During these 22 years, Vladimir Putin has been shaping the Russian political system, redefining the distinguishing features of his regime and changing the balance of power between the different branches of the State. To understand the evolution of Russian political scenario, amid sanctions, the invasion of Ukraine and the total repression of media, civil society and opposition, ytali had a conversation with Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on the major trends shaping Russian domestic politics and, in particular, on ideological shifts inside Russian society.
He worked for many years as a political journalist and columnist, i.a. serving as deputy of Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Author of many books on late Soviet history and post-Soviet reform history, including biographies of leading Russian reformers Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. Laureat of the Gaidar Prize for his contribution to the study of history.
“During the thousand years of her history, Russia had seen many great things. […] There was only one thing Russia had not seen during this thousand years: Freedom.”, wrote Vasily Grossman in “Everything flows”. From the beginning of contemporary Russia’s history, in 1855, until now, the country has witnessed the succession and the overlapping of many political regimes and socioeconomic systems: from serfdom to post-socialist capitalism, from autocratic absolutism, through totalitarian regime, to post-soviet democracy.
Masha Gessen, in the prologue of her book “The Future is History”, claimed that from her thirties to fifties, she documented “the death of a Russian democracy that had never really come to be”, asking herself “why freedom was never firmly grasped or why democracy was never really desired in Russia”. In your advice, in over 160 years, is it possible to identify a fixed point in the historic path – or more than one – when Russia could have really become free and democratic?
There are two schools of thought in our discussions. One argues that periods of liberalization in Russian history are rare deviations from the despotic “general line”. For example, this view was held by the eminent philosopher Merab Mamardashvili. The other insists that Russia is a country like any other, that the Russian people are just like all the other peoples, who from time to time tend to lapse into populism, nationalism, savagery, following the lead of authoritarian leaders and insisting on their own principles. My friend, professor of the European University in St-Petersburg Dmitri Travin supports this idea. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and many good books have been written about the historical factors that have influenced Russia’s constant lagging behind Western countries, its separation from them, and its emphasis on mono-product exports and state intervention in the economy – from James Billington with his “Icon and Axe” to Alexander Etkind’s “Internal Colonization.”
When many people today say that Russians are particularly cruel and authoritarian, this is a simplification. How completely wrong it is to say that everyone supports Putin and therefore we are all collectively responsible for him. It is like saying that all Lithuanians are responsible for the Holocaust in their country, or that all Italians are fans of Mussolini. But what is true: there are historical circumstances that separated Russia from the West, and forced the population to submit to the will of dictators.
The history of Russia is very personified and at the same time complex; all changes always came from above, and everything that came from below was suppressed. Turning points occurred many times, but always something prevented the progress of reforms – about this, by the way, my last book, which has just come out of print (with the subtitle “The Sources of the Russian modernization and the Heritage of Yegor Gaidar”). Of course, liberalization was possible under Alexander II, the NEP, Khrushchev, and the Kosygin reforms (the 1960s is a special time in Soviet history), not to mention the times of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. A turn toward normalization after Putin’s “freezing” was possible even under President Medvedev, but for a variety of reasons it did not happen.
Russia is under pressure from this over-personalization of its history and imperial past. The country has become normal, capitalist in the consumerist sense. But it has not accepted universal values as its own. And therein lies the great drama of the mass contempt for democracy.
If liberals and the Yeltsin family themselves had not tried to control history, and if a politician like Putin had not appeared in Russia, today we would live in a normal country with “normal” and not at all militant Russians.
Let’s focus on the evolution of Putin’s regime. During these 22 years, while Western analysts debate over the concept of “guided democracy” or “démocrature”, the Kremlin has been reshaping the political system, turning Russia into a hybrid authoritarianism and then a “mature” authoritarian regime, through a growing crackdown on political opponents, independent media and civil society, a repressive legislation, a complete purge of the political arena, detentions and criminalization of Alexei Navalny’s organization, labelled as extremist. However, the transition was still ongoing. As you argued in one of your recent analyses, even before the invasion of Ukraine, the system has become what the sociologist Lev Gudkov has called “recurring totalitarianism”. You stated that the right term to describe the regime is “hybrid totalitarianism” because certain elements of authoritarianism have been preserved. In your advice, why have Western leftist circles, with certain exceptions, noticed this transition only after February 24? Which key factors could define a political system based on hybrid totalitarianism?
I would probably not be talking about the left, but in principle about those who saw in Putin an alternative and desirable type of leader who does not accept liberalism and Western values, and also behaves without looking back at the norms of decency and coexistence. Not only did these people and forces not believe that Putin was deviating from the norm, they believed, as he himself did, that the Russian leader was setting new norms. However, there are no rules. There is despotism and absolute power and impunity. Having suppressed any civil resistance in his country, becoming a king in it, he realized that this was not enough for him – it was time to conquer the world. In this sense, Putin is a classic cartoon villain who wants world domination.
Personally, everything was clear to me at first glance. Back in the spring of 2000, I published a column about Putin with allusions to Franco Zeffirelli’s “Tea with Mussolini”. But then my liberal colleagues did not see the danger of Putin building a corporatist state. What is strange: I am sure that Putin did not have any ideological evolution, he just had his hands tied a little at first and he tried to play by the rules. In 2003, when he arrested Khodorkovsky, everything was already clear. In 2007, there was the Munich speech, then his return in 2012 and Crimea in 2014, the nullification of the presidential terms and poisoning of Aleksei Navalny in 2020, the brutal suppression of protests in 2021. Liquidation of the keepers of national memory – the “Memorial” Society in December 2021. And then – the invasion, the peak of his evolution.
Putin’s system is not entirely totalitarian. But he requires not just silent obedience, but open support. In any case, in sectors and companies that depend on the state and the state budget. His system encourages denunciations, “self-cleansing”, the fight against “national traitors”. The legislation on foreign agents is being tightened all the time, now people who are simply unprovenly under “foreign influence” can be recognized as foreign agents. These are elements of a totalitarian society.
According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarian regimes such as the Nazi and the Soviet ones were based, to put it briefly, on the combination of terror, as a permanent tool of governance, and ideology, as permanent principle of action. Single mass party, secret police, isolation, “loneliness” of individuals, complete control of mass media, among other things, are distinguishing features of totalitarism, always connected with terror – ideology combination. Arendt’ studies can be applied only to the above-mentioned regimes, while other political theorists and authors – Friedrich and Brzezinski, for example – have broadened the interpretation of the concept of totalitarianism. In light of the different historic context and considering the dramatic evolution of Putin’s regime occurred during these years, is there a common ground to establish specific analogies between contemporary Russia’ governance and the totalitarian regimes of the past?
Stalinism, of course, did not disappear in Russian society. There was no national repentance. Stalin’s popularity grew as Putin’s regime became more authoritarian. The Stalinist period and Stalinist methods seem to many to be examples of adequate government. This is all very serious. When my colleagues say that Stalinism has nothing to do with it, I strongly disagree. De-Stalinization did not complete under Khrushchev, then under Gorbachev, then under Yeltsin – this required the intellectual and spiritual work of the nation. This work has not been done. And as a result we are where we are.
In the 1950s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in collaboration with Karl Friedrich, developed the theory of totalitarian dictatorship and autocracy. According to his understanding, under authoritarianism, the main thing is prohibitions, an understanding of what people should not do. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, combines prohibitions and imperatives, prescriptions: that is, subjects are obliged to know not only what they should not do, but also what they must according to the direct instructions of the state. Not only repression and control are important, but also the mobilization of the masses within the framework of anticipatory obedience.
Elements of such relations between the state and society manifested themselves at full design capacity just after the start of the “special operation”. It is no longer enough to demobilize to keep quiet – you need to loudly express your support for the regime. Line up children in kindergartens with the letter Z, conduct lessons on methods of combating fakes in schools, encourage pupils and students to report on teachers and professors, and vice versa.
The call of the first person in the state to society’s “self-cleanse” is not an authoritarian, but a totalitarian practice. The division of citizens into the right “patriots” and the wrong “national traitors”, the “fifth column” is also a totalitarian practice. In other cases, it is not enough just to be silent “for” – you need to demonstrate voice. You have to show loyalty. This is the mark of a good citizen. More precisely, not a citizen, but a subject.
The measurement of dissent is another strategic subject, especially after the invasion of Ukraine. Russians could face prison sentences of up to 15 years for spreading information against the Russian government’s position on the “special military operation”. Said that, according to some analysts, for many people it’s complicated to speak out against the war when jobs and lives are at stake. According to the Levada Center polls, Putin’s last approval rating was 83% in June. In this framework, this rating would make sense, even though the international public opinion finds hard to believe that all Russians are complicit in horrors and atrocities (deportations, genocide, war crimes etc.) perpetrated by the government in Ukraine. Between forced mobilization, requested by the authorities as proof of loyalty, in support of the Kremlin’s actions and “passive conformity” of the majority there’s a thin line. Even remaining silent in today’s Russia, out of fear or indifference, de facto, could lead to a tacit approval of what’s happening in the country and, in this case, in Ukraine. Excluding the opposition’s activists and many people who took the streets to protest, risking their lives, is there a real dissent among ordinary Russians? How can the concepts of “political collective responsibility” and “moral and/or legal guilt” be applied to the Russian current sociopolitical context?
Do French people feel their collective guilt or at least responsibility for the electoral success of the far-right movement? I think, no. The same story with the part of the American society. Are all Americans responsible for the Trump phenomenon? Probably not. But American democracy has a safety net called the rotation of power. Putin has disabled this mechanism in Russia.
People in Russia have become consumers, but not citizens. And this, too, was brought up in them on purpose. Especially in Moscow, the richest city, which had the best premieres, the best exhibitions, the best restaurants, the best jobs. And if this is all there without democracy, what is democracy for? It turns out that without it, the project of authoritarian modernization completely fails.
Nevertheless, let’s break down the most superficial figures: just over 70% of respondents support the operation, according to the Levada Center. However, half of the respondents support it “definitely,” another 30% are hesitant, joining the mainstream out of fear or because they have no personal opinion and they want to be “good citizens”. The nation is not consolidated, but divided by war. The polarization of opinions is supplemented by their radicalization. Opponents of the war do not always have the courage to express their opinions publicly, but there are many of them. People often come up to me on the streets of Moscow and simply say “Thank you,” without explaining what they mean. This is understandable: I often appear in Youtube with an anti-war stance and analysis, and they share this position. Yes, it is a tacit resistance, but it is the one that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin’s attitude towards history has been quite controversial during these years, from the constant revisionism to the new guidelines for history textbooks, from the rehabilitation of Stalin to the glorification of a military past based on the Great Patriotic War to the persecution and “liquidation” of Memorial, not to mention Putin’s decision to order Russian schools to appoint dedicated “patriotic advisers” to instill “spiritual-moral values” in the nation’s students amid the war in Ukraine. According to Maxim Trudolyubov, senior fellow at the Kennan Institute and Editor-at-Large of Meduza, “time does not heal old wounds. We need to overcome not only the ‘winner’ syndrome’ within the Kremlin, but also all sorts of attitudes outside the Kremlin that have prevented us from confronting our past in all its severity. We live in an enormous closet stuffed with skeletons.” In your advice, how is civil society dealing with the past? And, most important, how will the future be shaped if Russians decide to join the “We” – a mass rather than a community of people – imagined by the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin in his dystopian novel?
The past is the most painful problem, including this national identity question, based on the official interpretation of the history. It is no coincidence that the invasion of Ukraine was preceded by the liquidation of “Memorial”, the oldest civil organization preserving the memory of Stalin’s crimes. Destroying “Memorial” meant destroying the national memory. That is exactly what the authorities wanted: they consistently fill the voids in the transmission of national memory with mythologized history. For this purpose, there are two pro-Kremlin organizations: the Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military Historical Society. They are supervised by Naryshkin, head of the Intelligence Service, and Medinsky, a presidential aide and former Culture Minister. Mythologized history is making its way into schools. And the main history teacher is Putin himself.
It is very difficult for civil society to counteract the state’s massive propaganda of a single version of history, which already includes the “recognition of independence” of Donbass. Much depends on the preservation of private memory, the memory of families. But in the realm of history, just as in politics, it is easier for the average citizen to join the collective “We” of state officialdom than to understand for himself what has happened to the country. Ignorance and indifference are Putin’s great friend.
In the recent weeks there has been a long debate about the vulnerability of the regime related to the sanctions imposed by the West, not to mention all the speculations about Putin’s health. Tatiana Stanovaya on The Moscow Times argued that, in case of Putin’s death, “‘when’ is more important than ‘if’”. In particular, the timing of this possible “departure” is crucial to figure out who comes next: a conservative successor or a reformist one. According to Stanovaya, “the sooner Putin drops dead, the greater the chances of a conservative revanche”. Considering that the “collective Putin”, as far as we know, still exists, how have Putin’s inner circles been (especially the siloviki) redefining their role in the vertical of power? Will the Putinism be able to survive potential political changes in the medium term?
Generally, the question is whether the Putinism will survive Putin. In fact, Putin’s entire history is a story of successful conservative revanche. It has already taken place and is enrooted in a political system that continues to suppress everything non-conservative around it.
Putin has created a personalistic system, and accordingly, there are no truly public political figures around him. The obedient majority is more likely to accept the model of succession from him – the model that has already worked once in the case of Medvedev. Despite the fact that there is already a race of favorites – Medvedev, Kiriyenko, Volodin, Patrushev – this does not mean that they are viewed seriously as the heirs. Moreover, the system is gobbling itself up, provoking negative selection, overloading itself with new management tasks and state expenditures (“rebuilding” the empire needs financial and human resources), and Putin will have a hard time choosing a completely loyal successor.
Francoism survived caudillo Franco, but nevertheless was doomed. Something similar will happen in post-Putin Russia. Russian history shows that liberalization inevitably followed the departure of tyrants. The periods of Khrushchev and Gorbachev are proof of this.
Russian gubernatioral elections will be held, barring “unforeseen circumstances”, on September 11 in 15 federal subjects. According to sources close to the Kremlin reported by Meduza at the beginning of June, Sergey Kiriyenko has “personally persuaded Putin” not to call off the elections: “If the elections are canceled, that means something’s going wrong in the country, that the authorities are afraid of their results.” In May Putin has appointed acting governors of five regions (Kirov, Ryazan, Saratov, Tomsk regions and the Republic of Mari El) after their predecessors announced they were stepping down. The so-called “gubernatoropad”, “the practice of changing governors in potentially problematic regions month before an election” to “avoid protest votes against unpopular incumbents”, is considered by some analysts a sign of normalcy. Let’s not forget that governors are elected, but they are polically subordinate to the Kremlin. In your advice, how will the authorities “handle” the balance of power in those regions, considering all the related issues (United Russia’s low popularity, for example)? And which regions could have a crucial impact on the current political and economic scenario?
Society is disoriented, fragmented, demotivated. In times of war it relies on power and supports power. Elections are an important way for power to show that it is still supported by the majority and controlled by the supreme body. That is, electoral procedures are an act of propaganda and psychological therapy. I do not think that there will be any surprises in the elections. Surprises are possible in places where they are not expected and on those occasions, which are now unknown. The 2020 protests in Khabarovsk no one could have predicted. And the protests may not be politicized, at least at first. Civil society still exists. “Russia is a country of opportunities” is the slogan of the company responsible for the selection of new technocrats. But Russia is also the land of the unexpected.