Putin’s war in Ukraine shatters an illusion in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin projected to the side of the building during a speech in Moscow on April 21, 2021. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)

The last time I was in Russia, in 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 blossomed into a beautiful European city, full of carefully planted parks, bike paths and parking lots. The income of the average Russian had increased significantly over the previous decade. At the same time, its 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 hope of the people who thought we would be able to take a leap from the gloomy and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright, prosperous and civilized future in just one go. ”

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By the summer of 2015, his successor, President Vladimir Putin, had apparently made Russia bright and prosperous. The political system he built became more and more restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.

Many Russian liberals had gone to work for non-profit organizations and local governments and thrown themselves into community building – making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 had failed and people were looking for other ways to shape their country. Big politics was hopeless, it was thought, but one could make a real difference in small actions.

There was another side to this trade: Putin was apparently too limited. Political action may have been forbidden, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, such as religion, culture, and many forms of expression. His own calculation of the system to run smoothly meant he had to make room for society.

I lived in Russia for nine years and started covering it for The New York Times in 2000, the year Putin was first elected. I spent a lot of time telling people – in public writing and in my private life – that Russia could sometimes look bad, but that it also had a lot of wonderful qualities.

But in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve felt like I’m seeing someone I love lose his mind. Many of the Russian liberals who had turned to “small acts” also feel a sense of shock and horror, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a Russian anthropologist.

“I see lots of posts and conversations that say these little deeds, it was a big mistake,” she said. “People have a metaphor. They say, ‘We were trying to make some cosmetic changes to our faces as the cancer grew and grew in our stomachs.’

I started to wonder if Russia would always end up here and we just could not see it. So I called Yevgeniya Albats, a Russian journalist who had warned of the dangers of a resurgence of the KGB as early as the 1990s. Albats kept staring into the light of the idea that at certain times in history everything is at stake in political thinking and action. She had long argued that any deal with Putin was an illusion.

She said 2008 was a turning point, the moment Putin was separated from the West, even invading another country, and the West hardly noticed it.

“For Putin, it was a clear sign,” she said by telephone last month, “that he can do what he wants. And that was exactly what he started doing. He behaved extremely rationally. He just realized that you do not care.”

She referred to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, which came shortly after President George W. Bush began talking about NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. I covered that war and spent the night with a Russian unit in the Georgian town of Gori and remember how excited the soldiers seemed, laughing and joking. The Soviet defeat in the Cold War had left a bitter feeling of humiliation and loss. The invasion seemed to have renewed them.

“When Putin came, everything changed,” an officer told me. “We got some of our old strength back. People started respecting us again.”

Albats sounded tired but determined. The day we spoke, she had traveled to a Russian penal colony to attend the sentencing of her friend Alexei Navalny, Russia’s popular opposition leader, who used his time to speak out 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, because he is the only one who has the courage to resist.

In fact, Navalny never accepted the turn away from direct confrontation and built a nationwide opposition movement that led people out into the streets. He rejected the deal and was willing to go to jail for defying it.

Arkhipova pointed out that his mantra that the struggle was not of the good against the evil, but the good against the neutral, was a direct challenge to the political passivity that Putin demanded.

Many people I have interviewed said that the poisoning of Navalny in 2020 and the imprisonment of him in early 2021, after years of freedom, marked the end of the social contract and the beginning of Putin’s war. Like al-Qaeda’s assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on the evening of September 11, 2001, Putin had to clear the field of adversaries.

Greg Yudin, professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, claims that it was the success of the political opposition that began to accelerate in 2018 and 2019 that tipped Putin against war.

Yudin said it was unthinkable for Putin that there could be people in Russia who wanted the best for their country but were still against him. So he was looking for traitors and nurtured an obsession with the idea that the West was after him.

“It’s a feature of this kind of regime,” Yudin said. “It encodes internal disagreement into external threats.”

As for my question from 2015 – how long can a place be unfree and also happy – maybe we have lived into the answer. Many liberals have traveled. Many of those who have not left risk fines or even imprisonment. In the weeks following the invasion, police detained more than 15,000 people nationwide, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group, significantly higher than in the 2012 protests, in which about 5,000 people were detained over 12 months, said Arkhipova, who studied the movement.

Albats have become and are angry at Russian liberals who are not.

The message, she said, is that “Russian liberals, they have no tolerance for problems.” She added: “They’re just running away.”

At the same time, she said it is an extremely difficult choice. “When I choose between jail and non-jail, I’d rather choose non-jail,” Albats said, adding that she already faces thousands of dollars in fines, just to report on the war.

Yudin said the election was difficult because the repression was complete and because the political opposition was now being pulverized.

“The best comparison is Germany in 1939,” he said. “What kind of democratic movement would you expect there? This is the same thing. People are basically trying to save their lives right now.”

Not everyone, of course. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, a research group that tracks Russian public opinion, told me that about two-thirds of people nationwide approve of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

“It’s a less educated, older section of the population that lives mainly in rural areas or in small and medium-sized towns where the population is poorer and more dependent on power,” he said, referring to those who depend on the public. funds such as pensions and government jobs. “They also receive their entire construction of reality solely 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 repression of a population that was Putin’s signature act in 1999 before he was first elected president. We are beginning to see some of the characteristics of that war in Ukraine: Corpses with tied hands, mass graves, tales of torture. In Chechnya, the result was a systematic elimination of anyone associated with the fight against Russia. It is too early to say whether this was the intention in Bucha, Ukraine.

Now the agreement is broken, the illusion is shattered. And the country has been thrown into a new phase. But what is it? Yudin argues that Russia is moving from authoritarianism – where political passivity and bourgeois withdrawal are key features – to totalitarianism, which is dependent on mass mobilization, terror and uniformity of faith. He believes Putin is on the brink, but may hesitate to make the switch.

“In a totalitarian system, you have to release free energy to start terror,” he said. Putin, he said, “is a control freak, used to micromanagement.”

But if the Russian state begins to fail, either through a collapse of Russia’s economy or a complete military defeat in Ukraine, “the triggering of terror will be the only way for him to save himself.”

That is why the current situation is so dangerous, for Ukraine and for the people of Russia who were against Putin.

“Putin is so convinced that he can not afford to lose that he wants to escalate,” Yudin said. “He’s put everything into it.”

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