In 2024, Russia’s opposition civil society, especially the part of it that is in exile, should do everything possible to bring the new times closer and be ready not to miss a precious chance in case of sudden changes for the better.
What can and should be done in the new year by members of Russian civil society opposing the war and Putin’s dictatorship?
Be Steadfast. First of all, Russian exiles should be patient and, just in case, be ready for a long and exhausting struggle. Of course, we should hope for the best, but in 2024 we have to prepare for the worst— for a protracted war and the preservation of Putin’s regime in Russia in the foreseeable future.
Does this mean that the only thing left to do is to give up and get depressed? No, absolutely not. It is important to remember now that even if the road to victory is long and difficult, this is no reason to give up. In 2022, after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it seemed to many that we were in for a sprint, when by going all for a short period of time would bring about victory.
At the beginning of 2024, it is quite obvious: this is not a sprint, but a marathon, and those who want to come to the finish line as a winner must be prepared for sustained laborious efforts even as the fatigue grows. Therefore, we should cultivate among ourselves patience and willingness to continue the work started even in the face of negative news. And of course, we must keep faith in victory, without which nothing will work. We should turn for inspiration to political prisoners, who, in the unbearable conditions of Putin’s detention centers, find the strength not only to remain cheerful and optimistic, but also to spread this optimism.
Stay relevant to people in Russia. The important task of any projects by political exiles now is to be interesting and stay relevant to people in Russia, to respond to the demands of Russian civil society. There is no point in endlessly preaching to the choire or triggering those who are entrenched in their beliefs and answers. The opposition core of Russian society in Russia and in exile is already optimally consolidated and has developed mechanisms for internal communication. Of course, it is necessary to continue to maintain as close communication among ourselves as possible, but we must not forget how many Russian citizens desperately want to see the world for what it is and want to escape the murky mirror of Kremlin propaganda. We should be clear that meaningful changes can only come from a change in the attitude of Russian citizens.
Breaking the information blockade, reaching to as many as we can and convincing new people outside the opposition community is a difficult task, but it is one that must be solved. Opposition-minded citizens of Russia can and must find a common language with their compatriots and convince them of the viciousness of Putinism.
It is important to remember that the longer Putin’s critics who have left Russia are in exile, the easier it becomes to lose touch with reality in Russia, to move into the bubble of their own imagination on how people in Russia live, and to become uninteresting to those who live in the realities of Putin’s Russia. There is an effective remedy for this: we should regularly “sync our watches” with Russians inside Russia, not with what is written about Russia on social networks or Western newspapers.
An important task for opposition activists, structures and media in exile is to become a useful and reliable source of alternative information and knowledge about the situation in the world and Russia for Russians. Opposition and exile speakers, media and activist projects should discuss important issues that Russians inside Russia cannot freely discuss about among themselves, what is not reported by the media allowed under the dictatorship. Only by creating and supplying the people trapped in Putin’s Russia with relevant, useful, and interesting information (ranging from news and analysis to fiction and entertainment content) can the opposition in exile maintain and expand contact with them. Only by establishing and strengthening the rapport with people in Russia will we be able to influence the situation inside the country at a critical moment of transition post-Putin.
Stay different. Over the past two years, much effort and time has been spent on finding ways to unite the various opposition groups in exile. But would a forced consolidation of coherent groups at the cost of moral, ideological and personal compromises really bring the fall of Putin’s regime in Russia any closer?
Russia is a very large country in which plurality of opinions and attitudes, passions and contradictions still raging under the cover of the visible unity purported by Putin. It makes no sense to juxtapose Putin’s base to an opposition monolith which would be just as imaginary. The opposite of authoritarianism are plurality and diversity.
Critics of Putin’s regime must be interesting, engaging and relevant first and foremost to people in Russia. They can only be interesting if they say and write what different groups of citizens can relate to. Some are interested in an alternative view of war and the international situation to the official one, while others are interested in culture, ecology, local self-government, feminism, and the protection of minority rights. Some are left-leaning, while others hold more right-wing views. As in any society, in Russia there are radicals, moderates, apolitical, apolitical, religious, and any other kind of people. There is not and cannot be a one-size-fits-all program with the same words. Even if everyone wants peace, prosperity and quiet life, different people operationalize their desires through different approaches. It is more effective and useful to offer everyone a conversation in a language they understand than to wait until everyone agrees to switch to the rhetoric dominating the opposition community.
Therefore, it is much more useful not to seek tactical unity, but to encourage pluralism and diversity of ideas, concepts, leaders, opinions and views on the future of Russia both inside and outside Russia. It is the part of Russian civil society that is in exile, protected from the threat of repression, that can and should be the organizer and moderator of the discussions that modern Russia needs, create platforms for them, unite people around them, and help them formulate different visions of Russia without Putin.
Get Ready for Transition. Although there are no signs that Putin’s regime is about to collapse, this does not mean that it will never collapse, or that it will last for years or even decades. Personalist dictatorships are weak by definition because their entire formidable structure hangs on one nail. That nail is the limited lifespan of the dictator.
Of course, we can demoralize ourselves with scenarios of transfer of power from Putin to another undemocratic successor, but it is not inconceivable that the physical death of the dictator or his incapacity will trigger a rapid collapse of the entire system. This is what the experience of the collapse of dictatorships of the 20th century teaches us. And if after the death of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung it was only a question of liberalizing the regimes they had created in the USSR and China respectively (although the very cessation of mass repression saved millions of lives), then in the case of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain, the regimes they had built were transformed and dismantled within a few years after their departure.
Adherents of the theory of successful transfer of dictatorial power should not forget that the dictatorships of Stalin and Mao were not only personalist but also party-ideological. Both tyrants led mass ideological parties that existed before they came to power and within which power was retained by the next generations of party leaders.
In the cases of Salazar and Franco, the ruling parties were not the cause of the dictators’ rise to power, but a consequence of their rule. We see the same in Putin’s Russia. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that United Russia will play the same role in conserving the post-Putin regime as the CPSU did in conserving the Soviet regime. “United Russia” is an element of the Putin regime’s decorum, representing no separate organizational and ideological force. No Politburo, within which a legal and universally recognized successor to Putin could be elected, simply does not and cannot exist in the system he has created.
Thus, Putin’s death or removal from power will certainly be the beginning of a change for which opponents of his regime must be prepared. It could happen years from now, or it could happen in a few days. What’s then? Should we just passively wait for the dictator’s physical demise and then scramble to respond?
The opposition in the broadest sense of the word and, above all, that part of it which was forced to leave Russia and is therefore beyond the reach of the repressive structures of Putinism, must prepare Russian society, including the elites, on a daily basis for the removal of the autocrat from power precipitated by foreign policy, economic, military or other instruments.
Putinism has already been weakened by a number of internal crises, but each time there was something missing to crush it decisively. There is no doubt that more economic, military and social crises await Russia. In order for one of these crises to become fatal for the Putin regime, it is necessary to do all the things mentioned above. Whether it happens tomorrow, in a month or in a year—both in Russia and in exile, people, structures, ideas and media must be prepared, ready at any moment to be effectively involved in the events in Russia and contribute to the collapse of the dictatorship through their activities.