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Another Russian Revolution?

Canada’s former ambassador to Russia on why Alexei Navalny is an existential threat to Vladimir Putin.

By: /
17 February, 2021
A man holds a poster reads: "Freedom for Navalny" during a protest rally against the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny on January 23, 2021 in Moscow, Russia. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The 1917 Russian Revolution occurred when pent-up pressures of rapid economic and social change were suppressed by an absolutist monarchy living in a reform-resisting bubble. Russia’s needless entry into a destructive war among European powers accelerated public disaffection. A social democratic parliamentary democracy fell to violent upheaval by a militant radical minority who won because they alone were organized with clear aims. As institutions collapsed, exhausted people empowered the Bolsheviks because they hoped for order and stability, however harsh.

Thus began a totalitarian nightmare that inflicted a form of mass PTSD on society. The Soviet Union became a superpower in a divided world, but its police state mired the country in stagnation and dysfunction.

By 1962, Peter Reddaway, a British political scientist and expert on the Soviet Union, foresaw “a new revolution as the only outcome, in 30 years’ time.”

Twenty-three years later, Mikhail Gorbachev did launch a revolution, to reform another dysfunctional system. But Gorbachev was also motivated by the need to ease the burden on citizens of the massive crimes the regime had committed against them for three generations. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika turned everything upside down. Initially, euphoric citizens celebrated their liberation from the fear of 3 a.m. knocks at the door by the KGB. They lined up for hours to buy newspapers, finally uncensored. 

Alas, Gorbachev’s attempts to radically transform the organizing and operating principles of society ran into the reality that no one — least of all western experts — knew how to instantly create a democracy and a market economy from the ruins of totalitarianism without staggering disruption.

Public support for Gorbachev’s reforms receded. Without adequate material help from western countries, faced with nationalist yearnings across the Soviet empire and pressure from newly elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, announced his resignation on December 25, 1991. The Soviet Union officially dissolved days later.

Yeltsin’s stumbling pursuit of Russian democracy and a free economy via “shock therapy” resulted in what journalist David Remnick termed the “wreckage of everyday life.” Russians might have been free but many felt cast adrift.

On a visit to Moscow in 1995, Czech President Václav Havel asked me, somewhat sardonically, how the democratic revolution was going. I replied with encouraging words, to which the former anti-Soviet dissident said: “60 years.” Years later, I learned he was quoting British political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf, who argued that while a new democracy’s constitutional reforms might take six months and economic reform six years, 60 years was barely enough time to change people’s mindsets. And it’s these that matter most. As Carnegie legal scholar Thomas Carothers has written, “It’s not about courts and statutes, but what’s in citizens’ heads.”

The disappointment of Russians, who are a talented people, was acute. “Why can’t we be normal?” a Moscow TV panel debated in October 1993, after a failed coup d’état and a weekend of violence had traumatized the city.

When Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999, he focused on restoring security. In return, he asked for a period of “quieting down.” “We do not need great upheavals,” he said. “We need a great Russia.” In Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” safety, security, and predictability are at the top.

Putin delivered, raising standards of living and restoring national pride after the decade of humiliation that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. But he broke the only concrete promise made in his first presidential speech, to preserve Russia’s new democracy.

What happened?

* * *

Putin’s rise from an obscure KGB assignment in Dresden to supreme power is hotly debated. Some maintain he was part of a KGB plan from before the fall of the Berlin Wall to divert vast state revenues to enable security services personnel (“siloviki”) to maintain control even as Gorbachev was changing the USSR.

Putin returned to Russia and ostensibly to civilian life in 1990, settling in his home city of Leningrad, which would soon revert to its Russian Empire-era name of Saint Petersburg. Emancipatory euphoria in the former imperial capital had been replaced by social and economic breakdown and crime. Putin’s distrust of revolution deepened. A vice-chair of the notionally reformist city council, he may have ramped up collaboration between an ex-KGB network and criminal clans who controlled the port and other sources of revenue. Some now argue this was a template for his eventual rule of Russia.

“Vladimir Putin impressed me as a uniquely competent professional transitioning to public service in a start-up democracy he didn’t really understand.”

I met Vladimir Putin then to seek relief for idealistic Canadian businesspeople being intimidated by thugs. He impressed me as a uniquely competent professional transitioning to public service in a start-up democracy he didn’t really understand.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s team soon recruited Putin. He moved to Moscow, where his reputation for competence, delivery, loyalty and of asking for nothing for himself propelled him upwards, ultimately persuading the ailing Yeltsin’s family he was the ideal successor to save the regime.

As president, Putin reached out to the West and especially to the U.S., notably after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But he felt rebuffed, and Russia dismissed and diminished. He veered into a truculent nationalism rooted in revived conservative Eastern Orthodox values. He systematically shrunk Russia’s democratic space and dismissed protesters as ungrateful.

But after a decade of Putin, weary of being held in a state of political infancy, professionals and the urban middle class also felt they deserved the more “normal” country that TV panel longed for back in 1993.

In 2011 and 2012, protests over Putin’s return to the presidency (he was prime minister from 2008 to 2012) and obviously fixed parliamentary elections, filled Moscow’s streets and shook Putin. He doubled down, barring reformist opponents he labelled as western stooges from political life altogether.

But popular anger wasn’t only directed at Russia’s democratic decline. Oil and gas wealth had fueled Russia’s economic growth. But it was increasingly obvious that a network of crony-oligarchs, mostly from Putin’s days in Saint Petersburg, had leaped far ahead of anyone else, via intimidation and dirty inside deals.

A consortium of privilege and malign power had turned Gorbachev’s moral second revolution against the worst of communism into the worst of capitalism. At the summit of this so-called “power vertical” was anti-revolutionary Putin, validating Lord Acton’s adage that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Putin kept his popularity with many Russians with a nationalistic foreign policy that pushed back against the U.S. When mass demonstrations in Ukraine pushed from office the country’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Putin converted a loss by an easily improvised grab of the historically Russian Crimean Peninsula.

* * *

By then, a young and charismatic right-wing nationalist lawyer had entered Russia’s political stage. Alexei Navalny’s early activism heavily featured ethnic opposition to non-Russian immigration. But he soon became a popular champion through an evidence-based campaign against the regime’s oligarchical miasma of corruption. His nationalism differentiated him from the customary democratic reformers associated with the chaos of the 1990s.

Denied access to propagandistic state TV that doesn’t even report on him,  Navalny built an online media presence on his own. A video he posted of a preposterous $1 billion “palace” allegedly built for Putin by crony billionaires has over 100 million views, dwarfing the reach of the state’s Channel One.

Corruption is a theme all Russians can relate to, rather than seeking to replicate in Russia the elusive cultural norms and values of western countries’ democracies, which have been  corroded in Russian eyes by the sorry Donald Trump show. Navalny’s forceful challenge to authority is layered on top of dismay over a stagnant economy and growing frustration with the state’s continuous lies.

“Navalny poses an existential threat to Putin’s legitimacy and power, his cronies and the whole rotten system. Which is why the state tried to kill him.”

Navalny isn’t for tinkering reforms. In  challenging Russians to imagine “Rossiya bez Putina,”Russia without Putin, he poses a more existential threat to Putin’s legitimacy and power, his cronies and the whole rotten system. Which is why the state tried to kill him.

Last summer, Navalny, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent and fell seriously ill on a flight to Moscow. The Kremlin, not surprisingly, denies any responsibility — though Russian authorities have refused to investigate because, they say, no strong evidence exists that a crime was committed. 

Having first had the temerity to survive, Navalny tricked state security officials into admitting the crime in a staged and recorded phone call. Navalny then did an unthinkably brave thing in January by returning to Russia. He was promptly arrested on phony charges and sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony. Navalny mocked Putin in court. “One man hiding in a bunker,” he called him, and “Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner” — a reference to evidence that the nerve agent was placed in Navalny’s underpants.

 Navalny’s purpose is to channel his bravery to the population. Protests indeed erupted across Russia, leaving Putin again wrong-footed by this unpredictable adversary who keeps raising the ante.

Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist and long-time Putin critic, doesn’t believe Navalny can bring Putin down. Change, Gessen says, is more likely to come from inside the regime than from the streets. But regime insiders can measure the public’s mood, too. A battle for minds is on. Parliamentary elections in September will test support. Will all those who remember the bruising chaos and poverty of the 1990s still support Putin?

Many are fed up. Today’s protesters are mostly mature, and, as a product of Navalny’s unprecedented organizing ability, spread over 100 cities. Navalny’s courage offers a counter to the public’s learned “resignation and helplessness” on which Economist editor Arkady Ostrovsky says Putin’s security services depend.

Navalny in prison evokes the character known as “Z” in the 1969 Costa-Gavras film about a martyr in the struggle against dictatorship; he’ll be physically in jail but virtually everywhere. Meanwhile, Putin’s credibility declines. In his bubble, he won’t hear citizens deride his excesses and pretensions or savour Navalny’s courtroom defiance.

Change is inevitable. How it happens is up to Russians, not to outsiders. But one thinks of the doomed tsar Nicholas II, isolated in his palace. When revolution happened then, it happened all at once.

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