20 years under Putin: a timeline

Critics of the current Russian regime often call its actions “stupid” and detrimental to its own image. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, however, what looks like government “stupidity” is actually a well-thought out strategy.



It is nice to think of your adversary as an idiot. It makes you feel better about yourself and reassures you by trivializing the threat: what foolishness did he or she think of this time? The same holds true when the adversary is the government. We fume about the Russian government doing this or that. How can it be so stupid? Does it not realize that it is undermining its own position and the image of the country? What we fail to appreciate is that the government understands everything it does; we just don’t understand its real motives. We judge the regime’s objectives, logic, and morals by our standards, when its own standards are completely different. Many of our troubles come from this lack of understanding.

Many of the government’s initiatives damage Russia’s image and result in international scandals. Prison sentences for members of the punk band Pussy Riot mobilized protests by top figures in the European music industry. Laws directed against homosexual propaganda have elicited fierce criticism of the Russian government from all corners of the world. The government’s insistence on protecting the law enforcement mafia in the Magnitsky case drew the world’s attention to a new instrument of government influence that violates human rights.

And we continue to wonder: What does the government think it is doing? How can it fail to foresee the possible consequences of its actions? Unfortunately, we just don’t understand the government. It very likely weighs its actions in advance and expects consequences. As much as we would like to think otherwise, it is anything but stupid. It simply has different objectives. In the Pussy Riot case, the government wanted to demonstrate that Russia is a religious and fundamentalist country, rather than a secular one; that the sentence handed down in the farce trial was a reflection of the people’s will; and that individual freedom pales before the power of the inferior mob.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, the government is anything but stupid. It simply has different objectives.

Of course the government knew what public reaction would be to laws banning gay propaganda around minors. These laws had been under consideration for a long time. The government had time to think them over and to speculate on possible reactions to their passage. First, such laws were adopted on the regional level. Anti-gay-propaganda legislation came into force on May 24, 2006 in the Ryazan region; in September 2011 in the Arkhangelsk and Kostroma regions; and in 2012 in the Novosibirsk, Magadan, and Samara regions, and in the Bashkortostan Republic, Krasnodar Krai, and Saint Petersburg. This year, a similar law was passed by the Russian State Duma.

This legislation will have little legal or social impact since, for thousands of years, attempts to regulate people’s sexual lives by law have inevitably failed. Everybody understands that. We naively feel outraged by this law because we believe it to be an attack on nontraditional sexual relations. But that’s only the form the action takes; its true intent is to restrict activity that the government cannot control. It is a matter of principle for the regime to engrain in the public’s mind that it has the right to make decisions concerning people’s private lives and personal relationships, subject these relationships to legal evaluation, and pass judgment on them. The fact that violating this ban only results in fines is not important. Today, it is a fine; tomorrow there will be a prison term for the same thing. It is just a matter of time and circumstances.

The government teaches society tolerance to despotism one step at a time, slowly but persistently. Russia has already adopted a law criminalizing the insult of religious beliefs. Another piece of legislation currently under consideration would make people legally liable for distorting the historical record of the Second World War. Next will be liability for insulting the memory of our ancestors, for defamation of the existing political system, and for not believing in Russia’s bright future.

Today, such a portraiture may seem an absurd exaggeration, but it was already a reality, and quite recently. Anti-gay-propaganda legislation is a step back into the Soviet past, a small step that will be followed by other measures, tougher and more confident. This is why the Russian government did not falter before the (rather expected) negative reaction of the international community to this legislation. The government has ambitious aims and is prepared to sacrifice its image a little for the sake of its future victory. We citizens and onlookers, on the other hand, trusting in its mantra of allegiance to democracy and law, do not understand how the authorities’ actions can be so contradictory.


Not one of those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky's death has been brought to justice.


At first glance, the motives of the Russian authorities in the Magnitsky case—which the majority of observers and political analysts still see as an isolated incident of legal abuse—appear unclear, if not insane. Indeed, what would have been simpler than to resolve the whole thing at the very beginning and thus avoid an international scandal? The government had only to punish those responsible for stealing, abusing the law, and killing Sergei Magnitsky—nothing more.

As the scandal was escalating, many wondered why the regime refused to sacrifice a few high-ranking criminals in order to stop a growing avalanche of criticism toward Russia. This perplexity, again, was based on our failure to grasp the authorities’ real motives. We were starting from a profoundly false notion that the government’s first priority is the protection of law and Russia’s international image. If this were true, there would not have been a Magnitsky case, and we would not have been outraged by the government’s lack of perspicacity.

Unfortunately, this was not and is not the case. The government’s priority is to guarantee the stability of the regime and the immunity of the institutions that provide this stability, by nurturing corruption and protecting regime officials from criminal prosecution. It is much more important for the government to reach this goal than to promote the rule of law or to maintain the respectability of Russia’s image on the world stage. This is why claims that the regime is cutting its own throat are absurd. In fact, it is acting for its own benefit. The point is that in the discussion of detriment and benefit, the government and the people mean different things. We talk about Russia, while the government thinks about itself.

We were starting from a profoundly false notion that the government’s first priority is the protection of Russia’s international image. The government’s priority is to guarantee the stability of the regime.

The most recent example of seemingly illogical government action undermining the image of the country was the creation of a Moscow concentration camp for allegedly illegal immigrants. According to current Russian criminal legislation, the detainment of hundreds (for now) of Vietnamese nationals, including those who have all the papers necessary for living in Moscow, is a crime—an illegal deprivation of freedom. The concentration camp lacks legal status. Detaining people there for more than 48 hours without a court order is a violation of the Russian Constitution. Furthermore, insanitary conditions in the camp violate many domestic and international laws. The embassy of Vietnam in Moscow has already responded to the shameful measures undertaken by the Russian interior ministry, and a negative reaction on the part of the international community is sure to follow.

This will hardly stop the current Russian regime, however. The truth is that, using Vietnamese nationals as guinea pigs, the government is breaking in a new mechanism for urgent internment of a large number of people within the conditions of routine city life. It is test-running organizational principles, material support, transport design, and cooperation between different agencies. The State Duma will likely soon adopt legislation regulating the existence of such city camps. It is no mystery for whom they will be intended. The Vietnamese will soon be released or deported, and vacant spaces will be waiting for members of the opposition movement, for whom there is never enough space in police stations and pretrial detention facilities on hot rally days.

Is it not worth enduring the Vietnamese government’s reproaches over the inhumane treatment of its citizens in order to achieve such a “beautiful” future?