20 years under Putin: a timeline

The virtual sessions of the Annual Convention of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) were held on December 1-3, 2021. To understand the current state of scholarship in the field, we review five panels that shared the latest research on Russia: the law on foreign agents, elections and protests, propaganda, and the factors leading to legitimization and support of Putin's rule.


 Photo: ASEEES website screenshot.


How Putin Rules 

This panel looked at the ways in which Vladimir Putin and his regime gain and maintain support. In the paper “Do Authoritarians Need a Foreign Enemy: Evidence from Russia,” Henry Hale (George Washington University) and Adam Lenton (George Washington University) theorized that the idea of a foreign enemy can win support for the leader and promote the sense that the country needs to rally around him, but found that this is not exactly the case with Russia. When the U.S./NATO are perceived as threats, Russians are only 5-10 percent more likely to support Putin. But support also comes from those who favor a cooperative, not hostile reaction. According to Hale and Lenton, Putin’s supporters believe he is actually pro-Western and favors cooperation. Russians who believe that he is anti-Western are 5 percent less likely to support him.

The authors argue that Putin’s support surged in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation not because it generated anti-Americanism, but as a result of euphoria over a restored territory and identity affirmation. While autocrats like Putin do benefit from playing up statecraft, their fundamental appeal is stability. Hale and Lenton concluded that the West should not be seduced by the “Fortress Russia” narrative and instead reckon with the regime’s concrete ideas, identities, and interests.

In another of the panel’s papers titled “What’s Law Got to Do with it: Patriotic Legitimation and the Soviet Past in Russia,” Paul Goode (Carleton University) explored Russians’ views of the Soviet Union and the way they associate the past with patriotism. The question he asked was whether the Kremlin’s promotion of Soviet-style patriotism is in fact successful as a form of legitimization of contemporary politics. The study found that people do experience lots of Soviet nostalgia, but rarely make connections between the present and the Soviet past. Such links were identified only in terms of comparing living standards and consumption, as well as organization and activity of civic groups. For instance, the Soviet past, despite its goods shortages, was seen as a time of social cohesion, while today people feel isolated or alone, even though their living standards are higher. 

Goode also found, in today’s Russia, a greater uniformity in everyday patriotism, which bears less resemblance to the Soviet, officially sanctioned patriotic repertoires. This means that while the Russian government promotes patriotism with a particular reference to the Soviet past, the Kremlin might have instead tapped into a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet era. Goode also concluded that the Kremlin is mistaking these different kinds of public affection for the Soviet past, as leveraging it to legitimate today’s political regime has shown to be ineffective.

This panel also featured two other papers: “U.S.-Russia Relations: The Year Living Dangerously” by Peter Rutland (Wesleyan University) and Demytro Babachanykh (Democratic Initiatives Foundation), and “Mixed Signals: What Putin Says about Gender Equality 1999-2020” by Janet Elise Johnson (CUNY Brooklyn), Alexandra Novitskaya (Stoney Brook University), Valerie Sperling (Clark University), and Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom (UBC).


Changes in the Interaction between Civil Society and the State in Russia 

To understand how the Putin regime maintains control, scholars Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom (University of British Columbia) and Elizabeth Plantan (Stetson University) looked at the reasons why Russian NGOs end up on the foreign agents list. In their paper, “Funding Foreign Agents,” they analyzed three key factors: links to particular foreign donors; whether these foreign donors are state-funded agencies or private foundations, American or European; and association with “undesirable organizations” or donors from the so-called “Patriotic Stop-List.” The National Endowment for Democracy was a top foreign funder of Russian NGOs until it was blacklisted as “undesirable” in 2015, prompting two other prominent donors (MacArthur Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation) to leave Russia that same year in anticipation of designation. 

Sunstrom and Plantan found that foreign agent status is more likely under the following conditions: an NGO’s 1) focus on issues, such as human rights, environment, media freedom, and indiginous affairs; 2) location in certain regions; 3) receiving three or more foreign grants; 4) receiving funding from Western governments and from U.S.-based grantmaking organizations.

This panel also included three papers that discussed protests in Russia. First, “The Most Meaningless Form of Protest: the Law, Politics, and Practice of Single Pickets in Russia” Nicole Marie Daphnis (UMass Amherst). Alfred Burney Evans (California State Fresno) presented “Conflicts Flaring Up Here and There: Trends in Protests in Russia,” and Lauren Alicia McCarthy (UMass Amherst) presented on “Grassroots Legal Aid in Russia.”


Public Opinion in Russia 

This panel began with a paper, titled “The Demand for Democracy under Autocracy: Regime Approval and the Cancellation of Local Elections in Russia,” where Ora John Edward Reuter (University of Wisconsin-Madison/Higher School of Economics), Noah Buckley (Columbia University) and Quintin Beazer (Florida State University) looked at the cancellation of mayoral elections in Russia and its replacement with a system of appointment. Today, about 80 percent of mayors are Kremlin appointees—a significant uptake from under 20 percent in 2002, even though multiple surveys show that Russians prefer direct mayoral elections over appointments. Cancellations are often met with opposition and protest, and the study found that an appointment does, in fact, result in a candidate’s significant popularity decline. The authors argue that, with such results in mind, autocrats might want to retain elections, because voters demand elections and suppressing them would incur political costs.

The panel also featured “Endogenous Authoritarian Popularity” by Kyle Marquart (Higher School of Economics) and Katerina Tertychnaya (University College London), and “Covid, Anxiety and Information: Lessons from Russia” by Grigore Pop-Eleches (Princeton University) Bryn Rosenfeld (Cornell University), and Graeme Robertson (UNC Chapel Hill).


Propaganda and Protest: How Russians Make Sense of Media Narratives 

In her paper titled “Protests, Permits and Opposition in Electoral Autocracies,” Katerina Tertychnaya (UCL) analyzed changes in Russian authorities’ repressive strategies regarding protests. She argued that recently there have been more non-violent, pre-repression actions backed by legislative acts. For instance, protesters are required to be “sanctioned” by local authorities and such a permit is subject to denial on various pretexts—a preventive approach in the leadup to protests. This approach has had limited success: in 2017, a third of protests in Russia were not authorized, but still went ahead. The author also pointed out that changes in location and other bureaucratic hurdles create confusion among protesters, and coordination dilemmas distort their activity and help discredit them, which is why it is designed to be visible. According to Tertychnaya, non-violent protest repression is an important tool for political control, which increases autocrats’ power.  

Another paper of the panel pivoted towards the media. In “The Preference for Propaganda: How Content and Beliefs about Sources Shape Demand for State and Independent News in Russia,” Ashley Blum (UCLA) asked why people watch state propaganda, given the known biases, especially when independent news is available. According to Blum’s survey, 65.7 percent of people regularly read state news sources, and 36.7 percent read only state news—no independent sources at all. One reason is that state news in Russia is free, and available on every platform, while independent news typically requires more effort and sometimes money to access. People like to see news that is consistent with their political beliefs or that evoke emotions like pride. 

This panel also included a paper by Georgiy Syunyaev (Columbia University/WZB Berlin) and Anton Shirikov (UW-Madison), who discussed Russian media in “Learning about Bias: Experiment on News Consumption in Russia,” arguing that people can revise their beliefs about media bias in two cases: they observe a discrepancy between media coverage and reality, or they watch alternative media coverage that illuminates the bias. They found that these revisions can happen if people notice the bias themselves, rather than after someone else reported it.


Making Russian Autocracy Work: Mechanisms of Political Control and Regime Stability

Continuing to speak about the media, in “Fake News for All: Misinformation and Polarization in Russia” Anton Shirikov (UW-Madison) noted that most autocrats use propaganda, censorship, and disinformation, but not enough is known about the public response to such manipulations. Shirikov also pointed out that propaganda works not by persuading, but by exploiting and reaffirming existing beliefs. It also works through constant repetition of pro-government messages on the widely available state news platforms. He found large political biases in news evaluation in Russia, which makes it easier for the autocratic regime to spread falsehoods among sympathetic citizens; independent information is thus less of a threat because the regime’s support is already biased against it. However, it is important to note that news perceptions are politicized on both sides: opposition-minded citizens are just as susceptible to false anti-government messages as government supporters to anti-opposition propaganda.

Also included in the panel was “Digital Dividends of Local Governance: Evidence from Moscow Pothole Management” by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (King’s College London) and “The Civic and the Political: the Social Roots of Authoritarian Power in Russia” by Natalia Forrat (University of Michigan).


* Liya Wizevich is a leadership team member at the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. She holds B.A. in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and M.Phil. in History from the University of Cambridge.