The last time I was in Russia, the summer of 2015, I came face to face with a contradiction. What if a place was unfree, but also happy? How long could it stay that way?
Moscow had grown into a beautiful European city, full of carefully landscaped parks, cycle paths and parking lots. The income of the average Russian had risen significantly over the past decade. At the same time, the political system drifted ever closer to authoritarianism.
Fifteen years earlier, Boris Yeltsin had left power in shame and apologized on national television for failing to justify the hopes of the people who believed we could make a leap from the bleak and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright one. , prosperous and civilized future all at once.”
By the summer of 2015, his successor, President Vladimir V. Putin, had made Russia seem bright and prosperous. The political system he built became increasingly restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.
Many Russian liberals had gone to work for non-profit organizations and local governments, and committed themselves to community building – making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 had failed and people looked for other ways to shape their country. Big politics was hopeless, it was thought, but small actions could really make a difference.
There was another side to this deal: Mr Putin was apparently limited as well. Political action may have been forbidden, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, for example religion, culture and many forms of expression. His own calculation to keep the system running smoothly meant that he had to make some space for society.
I lived in Russia for nine years and started writing about it for DailyExpertNews in 2000, the year Mr Putin was first elected. I spent a lot of time telling people – publicly and in my private life – that Russia sometimes looked bad, but it also had many wonderful qualities.
But in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve felt like I’m watching someone I love go crazy. Many of the Russian liberals who had turned to “small acts” are also feeling a sense of shock and horror, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a Russian anthropologist.
“I see a lot of posts and conversations where these small acts are said, it was a big mistake,” she said. “People have a metaphor. They say, ‘We were trying to make some cosmetic changes to our face when the cancer grew and grew in our stomach.’”
I started to wonder if Russia would always end up here, and we just didn’t see it. So I called Yevgeniya Albats, a Russian journalist who had warned of the dangers of a revival of the KGB as early as the 1990s. Ms. Albats continued to stare into the brilliance of the idea that at certain points in history, everything is at stake in political thought and action. She had long argued that any deal with Mr Putin was an illusion.
She said 2008 was a turning point, the moment Putin separated from the West, even invaded another country, and the West barely noticed.
“For Putin, it was a clear sign,” she said by phone last month, “that he can do whatever he wants. And that’s exactly what he started doing. He behaved extremely rationally. He just realized that you can’t do anything. care.’
She referred to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia that took place shortly after President George W. Bush began talking about Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO membership. I covered that war and spent the night with a Russian unit in the Georgian town of Gori and remember how cheerful the soldiers seemed, laughing and joking. The Soviet defeat in the Cold War had left a bitter sense of humiliation and loss. The invasion seemed to have renewed them.
“When Putin came, everything changed,” one officer told me. “We have regained some of our old strength. People started to respect us again.”
Mrs. Albats sounded tired but determined. The day we spoke, she had traveled to a Russian penal colony to attend the sentencing of her friend Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s popular opposition leader, who used his allotted time to deliver a speech against the war.
“We now understand that when Putin decided to go to war in Ukraine, he had to get rid of Navalny,” she said, as he is the only one who has the courage to resist.
Indeed, mr. Never accepting the aversion to direct confrontation, Navalny built a nationwide opposition movement, leading people into the streets. He rejected the accord and was willing to go to jail to defy it.
Mr Arkhipova pointed out that his mantra that the fight of good against evil was not, but good against neutral, was a direct challenge to the political passivity that Mr Putin demanded.
Many people I interviewed said that Mr Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and his imprisonment in early 2021, after years of freedom, marked the end of the social contract and the beginning of Mr Putin’s war. Like the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda on the eve of September 11, 2001, Mr Putin had to clear the field of opponents.
Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, argues that the success of the political opposition, which began to accelerate in 2018 and 2019, led Mr Putin to war.
Professor Yudin said it was inconceivable to Mr Putin that there could be people in Russia who wanted the best for their country, yet were against him. So he looked for traitors and harbored an obsession with the idea that the West was after him.
“It’s a hallmark of this kind of regime,” Professor Yudin said. “It recodes internal discord into external threats.”
As for my 2015 question – how long can a place be unfree and also happy – maybe we lived up to the answer. Many liberals have left. Many of those who didn’t leave face fines or even jail time. According to the human rights group OVD-Info, police detained more than 15,000 people across the country in the weeks following the invasion, significantly more than during the 2012 protests, when about 5,000 people were detained for 12 months, Ms Arkhipova said. , who studied that movement.
Mrs Albats has stayed and is angry with Russian liberals who have not.
The message, she said, is that “Russian liberals have no tolerance for problems whatsoever.” She added: “They just run away.”
At the same time, she said, it is an extremely difficult choice. “If I choose between jail and not jail, I’d rather not choose jail,” Ms. Albats said, adding that she’s already risking thousands of dollars in fines just for reporting on the war.
Mr Yudin said the choice was difficult because the crackdown was complete and the political opposition was now pulverized.
“The best comparison is Germany in 1939,” he said. “What kind of democratic movement would you expect there? This is the same. People are actually trying to save their lives right now.”
Not everyone, of course. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at Levada Center, a research group that monitors Russian public opinion, told me that about two-thirds of people across the country approve of Mr Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
“It is a less educated, older segment of the population, living mainly in rural areas or in small and medium-sized cities, where the population is poorer and more dependent on power,” he said, referring to those who depend on the government. funds such as pensions and government jobs. “They also get their entire construction of reality exclusively from television.”
He points out that “if you look at 20 years of our research since Putin came to power, the peaks of support for Putin and his popularity have always coincided with military campaigns.”
One such campaign was the war in Chechnya, a particularly brutal subjugation of a population that was Mr Putin’s signature act in 1999 before he was elected president for the first time. We are beginning to see some features of that war in Ukraine: bodies with hands tied, mass graves, stories of torture. In Chechnya, the result was the systematic elimination of everyone involved in the fight against Russia. It’s too early to say whether that was the intention in Bucha.
Now that the deal has been broken, the illusion has been shattered. And the country has been thrown into a new phase. But what is it? Mr Yudin argues that Russia is moving away from authoritarianism – where political passivity and social withdrawal are the main features – to totalitarianism, which relies on mass mobilization, terror and homogeneity of beliefs. He believes Mr Putin is on the brink, but may be hesitant to make the switch.
“In a totalitarian system, you have to release free energy to start terror,” he said. Mr Putin, he said, “is a control freak, used to micromanagement.”
However, if the Russian state begins to fail, either through a collapse of the Russian economy or a complete military defeat in Ukraine, unleashing terror will be the only way to save itself.
That is why the current situation is so dangerous, for Ukraine and for people in Russia who were against Putin.
“Putin is so convinced that he cannot afford to lose that he will escalate,” said Professor Yudin. “He put everything on it.”