An expert's point of view on a current event.

Putin Is Already Dead

The sweeping protests that have riled Moscow signal the end of Russia's strongman, but the real gains will require millions to adopt the project of democracy and dignity.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

                                         Click here for interviews with the new wave of Putin's opposition.

                                         Click here for interviews with the new wave of Putin’s opposition.

As the Russian protest movement expands and radicalizes in the lead-up to the March 4 presidential election, the key question is not whether Vladimir Putin — and Putinism — will survive. They will not. Apart from its so obviously dysfunctional political system, Russia is facing growing problems of enormous complexity — economic, social, demographic, ethnic — that are impossible to solve within the rigid confines of neo-authoritarian "sovereign democracy" (which, as my Russian friends like to point out, is as to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"). Inextricably tied to Putinism, corruption, which is likely the worst in Russia’s long history, is reaching the level of paralyzing key economic and social institutions.

There is also a kind of historical inevitability here. Indeed, the dynamics of Russia’s latest breakthrough to post-authoritarian democratization appear to be very similar to the ones that drove Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, and Spain) in the 1970s and the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan) in the 1980s. And after a period of record economic performance, a hugely expanded global middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity — its members want political liberty and a say in governing their countries. This is where Russia finds itself today.

To better understand this new, rising social movement, I traversed Russia from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad — some 4,600 miles and nine time zones, stopping in Irkutsk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg in between — and interviewed leaders of civil society movements and organizations. The conversations were exceptional, revealing a deep and real dissatisfaction with political and social life in Russia today. 

Yet quite apart from all the obvious and increasingly deadening flaws that have emerged under Putin, his regime’s fatal deficiency is moral, even existential. For the Russian Internet generation that has lead the protests, guided by Facebook and inspired by LiveJournal blogs, a generation whose members were young children or in their early teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, it is an inconceivable existential monstrosity, an utterly bizarre anachronism, for a great and proud European nation to have someone — anyone — in power for 24 years (which is what many think Putin aspires to if "reelected" for two six-year terms). This is six years longer than Brezhnev and only a few years short of Stalin. "You’ve got to be kidding!" and "This sucks!" may not be among the categories of political science, but they are fair representations of the growing sentiment on Russian blogs and Facebook pages.

Sovereign democracy is a daily offense to the dignity of these young men and women for whom the proverbial "chaos of the 1990s" is at best a distant rumor. They compare themselves not to their (mostly) post-Soviet parents — and even less so to their (mostly) Soviet grandparents — but to their contemporaries in prosperous, democratic countries in Europe and the United States. The key legitimizing factor of Putinism — "We’re better off than in the 1990s" — is eroding almost daily.

The public opinion polls are unambiguous: Putin has lost Moscow, and he has lost the intelligentsia. This means he has also lost the country: No Russian regime in history has survived these losses, though some managed to linger, agonizing, for several years. Although the end may come as early as this spring and summer, following inevitable national protests once Putin is elected in March, we can almost certainly bet that Putin will not serve out his first six-year term (which would end in 2018) and that absolutely without doubt he won’t see out a second.

Thus the truly important question is what happens after Putinism is overthrown. It has been clear for a while that the elites are at a loss. This past July, Igor Yurgens, an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev and the head of a think tank of which Medvedev is chairman of the board, told the leading political and economic Profil magazine that the elite — both the government and opposition — are at their wits’ end. "They’ve lost control of the situation," Yurgens put it. Last July, this may have been discounted as an alarmist exaggeration by a liberal politician desperately wishing for Medvedev to become an independent political figure. Today it seems quite realistic — after the moral revulsion over the results of the Dec. 4 election that followed the insult of Putin’s September announcement that the "switch" with Medvedev had been preplanned four years ago (implying that the Medvedev rhetoric of "modernization" was purely for show).

A similar case was made by perhaps Russia’s finest political philosopher and political sociologist, Igor Klyamkin, in an interview to Ogoniok magazine this past July. "Rossiya v tupike," he declared — Russia is at a dead end. From top to bottom, Russian society suspects that the current economic and political model is unsustainable, said Klyamkin, yet no alternative is possible within the current political framework.

If Klyamkin is to be believed (and he is usually right), Russia may be approaching a watershed in its 1,000-year history. Rule by force — whether this force was "legitimized" by religion, as before 1917, or by ideology, as during the Soviet period — has been the essence of Russian political regimes. Ideologies have changed like draperies on the windows, but the fundamental nature has remained the same, according to Klyamkin: "The law guarded the force, not the rights of citizens." Today, Klyamkin continued, "arbitrary, lawless force has lost its effectiveness: Neither the elites nor the population are ready to accept it any longer."

Force cannot get rid of corruption; it is even less capable of the modernization that the Kremlin has repeatedly declared its goal. Putin is neither Stalin nor Peter the Great. Yet how to modernize by other means the regime "does not know — the system cannot accommodate alternative ways of development." That is why, Klyamkin declared, the present stage is "unprecedented" in Russia’s history; it "looks like a historical dead end." To find the way out, the Russian state "not only must change but become such that it has never been before." He was talking about nothing less than a new political culture.

Where will such a culture come from? It looks increasingly like a lasting progressive change will have to come from below and from outside the political class. It will have to be generated by a mature, self-aware civil society capable and willing to control the executive — a civil society that is not only equal to but above it. In all revolutions, an activist minority is enough to finish off the old regime and install a new political or economic order (and, in the Russian case some 20 years ago, both). But maintaining these institutions in accordance with new political, economic, and social moralities requires a diffusion of these values to many more — perhaps orders of magnitude more — people. It will take "masses" willing and able to supervise these state institutions to make sure that they faithfully reflect these new values.

The few are the vanguard, but without the many we end up with Putin’s sovereign democracy, the post-Orange Revolution authoritarian retrenchment in Ukraine, and restoration of the military dictatorship in today’s Egypt. But are there bright enough lights in Russia today to inspire the masses to safeguard the changes that will surely come?

To answer this and many other questions, I hit the road, talking to the leaders of this new political vanguard. Among the many often startling themes that emerged, perhaps the most fascinating was that a lasting, progressive change would not be a political revolution in the conventional sense. Nor would it be brought "from above" by a good tsar or a better hero than Putin. Instead, Russia’s hope must be predicated on a deeply moral transformation "from within."

Amid a sea of cynicism, callousness, mistrust, thievery, and incompetence, these civil society leaders are forging islands — perhaps soon archipelagos — of self-reliance, camaraderie, selflessness, self-governance, and personal responsibility for themselves, their fellow citizens, and their country. Day after day, calmly but with unbending determination, they are writing what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called the "software of democracy." And they are not going away. If there is a leitmotif in their remarkably thoughtful and self-aware answers to my questions, it is the moral imperative of their cause: a quest for dignity in liberty and citizenship that gives meaning to their lives.

This is a break with the national political tradition in at least three key regards. First, these men and women may be the first generation of civil leaders in Russian history who do not define themselves by their position vis-à-vis the state. Instead, they view the state as an equal partner — without awe, fear, unconditional devotion, or hatred. Second, as virtually all of them told me, it is not the regime that is the main problem, but a civil society unable or unwilling to control the executive branch. It is the shortage of mature, self-aware, and confident citizenry that is responsible for where Russia is today. As such, it is the creation of such a citizenry, not yet another regime change, that is the overarching goal.

With the exception of Yevgenia Chirikova, who has become prominent as an emerging leader of the Russian protest movement, the men and women I talked to have not been heard about in the West. Most live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg and don’t often engage in hand-to-hand clashes with the regime as do, for instance, such elite groups as "Strategy-31." Yet, it is they and thousands like them who are making Russian history by laying a foundation for a new, post-authoritarian country.

They could be described as the "opposition"; a more precise and inclusive term might be the "civil rights" movement. They have different short-term causes — from environmentalism to historical preservation to honest elections to lessening corruption — but the overarching goal is equality before the law and control over the government. "Make the authorities listen to us!" one of them said to me.

No historic parallel is perfect, but it is hard not to hear echoes of the civil rights movement in the United States. Of course, the differences are enormous. One of the most obvious among them is the deeply religious, mostly Southern Baptist, elements that provided the moral foundation of the U.S. movement. By contrast, after nearly five generations of state atheism and with the Russian Orthodox Church deeply compromised by its cooperation with the totalitarian regime, faith can hardly be expected to provide inspiration for the remaking of Russia.

Yet the similarities are just as stark. Just as with its U.S. counterpart more than half a century ago, the Russian movement’s ultimate goal is equality before the law and the end of disenfranchisement. (Yes, unlike the Jim Crow blacks, the Russian middle class may vote, but their votes don’t count. This is the realization that, after the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, triggered the wave of protests.) And just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, Russia’s new activists seek to effect vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. Both reject violence in principle. Both establish no time limits to the achievement of their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience to persevere as long as necessary. Most of all, like the civil rights movement (also led by the middle-class intelligentsia), its Russian counterpart seeks the dignity of democratic citizenship.

But though they may be prepared to work their entire lives to remake their country, Russians may not be able to wait that long. Twenty years after the Soviet Union’s demise, the moral and political outrage is back on the streets. And the moral has become political, just as it did at the end of the Soviet period — and as it always is at the outset of great modern revolutions.

Answering my questions without a shade of fear or reticence and with remarkable thoughtfulness and self-awareness, this brave and deeply moral vanguard revealed, time and again, a deeply personal, passionate commitment to dignity in liberty. In the selections from the interviews that follow, I have tried to convey the honesty, the courage, the passion, and the depth of their beliefs. I hope I have succeeded, for these were among the finest men and women I’ve met in my life.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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