20 years under Putin: a timeline

Despite their mutual aversion, the Russian government and the Russian opposition have one common trait—a tendency to oversimplify the image of their enemy for propagandistic purposes. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek argues that the opposition is making a grave mistake when it focuses all its efforts just on removing Vladimir Putin from power.



They say that psychiatrists, who have worked a long time, start resembling their patients, and that policemen over time start resembling criminals. If this is true, it is not surprising that over time the opposition has started resembling the regime. They also say that bad habits are contagious, which is true too.

The Russian opposition and the regime share one striking similarity: they both like to use a stock image of an enemy. The enemies are different, of course, but they both seem to be drawn by the same hand of a skilled propagandist.

In an effort to explain to society its failure in almost every undertaking, the talentless and roguish Russian government has created an image of the West as a deceitful and envious enemy paying hard cash to Russian mercenaries in exchange for collaboration. This image is far from new. It is rather worn-out by decades of intensive usage, but it is still effective in swaying a certain part of society and therefore is a useful tool on which the regime can rely. The most unassuming Russian citizens see the enemy of Russia as a combination of the rapacious West, NATO, intellectuals, Jews, dissolute youth, rock music, people from the Caucasus, homosexuals, writers, journalists, and millionaires. The government can either add new ingredients to this farrago or remove unnecessary ones from it as needed. With slight variations, this image has been successfully used for several centuries. In recent Soviet times, this assortment omitted the millionaires, because they were obviously absent, and also both journalists and writers, because these individuals were all supposed to be members of the Communist Party. Instead, this group expanded to include enemies of the people, ministers of religion, counterrevolutionaries, renegades, and dissidents.

The regime counts on its propaganda’s success among the most poorly educated part of society that is incapable of intellectual analysis.

The reason for such simplification is quite clear: the regime counts on its propaganda’s success among the most poorly educated and poorly informed part of society that is incapable of intellectual analysis. In this social sphere, a critical view of reality is not encouraged. Ready clichés drawn with slight variations from the same assortment are, however, much in demand.

Today’s Russian opposition has almost the same habit of simplifying problems. Modern Russia’s enemy is Vladimir Putin, who is portrayed as symbolizing everything bad: theft, corruption, police abuse, pressure on the media, manipulated justice, and the impending collapse of the country. Everyone can add something to their taste to this image: for some, the migration policy that is too open; for others, the drawbacks of the current social order; and for still others, the army that is being badly cared for. A universal enemy is convenient because one can pin all sorts of accusations upon him.

It would be strange to defend Putin against all these accusations, because, as president of the country (or, rather, as someone who has usurped the office of the president), he is in any case responsible for whatever affects the constitutional basis of the state. However, it would be equally strange to see Putin as the source of all evil and the main obstacle on the way to democracy. In serious conversations among themselves, opposition members usually agree that Putin is not so much an evil genius as he is a henchman of the clan that has seized power in Russia. His authority is vast, but he always remains within the limits established by the ruling corporation, and it is doubtful that he could go beyond these limits even if he wanted to. However, he has been proclaimed an icon of evil and has become a figure that consolidates the opposition.

Such a propagandistic simplification could be explainable if the opposition had in view the same part of society on which the government depends: that sector that is thoughtless, helpless, and resentful. However, the opposition appeals to the middle class, the intelligentsia, and students—that is, to people capable of critical analysis and not very susceptible to propaganda.


The flags of liberals, leftists, and nationalists are often seen together at Russian opposition rallies.


What are the reasons for such a superficial simplification? It appears that there are two reasons that this has occurred. Leftists and nationalists in the opposition compete with the government for the electorate. They seek support from the part of society that most easily falls for propaganda and wants clear and simple slogans like “Russia for Russians” or “Take away and divide.” A clearly defined enemy quickly becomes a target for such people, and everything else falls outside of the focus of their attention.

The second reason is more profound. Putin consolidates the opposition. As enemy number one, he helps diametrically opposite forces to find common language and a common platform for cooperation. It took a long time for the opposition to arrive at a point of relative unification and finally produce a fellowship of liberals, leftists, and nationalists in the Coordinating Council. Most of the opposition members consider the creation of this group to be a big achievement and a rather promising undertaking.

Although its real prospects will become clearer in the near future, it is already evident that the Coordinating Council has not lived up to expectations. It is, however, noteworthy that its consolidating basis is a propagandistic cliché. Founding cooperation on propagandistic simplifications is a big mistake with far-reaching consequences.

It is true that the entire opposition is against Putin, but for different reasons. If, let us say,

Boris Nemtsov opposes Putin for repressing civic freedoms and human rights, Sergei Udaltsov does not like Putin’s policy for its lack of socialism, and Vladimir Tor finds odious the national policy that does not differentiate Russians’ rights from those of other nations.

By concentrating on Putin himself or even on his whole clan, the opposition members agree not to address their essential differences. They have found a common target and pretend that this is the evil itself, whereas the real evil for Russia is not Putin, but the lack of freedom and the human rights violations that pervade the country. However, when the main problem is defined in this way, socialism and nationalism become as disastrous for Russia as Putin’s regime. Cooperation with such forces loses its purpose when one bears in mind the aim of securing Russia’s democratic future, and not simply replacing one ideology with another within the same authoritarian regime. Where can the path lead if one shares it with leftists and nationalists?

By concentrating on Putin, the opposition members agree not to address their essential differences.

One circumstance that on its face appears insignificant may become the green light on Russia’s path to disaster; this small circumstance is the propagandistic simplification that the common objective of the “united opposition” is not the creation of a free and democratic state, but the replacement of a leader—and all the rest can be decided later. This is why the opposition has concentrated on one person. This is, in fact, an inverse cult of personality.

If it is only a question of overthrowing Putin and replacing him with Tor, Udaltsov, or one of their likes, then the liberal opposition is doing everything right. In a suicidal manner, it mobilizes public opinion in support of leftists and nationalists, who would deal with civic freedoms even more aggressively than Putin does if the opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, their faces set, these same leftists and nationalists talk about parliamentarianism and free elections, because for them, the end always justifies the means. Even now, they do not try to conceal their strategic objectives: some strive to restore the USSR, others, to establish a Russian national empire.

It seems that such promotion of the enemies of freedom by liberals is only possible in today’s Russia. Only in Russia, for reasons unknown to scientists, do people not learn either from their own mistakes or from anybody else’s. Those who have at least some understanding of twentieth-century history know what happens to countries in which nationalists or Soviet-style socialists come to power.