Dissent and Disarray in Putin's Russia

The authoritarian president's hold on power may be shakier than it looks.


This year, with the start of a new presidential term that runs out in 2024, Vladimir Putin has achieved the dubious milestone of having been in power longer than Leonid Brezhnev, who led the country from 1964 to 1982. It is an apt comparison, since the age of Putin in Russia bears definite resemblances to the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union.

Now, as then, large segments of the population enjoy mostly oil-enabled material comfort relative to previous generations (even if the 1970s version of comfort, in which a color television was the height of luxury, bananas were a rare delicacy, and a trip to Crimea was a dream vacation, looks like squalor in the 2010s). Now, as then, there is a relatively mild authoritarian regime with occasional spikes of repression (even if the level of freedom in modern-day Russia, where dissidents can sell books and virtually all content is accessible on the internet, would have been unthinkable in Brezhnev's USSR). Now, as then, there was a stagnant stability and a cynical national mood, with no visible alternatives to the existing system.

Of course, the Brezhnev era turned out to be a prelude to reform, upheaval, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union. What comes after Putinism—and when?

The fall of Soviet Communism and the turn toward liberal values in the new Russia was a major victory for freedom, notwithstanding the massive flaws of both post-Soviet economic reform and Boris Yeltsin's leadership. Russia's authoritarian backsliding under Putin in the 21st century, and the rise of an amorphous but aggressive anti-liberal "Russian idea" composed of a mishmash of aggrieved nationalism, populism, and cultural traditionalism, is not the only factor in the worldwide rise of illiberalism in the 2010s. But it has made the world less safe for freedom and empowered freedom's enemies.

Today, resistance to authoritarianism in Russia is weak but very much alive. In the past year and a half, tens of thousands have turned out in cities across Russia to protest corruption, internet censorship, Putin's return for yet another presidential term, and most recently austerity measures; even Russia's Libertarian Party (yes, there is one) has managed to organize a fairly large rally in Moscow. Recent polls show declining approval ratings for the president, an upturn in pro-Western attitudes, and rising expectations of political protests. If Russian reformers can use this moment to get their message across to mass audiences and break Putinism's stranglehold on the largely apathetic majority, a rebirth of Russian liberalism may be possible—and would have far-reaching repercussions.

The 2018 presidential election in Russia was a particularly depressing one for anti-authoritarians, even by Russian standards. Putin received almost 77 percent of the popular vote, compared to 63 percent in 2012, with the turnout slightly up this time. Six years ago, there was at least one liberal candidate, businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, among the top runners-up; he came in third with about 8 percent of the vote. This year, the only two other candidates who received more than 2 percent were Pavel Grudinin, a millionaire Communist (11.8 percent), and perennial ultranationalist buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky (5.7 percent).

The only opposition figure with a sizable following, anti-corruption blogger and activist Alexei Navalny, was barred from running because of a 2017 fraud conviction widely considered to have been fabricated by his opponents in power. The liberal opposition candidate who did run—notorious TV personality Ksenia Sobchak, an ex-reality show host sometimes dubbed the "Russian Paris Hilton"—was almost certainly a Kremlin pick, intended not only to maintain the pretense of a "real" election but to add a bit of excitement to the suspenseless campaign.

Sobchak, whose father Anatoly Sobchak, the late mayor of St. Petersburg, was once Putin's boss and mentor, freely admitted that she told Putin about her intent to run, though she denied that her candidacy was coordinated with him. She was the only person during the campaign who openly criticized Putin on television and raised the issue of the lack of political freedom in the country. Still, Navalny blasted her as a stooge. After receiving more coverage from the Kremlin-controlled media than usual for the opposition, she pulled in just 1.7 percent of the vote and then essentially vanished from the political scene.

The weakness of the liberal Russian opposition is due to many factors. To some extent, "liberals get blamed for the economic disasters of the 1990s," says Moscow-based political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, an associate fellow at the Chatham House Institute, "even though those policies had nothing to do with liberalism." ("Pro-market" policies in 1990s Russia amounted largely to former Communist apparatchiks reinventing themselves as capitalists and "privatizing" former state properties; meanwhile, protections for private property remained weak and state intervention in the economy remained rampant.) But ultimately, the opposition has been marginalized by the systematic actions of the regime, not spontaneous consensus.

Putin's Western apologists believe that his electoral wins—no matter how unfree and unfair the elections—and his sky-high approval ratings reflect genuine popularity and gratitude for saving his country from chaos. The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell has asserted that Russians "revere" Putin. But unless one counts reverential comments from politicians and pro-Kremlin pundits, the reality is considerably more complex.

Writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette) in July, political analyst Vitaly Shklyarov noted that public opinion polling in Russia runs up against a basic paradox: The message of official propaganda is that a good, well-adjusted citizen must regard Putin as "the national leader, a sacred figure who is above all institutions and all criticism and is identical to the state itself"; thus, to ask for someone's opinion of Putin is to probe his adherence to a key social norm. Shklyarov believes this skews poll results, not only because people feel pressured to give the "right" answer but because wrongthinkers may simply opt out. (Survey response rates in Russia range from 10 to 50 percent and tend to be especially low for political questions.) Pollsters, especially from state-run agencies, may also be seen as authority figures, so Russians may feel not only psychological pressure to conform but apprehension about the practical consequences of nonconformity.

Yet even in such a setting, polls that dig into Russians' opinion of Putin reveal ambivalence. In April, the Levada Center, Russia's only major independent polling firm, asked people about their president's successes and failures. (Participants were interviewed in person and could pick as many answers as they wanted from a list on a card.) The only item on which close to half of respondents—47 percent, to be exact—credited Putin with success was "reclaiming Russia's status as a great, respected power." By comparison, only 24 percent said he had been successful in "ensuring higher salaries, retirement pensions, stipends and benefits," while 32 percent saw this as one of his failures. Other items on which "failure" exceeded "success" included "securing law and order" (23–18 percent), "overcoming the economic crisis and boosting industry" (27–14 percent), and, especially dramatically, "ensuring fair distribution of income in the interests of common people" (45–5 percent).

Putin's Western apologists believe his electoral wins and sky-high approval ratings reflect genuine popularity. The reality is considerably more complex.

In another revealing Levada poll, taken in mid-July using a similar method, Putin's best quality turned out to be that he's an "experienced politician." (That answer was chosen by about half of the respondents.) Even "energetic, decisive, strong-willed" lagged far behind at 30 percent. "Stands for the country's interests" and "a real leader who can rally people behind him" were each mentioned by a paltry 17 percent, down from 23 and 25 percent three years ago. (While none of the reasons for disliking him were picked by more than 17 percent of the sample, the top three were "has ties to big business," "out of touch with the people," and "linked to corrupt politicians.")

All this suggests that Putin's popularity is superficial and potentially flimsy. Indeed, his legendary approval rating, which had long held steady between 78 and 83 percent, plunged to 64 percent during the summer, as calculated by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation. The same agency found that the share of Russians saying they had "absolute trust" in Putin fell from 46 percent in March to 27 percent in July.

Partly, this drop was a reaction to a government proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women over the next 15 years. In a country where male life expectancy in particular is low—currently 68 years, compared to 77 in the United States—the move was met with near-universal outrage. Polls showed 80 percent adamantly against it; protesters took to the streets in more than 150 cities across Russia, wielding signs outfitted with such slogans as "Work until you croak." While Putin kept his distance from the reform plans, it didn't help matters when his spokesman remarked that the president's 2005 pledge not to raise the retirement age was ancient history. After initially saying that he didn't like any proposal to hike the retirement age, Putin announced in late August that he would sign the legislation with a small adjustment: The hike would be the same for both sexes, raising women's pension eligibility age to 60 instead of 63.

The retirement-age controversy became the focus for a more general dissatisfaction with Putin and his policies, related to everything from the sluggish economy to military involvements abroad. In June, before the pension reform issue existed, 42 percent of Russians—up from 27 percent a few months earlier—were telling pollsters that the country was headed in the wrong direction.

In a fascinating parallel development, polls also found a marked drop in hostility toward the United States and the European Union. Favorable opinions of both reached 42 percent in July. (Since the Crimea annexation in 2014, positive views of the United States among Russians had hovered between 20 and 30 percent; the E.U. was viewed favorably by just 27 percent as recently as May.) The increase in pro-American attitudes could be attributed to the Russia-friendly presidency of Donald Trump, but the same does not apply to the E.U., and in any case the Kremlin's honeymoon with Trump has long been over.

A report on the pro-Western shift in opinion in the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti quoted several experts who thought the change in mood was largely a result of the World Cup soccer championship held in Moscow this summer. But Chatham House's Shevtsova believes there are deeper and more political roots. "It's obvious that many people are starting to realize that the anti-Western, anti-American propaganda is intended simply to distract them from their own problems," she says.

The pension reform plan revived the specter of mass protests in Russia this year.

The last time Russia saw a wave of big demonstrations was just before the 2012 presidential election. At the time, many were angered by Putin's announcement that he would run for president again, reclaiming the post from his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev—a de facto admission that the Medvedev "presidency" from 2008 to 2012 had been a charade enabling Putin to make an end run around the two-term limit. Reports of widespread and blatant voter fraud in the Duma elections in December 2011 were the last straw, causing tens of thousands to take to the streets demanding fair elections.

That momentum waned after Putin's election victory, not only because there was no clear goal to rally around, but also because the movement was brutally quashed. On May 6, 2012, a rally protesting Putin's inauguration on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square erupted into violent clashes with the riot police—almost certainly instigated by the latter—and ended in beatings and mass arrests of demonstrators and even passersby who got caught in the commotion. Dozens of people were prosecuted; a few spent years in prison. The message that going to anti-government protests was dangerous could not have been clearer.

Since then, repressive measures intended to nip protests in the bud have continued, says Moscow-based journalist Victor Davidoff, a former Soviet dissident who runs a website chronicling human rights abuses in Russia. Generally, Davidoff explains, "You can say pretty much anything you want on the internet—you can call Putin a dick, no one cares. But if you so much as mention that Navalny is asking people to come to this or that location for a rally at 5 p.m. tomorrow, you'll get hit with an 'extremism' charge."

Navalny is the name that inevitably comes up when discussing protests and the opposition in modern-day Russia. The 42-year-old blogger and lawyer, who heads a still-unregistered party called Future Russia, has managed to prevail against the state's repressive machinery to a remarkable degree, despite being hobbled by that criminal conviction. In spring 2017, he released a 50-minute YouTube documentary, Don't Call Him Dimon, that accused Medvedev, now Russia's prime minister, of massive embezzlement and catalogued his allegedly ill-gotten properties, including luxury apartments, mansions, villas, and yachts. (The title refers to a popular internet nickname for Medvedev, a slangy diminutive for Dmitry.) The film, whose charges have never been refuted, became a springboard for anti-corruption protests across Russia in March 2017—notable, among other things, for attracting large numbers of young people, including high school students. While the establishment media studiously ignored both the documentary and the demonstrations, a Levada poll found that over 60 percent of the population had heard about the rallies; opinions were evenly split on whether the protesters deserved sympathy or not.

Alexei Navalny after a zelyonka attack in Moscow; Alexei Navalny/Creative Commons.

This spring, Navalny organized another multicity day of protests—this time against Putin's inauguration and under the motto "He's not our czar." Police arrested more than 1,600 people in 23 cities, among them Navalny himself. (Detainees also included a 12-year-old boy in Saratov, whose father got a citation for failing to properly supervise his son.)

Navalny is widely viewed as unique among opposition activists in his ability both to mobilize young people and to organize an efficient national network ("Even the Communist Party doesn't have that," Shevtsova says). He also has impressive name recognition, despite being blacklisted from state-controlled television: Over half of all Russians know who he is.

The fiery anti-corruption crusader is a somewhat divisive figure among the Russian liberal opposition due to a history of nationalist (and some say xenophobic) rhetoric. He participated in the nationalist "Russian March" in 2007, 2008, and 2011; in 2013, he also campaigned against visa-free short-term travel for Central Asian workers into the country. His political persona is a curious blend of populism and liberalism. He is largely pro-market and pro–civil liberties; although an Orthodox Christian, he backed the feminist activists from Pussy Riot during their prosecution for holding an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral in 2013.

Shevtsova sees Navalny as particularly important because he is "a new face"—a politician of and for the next generation, "one who has no connection to the 1990s and to all those failures, mistakes, and conflicts." And he is a superb communicator—who "can speak to the people in their own language," Davidoff says, unlike most opposition leaders.

Navalny's current status attests both to the power and to the limitations of the internet in the country. Last spring, just over 10 percent of Russians said they would definitely or probably vote for him if he were a presidential candidate, but that figure might have been very different if he got regular coverage on TV, which remains most Russians' go-to source for information. Yet he still manages to reach large audiences through YouTube, Twitter, and his website. Close to 100 percent of Russia's young adults and more than 80 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 54 currently have internet access, and the online media and blogs are now mentioned as a frequent news source by more than 40 percent of the population.

The Kremlin currently has plenty of legal authority to curb online speech, using extremely broad and vague laws that criminalize "extremism" and "incitement of hatred or hostility" based on various demographic characteristics—i.e., "hate speech." Since protected categories under Russian law include "any social group," people have been charged with hate speech for posting mean things about cops or for sharing memes that mock vatniki—a Russian word for a plain cotton wool-padded jacket that has become a slang term for crude and mindless Kremlin loyalists. (These laws are so easily abused that even Russia's generally docile Presidential Council on Human Rights recently weighed in to suggest that they should cover only actual incitement to violence.) What's more, Russian law allows not only the prosecution of "extremist" or "hateful" online speech but the blocking of offending websites. Luckily, at least so far, the censors' technological capacity to enforce these laws has tended to come up short.

"In China, they built up the internet with the filters in place," Davidoff explains. "Putin missed the boat. It's something that could have been done 20 years ago; now, it's too late."

As an example, he points to the conflict in April between the authorities and the Telegram instant messenger service developed by (now-expatriate) Russian entrepreneurs, the brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov. When Telegram refused Russian security agencies' demand to give them access to decryption keys, a Russian court authorized censoring the app in the country. But when Roskomnadzor, the federal communications monitoring agency, tried to carry out the order by blocking IP addresses associated with the messenger, the results were rather farcical: Many Russian internet users lost access at various times to a wide range of services, including Google Search, Google Translate, ResearchGate, Twitter, and Facebook; numerous Russian sites, from online stores to airline booking systems to university websites, also became temporarily unavailable. Apparently, at one point, Roskomnadzor's clumsy effort even took down its own website. The agency was flooded with some 46,000 complaints in 10 days. Protests "in support of a free internet" flared up, with some 12,000 people turning out in Moscow alone. And through it all, Telegram for the most part continued to work just fine. Internet: 1; Putin: 0.

The practical difficulty of controlling the web may function as an informal check on Russian authoritarianism. So do clandestine conflicts among factions and cliques within Russia's political and crony capitalist elites, many observers believe. Some of these "clans" are more Western- and business-oriented. Others—the so-called siloviki, a hard-to-translate term perhaps best approximated by "enforcers"—are linked to security services and military institutions.

Navalny may be a case in point. Russian independent journalist Sergei Parkhomenko has argued that he is able to survive because he "skillfully balances atop the conflicting interests and ambitions of the different players in the Kremlin's ambit," allowing himself to be used as a vehicle for publishing kompromat, or damaging information about political actors. (This is not to say that Navalny's activism does not involve very real risks. In spring 2017, while campaigning, the blogger endured two attacks in which his face was splashed with zelyonka, a bright green antiseptic popular in Russia. After the second assault, he had to receive permission to travel to Spain for eye surgery.)

Still, this theory may explain the otherwise baffling fact that a man who is a major thorn in the Kremlin's side remains free despite his fraud conviction and several subsequent arrests related to his activism—none resulting in more than brief detention—as well as his impressive ability to obtain one bombshell document after another. Davidoff, too, believes Navalny has highly placed protectors. But he stresses that this in no way undercuts his authenticity as an opposition leader: "He's using the clans at least as much as they're using him," he says. Intriguingly, Davidoff thinks most members of the nominally independent Kremlin-critical media also stay alive thanks to protection from various Kremlin factions.

If "dissension in the clans" is likely to be a key factor in Putinism's eventual demise, Western sanctions also have a key role to play in this process—particularly since they are designed to target the elites themselves, with high-level Russian officials and Kremlin-connected business oligarchs denied access to their properties and financial holdings in the West.

"Of course internal political change in Russia must have domestic roots, and the biggest factor is the state of minds," says Shevtsova. "On the other hand, the package of sanctions imposed first and foremost by the United States, not Europe, has a huge impact on the mood of the ruling elites. It will affect the Russian economy, the availability of capital, Russia's ability to buy technology—so, in an indirect way, it will definitely be a huge factor."

"The sanctions—that's pure genius," Davidoff says. "It's a remake of the Reagan strategy that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The brilliant thing about this policy is that it's not aggression, it's not waging war. It's just saying, 'That's it, we're not going to deal with you.' It hurts Putin himself quite badly; he has lost tens of millions of dollars—his own money from his own pockets—because of the sanctions. And it promotes discontent with Putin," not only among the general population but among the elites.

A winter of discontent may be coming already. The drop in Putin's ratings doesn't necessarily signal a coming revolution, but it does show that Putin-era stability is not as solid as it seems.

In an interview with the Russian website The Village in late 2015, Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov noted that Putin's popularity began slipping soon after the 2012 election, until the events in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea generated a rush of patriotism and hysteria. (In 2014, record numbers of Russians—as many as 86 percent—said they felt proud of their country; the number of those who saw Russia as threatened by "numerous foreign and domestic enemies" spiked as well.) Gudkov predicted that the post-Crimea high would eventually wear off, and with it the Putin mystique. And what remained of the surge of support may indeed have ended with the pension reform announcement.

Beyond Putin himself, Russians' confidence in other government figures and institutions—always fairly anemic—has been plummeting. Last year, fewer than half thought the government was doing a good job; that figure has now dropped to 37 percent. Medvedev's unfavorable rating, which has been rising steadily since 2015, now exceeds his favorable rating by more than 2–1 (69–31 percent); the Duma fares almost as badly. Almost 90 percent agree that the country's leadership is a self-serving elite that doesn't care about the people's interests.

The reasons for dissatisfaction are many. There is no question that Russians today are better off economically than they were right after the USSR's fall (in 1994, 12 percent described their material situation as "pretty good" and 34 percent as "unbearably bad," while in recent years those proportions have been reversed), but surveys show that poverty is an urgent concern for a third of the population and the rising cost of living for two-thirds. Corruption is an epidemic. The state of the health care system remains deplorable, with chronic shortages of painkillers and other medicine. Horror stories of understaffed hospitals with crumbling walls and ceilings, dirty bedsheets, overflowing toilets, and rude or drunk personnel appear with depressing regularity and often go viral on the internet.

All this adds up to a pervasive sense that the country is mired in low-key disarray coexisting with spectacular wealth for some, and that no lives matter except those of the elites. In the Siberian town of Kemerovo last month, 60 people, 41 of them children, were killed in a fire in a shopping mall and entertainment center due at least in part to official negligence. Thousands, including relatives of the dead, gathered to demand the resignation of Gov. Aman Tuleyev; there were also shouts of "Putin must resign!" Meanwhile, at a televised event, Tuleyev (who did eventually step down, only to return as speaker of the regional legislature) publicly apologized to Putin but not to the grieving parents. When, while discussing the tragedy on national television, Sen. Elena Mizulina used the occasion for an ode to "our leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin" (lamenting the rally's "stab in the back" to a president who was "doing such incredible things for Russia" and urging people to give him "sympathy and support") the Russian internet exploded in anger and savage mockery.

Clandestine conflicts among factions within the political and crony capitalist elites may be a check on Russian authoritarianism.

Add to this the inevitable conflict between the Kremlin's empire-building, great-global-power ambitions and its commitments to social spending at home, and the potential for instability becomes obvious—with the retirement-age controversy just the first shoe to drop.

In July, more than 40 percent of Russians polled by the Levada Center said that mass protests "against the drop in living standards" were "quite possible" in their area in the near future, up from 17 percent in March; an impressive 28 percent said they would probably join such protests if they happened. Even more remarkably, one-third saw a fairly high likelihood of protests with political demands, and nearly one in four expressed a willingness to join in.

If dissatisfaction with the current regime continues to grow, it will not necessarily translate into support for freedom or liberal democracy. Russia is a society where paternalistic values remain strong. While some 60 percent of Russians in recent polls said human rights should take precedence over "the interests of the state," a similar majority agreed that "the state should take care of all citizens and ensure that they have a decent standard of living." When asked which human rights are important, they tended to emphasize "social rights," such as medical care and a safety net, far more than freedom of speech or even fair treatment in the legal system.

Given these attitudes, an anti-Putin backlash could end up empowering the far left rather than the country's liberals. But the Communist Party has little following beyond its core constituency of mostly older people. And Navalny, a savvy, charismatic, and ideologically flexible activist, is in a perfect position to capitalize on the revival of discontent. One of the biggest protests against the pension reform law so far, a July 29 rally in Moscow that reportedly drew nearly 6,000 people, was organized by the Libertarian Party and endorsed by Navalny.

While relatively few Russians today voice concerns over the lack of traditional civil liberties, the heavy-handed tactics of the security state inevitably result in some flare-ups of civil libertarian protest. The rallies for internet freedom in April were one recent example; another was the "Mothers' March," a rally in mid-August in Moscow that drew over a thousand people on behalf of several teenagers currently being held on charges of organizing an "extremist" anti-government group. Their actions were instigated by an undercover state security agent conducting a sting operation.

One can easily mine Russian polls for all sorts of confusing and contradictory findings, but overall, Shevtsova, who has been studying public opinion in the country since the 1980s, estimates that about 30 percent of the population broadly supports liberal values (Davidoff's estimate is 25 percent). That's a sizable-enough minority that, under the right circumstances, it could tip a majority in its favor and shape the course of far-reaching reform.

Last December, Kiev-based German political scientist Andreas Umland published an article on the startlingly optimistic topic of what the West should do to help along a democratic revival and prepare for a post-Putinist Russia. Umland was talking primarily about prospects for 2024, when Putin's last constitutionally permitted term ends (he will be 72 years old). Of course, many things could happen by then: A full-scale Russian war against Ukraine, which would radically alter the political landscape, remains a troubling possibility. On the other hand, reform—cosmetic, genuine, or some mixture of the two—could begin even before Putin leaves office. Unlike the Soviet Union, today's Russia has alternative institutions, however weak—from dissenting media and an almost-free internet to civic groups to opposition politicians in regional parliaments and city councils. These liberal islands can grow.

As for the U.S., its best bet is to maintain a commitment to the principles of liberty. Foreign-policy moralism can certainly be a dangerous path to start down. But a "realism" that ascribes permanence to Russia's deceptive status quo and treats the interests of the Putin regime as synonymous with the interests of the Russian people is, in the end, not very realistic at all.