20 years under Putin: a timeline

Despite its unfortunate historical experience, Russia is not destined for despotism. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the liberal opposition still has a chance of success—provided it maintains its political identity and appeals to the “man from the street.”



Russia’s historical experience suggests that there is no way out. Every time our country made a move toward freedom, the result was lawlessness and bloodshed. Even peaceful nonviolent protests led to inappropriate consequences. That is what happened to the peaceful protest in St. Petersburg on January 9th, 1905, which was the first attempt at a “velvet” revolution in Russia—it ended in bloodshed through the fault of autocracy (which was not our country’s most villainous regime.) The same goes for the peaceful rally on May 6th, 2012 on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, which ended in unlawful actions by the regime—also not the cruelest one in Russian history.

One could lose heart completely if one accepted that history is predetermined. However, Laplace’s demons have not calculated everything, and nobody has yet proven that Russia cannot be free. History is a hint—not a law for the future. That is why new attempts are being made.

Political analysts who dream of a free and democratic Russia place their hopes on the opposition; the opposition, on society; society itself, on a miracle. Such state of affairs does not allow much hope for success—but there is still a chance.

The idea that government should exist for its citizens, and not the other way around, was brought to us by a western wind and took roots, although it has not become more popular than the coarse Russian idea of the greatness of authority. The struggle for Russia’s better future is marked not as much by the clash of ideologies, as it is by an incessant battle between a Western individualist choice and an Eastern collectivist one. In different moments of history, we see the same picture with slight variations.

The current regime’s efforts to repress civic freedoms and restore an authoritarian management system fits well into the traditional historical design, in which the state is everything and a person is nothing. In such a system, personal rights and freedoms have no importance. Minorities are deprived of all their rights and must disappear in the majority. Art must be epic and directed at solving global problems. The media must be a state propaganda mouthpiece, while the rebels calling for freedom must be thrown in prisons and labor camps.

The struggle for Russia’s future is marked by an incessant battle between a Western individualist choice and an Eastern collectivist one.

Only the liberal idea of individual freedom, protected legislatively by human rights, and politically by democracy, can confront Russia’s traditional historical choice. Absolute statism can be multi-faced—it can hide under the clothes of fascism (or corporate state), socialism, Nazism, national-patriotism, religious fundamentalism, imperialism or just plain dictatorship. But regardless of the costume’s cut, the essence always lies in the suppression of individual freedom under the pretext of protecting state interests.

It is safe to say that Russia will break from this vicious circle and will get a chance of survival when the majority of its citizens recognize their freedom as the highest political value.

How can the opposition help? Above all, by being there: the mere fact of its existence indicates the possibility of a change for the better. Even one righteous man is enough to save the city. The opposition can and should set an example of standing up to a regime that keeps on pushing the country back into authoritarianism. This example should not only be vivid—it should also be convincing and attractive for society. An average man from the street should be able to understand that the opposition objects to government monopoly on everything; that it defends every citizen’s political freedom; that it upholds human rights in order to stop the raging of unlawful state-sponsored violence.

The opposition should not appear to be the regime’s partner, or its competitor within the existing political system. The opposition should be the government’s antagonist—not its ally in introducing reforms or performing cosmetic alterations of the state facade. The opposition should rely on those who share the idea of freedom instead of trying to please everyone, including supporters of a strong state under a new guise. The liberal opposition should strengthen its ranks by growing the number of its supporters—not at the expense of blurring its objectives or losing its own principles.



The government is not as stupid as we wish. Its high road is as obvious to the regime as it is to us. But, given the choice, it will always opt for those who do not tolerate freedom. The current regime understands such people better than it does the supporters of the liberal idea. That is why leftists and nationalists are not opponents of the current regime, but merely its competitors in the struggle for power. They have higher chances for cooperation with the government than even the caricature “liberals” within Putin’s regime. If they are under pressure today, it is only because they may prove luckier players on the same field. The street is “changeable, rebellious, credulous,” and the imperially minded Russian majority, which is usually passive and ready to agree to anything, may one day demand a new leader with new slogans and new promises—but a leader, not freedom.

The regime will do everything in its power to prevent events from going out of control. That is why it is pressuring its opponents, while at the same time preparing escape-routes. Backwoods nationalist Vladimir Kvachkov is being sentenced to 13 years in prison for an attempted armed rebellion, while Dmitri Rogozin is deputy prime minister. Is there such a big difference between Kvachkov and Rogozin? Only a stylistic one.

A criminal case against Sergei Udaltsov is initiated on a foolish motive, while Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov continues to be a stalwart of the Putin regime. Is there such a big difference between Zyuganov and Udaltsov? Only a stylistic one.

As soon as the current regime outlives itself in the Putin form, power will be carefully transferred to successors—to leftists or nationalists, those who will be able to keep Russia in a state of authoritarianism that is so convenient for scoundrels. Much like in the 1990s, when the bankrupt Communist nomenklatura handed power to its younger colleagues, who advanced democratic slogans. But even if promised a fair trial and humane leniency, the Putin regime will never hand over power to the liberal opposition, which could lead Russia out of its authoritarian crisis.

If tens of thousands are joining the protest rallies, it means that they have millions of sympathizers.

This gloomy prediction does not mean that the unhappy fate of our country is predetermined. Different forces will still clash both in debate and in the streets. The eventual result is not yet known. The number of people who see themselves as independent citizens—and not as their master’s servants—is on the rise. If tens of thousands are joining the protest rallies, it means that they have millions of sympathizers, who have not yet said their last word.

In this context, the opposition's role could be very important—or it could be insignificant. The formation of different political structures and frenzied party-building denote a childish interest in the process, when the game itself is more important than the result. In the best-case scenario, society will ignore the cooperation between liberals and the enemies of freedom, and the opposition will remain unnoticed and unpopular. At the worst, liberals will bring out new enemies of freedom into the respectable public space on a wave of fighting for freedom. After gaining political influence, the latter will show just what they are capable of—in that case, all efforts will once again prove useless. This happened many times before. The enemies of freedom cannot be allowed to take part in the fight for freedom—otherwise a new (and probably tougher) despotism will replace the old one.

It seems that the liberal part of Russian society is taking historical experience into consideration. Its response to appeals by the unified opposition is rather week. Only a small part of the pro-democracy electorate comes out into the streets. But it is hard to expect something different, when one part of the unified opposition talks about freedom and human rights, another one, about establishing a Russian national state, and the third one is demanding to “take it all and divide it up.” The liberal opposition still has a chance to become popular in society. But in order to achieve that, it must change its format and become attractive to an average man from the street.