In the end, Russia’s latest round of protests against Vladimir Putin’s 21-year rule didn’t last long.
Over two weekends in late January, an eclectic coalition of Russia’s discontented flooded into city centres across the country to protest the arrest of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny on long-standing fraud charges. In the process, they braved vicious police violence and potentially ruinous legal consequences.
By Russian standards, the crowds were big: in Moscow, perhaps 40,000 attended the biggest unsanctioned rally in years.
The state’s response, however, was bigger. After two weeks, and an unprecedented wave of mass arrests and rapid-fire convictions that filled Moscow’s jails to bursting, the protest movement was broken. On 2 February, as one of Putin’s most prominent critics was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating probation while comatose in Germany, only a handful of well-wishers made it through the bitter cold and police cordons to stand vigil outside Moscow City Court.
Navalny’s movement was quick to sound a tactical retreat.
“If we keep going out every week, we’ll get thousands more arrested and hundreds more beaten up and the work of the campaign offices will be paralysed”, said Leonid Volkov, a Vilnius-based tech entrepreneur and Navalny aide who is now the opposition movement’s de facto leader, being neither in jail nor under house arrest.
The Navalny movement – a loose patchwork of political organisers and anti-corruption investigators spread across Russia’s 11 time zones and the outside world – would instead pivot to advocating abroad for more sanctions, Volkov told journalists. In an interview with Reuters, he predicted that fresh economic measures could trigger destabilising intra-elite infighting, as Putin-linked oligarchs blame the president’s crackdown for jeopardising their business interests.
“We will get Alexei out of prison, first and foremost, using foreign policy methods,” he told Dozhd, a small liberal internet TV station with an opposition-minded audience.
Volkov’s idea isn’t an original one. For almost as long as Putin has occupied the Kremlin, observers have allowed themselves to imagine that his Russia is perched on yet another revolutionary precipice and that one more burst of economic pain might send the country hurtling over a 1917- or 1991-style cliff edge.
Now, with Putin in his third decade of power and Russians’ real incomes having shrunk by 11 per cent since 2013, food prices rising and new sanctions heaped atop old, prognoses of looming catastrophe seem more real than ever.
But though Russia’s recent economic performance has been underwhelming, a grim set of statistics can obscure a deeper truth. Today’s tightened belts are unlikely to drive Russia into revolution, simply because most Russians can still remember a time when things were much worse. The Russia of 2021 may have registered close to zero GDP growth in a decade, but it is a vastly more prosperous, healthier and more habitable country than the dysfunctional wreck Putin inherited in 2000, to say nothing of the still worse conditions of 1990 or 1950.
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Despite everything, the present is still a historically good time to live in the world’s largest country. Contemporary Russians live longer, drink less and, strange though it may seem, enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history. Russia’s embryonic semi-democracy may have been strangled, but compared to the rolling social, economic and cultural catastrophes of Boris Yeltsin’s Nineties or the Stalinist nightmare – still just about within living memory – Putin’s unimaginative but unintrusive authoritarianism is far from the worst of possible worlds.
Moreover, Russia under Putin – though undoubtedly deeply corrupt – is far more than the failed, gangsterised parody of democracy that some portrayals abroad suggest. At home, it is a reasonably coherent system that asks only its citizens’ passive acceptance, whilst promising in return a modicum of political participation, a decent semblance of law and order and at least a chance at personal prosperity. For Russians, who have only rarely enjoyed much of any of these blessings, all three at once is a historically alluring proposition.
Indeed, the offer of material affluence – though it is never, in practice, extended to all – has, according to the sociologist Vladislav Inozemtsev writing in the independent VTimes, been so successful as to corrode the very notion of collective economic protest. Nearly a decade of belt-tightening, far from prompting the disillusioned masses to take to the streets, has instead caused only navel-gazing as Russians blame themselves for their straitened circumstances.
However, the most essential reason the bulk of Russians continue to choose Putin’s stability over Navalny’s revolution runs deeper than economic self-interest.
At its heart, Putinism pledges never again to cast Russia as the guinea pig in any grandly conceived social experiments. Instead, it offers stability, continuity and development to a nation that has been required to regularly relearn the rules of society by rulers from Peter the Great to Yeltsin. For a population exhausted by ideological upheaval, driven into what the political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov calls “a familiar combination of inertia [and] apathy”, that simple promise remains far more attractive than Navalny’s call to, once again, transform Russia beyond recognition.
And yet none of this means Putinism is immune to crisis.
The essence of Putin’s Russia has always been institutions that exist without functioning. Even today, on paper Russia resembles a normal European country. It has a constitutional court, independent media and opposition parties. Elections are held – generally freely, if rarely fairly – and the ruling party does, occasionally, lose them. That all these institutions are either corrupted, co-opted or otherwise tame has always represented a potential vulnerability at the heart of the system.
The opposition is well aware of this. Navalny’s associates keenly perform their opposition, seeking theatrically to expose the gap between the system’s pretensions to democracy and the reality of its authoritarianism. Time and time again, they apply for protest permits they know will be denied and register as electoral candidates knowing full well that they will almost always be disqualified on a technicality.
On the occasions when they succeed, however, the results can be spectacular.
In Putin’s Russia, the most serious domestic political crises have tended to be those induced by hollowed-out institutions failing their constituents. Take, for example, the 2011-13 election protests, or the weeks of rallies after Navalny supporters were arbitrarily banned from running for Moscow City Duma in 2019. Take also last summer’s wave of protests in remote, far eastern Khabarovsk occasioned by the arrest on questionable murder charges of a popular local governor who had made the mistake of unseating a Kremlin-backed incumbent.
Though few Russians are deluded about the nature of their government, state abuse of the democratic process’s remnants is far more likely than economic hardship to drive Russians to protest. Despite everything, the bitter realities of cynically political prosecutions and rigged elections do still retain the power to shock.
One such shock may be just around the corner.
In September, Russians will elect deputies to their national legislature, the once raucous but now largely neutered State Duma.
Though Russian elections have rarely been fair, they have never been entirely fake. The fortunes of the United Russia ruling party – though underwritten by massive state support and, in some regions, claims of outright vote rigging – have ebbed and flowed with the public mood as turbulent periods for the Kremlin produced smaller majorities for its political vehicle.
The party has never shared in the genuinely broad popularity of its sometime leader and constant lodestar Vladimir Putin. Viciously parodied by Navalny as “the party of crooks and thieves”, blamed for an unpopular pension reform, and peopled heavily by an unattractive cast of corrupt and abusive lower-echelon bureaucrats, United Russia has for three years hovered around a dismal 30 per cent in opinion polls, barely half of what it managed five years ago.
However, if Russian voters’ willingness to support the ruling party is at an all-time low, so too is the Russian government’s preparedness to tolerate them doing anything else.
Sergey Kiriyenko, a reforming liberal prime minister to Boris Yeltsin for a few months in 1998 and now Vladimir Putin’s top domestic political enforcer, is widely reported to have grown tired of the “systemic” communist and nationalist opposition, preferring a more streamlined approach to authoritarian governance. His team, who are overseeing a pre-election campaign to force out the handful of non-United Russia governors and mayors left, are reportedly keen that the ruling party should maintain the two-thirds majority it won in 2016, an altogether simpler election year for the Kremlin.
Arguably more important is the growing influence of the Kremlin’s siloviki, or security service veterans. For them, domestic politics is inextricable from national security and elections are less an opportunity for the Russian people to confer legitimacy upon their rulers than a chance for the Kremlin to display national unity to a hostile world. New laws governing online speech, restricting political protest and allowing for multi-day early voting – widely seen as a fig leaf for systemic, nationwide falsification – give the siloviki the tools to design the election result they want.
Should the Russian electorate go to the polls in an anti-United Russia mood, coordinated, perhaps, by the Smart Voting tactical voting scheme pushed by Team Navalny, only to find the ruling party awarded a Belarus-style majority, then protests are likely. Without the presence of the divisive figure of Navalny, they may even be much bigger than the rallies in January.
However, if Russians do take to the streets again in September, it will not be to overthrow the Kremlin. The opposition has neither the popular support, the strategic nous, nor perhaps even the desire to attempt such a thing. But a loud and sustained outburst of anger at another stolen election might just arrest Russia’s slide towards full dictatorship. And right now, that would be a victory in itself.