Is Vladimir Putin's adolescent Russia ever going to grow up?

It's now 21 years since the end of the Soviet Union, but Russia's politics are still strikingly teenage in nature.

That year, autumn sneaked up and ended a hot summer. By the end of August, the evenings were already damp and dark.

In many countries, the age of 21 is considered a time when you understand at least a little of who you are, and what you would like to be. 21 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia still seems to lack a clear idea of what it wants to be when it grows up.

One enduring symbol of that uncertainty is an absence which has persisted since the damp end to the summer of 1991. Then, as the Communist Party’s grip on power was loosened for the last time, demonstrators tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the forerunner of the KGB. It was the ultimate insult to the secret police, for the monument had stood in Lubyanka Square in front of their headquarters.

The place where the statue stood remains empty. The country has not decided what it stands for. Russia is like the 21-year-old who has put away some childish things, but not abandoned adolescent uncertainty, or rashness.

The jailing of Pussy Riot is the most obvious recent example. Rashness persists in the Kremlin’s idea of news management, in spite of the highly-paid western PRs they have, for years now, hired to make themselves look good.

Should Pussy Riot have been sent down for playing up in the cathedral? Many western observers seem to think the punk protesters were hard done by. 

Whatever your opinion, it seems the Russian authorities made a mess of the way they handled it: show your mates how tough you are, and don’t worry until later about what anyone else things – almost a typical adolescent attitude. A lesser punishment would not have been nearly such big news.

The forerunners of this winter’s protests demanding fair elections were those led by the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and a motley collection of other opponents of Vladimir Putin.

In the oil boom times of 2006-7, they struggled to attract even a couple of thousand demonstrators to their rallies in the heart of a city of millions.

Hugely outnumbering the protesters, riot police came by the busload. When not standing steely-faced behind their shields, they could be chatty – perhaps glad of the trip to the capital. "Do you get paid extra for working on a Saturday?" one asked me once on a sleety December afternoon.

"No," I replied.

"We do," he smirked, shoving his shield into the back of a van, his shift finished.

A senior member of the Presidential administration once asked me why western journalists bothered to cover such small demonstrations. I replied that it was not the demonstrations which were newsworthy, but the police response.

It was the same overreaction in the handling of the Pussy Riot trial. The lesson in how to turn a stunt into an international story would have dismayed any PR trying to make Russia look good.

As part of my research for a chapter in my new book, Reporting Conflict, on the role of PR agents in contemporary coverage of war, I sought out a former BBC colleague who had the insider’s knowledge. Angus Roxburgh was a former Moscow correspondent who later spent time advising President Putin’s administration on their international media image.                  

"They didn’t really understand it," he recalled. "We taught them what we could, but they came into it with strange ideas about how the western press worked. I think they felt that everybody else did do it, that all other governments had PR people working for them as well – but didn’t completely understand it."

They still don’t. The way that the Kremlin projects itself on the international stage frequently suggests an adolescent combination of "don’t know, don’t care".

President Medvedev may have left office mocked as his powerful mentor’s marionette, but  his presidency – even if Vladimir Putin remained in charge in reality – should be remembered for one important idea: "legal nihilism". More than once, Mr Medvedev identified this as the main problem facing his country – manifesting itself in massive corruption, and a total absence of principle in public life.

That’s why last winter’s protests were such a nightmare for the Kremlin. Here were people who believed in something – and it was not Russia’s leadership.   

Twenty one years into their new existence, at least part of the Russian electorate is growing up. The political elite still snarls like the punk youth they profess to despise.     

They will get away with it as long as people put up with it. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges," David Cameron declared in 2008 when Russia went to war with Georgia.

Yet no one will do anything as long as British companies keep making money in Russia, or entertain the hope of doing so. Britain ended up looking impotent over the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko; the west as a whole looked toothless over civilian casualties in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to come from inside Russia. Despite the coverage which the Pussy Riot case got outside the country, it did not inspire the same passions within – at least not on a wide scale.

Russians whose childhoods were the late Soviet period, and the bandit capitalism which followed, and who are now in their 30s, might be expected to be the revolutionary class. In some cases – those who are active in the protest movement - they are. In others, memories of the chaos of their early years makes them wary of radical change. Those with the education, skills, and contacts, seem often to have chosen to emigrate rather than demonstrate.   

21 years later, the events of 1991 still cast a shadow over Russia. The secret police remember losing the statue of their founder. In the shape of Mr Putin and others, they recovered their power, while remembering that it once vanished. That explains their reluctance to let any dissent – even a punk protest – go unpunished.

The anti-Soviet demonstrators of those years can reflect on their experience. The statue of Dzerzhinsky may not have returned – the strength of the security forces has. Their successors who marched against the presidential election result, and the imprisonment of punks, might look to Egypt for their lessons. The "Facebook revolution" has not brought a government of young activists.  

The lesson for them all, and for those of us outside Russia, is that in a time of legal nihilism, political tension, and economic uncertainty (Russia has never prospered in times of low oil prices) nothing can be counted on to last. As Reuters reported recently, President Putin’s long-standing popularity is on the slide.

Mr Putin’s recent role as saviour of the Siberian cranes is the latest of his hard man stunts which have been widely reported in Russia, sniggered at in the west, and satirized by the more subversive of his compatriots (on this occasion, by showing the former KGB man photoshopped atop a shark). 

As Russian politics move into adulthood, it may be the people who came up with the last one who eventually have the last laugh.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. He is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and for many years worked in Russia as a journalist for both Reuters Television and the BBC.

 

Opposition activists protest against the alleged mass electoral fraud in December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.