Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
In early April, the coffin containing the body of 75-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the ultranationalist and populist who was a crucial pillar of the Russian state for two decades—was taken to the Hall of Columns in central Moscow for people to pay their respects. Sixty-nine years ago, it was there that Stalin had lain in state, in the process killing one last wave of Russians, who were crushed to death in the huge crowds that had gathered to bid farewell to the Soviet dictator.
There was no stampede to see Zhirinovsky, although his funeral recalled a different moment from the Soviet era. His body had been brought to the Hall of Columns in an Aurus Lafet—the strictly limited-edition black hearse made by Aurus Motors, Russia’s much-hyped new luxury car manufacturer. In Russian, lafet means “funeral carriage,” and for Russians like me, who are old enough to remember the early 1980s, the name of the car evokes a darkly comic joke: when the elderly Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko all died in quick succession, it was known as the Race of the Lafets.
Could Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle now be facing a new Race of the Lafets? Certainly, there are many Kremlin figures who are of a similar age to their counterparts in the late Soviet years: Putin will be 70 in October; Alexander Bortnikov, the head of his FSB, and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of his security council, are both 70 now. Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, is 72. Much like Brezhnev’s aging Politburo when it decided to invade Afghanistan, thus demolishing what remained of the moral foundations of the Soviet empire, these gerontocrats’ decision to launch a war in Ukraine has quickly become a disaster for Russia—and especially its youth.
For the moment, the regime has Russian public opinion on its side, and it may continue to delude itself, just as it is deluding the people, that it can turn Russia into a self-sufficient, self-isolating, expansionist rogue state, based on the idea of Russian superiority over other nations. In the medium and long term, however, the “special military operation,” as Putin insists on calling it, seems destined to undermine all of Russia’s political, economic, and moral foundations.
The Putin regime seems to regard the Russian people with nearly the same attitude that it does their Ukrainian counterparts. For proof of this, one has to look no further than the public and police pressure now being put on anyone in Russia who dares think differently, the shutting down or purging of almost every independent media outlet and research organization, and the persecution of anyone who protests or even merely disagrees with the patriotic hysteria. Ukrainians are depicted as a faceless, homogenous mass that must be subjugated to the Kremlin by means of denazification, a process that in actual fact means de-Ukrainization, as Putin’s propagandists now openly admit. But Russians are also considered by their leaders as an unthinking mass that must blindly follow their leader. Otherwise, they face administrative or criminal charges and social ostracism. Russian soldiers—a group that includes not only military die-hards but also tens of thousands of very young conscripts who are performing obligatory national service—have become cannon fodder, sent unprepared to the slaughter. Putin’s senseless ideas are costing Russian teenagers their lives.
In one of his few speeches in recent weeks, Putin declared open season on “national traitors” and on a “fifth column” that was supposedly undermining the unity of the nation. To root out these malefactors, he urged a “self-cleansing of society.” Russians quickly heeded the call: after the speech, there was a wave of denunciations, with students condemning their teachers—and vice versa—and colleagues reporting on each other. The Russian president also encouraged acts of barbarity against his critics. Alexei Venediktov, the editor of Echo of Moscow, the independent radio station that was shut down by Putin’s government soon after the invasion began, had a pig’s head left outside his door, along with anti-Semitic graffiti. On a train out of Moscow, a man attacked Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize last year, by dousing him in red paint mixed with the toxic chemical acetone.
After Putin called for “self-cleansing,” Russians rushed to denounce each other.
Putin has divided the nation. Both opponents and supporters of the Russian leader have become more radicalized. Of course, most of those who oppose the war are Putin critics and young people. Some soldiers have refused to fight in Ukraine, and some families of those who have been slain are furious with Putin. Young people have bravely taken to the streets to protest the war, despite facing immediate arrest and the prospect of losing their job or place at university. Yet until now, a clear majority of Russians have rallied around Putin, even though, according to independent polling conducted last year, most Russians were afraid of war and didn’t believe it could actually happen. Today, the public, or at least the broad mass of ordinary Russians, seems in the mood for war.
Of course, it is difficult to measure opinion in a system that has one leader and that for all practical purposes no longer has any free media. But it is clear that Russians feel besieged and, often, just as embittered as Putin himself. Consider the data of the most recent poll by the independent Levada Center. Contrary to what critics claim, respondents did not refuse to answer questions any more than in past surveys, and the study itself was conducted, as usual, by in-person interviews rather than by telephone. The results are telling: 81 percent of respondents said they supported the “special operation,” with a full 53 percent “definitely” supporting it, and 28 percent “rather” supporting it. It is also worth noting another figure: in connection with the special operation, a slight majority—51 percent—of respondents said that they felt “pride in Russia.” Those who did not—many of them young people—described their feelings as “anxiety, fear, horror,” or simply “shock.”
At the same time, Putin’s approval rating, again according to Levada, soared to 83 percent in March, up 12 percent from the previous month. The surge of public support tracks closely with what occurred after the annexation of Crimea in 2014; but back then, the climate was altogether more benign, and those who opposed Putin’s actions did not face humiliation by their peers. (Nevertheless, in a speech at the time, Putin labeled anyone who spoke against his policies as a “national traitor.”) Moreover, in contrast to Russian actions in Ukraine now, the annexation was accomplished without any bloodshed, and many saw the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia, as the Kremlin called it, as restoring and enhancing Russia’s greatness.
Today, the dominant response of ordinary Russians to the war is aggression. It is undergirded by what seems to be an almost subconscious effort to block out any bad news, and with it, any sense that the nation might be in the wrong. Fear of authority not only prevents people from protesting against a barbaric war; it also makes them unable to admit even to themselves that Putin’s Russia has committed something dreadful. It is frightening to be on the side of evil. It is frightening to look at the monstrous photographs and video footage coming out of Ukraine—using a virtual private network to circumvent the Kremlin’s Internet controls—and to discover just how dangerous the truth is. And so, for many, it is easier to imbibe the official propaganda and know that you’re on the good side: the Ukrainians were going to attack us; we just carried out a preventative strike; we are liberating a fraternal people from a Nazi regime supported by the West; all the reports about atrocities supposedly carried out by our army are fake. As one woman in a Levada Center focus group said, “If I watched the BBC, maybe I’d think differently, but I will never watch the BBC, because for me what I watch is enough.”
Putin is backed into a corner, but so is the nation. Russians are collectively experiencing a version of Stockholm syndrome, sympathizing more with their own captor than with his other victims. The politicians, meanwhile—granted that they, too, are tethered to the Kremlin—are divided over what to do next. Some, such as the Putin’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky and the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, say they favor a peace agreement. Others, like the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, advocate “seeing it through to the end”—though what kind of end?—and consider any negotiations a form of betrayal. This range of views is reflected in society at large: for some, victory means a peace agreement that gives Russia significant new territory; for others, victory requires going all the way and conquering all of Ukraine, which, of course, means perpetual war.
Putin’s supporters, intoxicated by what they take to be patriotism, attack anyone who criticizes the war and claim not to understand why some people are protesting against it: 32 percent of respondents in another Levada poll said they believed that protesters were paid to do so. How else to account for the thousands of people who have taken to the streets to oppose the liberation of Ukraine from Nazis? No matter that they cannot explain who and how these thousands of people were paid to risk their freedom and livelihood to protest against the massacre. But such illogical assertions are nothing new: a portion of Russia’s hard-bitten mainstream has often said this about political protesters in recent times.
To Russians, the term “fascism” has long served as a convenient label for almost anything bad. During Soviet times it was common to say that “fascists” and “revanchists” have “raised their heads” in various parts of the world, from the United States to Germany. At times, an even harsher term, “Nazis,” was used. With characteristic lack of irony, Soviet propaganda first used the term in reference to Israel: after the Six-Day War in 1967, when the USSR broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, the Israelis were written off as Nazis. For Putin, the specter of Nazis has provided a way to indoctrinate the nation, to insist that Ukraine has no right to exist. Putin needs the history of World War II to legitimize his regime, but Russians have yet to realize that in doing so he has also destroyed the foundations of the post-Soviet state. Everything was built on the defeat of fascism in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II. Yet in the eyes of Ukrainians—and much of the rest of the world—Russians themselves are now behaving like fascists. Russians can hardly draw on their country’s experience fighting Hitler to justify their own brutal militarism. On the contrary, they are making themselves in the very image of the Germans in the wake of World War II. This is what Putin has done: Russia is no longer on the winning side of the Great Patriotic War; it is no longer on the right side of history.
Deep down, Russians are beginning to understand that escape may be impossible.
The bulk of the Russian population doesn’t realize this. And of course, this year, during Victory Day celebrations on May 9—one of Russia’s most important state holidays, commemorating the end of World War II—Putin will no doubt equate the Soviet victory in 1945 with his own triumph over the powers of reason. By May 9, Putin will have to find the words to describe the specific parameters of the new victory in Ukraine. And they must be convincing enough to make the triumph resemble 1945. But many Russians already seem to view what Russia is doing now as equivalent to the defeat of Hitler: the letter Z, the symbol of the special operation, is often portrayed as a curved St. George’s ribbon, the symbol of victory over fascism.
In reality, however, most people feel trapped: the West is more hostile toward them than ever, but there is nothing left for them in Russia. They support Putin as the supreme commander of their fabled army, but deep down they are beginning to understand that the president has led them to a place from which escape may be impossible. For Russians, it is an age-old feeling. As far back as 1863, the brilliant revolutionary thinker Alexander Herzen identified the tension: “The Russian’s position is becoming interminably difficult,” he wrote from Italy. “He feels more and more foreign in the West, while his hatred for what is being done at home grows deeper and deeper.” Then, as now, the hatred is secret rather than overt. And Russians cannot admit it to themselves.
Many Russians with a conscience, self-awareness, and a profession—and the means to do so—are voting with their feet and leaving the country. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and in the vast majority of cases, those who go abroad say they are doing so temporarily: they are sitting out the war and waiting for change to come to Russia, but they have no intention of establishing a permanent new life in another country. They are motivated less by a fear of persecution than by a lack of belief in Russia’s prospects and disgust at what the regime has become. As a result, Russia is hemorrhaging its professional class, the people on whom its aspirations for a modern, diversified economy have long rested. If this turns into a long-term trend, the exodus will fundamentally harm the country’s human capital. And the population that is left behind may well be even less open to Western values and liberal ideas.
Faced with looming economic catastrophe, the state seems likely to aim its efforts at those Russians who can be relied on to support the regime provided they are offered enough cash and other basic rewards to do so. These are the broad masses whose loyalty must be bought with social payments and salaries in the state-dependent sectors and who must be fed a steady diet of propaganda in order to stay in line. Yet as the growing effects of sanctions set in, this project has become far more expensive and the resources for supporting these people may begin to dry up. This will be especially true if Russia loses the ability to sell oil and gas.
Over time, the accumulating effects of the war could erode public trust in Putin. As the military campaign and the immense propaganda machine that has gone with it continue to operate at full tilt, social cohesion will begin to break down, and the forces that have traditionally sustained the economy will no longer function. But for now, Russians seem content to project their discontents on the enemy. To the question, Who is to blame? they answer: the United States and Europe.
Putin has hit a dead end, and Ukraine, along with the rest of the world, is suffering as a result. But in the long term, it is a disaster for the Russian people, too. The nation that contributed so much to world culture—that produced so many great novelists and thinkers and three Nobel Peace Prize winners—will now also be for a long time associated with Vladimir Putin. The West has to understand that, as banal as it sounds, Putin’s system and the Russian nation are not one and the same. And this understanding will be crucial for building a post-Putin Russia. Otherwise, the country will continue to be regarded as a hostile enclave, to be shunned by the world. But, ultimately, it will be up to Russians themselves to prove by their own actions that their country is more than Putin and what he has wrought.
What It Would Take for a Coup by Kremlin Insiders