20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media highlights, Kirill Rogov observes the paradoxes of the public mood; Lev Gudkov explains why Soviet Man was preserved in the Russian public consciousness; Arkady Dubnov argues that the Soviet Union disintegrated due to developments in the Soviet republics; Denis Volkov shows how the “war of words” over the recent Tu-154 crash is splitting society; and Vladislav Inozemtsev predicts when the regime will collapse. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991. Depicted above are the workers dismantling the plate of Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR after the last session of the Council of Republics of the Supreme Soviet. Photo: Valentin Kuzmin / TASS


InLiberty: Paradoxes of the 2016 Public Mood

  • Author: political commentator and journalist Kirill Rogov.
  • Rogov argues that Russia has entered a post-Crimea stage characterized by falling political mobilization. There are several indicators that confirm this notion.
  • The beginning of 2016 marked the lowest point in public perceptions of social well-being amidst the second wave of the crisis (as a result of a new drop in oil prices, a weaker ruble, and growing inflation). Later, as the ruble stabilized and inflation dropped, the public mood turned to “normalization.”
  • At the same time, standards of living continued to fall—by 6 percent in January-November, 2016, compared to the same period of 2015, which constitutes the first paradox of 2016. Rogov offers two explanations: the decline in living standards was distributed unevenly among various social groups; low inflation is the key factor when it comes to what affects the public mood.
  • The second paradox is that the perceived “stabilization” was accompanied by a deterioration of public trust in the government. That can be explained by the delayed shock from the economic crisis: at first, people tend to blame external factors, such as the collapse of oil prices, but over time they begin to see that the regime is at fault.
  • The third paradox is the stability of Vladimir Putin’s 80+ percent approval rating. There are two possible explanations: first, people tend to see Putin as a symbolic figure (“Our everything,” “If not Putin, then who?”); second, those who are disloyal to the regime are unlikely to voice their opinion in polls, anticipating repercussions for doing so.
  • Rogov notes that Russian society has developed what he calls a “code of public loyalty to Putin,” which is in essence similar to the “spiral of silence” theory proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (people tend to remain silent when they believe their views are in opposition to the majority).
  • Finally, surveys show that the Crimea syndrome (a boost in patriotism and approval of the government) observed in 2014-2015 wore off in 2016. For example, the perception of Putin’s readiness to fight corruption has dropped to the 2012 level (it was at the lowest point in 2013).
  • But the most surprising result of the recent polls by Levada is the public’s decreasing interest in the foreign policy agenda and the vision of Russia as a great power. Economics has prevailed over geopolitics since November 2015.
  • Rogov argues that this means that using geopolitics as a mobilization and disorientation tool can only work as a temporary measure, while in the long term Putin won’t be able to lever it into boosting political support for the regime.
  • As the Crimea syndrome rolls back (by 60 to 70 percent already), the Russian public finds itself in a stupor and reliant on the “inertia scenario.” Memories of the country’s economic growth in 2005-2008 and 2010-2014 fuel public adherence to the status quo.
  • However, one should not overestimate this inertia, concludes Rogov: the Crimea post-euphoria blues have not yet fully set in.  

InLiberty, Парадоксы массовых настроений 2016 года, Кирилл Рогов, 27 декабря 2016 г.


Vedomosti: The Story of Soviet Man

  • Author: Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center.
  • Gudkov postulates that the Russian people’s apolitical behavior can be traced to a longitudinal study launched by Yuri Levada in 1988 and still being conducted by the Levada Center to this day.
  • This study examines the phenomenon of Soviet Man (homo sovieticus) as an individual shaped by a totalitarian state, and looks into the specifics of the mass behavior of a group of such individuals.
  • Soviet Man belongs to the so-called “mobilization society”: having lived through collectivization, mass repressions, World War II, and an ideological crisis in the post-Stalin era, he had lost faith in Communism by the time of Brezhnev. He was mostly focused on physical survival, facing chronic shortages, poverty, and various existential threats.
  • By that time, Soviet Man could no longer be romanticized as a symbol of the “starry-eyed idealism.”
  • After the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed that this type would vanish with it. However, Levada’s surveys of 1994, 1997, 2003, 2008, and 2012 consistently showed that Soviet Man was preserved in the public consciousness and could be invoked during political, economic, or social crises.
  • As authoritarianism in Russia grew stronger, Soviet Man came fully to the fore as a citizen type, which could be a sign of stagnation or even of society’s growing degradation.
  • Gudkov argues that the survival of Soviet Man was predetermined by the preservation of the basic institutions of the totalitarian state: the power vertical, a non-independent judiciary, police utilized for political cause, hollow elections, lack of self-government, quasi-parliament, et al.
  • Another reason for Soviet Man’s survival is his ability to adapt to power abuses and to living within a repressive state. His focus is, again, on physical survival, providing for his family, and self-interest in private life, while exhibiting learned helplessness and apathy in public life.
  • The flexibility of Soviet Man can be explained by his conditioned doublethink: on the one hand, he believes that the government has to take care of him; on the other, he suspects that it will inevitably deceive him. This strategy is called “descending adaptation.”
  • Some of other core state characteristics approved of by Soviet Man are: self-isolation, state paternalism, egalitarian hierarchy, and imperial syndrome. This man needs a sense of belonging to the state, and thus he accepts the system and self-identifies with its achievements (but not its actions). The remnants of the Communist ideology in this man have transcended into exceptionalism and specialness, both of which are encouraged by the state.
  • The Levada surveys show that from 35 to 40 percent of Russians have Soviet Man’s features in concentrated form; and up to 80 percent of the population manifest some of these features when in the state of mobilization.

Ведомости, Повесть о советском человеке, Лев Гудков, 28 декабря 2016 г.


RBC: Disintegration Period: How “National Outskirts” Determined the Fate of the USSR 

  • Author: Arkady Dubnov, political scientist, expert on Central Asia.
  • On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, first Soviet president and architect of perestroika, officially resigned in the face of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • The author argues that the oft-cited key triggers of the Soviet Union’s collapse (falling oil prices, arms race with the U.S., Chernobyl disaster, etc.) do not fully explain it. It’s a mistake to think that back then the struggle for power was unfolding only in Moscow.
  • Dubnov offers an alternative interpretation of the 1991 events, encompassing the developments in all the Soviet republics and based on the accounts of all the living former leaders of those republics whom the author met over the course of his research.
  • Dubnov argues that the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Moscow was most likely unaware that the centrifugal forces had emerged in most of the Soviet republics as early as 1986, triggered by the Chernobyl disaster that essentially cracked their monolithic trust in the Kremlin.
  • It was in 1986 that the Jeltoqsan (December) riots took place in the Kazakh city of Almaty in response to Gorbachev’s appointment of an ethnically Russian First Secretary of the republic’s Communist Party instead of a Kazakh. The riots were brutally suppressed by the police, shedding the first blood of Gorbachev’s perestroika.
  • In 1988, the activist Zenon Poznyak, future founder of the Belarusian Liberation Front, uncovered the tragedy of Kurapaty—a wooded area near Minsk where thousands of people were secretly executed by the NKVD and buried during the Great Purge.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany in 1989 was perceived by many in Azerbaijan and Moldova as an incentive to cross the borders (with Iran and Romania, respectively) and to embrace their “brothers” (people of the same ethnic background) beyond the USSR.
  • In 1990, bloody riots between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks occurred in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, leaving 3,000 people dead and essentially crushing the authority of the Communist Party.
  • By 1991 Gorbachev had lost all of his allies in the Soviet republics. No one was prepared to help him preserve the Soviet Union in any shape or form, condemning the USSR to oblivion.

РБК, Период распада: как «национальные окраины» решили судьбу СССР, Аркадий Дубнов, 27 декабря 2016 г.


RBC: Civil Cold War: How the Tu-154 Tragedy Serves to Split Society

  • Author: Denis Volkov, sociologist at the Levada Center
  • On December 25, a Russian Tu-154 plane owned by the Defense Ministry crashed in the Black Sea en route from Sochi to Syria, killing all 92 people on board. Among the passengers were members of the famous military Alexandrov Ensemble, journalists from three Russian TV networks (Channel One, NTV, Zvezda), and the activist Yelizaveta Glinka, known as Doctor Liza.
  • Volkov addresses the controversial public reaction to the tragedy. An event of such scale touches almost everyone, writes Volkov, but there are always some who, far from moved by others’ grief, prefer instead to gloat.  
  • According to Levada polls, in 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, 5 percent of Russians had a “feeling of satisfaction.” In 2016, after the attacks in Paris and Brussels, this number was 2-3 percent. 4 percent felt “satisfied” with the deaths of Boris Yeltsin, and 1 percent with the death of Boris Nemtsov.
  • Patriots or liberals, those who rejoice in the suffering of others are always a minority nonetheless, notes Volkov. A divided society is easier to rule, and the heated battle of words taking place against the backdrop of the Tu-154 tragedy is a regrettable consequence of this tactic.
  • Individual statements might have gone unnoticed by the wider public were it not for what Volkov calls the “hysteria watchdog” in response to them. Some state-owned newspaper headlines were reminiscent of Stalinist times, while Duma lawmakers called for new laws to defend the feelings of “social groups”.
  • Since the protests of 2011-2012, “public watchdogs” have become a widespread phenomenon in the regime’s response to public dissent, the goal being to mobilize the government’s conservative supporters and discredit its critics.  
  • From the very beginning of those public protests, it was clear that people were tired of traditional political agendas. The discussions were not about how to topple the regime, but rather about how people of different political and ideological convictions can live together in peace.  
  • Volkov concludes that conflict, confrontation, and anger have replaced the protesters’ idealism and hopes for change. And even a tragedy that claimed 92 lives seems unable to mend the rift between the sides of this conflict, which the author labels a “civil cold war.”

РБК, Холодная гражданская: как трагедия с Ту-154 помогает раскалывать общество, Денис Волков, 28 декабря 2016 г.


Republic: Accumulated Fatigue, or When Will the Regime Fall?

  • Author: Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies.
  • Two years ago Inozemtsev wrote an article titled How Will The Regime Fall? in which he argued that the regime had established a unique immunity to any political shock by successfully shifting the blame for all Russia’s woes to foreign and domestic enemies. The government thus enjoys almost total support, while the opposition tears itself to pieces, leaving the regime without any serious threats to power.
  • In his new piece, the author notes that part of his prognosis has come true: the opposition has lost everything and fallen apart at the seams. Meanwhile, despite the numerous crises that have struck Russia over the last two years, there is no political cataclysm on  the Kremlin’s horizon.  
  • The “new normality” of oil at $50 per barrel has brought business under the thumb of the state, and in a sense has closed Russia off. As the Russian economy ceases to develop, the country will experience more financial and human capital flight. Inozemtsev predicts that eventually the central financial institutions will collapse.  
  • The state’s bureaucratic institutions are reluctant to release their grip and allow a rise in efficiency. The regime is currently digging itself a hole, and risks economic collapse and the fall of the dominant model of power. The question is not about whether this will happen, but when.  
  • Inozemtsev predicts it will happen in the mid-2020s, for a number of reasons.
    • 1) In the next few years the world economy is due another of its cyclical crises, likely coming from China. It will be a heavy burden for Russia due to the impact on the price of raw materials, but mostly because it will expose the limits of autocratic modernization.  
    • 2) Around 2020, Putin will have completely surrendered formal political legitimacy, and ahead of the presidential elections of 2024 he will face a choice—proclaim himself “eternal leader,” become prime minister (again), or end his political career.  
    • 3) 2016-2020 will work out favorably for the regime as Putin will be able to strengthen his position by proclaiming that Russia has instigated a global conservative trend, using Brexit and Trump’s presidency as proof of the Kremlin’s success in foreign policy.  
  • However, argues Inozemtsev, the alignment between Russian and global ideologues is only temporary. Within five to eight years the political pendulum in the West will swing back the other way.  
  • The removal of the regime will not take place under the remit of civilized electoral processes, nor under the guise of a popular uprising. The elite will simply grow fatigued and expire, which will be fatal for the Putinist political system. But don’t expect too many changes over the next ten years, concludes the author.

Republic, Накопленная усталость. Или когда рухнет режим? Владислав Иноземцев


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.