Analysis Russian civil society

The seeds of hope can still blossom in Putin’s increasingly autocratic regime

In the midwinter of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, Putin’s regime looks unassailable. Despite this, civil society is surviving, as evidenced by the crowds of supporters of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the activism of political exiles, write the journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan from exile.

Published on 21 March 2024 at 10:52

After more than two years of full-scale war, two things have become abundantly clear: that peace can't be achieved without a change of regime in Moscow; and that even Ukrainian victory on the battlefield is only one of many factors that could contribute to its downfall.  

For over the past two years, Vladimir Putin's Russia has become a formidably entrenched regime.   

The Russian army has fully adapted to warfare, albeit through a strategy of massive material and human losses, troops rotting in the same trenches for months on end, institutionalised brutality among the officer corps towards the men, and a total disregard for the plight of civilians and the laws of war.  

The security services have regrouped after the humiliation of spring 2022 and have found a new sense of purpose in what they see as the third round of their struggle with the West (following earlier engagements in the 20th century).

On the Russian mainland, the army, the military-industrial complex and the security services are woven into the fabric of society – from contributing to the sudden prosperity of Russia's poorest regions to funding military enterprises and paying contract soldiers, including the dead.

The security services have perfected their techniques for spreading fear among ordinary people and the bureaucracy. People have resumed old habits, such as talking in low voices about war and politics in public places like public transport and cafes.

In two years, Putin has given Russians plenty of reason to believe that he still has a large arsenal of measures to escalate repression. The death of Alexei Navalny, announced on 16 February, was just another lesson that Stalin's Gulag methods could make a triumphant return.

Despite terrible pressure, arrests and persecution of dissent, Russian civil society has survived

Two years of war also show that we all probably learned the wrong lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The widely accepted narrative was that military defeat in the war in Afghanistan contributed to the collapse because the army and the KGB, confused and humiliated, chose to wait and see as democratic forces took over in the Soviet republics from the late 1980s.

The reality was far more complex. The KGB actively supported perestroika because the security services wanted to end Communist Party control. When things went too far for the Lubyanka generals' taste, they tried to overthrow Gorbachev and remove Yeltsin, and failed.

But when Yeltsin's democrats tried to settle scores, the KGB succeeded in diverting attention to the Communist Party (imagine if this had happened in East Germany, the German Communist Party would have been prosecuted and the Stasi would have remained intact).

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It's true that the army was humiliated by the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, but the political role of the military remained considerable even in the most tumultuous years of the 1990s.  

It was not for nothing that Yeltsin chose a general, Alexander Rutskoy, as his vice-president, and that this officer enjoyed enormous popularity because of his record in Afghanistan. Six years later, during the presidential elections, Yeltsin's main political rival was another general and also a hero of the war in Afghanistan, Alexander Lebed.

This just goes to show that even a disastrous and humiliating war does not extinguish the role of generals in politics. Today's generals understand that the more the war engulfs society, the more important they become.  

The security services would not give up their power easily either - it is a matter of survival for them.

To win and maintain popular support for the war, Putin relied on arousing the basest feelings in the population - xenophobia against Ukrainians, greed among contract soldiers and their families, hatred - especially against gays and liberals - all wrapped up in a cloak of fear.

In essence, he set out to corrupt the soul of the Russian people, and he has been depressingly successful.  

The result? In part, it will mean that when the time comes for regime change, much of the population will feel frightened. They will be less likely to support change because they will be complicit; it will not be possible to blame outsiders. But they will point the finger at something other than themselves, at a political party, or the security services, or the dictator, and refuse to accept their own role.  

This is grim news, but there is some good news.

Despite terrible pressure, arrests and persecution of dissent, Russian civil society has survived. The thousands who have laid flowers for Navalny are an open challenge to the authorities, who may now or in the future decide to throw them in jail for their defiance.

Russian society is also alive in exile. There are vibrant links between the emigrants (who number a million or more) and those still at home, and despite its best efforts the Kremlin has failed to break these links. It has tightened internet censorship, while persecuting and intimidating, but that has not been enough.   

For now, in the dark midwinter of a long war, it is hard to imagine a brighter future. And yet the seeds are there in Russian civil society. Ultimately, the real and sustainable possibility of a better future in Russia and lasting peace in Europe lies in supporting Russian civil society, both at home and abroad.

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