There is a now heavily criticised mistake in the writing of the history of the Soviet Union by Americans in the mid-20th century. There was a commonly held assumption that nobody actually believed in the Communist ideals, and that they were all simply scared into obeying by the bloody hands of the KGB. Inside every Soviet citizen, went the claim, was actually a western liberal soul desperately trying to get out, if only the regime did not exist. Similarly, modern reporting on Russia tends to assume that President Vladimir Putin only maintains his power through coercion and fraud. If, however, we wish to somehow kindle a true democracy in Russia, we need to know exactly what the problems are now.
Primary amongst these problems is perhaps that the post-Soviet Yeltsin era of the 1990s was an extremely cold bath for most Russians. The economy shrank by 50-70%, as economic output decreased by 45%. The attempts by the Yeltsin government to produce a class of capitalists instead produced an order of oligarchs, undermining the power of the already weakened state. I spoke with a Russian in order to try to understand the population’s view of the government, and in response to the question of regime change his answer revealed fears of the instability that a change in government would bring. In particular, the role of Chechnya as a potential ulcer of conflict is extremely important. The two bloody wars in the region, in particular, the second, sparked terror attacks on the Russian heartland and have led to an uneasy truce between the central government and, by all accounts, an Islamist autonomy with the worst treatment of LGBT minorities in Europe. There are therefore very real reasons (not necessarily good ones) to be wary of a ‘western model’ of democracy in Russia.
Putin has made great use of this discomfort with western liberalism in Russia, emphasising the role of the church, nation, and family in his politics. Indeed, most Russians do feel immense pride in their nation, and there is strong resentment of the Gorbachev government of the late 1980s for seemingly ‘betraying’ the nation. A reassertion of Russian national pride has been extremely important to Russian politics, with even Alexei Nalvany stating his belief that Belarussians and eastern Ukrainians should be integrated.
Nalvany’s recent poisoning has dominated headlines on Russia recently, including in Russia itself. What should be noted, however, is that up until recently there was a very strict media embargo on even mentioning his name in Russia. In a country where, as my Russian interlocutor informed me, only a couple of magazines remain outside of state censorship and authority, and where 72% of people once got their news from state media, this was enormously significant. After all, how can you support the opposition if you don’t know they exist? And when Nalvany and other opposition leaders are featured, it is at their weakest. This, as one such leader Vladimir Kara-Murza commented in a Channel 4 documentary, is a dog-whistle to two sectors of the population - both to his own patriotic support base that another traitor has been punished, and to more elite opposition that they can be reached anywhere and will suffer unimaginably. Combined with apparently ubiquitous voter fraud (in particular at the recent constitutional referendum), the state now wields enormous influence over the political process, and could very well continue to do so.
The regime’s stranglehold over information appears to be slipping however. The primary reason is the shift of news sourcing to the internet. The Russian I spoke to was very clear that while Nalvany was persona non grata on state media, his extremely professional and in depth exposés on government corruption on YouTube were very widely received, garnering around 60 million views in some cases (most likely more, due to repeated state attempts to delete the videos). The proportion of people regularly watching state media has declined by 25% in the last decade. While there still exists a dichotomy between the more liberal cities and conservative countryside, the extensive internet coverage of the country (roughly 76.4% of the population) is allowing more people to access opposition media and ideas. The attempts by the central government to control the internet have been extremely hampered by the oligarchic nature of the economy and therefore internet infrastructure.
The mistake to not make, however, is to assume that simply having access to these ideas will immediately pull Russians away from supporting Putin. As previously mentioned, the ‘western model’ has a lot of historical baggage in Russia, and Putin has capitalised on western sanctions and hostility to portray himself as the protector of the Russian nation. Russians will most likely have to forge their own democratic tradition, and encouragingly it seems as though they are willing to do whatever it takes.
Photo - Flickr (Antonio Marin Segovia)