The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.
The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
Corruption is a daily reality in Russia, where officials regularly rake in personal gains from their government posts. (Putin may be one of the richest, if not the richest person in the world—thanks to his stakes in oil companies and his, well, authoritarian stranglehold over virtually all state business.) Behind the anti-corruption protests is Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and internet personality who’s been speaking out against the Kremlin for years. Navalny announced his intention to run against Putin in the 2018 election despite a trumped-up criminal conviction officials say will prevent him from running.
Navalny has become a political figure for a reason, explains Julia Ioffe in her 2011 profile for The New Yorker. For years, he’s investigated graft and dared to expose it, and he’s done so using online tools that both inform and inspire his supporters.
Navalny has four employees and hires additional attorneys as needed. He claims that he takes on just enough work to pay salaries and to feed his family, devoting the rest of his efforts to anti-corruption initiatives. As his fame has grown, so have his fees. “For Moscow, they’re well above average,” he says. Navalny works at a doughnut-shaped conference table, behind drifts of paper and a laptop bristling with memory sticks. Propped up against one wall is a dry-erase board. When Navalny describes corruption, he covers the board in arrows and circles, explaining merrily as he draws, as if he were telling an amusing anecdote. He anthropomorphizes delinquent companies as “guys” and dismisses complex chains of shell companies as “utter trash” and “total hell.” At times he seems almost delighted at the sheer absurdity of it all.
Earlier this month, Navalny accused Medvedev of presiding over a mind-boggling array of opulent riches—from mansions, to a palace, to his very own vineyard—all paid for with bribes. But high-ranking officials aren’t the only people who benefit from Russian corruption. For New York Magazine’s Michael Idov, who lived in Moscow for many years as the editor of Russian GQ, corruption is part of “life after trust”—an unwritten culture of cynical graft that infects everything from driving a car to renting an apartment. Since Putin came to power, bribes have become part of everyday life, helped along by a stifled press and the lack of a robust judiciary. This in turn has further eroded trust in government institutions, and as Idov explains, fostered a strange kind of adaptation for daily life.
In a place where you’re expected to pay off the traffic cop and the doctor, defensiveness is the norm, but so is the workaround. Rather than fear the autocracy, many Russians simply try to circumvent it with their own alternative, bribe-based system. In the absence of a protective state, it works….kind of. Daily existence is instead based on lies and unspoken norms, rooted in doubt for the kind of institutions many Americans take for granted.
This, perhaps, was why the Muscovites around me were furiously building as many intermediaries between themselves and the state as they could, effectively privatizing government functions but only for their own benefit. Media managers established private medical clinics; frustrated university students, disgusted with ever-worsening “official” education, organized private student circles, online lecture courses, and educational start-ups. Tidy, modern, for-profit “document centers” proliferated, offering the functions of, say, the DMV without the rudeness and corruption (though, ironically, the only way they could function was by moving this corruption up a few levels). I was beginning to understand why so many Russians who called themselves “liberal” were, in fact, anarcho-libertarians in the Western sense, distrusting the government to perform even the simplest jobs.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s blistering first press conference as President-elect in January, Alexey Kovalev wrote an essay for Medium that warned American audiences what an authoritarian press conference really looked like. In Putin’s world, pressers are not places to find facts—they’re political theater in which everyone in attendance plays a specific role:
Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it.
Speaking out against Putin has its consequences—but not all praise of the leader is disingenuous. As Ioffe wrote for National Geographic late last year, many young Russians see Putin as a hero. Raised by their parents in the USSR and in the chaos that followed its demise, she explains, stability became an elusive, yet obsessive, goal throughout Russia.
Much of post-Soviet life has been a hapless search for a uniting idea. At first it was democracy; then consumerism became a stand-in for Westernization. “Modernization came through consumption, but that’s not enough,” says sociologist Zorkaya. Ikea, which came to Russia in 2000, became wildly popular among the new middle class as a way to affordably live in a stylish European—that is, non-Soviet—way. “It became a symbol of how you could civilize your life without a lot of money,” she says, “but the fact that behind this decor is a totally different concept of human beings and values, somehow it doesn’t connect for Russians.”
Since the beginning of his third presidential term, in 2012, Putin has promoted an even more aggressive neo-Soviet ideology, both at home and abroad. He fought to keep former Soviet republics, like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, in Moscow’s sphere of influence and flexed Russia’s military power in distant Syria. A series of laws promoted traditional social values and made dissent even more dangerous. One result is a generation whose dreams are the embodiment of everything Putin desires them to be: conformist, materialist, and highly risk averse.
For many Russians in search of political and personal security, Putin seems to be the answer. He’s strong, he’s confident, and his Russian pride represents a national identity that all but crumbled in the aftermath of the Soviet Union.
Even in places racked by recession and threatened by tainted, bootlegged alcohol that regularly kills and disables its residents, Putin is hard to cross or publicly criticize. When the New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar went to Irkutsk, one of Siberia’s largest cities, he found bleak poverty and low life expectancies in a place where 72 people died of poisoning last year after seeking out a cheaper alternative for alcohol. But he also found people willing to praise Putin as a “good czar” who were hesitant to openly censure the president.
In a curiously Russian dynamic, they avoided blaming Mr. Putin personally.
“The president says that small business should be protected, but lower-level bureaucrats continue with their dark deeds and as a result we will all end up unemployed,” Mr. Rasstrigin said.
The vendors were convinced, as Russians have been for centuries, that if only the czar knew of their plight he would surely intervene. “Tell Moscow, tell Putin, that they are closing the market,” Elena pleaded.
Putin, Medvedev, and their government may have failed the people, but they’re still seen as powerful allies of the common Russian. No wonder their message—no matter how cartoonish or forbidding—is one so many Russians are willing to swallow. But under the surface is a counter-narrative that, in this age of social media and smartphones, may become harder and harder to ignore or suppress.
- “Inside Alexei Navalny’s Long-Shot Bid to Beat Putin,” by Leonid Ragozin. Bloomberg Businessweek. March 27, 2017 (2700 words / 11 minutes)
- “Net Impact,” by Julia Ioffe. The New Yorker. April 4, 2011. (6300 words / 25 minutes)
- “Russia: Life After Trust” by Michael Idov. New York Magazine. January 22, 2017. (2700 words / 11 minutes)
- “Why Many Young Russians See A Hero in Putin,” by Julia Ioffe. National Geographic. December, 2016. (5000 words / 20 minutes)
- “Where the Booze Can Kill, and Putin Is Deemed a ‘Good Czar,’” by Neil MacFarquhar. The New York Times. February 18, 2017. (2100 words / 8 minutes)