Putin's New Old Russia

Moscow returns to authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad.


Politsurfer / Wikimedia Commons

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 Kho­dorkovsky, 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.

The rebirth of Maidan, which happened just as Putin was on the cusp of realizing his longstanding goal of pulling Ukraine back into the Russian fold, inevitably prompted fresh denunciations of "the orange menace." New laws enacted in December gave the government broader powers to target nonprofits for investigation (including surprise checks of compliance with various regulations and prior official orders), and to block websites without prior judicial approval if they were deemed to encourage unsanctioned protests.

There were also moves to muzzle the last islands of independent broadcast media. In late January, the cable channel Dozhd TV, the only television outlet for non-government-approved news, became the target of both an organized social media backlash and government harassment after posting an online poll that was considered insulting to Russia's role in World War II. (The poll asked if Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Germans rather than have endured a siege that cost up to one million lives.) After the Duma ordered an investigation into the station's alleged illegal deals with cable operators, providers began dropping Dozhd from their packages and advertisers fled, raising doubts about the channel's survival.

In February, Yuri Fedutinov, the CEO and general manager of Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo), a radio station that has remained a unique platform for dissent despite its 2005 takeover by the government-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, was abruptly fired. Fedutinov's replacement was Yekaterina Pavlova, who had previously held high-level posts in pro-government radio and television.

As street tensions in Kiev escalated into violence, with Yanukovych fleeing the capital in late February and Ukraine's parliament voting to remove him from office, the crackdown in Russia intensified. Navalny, facing prosecution on new charges of fraud and extortion (publicly disavowed by the alleged victim, the French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher), was placed under house arrest and forbidden to use the Internet. In mid-March, the prosecutor general's office ordered Russian Internet providers to block access to three leading opposition sites—,, and—on grounds of promoting illegal protests. When appealed the ban, pointing out that the order did not supply any specific examples of such promotion (other than a single screenshot of a news story on an unsanctioned protest), a Moscow court ruled that the authorities could base their decision on the site's "general tone."

Meanwhile, the "runaway printer" continues to churn out more repressive legislation. Repeated participation in unauthorized protests may now carry a sentence of up to five years in a penal colony. A freshly minted law requires bloggers to obey regulations governing the news media-including mandatory government registration-if they have more than 3,000 daily visitors. Another criminalizes "knowingly false" or even "disrespectful" claims not only about the U.S.S.R.'s actions during World War II, but about any historical events related to Russia's "military glory" or "defense of the Motherland." There is also a new ban of online obscenities, which prompted sharp-tongued writer Dmitry Bykov to wonder if this was yet another way to stop Russians from speaking the truth about their country's current situation, since "you can't say anything about it without using unprintable language."

The Rise of Russian Fascism

Some Western pundits, including foreign policy realists and anti-interventionists who see U.S. support for Ukraine's pro-Maidan leadership as a textbook example of ill-advised meddling and dubious alliance-making, contend that the Russian point of view in the Ukraine crisis has been insufficiently considered and unfairly maligned. Russia has legitimate reasons, they say, in not having hostile neighbors, not being surrounded by NATO members, and for feeling general resentment at being kicked around by the West after the end of the Cold War.

There is certainly much to debate about various U.S. and NATO actions in Eastern Europe after 1991, and the extent to which the United States should be involved today in counteracting Russia's coercion toward its neighbors. That said, it is hard to see by what moral or geopolitical principle an authoritarian crony capitalist regime in Moscow is entitled to bite off chunks of a non-consenting Ukraine.

A few years ago, retired Russian general and former arms negotiator Vladimir Dvorkin wrote in a column for that the real cause of the Kremlin's anxiety about NATO expansion was not fear of invasion—an absurd idea given Russia's nuclear arsenal—but fear of "encirclement" by more liberal and modernized societies, which would then exert pressure on Russia to follow the same path. In a similar vein, political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky argues that the Putin regime is a "pakhanate"—a coinage derived from pakhan, Russian underworld slang for a gang boss—intent on surrounding itself with a protective ring of copacetic "godfather states" to protect itself against change.

The idea of the bureaucratic, centralized E.U. as a beacon of liberty may seem odd to some; but for countries saddled with the legacy of communism, E.U. membership has been a much more effective path to the rule of law, civil society, and a market economy than the space under Moscow's wing. In Ukraine's post-Soviet political climate, being in favor of European integration—the principal goal of Maidan II, which became known as "Euromaidan"—is largely synonymous with being pro-freedom.

A common assertion in quarters sympathetic to Moscow's position, from The Nation to, is that the West is ignoring the dangerous influence of fascist and even neo-Nazi forces on the Maidan and in the new Ukrainian government. This is the watered-down version of the Kremlin propaganda trope that Ukraine's latest revolution was in reality a fascist coup. This charge is, from all available evidence, false.

In early February, Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Russian Jewish journalist and board member of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, estimated that "radical nationalists" made up about 1 percent of the Maidan protesters. The paramilitary nationalist group Right Sector, which figures heavily in the neo-Nazi scare, became more prominent as demonstrators came under attack from Yanukovych's riot squads, and subsequently played a leading role in the defense of the Maidan. But, in the aftermath, Right Sector polled at less than 1 percent in the presidential vote scheduled for May. Most liberal Ukrainians, including Jewish leaders such as World Jewish Congress Vice President Josef Zissels—who was palpably impatient with questions about the Ukrainian far right during his appearance in New York in late April—regard the group as negligible.

The same goes for the far-right Svoboda party, which holds about 8 percent of the seats in Ukraine's parliament and (thanks to coalition politics) several posts in the interim government but doesn't stand a chance in the upcoming elections.

Ukrainian nationalism has a problematic history, particularly during World War II, when Stepan Bandera's Ukrainian Insurgent Army at times fought on the side of the Nazis and was implicated in atrocities against civilians. Today, Bandera and his followers are still viewed as heroes—albeit in mythologized and whitewashed form—by many mainstream pro-independence Ukrainians, providing fuel for the Russian propaganda effort.

Yet whatever its tainted myths, there is little doubt that today's Ukrainian revolution is on the whole a liberal, pro-Western movement. Whether it will succeed in building a functional liberal democracy, even without Russian interference, is another question; but as the post-2005 foundering of the original Orange Revolution shows, the biggest obstacle to this goal is not nationalist extremism but corruption and power-grabbing politicos.

If anything, "fascism" is a far more apt description of the current situation in Russia, with its escalating political repression and censorship, embrace of nationalism and "traditional values," and de facto government control of privately owned industry.

It could be said that, unlike Soviet communism, Putin's system does not have a clear ideological foundation. Today's pro-Kremlin discourse is a crazy stew in which "Hail to the U.S.S.R." coexists with talk of Holy Mother Russia and her mission to protect Orthodox Christians everywhere—just as pro-Russian separatist rallies in Eastern Ukraine sport portraits of Lenin right next to icons of Christ. But determined Russian pundits have tried to find patriotic method in this madness.

A few years ago, Elena Yampolskaya, managing editor of the leading newspaper Izvestia, wrote a column urging Russians to embrace both "the star and the cross"—meaning the Soviet legacy and the Orthodox tradition. Noting that "people who despise all things Soviet are usually indifferent to all things Russian as well," Yampolskaya suggested that "the U.S.S.R. was built on the Christian capacity for self-sacrifice." (If there were an Objectivist heaven, somewhere in it Ayn Rand would be saying, "I told you so!") Similar musings on the spiritual kinship of Soviet-style socialism and Orthodox Christian ethics turn up today in the ultranationalist journal Zavtra ("Tomorrow"), whose editor in chief, Alexander Prokhanov, was once relegated to the lunatic fringe but now appears in mainstream newspapers and on television.

State-approved fascism a la Russe can also be found in the "Eurasianist" philosophy of Alexander Dugin, an author, scholar, and activist who has recently come into the spotlight as a longtime champion of the Russian takeover of Crimea and opponent to independent Ukrainian statehood. (An intercepted Skype call in late March confirmed Dugin's personal involvement in fomenting pro-Moscow separatism in eastern Ukraine.) A veteran of anti-Semitic and "National Bolshevik" groups, Dugin now heads a think tank at Moscow State University and is a regular on Russian TV. Since the late 1990s, Dugin has served as official and unofficial advisor to key figures in the Duma, the government, and the ruling party (United Russia), most recently with current State Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin. He also has ties to the military: the editor in chief of Krasnaya Zvezda ("Red Star"), the official publication of the Russian Army, is on the board of Dugin's International Eurasian Movement.

In his writings from the 1990s, Dugin openly advocated fascism, arguing that it had not yet been tried in its true form. (Though a common enough claim for communism, to say "give real fascism a chance" takes some nerve.) Today, he no longer uses the f-word, calling himself a "traditionalist"; but the ideas remain the same. In a 2008 interview with the white supremacist American website Counter-Currents, Dugin explained that the Eurasian movement's goal is to defeat "the West's liberal hegemony," which seeks to impose its values—"the free market, free trade, liberalism, parliamentarian democracy, human rights, and absolute individualism"—all over the world. To this end, he calls for uniting "all the forces that are opposed to Western norms," from the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist left to right-wing nationalism and religious fundamentalism of various stripes. Eurasianism, Dugin asserts, is inherently "anti-universalist" and recognizes diverse value systems as long as they are hostile to the liberal order, which he describes with no trace of irony as "the face of the Beast."

Of course, Dugin's eccentric manifestoes are not official documents. Yet, disconcertingly, many of the ideas he originally advanced almost two decades ago, such as Russian Orthodoxy as the foundation of Russian national identity, now have the force of government policy. Likewise, Duginite conspiracy theories about a systematic effort by the U.S. and its "Atlanticist" allies to subvert Russian power (among other things, by bringing about the Soviet collapse) have become a staple of state TV propaganda. Notably, too, Dugin's network abroad supplied many of the international monitors for the March Crimean referendum on secession from Ukraine and unification with Russia, including a rogues' gallery of ultra-rightists such as Poland's Mateusz Piskorski, a former member of parliament whose history as a neo-Nazi propagandist was exposed by the Polish media in 2006, and Greek neo-Stalinist Charalampos Angourakis.

Putin himself has echoed the concept of "Eurasianism" as a counterweight to North American and Western European influence; indeed, his attempt to draw Ukraine into a "Eurasian Economic Union" of post-Soviet states ultimately precipitated the Ukrainian crisis. While it is unlikely that Putin or his kleptocratic entourage actually share Dugin's messianic fantasies, their quest to rebuild Russia's international influence is based on political values deeply hostile to individual and economic liberty, and dependent upon alliances with anti-freedom forces around the world.

In an insightful recent column on, one of Russia's newly banned websites, the veteran dissident Alexander Skobov argued that the present conflict between Russia and the West should be seen as a "clash of systems." "The essential difference between them lies in who has 'primacy': the individual or the state, society or the 'elite'?" Skobov wrote. "The conflict over this issue is not between civilizations but within each of them. Every state seeks to dominate the individual; every elite seeks to dominate society. But some countries have succeeded at developing a set of institutions that limit the power of the state and the elite over the individual and society, while others have not."

Those mediating institutions may be highly imperfect in today's liberal capitalist democracies; but Russian power unquestionably exerts a pull in the opposite direction.

Islands of Freedom

There is little doubt that Putin's authoritarian restoration at home and aggression abroad are inextricably linked in a mutual feedback loop. Even in countries with a robust tradition of freedom and a distrust of militarism, being in a state of war usually creates social and political pressures against "unpatriotic" dissent. As Moscow carried out its Crimea takeover in a proverbial cakewalk, such pressures within Russia reached fever pitch.

In his speech to the nation, Putin spoke of the opposition as a "fifth column" and as "national traitors" (using an odd phrase, natsional-predateli, that some bloggers traced to Hitler in Mein Kampf). His once-sagging approval ratings surged, with nearly 90 percent of Russians supporting the government's actions and saying that Crimea's unification with Russia made them feel "pride in their country" and "satisfaction in the victory of justice." There was a bid in the Duma to unseat Ilya Ponomarev, the sole parliament member to vote against annexation.

Yet at least for now, neither authoritarianism nor militarism has achieved full triumph. Small pockets of independence remain even in official or quasi-official structures, such as the President's Council on Human Rights, which has no authority (and is split between liberals and nationalists) but provides a public voice of dissent. In early April, the council publicly condemned the firing of Moscow State Institute of International Relations professor Andrei Zubov, who had published an article warning against a Russian invasion of Ukraine and comparing it to Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. (After the council's statement, Zubov was reinstated in his job—probably more symbolically than not, since he is officially on leave and his contract expires this summer.)

In May, the council caused a stir by releasing a report on Crimea which not only painted a grim picture of human rights abuses by the pro-Russian local government but included real data from the March referendum, showing that only 30 percent of Crimeans turned out to vote and only half of those voted for secession. (This compares to official figures of an 83 percent turnout with nearly 97 percent voting to secede.) Though quickly removed from the council's page on the presidential website, the report has remained available on the council's own site.

And some islands of Russian media freedom live on. Echo Moskvy has retained its independent voice under the new pro-government manager—partly, editor in chief Alexei Venediktov has said, because its charter gives the staff a significant amount of control over editorial policy. Even Dozhd TV seems to have received a new lease on life after Putin magnanimously suggested during a televised chat with the people that the channel deserved another chance in spite of its error, prompting some cable operators to reopen negotiations with Dozhd management.

A number of independent online media sites continue to function, though they have taken to much stricter moderation of reader comments to avoid giving the government pretext to accuse them of fostering "extremism." (The blocked websites are still available to many Russian readers as well via mirror sites and other means to circumvent the blocks in an endless cat-and-mouse game with the censors.) Even mass protests, unthinkable in Soviet days, still manage to obtain approval: In mid-March, at the height of the push for the Crimea annexation, tens of thousands gathered for a peace march in downtown Moscow.

All these independent forms of expression may be allowed to exist primarily as window-dressing, as long as they pose no real threat to the regime and its authority; they may also be hobbled by intimidation and fear of overstepping a line. Still, they create spaces in which civil society can survive and grow.

Though the Russian state clearly has the means to shut down virtually all legal expression of dissent, for now it seems unwilling to cross the line and make an open break with the community of "respectable" nations. (While Russia has made noises about quitting the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe after having its voting rights suspended for the rest of 2014 as punishment for its Ukrainian adventure, Moscow has not actually taken that step.) This may be partly due to the peculiarity of the Russian nationalist mind-set, ever torn between claiming superiority over the weak and decadent West and wanting the West's respect and approval.

But there is another factor potentially staying Putin's hand as well: Neither Russia's emergent middle class nor most of its political power class is quite willing to pay the price of isolation.

The number of Russians who told pollsters they were "fully" or "substantially" willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of Crimea's unification with Russia dropped from 26 percent in late March to 17 percent in mid-April. Russian officials may have conspicuously laughed off high-level U.S. and E.U. travel bans, but in late April, when Putin issued awards to 300 journalists for "objective" coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, the list was kept secret so as not to expose the honorees to penalties.

Jitters over economic sanctions targeting the Russian elites, and over the tottering Russian stock market, may have been partly responsible for Putin's apparent willingness in early May to back down from further land grabs in Eastern Ukraine. If the feared military incursion does not happen, this may turn out to be a striking vindication of the jokey Russian saying that gained currency in the 2000s: "Bablo pobezhdaet zlo," or "Dough defeats evil." Economic self-interest may drive kleptocracy, but it also keeps the powerful from wreaking too much havoc.

If Putin's empire-rebuilding quest stops at Crimea, the euphoria of quick and easy victory will not take long to wear off. Already, there are hopeful signs: Despite the propaganda blitz, Russian support for admitting secessionist regions of Ukraine into Russia dropped from close to half in mid-March to just 25 percent in mid-April. In another survey in late March, a substantial minority of almost 40 percent said they did not trust the state-run media. The potential is there for Russia's embattled dissenters to reach those of their fellow citizens who are willing to think for themselves-if they have enough room to reach out.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine, complete with an intensified crackdown at home, is still possible. And even without military adventures, the Putin regime is certain to continue its efforts to bully neighbors and silence domestic critics. An effective response from the West will require a nuanced, multifaceted approach that relies on brains more than brawn. This would include reducing Russia's energy leverage and forcing its leadership to confront the choice between transitioning to a modern information economy, which is impossible without liberalization, or falling hopelessly behind.

In any scenario, Russia's neo-authoritarian and imperialist course will be a failure in the long term, for the same reasons Soviet imperialism didn't last: Central planning produces unsustainable economic results, particularly at the edges of empire. In the shorter run, the most liberal democracies can do is find a way to engage and support pro-freedom forces within Russia while containing the Putin regime's ability to extend influence beyond its borders.