What’s the Matter With Russia?
Putin and the Soviet Legacy
No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders. BY ELLEN MICKIEWICZ. Oxford University Press, 2014, 264 pp. $29.95.
Twenty years ago, while working for the National Democratic Institute in Russia, I found myself observing a focus group in the town of Khimki, not far from Moscow. In a drab apartment, my colleagues and I strained to understand what local residents thought about candidates running in a by-election for the Russian parliament. It was a disorienting time, that early post-Soviet period, before the wars in Chechnya, the collapse of the ruble, and President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. But for some, it held a tantalizing hope: that Russia would ultimately transition to democracy. I, too, felt optimistic watching the men and women in that first group discussion. They seemed eager to debate the candidates’ relative merits and clearly relished their newfound political voice.
In the decade and a half afterward, I observed dozens of Russian focus groups, in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a handful of other cities and towns. Each time, eight to ten randomly selected participants discussed critical players and moments in their country’s development. My colleagues and I then drew on their responses to conduct a series of nationally representative public opinion surveys. The results dimmed my initial optimism. For example, most respondents thought that Stalin had done more good than harm and were oblivious to the true scale of the purges that had occurred in the 1930s. Most expressed concern about the economic costs and the military casualties of the second war in Chechnya but were untroubled by the human rights abuses that took place. On the whole, the respondents felt ambivalent about democracy as an alternative to autocracy and often questioned whether Western-style liberalism was the best political system for Russia.
In 2005 and 2007, we probed the views and aspirations of young men and women in their late teens and 20s—the Russian millennials. In Russian, they are best described as pokolenie Putina: “the Putin generation.” My colleagues and I wanted to know whether the trappings of Putin-era prosperity—cell phones, easy access to the Internet, foreign travel—had inspired these people to adopt more liberal values and a more international outlook than their parents held. The answer was no. Russian millennials wished to see their country restored as a hypersovereign power that would stand outside the Euro-Atlantic community and resist international legal norms. Most of them believed that Putin had set the country on the right path. They enthusiastically consumed the Kremlin’s steady diet of Soviet nostalgia, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Americanism. And the more educated they were, the more likely they were to hold anti-American views.
As part of a broad crackdown on dissent after the eruption of antigovernment protests in 2011, Putin has managed to close nearly all space in which independent, critical voices can thrive. His government has also made it harder to conduct opinion surveys and focus groups of the kind we once organized, by restricting the ability of local organizations to collaborate with Western partners. The government now requires organizations that receive Western support or funding to register as “foreign agents,” an epithet that carries connotations of espionage and disloyalty. Such restrictions make Ellen Mickiewicz’s No Illusions a uniquely valuable piece of research. Mickiewicz had good timing: she conducted a series of focus groups with students at elite Russian universities in the spring of 2011. The following year, Putin began his third term as Russia’s president and, in July 2012, signed the foreign-agent legislation into law.
Based on her exploration of the students’ views of their country, their president, the United States, democracy, and human rights, Mickiewicz sketches a portrait of contemporary Russia and imagines how its future leaders might shape its course. She finds these young people to be highly skeptical of politics and extremely passive. Their interests mainly center on completing their studies and landing good jobs in government agencies and leading private firms. They remain unmoved by the demands for greater freedom and dignity that brought young people to the streets in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Ukraine. Indeed, they share their president’s conviction that public protests do not occur spontaneously. In short, the rise of these aspiring new leaders looks likely to set back any prospect of a Russian democratic awakening by at least a generation.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
The group discussions that form the core of Mickiewicz’s book took place in 12 sessions, each two hours long, conducted at three of Russia’s top educational institutions: Moscow State University, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and the National Research University Higher School of Economics. Many of the 108 student participants, in their last or next-to-last year of undergraduate study, are poised to enter the top echelons of the country’s public and private sectors. Tech savvy, well informed, and fluent in English, they represent a capable, if apolitical, crop of future technocrats.
The comments these young men and women make at their roundtable discussions often betray the deep contradictions they contend with in their daily lives. They are disillusioned with the government but planning to serve it; critical of corrupt officials but unwilling to resist them; and intensely focused on the United States, a country they view as both Russia’s most dangerous adversary and its indispensable ally. One student, for example, faults the Russian authorities for aggravating social tensions but abhors the U.S. government even more—in fact, she is convinced that the United States could launch air strikes on Russia at any moment. Another cheers on Russian anticorruption activists but still plans to vote for the dominant political party, whose crooked practices these activists expose. Yet another criticizes Russia’s “ruling top” for hoarding resources but holds the West morally responsible for Russia’s runaway corruption and its citizens’ lack of trust in one another—problems that he thinks stem from Western assistance in reforming the Russian economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although these young people are patriotic and eager to change the system from the inside, they are more willing to accommodate the government than rebel against it.
Mickiewicz is best known for groundbreaking research she has conducted on the influence that Russian media wield over the country’s politics, and she pays particular attention to the role that mass media play in the lives of her subjects. Her book provides its most compelling insights when it dives deep into young Russians’ engagement with the Internet. Similar to elite millennials everywhere, these men and women live online and draw most of their information from news websites and social networking platforms. Although they watch state-controlled Channel One Russia on television, they recognize it as Kremlin propaganda—important to consider but, in the words of one student, “not worth trusting.” This skepticism extends to the government’s presence on the Internet. When then President Dmitry Medvedev started a blog in 2008, he impressed observers in the United States and Europe but failed to win the students’ attention. The future leaders ridicule his blog as nothing more than a public relations stunt; one of them even describes it as “generally idiotic.”
The book includes many such insights. But the limitations of Mickiewicz’s research undermine the strength of her conclusions. It is sometimes difficult to know how much confidence to place in her assessments, given that Mickiewicz bases them on little more than 24 hours’ worth of conversations with preselected groups. She repeatedly defends her approach, arguing that the discussions offer a glimpse into how Russia’s future leaders will view the world. And yet, although focus groups yield valuable evidence, it is impossible to know whether the views expressed are representative of the entire cohort of young, educated Russians across the country. Only large random-sample surveys could have accomplished that. Mickiewicz claims that surveys would have yielded “vastly less information” than her focus groups. This is an odd proposition, especially because it suggests that Mickiewicz believes she had to choose between the two methods rather than letting them complement each other.
Mickiewicz’s approach might be imperfect, but it nevertheless provides a rare glimpse into how some young Russians think at a critical moment in Russia’s history. One of her most salient findings concerns their views on political activism and protest movements. Today, young people around the world—in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and, most recently, Ukraine—have grown adept at using technology to pressure their governments for greater transparency and accountability. The combination of the Internet and affordable technologies has spawned organic citizen movements dedicated to combating corruption and abuses of power.
But many of the future leaders profiled in No Illusions show little enthusiasm for such activism. They dismiss it by echoing a familiar Kremlin charge: antigovernment protests and demonstrations reflect the hidden hand of the United States. They simply do not believe that such protests could erupt without foreign sponsorship. Washington, the Russian students point out, has supported and funded many of the civil society groups that have taken part in pro-democracy uprisings in a few postcommunist countries over the past 15 years. To the students, such movements thus appear to be externally designed, to be illegitimate, and to represent a major threat to their country’s security. The fact that the United States has also funded several civil society organizations in Russia, such as the independent election-monitoring group Golos, only deepens their suspicions. The students call the United States a “competitor,” an “aggressor,” and, in Mickiewicz’s summary of their words, a “puppet-master everywhere in the world.”
The focus groups took place just seven months before Russian citizens themselves poured into the streets in huge numbers to protest massive election fraud. The growing public discontent was met with a government backlash, including a drastic curtailment of the freedoms of assembly, speech, and association. Although Mickiewicz apparently did not follow up with any of her subjects to gauge their responses to those events, it is probably safe to assume that most of them felt at best ambivalent about the protest movement—and that few, if any, joined the anti-Putin demonstrators in their rallies. None of the roundtable discussions she describes suggests much passion for political activism. Rather, as Mickiewicz explains, the students accept that “change, if it comes, will come from the inside.”
In general, the students do seem attuned to the ferment underneath Russia’s surface in the spring of 2011, and many foresee the major clashes that it will soon spark. But this recognition does not translate into active political engagement. For example, several months before the student roundtables took place, environmental groups and anti-Putin activists launched peaceful demonstrations against the government’s plan to build a highway through a beloved forest in Khimki that forms part of the greenbelt around Moscow. The rallies met with violent resistance. One journalist researching corruption linked to the project was severely beaten by unidentified assailants and eventually died as a result of his injuries. Another barely survived a similar attack. In a stunning move, the government later bowed to the activists’ demands and suspended the project—a response that made the event an anomaly in contemporary Russian politics. Yet during their discussions, the students demonstrate surprisingly little interest in the issue; only six of the 108 mention it at all, and even then, they mostly discuss it in an unemotional, detached way. Only one young woman appears to be aware of the personal sacrifices the protesters made for their cause.
The students express greater concern over another story that captured headlines in late 2010: riots that exploded steps from the Kremlin and were organized by far-right, nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups. Transcripts of the roundtable discussions register the students’ dismay at the breakdown of order and the scale of the violence. But they show little awareness of the role that Putin’s pro-Russian, nationalist rhetoric and brutal tactics in the North Caucasus have played in enabling the rise of the ultra-right. Moreover, although the students oppose the neo-Nazis, they generally share their hostility toward ethnic minorities from the North Caucasus. “I will not trust, most of all, people of Caucasian ethnic groups,” one participant admits, articulating a commonly held view.
FRESH FACES, SAME AGENDA
In a sense, Mickiewicz has produced a collective biography of the class of people who are likely to inherit the system constructed by Putin, and who might one day find themselves at odds with the reform-minded activists who unsuccessfully challenged that system in recent years. These activists now seem either thoroughly outgunned or reduced to a spent force, especially in the wake of the post-protest crackdown and the explosion of pro-Kremlin sentiment brought on by Russia’s occupation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Today’s liberals appear unable to collaborate effectively or coordinate their actions. They have been joined by a few interesting new characters, such as the charismatic but xenophobic anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny. But the basic building blocks of a coherent platform for civic action continue to elude many protesters, as they clash with one another or form impractical ideological alliances.
On the other hand, the very same risk aversion, self-centeredness, and detachment from politics that lead many of Mickiewicz’s elite subjects to support the status quo might someday work to the advantage of the activists. Although members of the anti-Kremlin opposition have failed to put much of a dent in Putin’s machine, they have learned a great deal about politics and developed precisely the kinds of leadership skills that seem to be lacking among the more conventional elites that formed Mickiewicz’s groups.
One Russian millennial, in particular, provides an intriguing counterexample to the young people profiled in No Illusions: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, better known as a member of the protest punk band Pussy Riot, who studied at Moscow State University at the same time as the students in Mickiewicz’s focus groups. Tolokonnikova was months away from completing her philosophy degree when she created the band in 2011. In February 2012, she took part in the band’s famous protest inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which led to her arrest (along with two other performers). She served 21 months in jail for her activism but has since resumed her campaign for democracy and human rights with renewed dedication. Tolokonnikova is hardly representative of her generation, but her story hints at the possibility of another future for Russia, one in which nonconformism, tolerance, and individualism become virtues rather than crimes.
The prospects for this future, however, appear remote, given that Russia’s new leadership will surely be composed of many of the young men and women No Illusions profiles. In fact, their rise to power seems likely to perpetuate the status quo. These new leaders might be patriotic and eager to right their country’s course, but even the most reform-minded among them will run up against the unscrupulous, inefficient, and inert nature of the government they will join. At best, they could become capable technocrats—skilled and broadly sympathetic to the inevitable waves of discontent that will rock Russia in the future, but unable, and often unwilling, to upend the ruling establishment. It will take a major systemic shock to break this deadlock—a shock more powerful than either Russia’s current opposition or its aspiring leaders might be able to generate. Until then, Russia’s future rulers can only hope that their elite education has prepared them for the country that Putin, one day, will leave behind.