In the 1990 film Awakenings, survivors of an encephalitis outbreak are brought out of decades-long catatonic states by a new wonder drug, but then start relapsing as its effects wear off. There is a particularly poignant montage near the end of the movie in which the once-"awakened" patients are returned to wheelchairs and hospital beds and re-outfitted with adult diapers as they revert to the status of living death.
Consider it a predictive metaphor for recent events in Russia, a quarter century after the country's awakening from communism. The neo-authoritarian Kremlin regime of Vladimir Putin is closing its grip, squeezing the air out of the remaining pockets of dissent, cranking up the propaganda machine to Soviet levels, and setting up the conditions for a new Iron Curtain.
At the time of this writing, it's impossible to tell where the Russia-Ukraine crisis will lead. But one thing is clear: The spring of 2014 featured a high-water mark for Putin's post-Soviet restoration, with its overt and belligerent rejection of "Western values," its confrontational stance toward NATO, and its aggressive claim to dominance in formerly Soviet territories. As Komsomolskaya Pravda columnist Ulyana Skoibeda rhapsodized after the mostly unchallenged Russian annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, "It's not about the Crimea coming back to us. It's we who have come back. Home, to the U.S.S.R."
To some extent, this flight of patriotic fancy is exaggerated and premature. Even now, Putin's Russia is not the U.S.S.R., domestically or internationally, and it's too early to tell how lasting his momentary triumph will be. But even if Putinism lasts for only the next few years, the Kremlin's new phase threatens to make the world a markedly less free place.
The Runaway Printer
From the moment Putin reclaimed the presidency two years ago, there were signs that the repressive state he had started building in 2000 was taking a more hard-line turn after the mini-thaw of Dmitry Medvedev's faux presidency and the brief revival of an opposition during the 2012 presidential campaign. Commentators such as Andrei Kolesnikov, a columnist at Novaya Gazeta (one of the last surviving media outlets that publishes dissent), believe that Russia's "new normal" began the day before Putin's inauguration, on May 6, 2012, when a sanctioned protest march on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square became the target of a massive crackdown. After intentionally blocking the demonstrators' path and provoking a confrontation, police bashed and mauled dozens, then initiated a wave of arrests and prosecutions on charges of rioting.
In the next two months, the Duma, Russia's rubber-stamp parliament, approved harsh new measures explicitly intended to rein in dissent. One law not only imposed ruinous fines and other penalties for participation in unauthorized protests but barred anyone convicted of more than one such offense from seeking a permit for a lawful rally. Another law required nonprofits engaged in any form of activism to register as "foreign agents" if they received any money from abroad, and then indicate this status on all of their literature.
More repressive legislation came in 2013, creating penalties for insulting the feelings of religious believers and, most infamously, for "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors," which effectively banned any pro-gay expression that could be accessible to children. With bitter humor, dissenters began to refer to the Duma as "the runaway printer."
Individual opposition leaders were targeted as well, particularly Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption activist who had become the face of the protest movement in 2011-2012, and whose populist knack for reaching ordinary Russians made him a special threat to the regime. In June 2012, Navalny was charged with embezzlement allegedly committed in 2009 when he served as advisor to the governor of the Kirov region-a case investigated and dismissed by local prosecutors only two months earlier but reopened on orders from Moscow. A year later, after a Kafkaesque non-jury trial in which the judge disallowed all 13 witnesses called by the defense, Navalny was convicted, handed a five-year sentence, and thrown in prison.
Amidst this bleak picture, there were occasional flickers of good news. For instance, Navalny was released pending appeal after some 15,000 rallied near the Kremlin to protest his imprisonment. He was even allowed to run for mayor of Moscow during the appeals process, getting nearly 28 percent of the vote in September 2013 despite a blackout in the major media. (His appeal is still pending while he faces new charges.)
And in December 2013, the Kremlin's traditional holiday amnesties and pardons included the release of Russia's three most famous political prisoners: former oil tycoon Mikhail KhoÂdorkovsky, who was granted a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds due to his mother's illness; and two still-imprisoned members of the punk band Pussy Riot, freed under an amnesty for nonviolent female offenders with young children. Some wondered if this could be a cause for optimism, recalling that in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to free some prominent political prisoners was a harbinger of liberalization.
But such hopes proved illusory. On New Year's Eve, the holiday spirit did not prevent more than two dozen arrests-reportedly accompanied by vicious beatings-at a peaceful protest in downtown Moscow.
By then, the domestic crisis in Ukraine was already underway, blowing a chill wind toward Russia. In mid-November, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had won the 2010 election in large part by reinventing himself as a moderate who was both Russia-friendly and committed to his country's integration into Europe, bowed to Kremlin pressure and backed out of a trade agreement with the European Union, which had been seen as paving the way to eventual E.U. membership. The response was a surge of protest, with nonstop demonstrations on Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the site of the 2004-2005 "Orange Revolution" that undid Yanukovych's first victory in a fraud-riddled election, forcing a recount and ushering in a pro-Western government.
Back then, the revolution next door—viewed by Russia's power circles, and not least by Putin himself, as a coup engineered by the United States and its allies—triggered a massive spike in state paranoia and hostility toward both the West and domestic opposition. (While the previous year's "Rose Revolution" in the former Soviet republic of Georgia certainly annoyed the Kremlin, Ukraine was different: Not only is it the most populous of the former Soviet states, with nearly 46 million to Georgia's 4.5 million, but it is widely viewed by Russians as something of a mini-Russia due to close ethnic and cultural ties.)
The "orange threat," synonymous with foreign-backed subversion disguised as grassroots protest, became a standard phrase in the official Russian lexicon; neutralizing this threat was one of the government's explicit objectives in mobilizing loyalist "youth movements" such as Nashi ("Ours"), a group that combined thuggish intimidation tactics with tacky publicity stunts such as pro-Putin lingerie calendars. In late 2011 and early 2012, when the Russian opposition managed to rally Maidan-sized crowds in Moscow's streets, "orange" became the go-to government slur against the protesters.