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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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser