, among the first two, Russia does not yet appear to be at or near a tipping point. Putin’s regime still appears to hold all the high cards, with the overwhelming force of the security services still solidly under its control. One should not, however, be complacent, as undoubtedly the Kremlin is not. Few in the late 1980s predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse in a matter of just several years.

Putin has weathered a difficult two years since his reelection to a fourth term in March 2018—a declining economy; foreign policy difficulties with Ukraine, Syria, strains in relations with the United States and Europe; a devastating pandemic; and uncertainty about his future after 2024. The latter problem has been resolved—at least there is a legal path forward now—but much uncertainty still looms in the coming years.

Society has also changed. Although much of society remains passive and civil society activists are still largely ineffective in rallying large segments of the population to their political agenda, people are more willing to promote and defend causes that directly impact their lives, fear of the authorities appears to be less, and youth is generally more energized about issues that affect them.

The next four years could be key to determining the course of Russia’s development and its future. Putin has still not committed to run for reelection in 2024, although the Constitution now permits him to do so. The struggle between stagnation and change hangs in the balance. The scales could tip either way. Russia has faced decisive times in the past. With rare exceptions, it has not been successful in implementing a peaceful, smooth transition to a new era. The question on everyone’s mind now is what will happen when Russia is confronted with the next serious challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic may very well be that challenge—a topic that I will address in a separate essay. When faced with that challenge, will the authorities resort to past patterns of behavior, or will they find a new, more constructive way forward?

Washington, DC
August 2020

[1] There are more than 200 amendments to the Constitution, many of which are contradictory to the text of Constitution itself. Among them is a reference to a belief in God, although the Constitution of 1993 established Russia as a secular state. The Russian language is elevated to the language of “the state-forming people,” which contradicts the theoretical equality of the multiethnic population. In the social sphere, an amendment defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thereby constitutionally banning same-sex marriage.

[2]On the fifth anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder, Matthew Luxmoore of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published a conversation with a long-time compatriot of Nemstov about the formative years of Nemtsov’s political life as a liberal reformer in the Yeltsin government. In his report, Luxmoore revealed that this friend viewed Nemtsov’s murder “as the final death pang for a certain vision of Russia’s future, a project that was already foundering when Putin came to power. What was his mistake, the mistake of that generation? They were focused on economic problems, first and foremost,” he said of Nemtsov and the team of young reformers he was part of in the 1990s, “and independent courts, trade unions, honest policemen, the welfare state, free media, civil society—they would all arise of their own accord. There was no understanding that democracy is something that required constant effort,” he added. “That was our naivete.”

[3] The lack of fear on the part of protesters has manifested itself not only in their willingness to demonstrate, but also knowingly doing so despite the likelihood that they could be arrested and even beaten. In isolated incidents protesters have resorted to the ultimate action—willing to sacrifice their own life—to protest. In late 2019, a teenager blew himself up in the Arkhangelsk office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in protest over the FBS fabricating cases and torturing people. Even this very sad event did not evoke the slightest sign of remorse on the part of the authorities. Instead, after a regional reporter spoke about this event in her weekly radio commentary, she was arrested, charged with “publicly inciting terrorism,” tried, and fined 500,000 rubles ($7,000). The prosecutors had asked that she be imprisoned for six years.

[4] Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist writing in The New Yorker on September 6, 2019, noted in the aftermath of the wave of protests the previous month that “Russia today has more political prisoners than at any point since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., in 1991, and, in fact, many more than it had when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided to release most of them, in 1987.” She predicts that “as long as the current regime exists, the number will grow, as will the length of prison sentences and the brutality of enforcers.”

[5]According to a survey of 1,623 respondents over the age of 18 conducted by the Levada Center and published on June 1, 2020, by Open Media, 27 percent of Russians consider mass protests possible at the present time, due to falling living standards. On the other hand, 61 percent of respondents believe such demonstrations are unlikely. Respondents were also asked if they were likely to participate in such protests, should they occur—28 percent responded positively, while 68 percent responded negatively. Open Media notes that these are the highest numbers seen in favor of protests in the past year and a half. But Gudkov, Director of the Levada Center cautions that “the population’s readiness for mass protest still has a declarative character…and is not a real outflow into the streets.” However, by the autumn he does not dismiss the possibility that “local outbursts in big cities are quite possible.”

[6] The United Russia Party is headed by former Prime Minister Medvedev. President Putin is not officially a member of United Russia, but the party is viewed as his party because it fully supports his policies and agenda.

[7] A poll conducted in mid-2019 on whether democracy is important for Russia, found that the majority of Russians believe that democracy is needed, but “a very special type that is in line with national traditions and specifics.” According to polling data, as reported by the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, “62 percent of those polled consider democracy to be needed, and 55 percent only recognize the need for it in a localized incarnation. Almost 4 percent of those polled are certain that the Western-type democracy will bring chaos and destruction to Russia.”

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