Putin’s attack on Ukraine and a noticeable increase in aggressive imperialist sentiments in Russian society have prompted another round of deliberations on the perpetual topic that “nothing will ever change in Russia.” People argue that it is “useless” to expect Russia to transform into a normal democratic country which will renounce its imperial past. While categorically disagreeing with the authors of these theses, I would like to briefly explain why they are wrong, and why their gloomy determinism in relation to Russia is inappropriate.
In a few weeks I will turn 50 years old. During this time, I had to go through a series of dramatic, constantly changing eras, political realities, and social structures. And in each of these relatively short periods, there were wise and deeply knowledgeable people who, armed with arguments and a deep understanding of Russian society, confidently asserted that in the future everything would be about the same as it is now. There is no point in twitching around, for all that awaits is many years of the status quo. Against this background, the situation in the country changed in a kaleidoscopic way, resembling a rollercoaster. Brezhnev’s stagnation and “détente” were followed by the repressive renaissance of the Andropov-Chernenko era, with the aggravation of relations with the West until it reached the very real threat of a nuclear war. Then there was Gorbachev’s thaw and perestroika, followed by the freedoms of the Yeltsin’s era. Even Putin’s rule consisted of several completely different historical periods – absolutely everything around was constantly changing, but what remained unchanged all these years was that same tune of the ever wise ‘status quo party’ that “nothing will ever change.”
The funniest thing about this was the events which took place 22 years ago, in the spring of 2000. At that time, Putin was just being elected president for the first time, and some of his traits raised huge concerns about a possible authoritarian imperial revenge. At that moment I was a middle-level federal official, heading the department in the Federal Energy Commission, the energy monopoly regulator. I openly criticized Putin and even voted for Yavlinsky in the elections that year, a fact I did not hide; just imagine that something like this could be declared in the open – what times were these! And you know what you heard in response? That “nothing will happen! Nothing can happen! We are a democracy! We have free television, parliament, and private property! We came out against the Soviet regime and demolished it only less than 10 years ago! Nothing like this can be! Everything will always be as it is now!”
The arguments about how the status quo will stay have been unhelpful both then and now. In the days of early Putinism, the public let their vigilance down, allowing the authoritarian revanche to take place quickly and without hindrance. Today, such language demoralizes a significant part of society which, instead of doing something to achieve change, sits and wastes its energy lamenting about how bad things are and always will be.
Usually, three main arguments are used in support of the thesis about Russia’s “eternal doom to authoritarianism”, which we will analyze below. Two of them are completely insolvent, and the third is really strong – but we can discuss how to handle it. On the other hand, there are many more arguments in favor of the fact that the situation in the country will change dramatically in the future, and these arguments hold much more weight, even if the ever-wise singers of the ‘status quo’ camp prefer to remain silent about them. Let’s talk about all this in more detail.
The first argument is about the ‘deep people’, and it relates to the everyday presence and evidence of an aggressive, imperialist-minded, conformist sector of the population, that is in love with the authorities and the command system. These people are viewed as the majority that has a command on the rest of the society, while the active pro-reformist stratum of the population is traditionally portrayed as a marginal minority.
I am not going to go into quantitative analysis, but I will only note that, based on my experience traveling to more than 60 regions and speaking with thousands of people who do not support the government, I’ve uncovered that it is not the retrograde, pro-government views that are the majority. However, the pro-government views are the noisiest, because they resonate with the government propagandist narrative, which amplifies them.
However, for sake of the argument, let’s assume that the ‘deep people’, who are satisfied with the dictatorship and who do not want changes, are indeed the majority. Do you know what matters? No matter how many of them support the government, they never did and never will represent any viable political force that can prevent change when it happens. Even now, we are not seeing any increase in queues at the military registration and enlistment offices to fight in Ukraine. On the contrary, we hear news about an en-masse refusal of the military personnel to go and fight. There are also no voluntary Za-Putin rallies, which follows the general trend that there has never been any voluntary movement from below “for dictatorship” during the entire period of Putin’s rule (and even during the Soviet era). One thing is agreeing with the authorities and grumbling at your relatives about “evil America” and “Putin, who raised Russia from its knees.” But political action is another thing entirely.
In fact, those who are called the ‘deep people’ are, in principle, incapable of political action. Their conformism extends far beyond the limits of loyalty to the authorities – their “hut is on the edge” in every situation. This is to say that, when turbulent political events happen, they will sit quietly. This has happened before in our history, and there are no examples where they convert their pro-government grumbling into political activity. Putin’s current vertical of power was built artificially, by administrative methods, from top to bottom. The ‘deep people’ performed the functions of an accomodating crowd here. They are incapable of organizing and impeding change when the administrative vertical collapses. Moreover, they will run to salute the new bosses for the very same reasons they saluted the old one.
Therefore, it’s irrelevant what this ‘aggressively obedient majority’ thinks. What is important is how the active part of society will behave when leading change, and, using the terminology of physicists, giving acceleration to this inert mass. It should be mentioned that, at the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR in 1989, where the term ‘aggressively obedient majority’ was coined, the reformers from the Interregional Deputy Group (MDG) numbered only 300-something people, against more than two thousand loyal deputies appointed by the CPSU . Formally, these deputies were able to achieve little in the session hall of the congress. But they gave such an impetus to the rest of the country that the country changed beyond recognition in less than two years, while these two thousand loyal deputies disappeared.
The second argument is that Russia lacks some sort of “worthy” of opposition, which is unable to find a common language with the people or is doing something else that’s wrong. There is a traditionally used cliche on this subject, sounding like: “the opposition has no constructive program.” In short, it’s nonsense.
In the last decade, the opposition in Russia has managed to muster up what can only be described as miracles. In one of the most repressive dictatorships of the world it created its own television with tens of millions of regular viewers. It managed to organize protests and be present in up to two hundred cities. In my estimation, at least 5 million people participated in protests and demonstrations organized by the opposition between 2017 and 2021 on a rotation basis. Interest in the opposition and enthusiastic support for it are enormous – in a bit more vegetarian times, just a street walk alongside Alexey Navalny would have easily proven that. The example of participation of Alexey Navalny and Sergei Furgal in the gubernatorial elections shows that the opposition is able to achieve very significant results even in this repressive system, and people have a big desire for political competition and presence of fundamentally different management styles. There is someone to fight, and for a good cause.
Generally, this is the point where the supporters of the “nothing will change” camp fall back to their argument of last resort, which is that the authorities will always be able to use brute force and will never give up the levers of control, only tightening the repressive machine. Now this really is a hard argument to counter. Moreover, this is not a unique situation for Russia: the dictatorships of the first half of the 21st century is much more ready for en masse public discontent and won’t be caught off guard, unlike many of their predecessors of the second half of the 20th century. Modern dictators know in advance that at some point society will want to get rid of them, and for this case they prepare a wide and ruthless arsenal of suppression. For evidence, look no further than Belarus, Venezuela, Syria, and Myanmar.
Should this be a reason to give up? No, because for the administrative system, existence in a regime of constant repression and confrontation with society is huge stress, from which it will crack sooner or later. When and how this will happen – we do not know. However, a dictatorship cannot permanently exist in a mobilization mode – eventually, fatigue mechanisms will activate and stimulate some kind of perestroika. Eternal dictatorships simply do not exist. Take a look around – in the last four years, Putin’s entire Eurasian Union, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, have consistently rebelled. Dictatorships require enormous efforts to contain popular discontent.
We must prepare for this moment, work hard with public opinion, accelerate the erosion of support for the dictatorship, and educate the population. When the window of opportunity opens, we should act quickly and decisively.
In principle, the argument that “things will always be the same in Russia because the authorities will just use force against you to prevent change” contradicts the previously mentioned narratives about “bad deep people” and “unworthy opposition”. When proven wrong on the latter two arguments, the adherents of the ‘status quo’ party retreat to their last prepared defense frontier: “but the authorities have monopoly on violence and superiority in strength!” Yes, we know this without you, and experienced this on ourselves. But time works against brutal dictatorships – to paraphrase Lincoln: you can repress a small circle of people for a long time, a wide circle of people for a short time, but you cannot repress all people all the time.
A few extra words should be spoken on why democratic changes in Russia are, after all, a historical inevitability. For starters, there is a strong grassroots demand in Russia for democracy and real participation in running the country. For twenty years, opinion polls have always shown that about two-thirds of Russians want to directly elect the governors of regions and mayors of cities and have never been happy that Putin took away this opportunity from them. When there is real competition in elections of any level and the possibility of choosing with an uncertain result, the turnout of voters rises sharply. This trend is clearly visible in the last few years of the second round of the gubernatorial elections, unlike in the first round where intrigue is usually low and so is the turnout. Whatever people say to their relatives in the kitchen, most of them are much more interested in open competition than to continue serving the administrative vertical with a pre-programmed scenario for the development of events.
There are no significant political forces in Russia advocating an open transition to dictatorship. Aggressive anti-democratic and imperial structures such as the National Liberation Movement (NOD) or the party of Nikolai Starikov enjoy the support of an insignificant fraction of the population. Even the systemic opposition parties are putting forward demands to switch to a more open, multiparty democracy. Even United Russia is trying to hold “primaries” in order to raise interest in itself. Tens of millions of Russians who dream of dictatorship and an iron fist exist only in the imagination of skeptics and whiners, when in fact, even people who walk around with a portrait of Stalin are often very active campaigners for fair elections and against the one-party system in place. In general, widespread modern-day Russian mass views on Stalin and the USSR are very distant from historical reality and do not indicate a demand for dictatorial rule, but this is a separate conversation.
If you look at the dynamics, then the situation here is particularly impressive. Fifteen years ago, opposition rallies gathered hundreds of people and only in major cities. Now, they muster up hundreds of thousands to gather in hundreds of cities. And all this against the backdrop of increased repression. And imagine what would even have happened if the authorities would threaten and persecute those protesting. I’ll add that, for this reason, comparisons with protests in Kyiv and other capitals of democratic countries are irrelevant, because these other countries never faced such a scale of repression of protesters like Russia. If there would be no repressions, a million and many more would take to the streets of Moscow and other cities. I want to again emphasize that there is no voluntary grassroots activity in support of Putin, dictatorship, or the imperialist policy. Voluntarily mobilized demonstrations by some members of the NOD collect a few hundred people at the most, while those who gather for the massive pro-Putin demonstrations are forced to do so under duress.
The lack of public enthusiasm in terms of supporting the authorities is absolutely not surprising, because for more than 20 years Putin has not been able to build any attractive system that would work and deliver results, ensure the growth of people’s well-being, and serve as an alluring example for other societies. Yes, propaganda constructs are able to, for some time, impair people’s thinking. However, there will eventually be a collision with reality. Even now, at the moment of a temporary surge in support for Putin’s imperial policy, many of Putin’s most hardcore supporters are in despair, because for all the years of “getting up from our knees” they realize the country hasn’t learned to produce anything domestically, and absolutely for all commodity items one way or another we are dependent on imported raw materials, components, and technologies. The absence of a working socio-political and economic system is an inevitable reason for the countdown of its existence. The competition of systems is a cruel thing, only the strongest survive, as we know from the experience of the Cold War.
Another important nuance— if we examine the trends in political repression and propaganda as well as censorship vectors (administrative and criminal cases, arrests and other limitations of freedom, various forms of administrative and law enforcement pressure, acts of censorship, targeting of “enemies” by state propaganda, etc)— the picture is very clear— the Russian dictatorship views the supporters of liberal democratic form of governance as its main political competitors, with a real potential to command significant support of the society. The sheer scale of resources allocated by the Russian government for the suppression of liberal and democratic ideas and political forces that represent them within Russian politics is indeed massive. Considering how important financial and enforcement levers are to the current regime, one can easily gage the priority accorded to specific objectives based on what financial, law enforcement and propaganda resources are mobilized for their achievement. In fact, it’s safe to assert that the Kremlin, unlike the many vocal skeptical wisemen, views the potential democratic system as an extremely serious competitor— from the demand side (for the society, the idea of democracy and power by the people is a very attractive alternative to the current system), as well as from the supply side (Russian political figures espousing ideals of democratization are perceived as strong and formidable competitors).
No other political movement in Russia meets pushback of similar scale from the Kremlin. This means that the regime evaluates the prospect of Russia evolving into a democratic society as a real and not a hypothetical one, and dedicates not just substantial, but huge resources to countering its advance.
The Russian people have one problem feature described in our folk tales from Pushkin’s The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish to the tale of the tale of the Frog Princess- many of us want everything at once. “Give me a plan to overthrow the dictatorship here and now, and if there is no such plan, then I don’t play your game, and “everything will be the same as always.”
This is a very harmful attitude in this situation. What is useful now is to work hard in educating the population and eroding Putin’s propaganda structure. It works. The dynamics are in our favor. You think this happens in a day? Recall what happened in the countries of the former Eastern European bloc. We like to replay the triumphant images of victorious Velvet Revolutions of 1989, but they were preceded by decades of hard and focused struggle, starting with the bloody suppression of protests in the GDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. Same goes for Poland, which, before giving the world pictures of a triumphant Lech Walesa after Solidarność (Solidarity) came to power in 1989, went through decades of protests that had not led to success. Simply Google ‘protests in Poland in 1970s and 1980s’ and see for yourself. Major change can’t be done all at once.
Therefore, both the public sentiment and the dynamics of the situation in Russia suggest that dictatorship cannot last forever, and grassroots demand for democracy is sizable and growing. We need to make use of this demand. Arguments that “Russia will never make it” are extremely harmful. They demoralize people who are already under enormous stress. Moreover, they demoralize the people and exacerbate the situation for nothing, because, as shown above, all objective data and trends indicate the opposite – those things are moving towards change, albeit a difficult and slow change. However, there is no need to increase the difficulties by inciting pessimism in people, simply because it’s your aim to show off your wit with abstruse phraseology; don’t obstruct the important work aimed at bringing about change.