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How Russia descended into authoritarianism

As Putin cracks down on peaceful protest and free media, thousands are fleeing the country and a financial crash looms.

By Ido Vock

Russia’s totalitarian turn since the invasion of Ukraine is the culmination of 22 years of Putinism. From the beginning, when he first became prime minister in 1999 and then president in 2000, Vladimir Putin legitimised his rule by promising an end to the chaos that had defined the Russian economy since the demise of communism. He consolidated his regime by stripping the political system of democratic ideals, with Russia becoming less tolerant of the pluralism that the drafters of its post-Soviet constitution had hoped to nurture. The invasion of Ukraine is the biggest gamble of his long career.

Describing the politics of Putin’s Russia has never been straightforward. The American political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have called it “competitive authoritarianism”. In 2006 Vladislav Surkov, a former key adviser to the president who has been nicknamed “the hidden author of Putinism”, coined the term “sovereign democracy” to describe a political system with the ostensible trappings of democracy but little of its substance: one that holds regular elections where the results are preordained.

Legislation passed on 4 March by the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, made it a crime to refer to the war in Ukraine as anything other than the regime’s preferred euphemism (a “special operation”). Those convicted could face up to 15 years in prison. The law has succeeded in its aim of eradicating most of Russia’s remaining independent media. The independent station TV Rain ended more than a decade on air by broadcasting a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, an ironic nod to Soviet-era television’s preferred placeholder during times of crisis. The liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, a symbol of post-Soviet democracy, was dissolved shortly after the new legislation was passed. Foreign media, including CNN, have stopped broadcasting in Russia. Western social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have been blocked.

The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is one of the only remaining independent national outlets. Yet even this publication has been neutered. It deleted all coverage of the war from its website, while articles about Ukraine no longer contain the word “war”, but the Orwellian formulation “word prohibited by the Russian authorities” in square brackets when interviewees mention it directly. Liberals in Moscow have taken to joking darkly that the authorities will demand Tolstoy’s classic novel is renamed “Special Operation and Peace”.

[See also: Putin’s war is in disarray]

The crackdown is not limited to the free media. In 2014, after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands peacefully marched in Moscow in protest. Today demonstrators can expect prompt arrest if they unfurl anti-war banners in public. Some are beaten up in detention and repeat offenders can face years in prison. Despite the risks, thousands continue to attend daily protests. (At the time of writing, more than 13,000 demonstrators had been arrested at anti-war marches, according to OVD-Info, a watchdog tracking detentions.)

The Putin regime’s clampdown has caused a de facto purge of civil society. Tens of thousands of opposition-minded Russians have fled the country. Many have gone to Georgia and Armenia, two former Soviet republics that remain open to Russian citizens, with the West having closed its airspace to Russian planes. Some speculate that rumours about the imposition of martial law in Russia may have been intentionally spread by the Kremlin in order to encourage the most vocal opponents of the war to leave the country.

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Alongside the death of independent politics, the regime has nurtured pro-war sentiment by promoting as a patriotic symbol the “Z” emblazoned on vehicles that have entered Ukraine. It’s unclear precisely what Z – a letter that does not exist in the Russian alphabet ­– stands for (it may mean “zapad”, or west, as some other vehicles are marked with a “V”, which could refer to “vostok”, meaning east). But that has not stopped it being embraced within the country as a symbol of the new Russian imperialism. Ivan Kuliak, a gymnast, wore the letter “Z” on the medals podium of a competition in Qatar (he won bronze). Fittingly, the gold medallist was a Ukrainian, Illia Kovtun.

If there is a weakness in the Kremlin’s push for ever-tighter totalitarianism, it is the incompetence of the Russian state. The imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt in 2020, pointed out that corruption has sapped the capacities of the state to the extent that it is incapable of doing anything effectively, including murdering its opponents.

Looking to control the message on what was taking place in Ukraine, Russian authorities first tried, and failed, to block the websites of independent media. Realising that these bans could easily be bypassed, they resorted to old-fashioned means of repression: the threat of long prison terms. “To me, this is a sign that, technically speaking, the authorities are not very competent,” Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian surveillance, told me.

Economists are now debating just how severe the coming financial crash brought on by Western sanctions will be. Morgan Stanley expects Russia to default on its debt next month, as it did in 1998. It is the ultimate irony that Putin’s play to undo the 1990s will cause the return of the economic pain that brought him to power.

[See also: Authoritarianism is the reason for Russia’s struggles in Ukraine]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror