Letter from Moscow: Putin’s Progress

Putin at his third inauguration, May 7, 2012 (Kremlin photo)
Putin at his third inauguration, May 7, 2012 (Kremlin photo)


Under the gnarled branches of snow-dusted poplars, I stand in Bolotnaya Square on the southern bank of the Moscow River. In the penumbral evening gloom, Audis, Mercedes, and BMWs, glistening and mostly black, inch down the road leading to Bol’shoy Kamennyi Bridge and the gilt onion domes of the Kremlin. Here and there among the foreign-made cars, a grimy Lada or boxy Volga chugs along, spewing fumes. Nearby, and throughout the city, well-lit shops are flush with goods from abroad. Willowy women in high heels tote Prada bags, and thick-browed men carry man purses tucked beneath their arms. Neither shopkeepers nor pedestrians smile; public smiling here is considered fatuous.

In some ways, attire and countenances aside, the scene could be in Stockholm or another large Scandinavian waterside city. But menacing blasts from muscular air horns and blue lights flashing atop some of the luxury cars—those belonging to State Duma deputies or government officials far too important to put up with traffic jams—signal that I’m in no run-of-the-mill European metropolis. This is the capital of a country that spans nine time zones, bristles with nuclear weapons, boasts more billionaires than New York City, and pumps out more oil than Saudi Arabia.

Russia, ever a land of tumult, extremes, and high stakes, has a complex, often brutal history only occasionally intersecting in positive ways with that of the West. A year ago I stood on this very square, and change seemed imminent. On a stage by the embankment in subzero temperatures, beneath a feeble February sun, the rock bard Yuri Shevchuk took the mic to address tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered at a protest rally. Flanked by leaders of Russia’s newly emboldened opposition, the 55-year-old musician, scruffily bearded and wearing his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, effused warmly. His mood, like that of his audience, was buoyant with hope. All were determined to stop Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, due to face elections in March, from returning to the presidency for a third term. People were smiling and greeting complete strangers, so strong was the optimism. The Russians here had, finally, dropped their characteristic fatalism—that powers beyond their control will always rule them—and looked forward to determining their own future.

After a few prefatory lines from a folk song, Shevchuk launched into his biting, classic tribute to Russia, “Rodina” (“Motherland”). “Let them shout that [our motherland] is an urodina”—a deformed country—“but we like it!” What was there not to like? He named a few things: “government sluts,” police repression, late-night arrests—Russia’s immemorial banes, which might now be about to change.

Shevchuk was just the man to address a demonstration defying authoritarian rule. A year and a half earlier, before the opposition emerged from the shadows in December 2011, he had met Putin in St. Petersburg at a charity event. In front of the cameras, the musician used the occasion to take the politician to task for Russia’s lack of civil society and press freedoms, for the widening abyss between its exploited masses and the “princes and nobles” driving around with flashing lights atop their cars. As Putin grew visibly displeased, Shevchuk denounced the Kremlin’s repeated attempts to rekindle Russian patriotism with (meaningless) “hymns and marches.” “We’ve been through all that,” he said, referring to the Soviet period. The only solution to the country’s problems, Shevchuk said, was equality before the law for all Russians and the development of a civil society. “The protest-oriented electorate is growing, and you know that, too,” he warned Putin, who tensely sipped his tea and finally uttered a boilerplate response: “Without normal democratic development, Russia can have no future.” Putin then lectured Shevchuk on the virtues of democracy and delved deftly if unpersuasively into side issues to blunt his interlocutor’s surprise frontal assault.

In Russia, such a public affront to power verges on the unthinkable. Nothing like it had happened since iconic film director Eldar Ryazanov posed blunt but far kinder questions to President Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

Shevchuk, by his own admission to Putin, is an ochkarik (a “bespectacled one”)—that is, a member of the intelligentsia. On Bolotnaya Square in 2012, however, he sang to a crowd largely made up of rough-hewn monarchists, angry anarchists, plus Communists and flag-waving nationalists surely drawn from the working class. If anything, ochkariki were a minority. One could draw an unsettling conclusion: if Putin were ousted, chances were that no liberal would replace him. More probably his successor would come from darker political forces with deep roots in Russian history and thus be more credible to a majority—a fact on which the Western media, once again enamored of reporting on Russia, preferred not to dwell.

Moscow suffered a bout of anarchic turbulence the last time the rule of the president was challenged, and I lived through it. On a balmy October morning in 1993, I stood on another curve of the Moscow River just to the west and watched tanks, armored personnel carriers, and troops take up position in front of the Supreme Soviet—or the White House, as Russians informally called the building that housed their parliament. Months of anti-Yeltsin riots, strikes, demonstrations, and an incandescent rivalry between Yeltsin, democratically elected and reaffirmed in power by a national referendum, and the Soviet-era, revanchist legislative body opposed to him were coming to a head. Yeltsin had recently pronounced the Supreme Soviet disbanded, but its members and thousands of outraged supporters refused to disperse. Instead they barricaded themselves inside the Soviet with a huge cache of weapons. (The Supreme Soviet, led by Ruslan Khasbulatov and citing a Constitutional Court ruling in its favor, had “fired” Yeltsin and declared allegiance to Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, who had fallen out with his boss and joined the opposition.) On October 3, armed crowds broke through the barricades around the Supreme Soviet, stormed the main television channel, and wreaked havoc across downtown Moscow, without, however, unseating Yeltsin or gaining control of the airwaves. Dozens were killed, and Yeltsin declared a state of emergency, promising to crush the “fascist-communist armed rebellion.”

I lived in a ratty, one-room apartment in southern Moscow and was holed up writing my first book, Siberian Dawn. I had come to the center of town that day to buy a foreign newspaper in a hotel across the river and a few blocks east of the Supreme Soviet. Once out of the metro, I saw crowds gathering on the waterside promenade, and trusting that snipers’ bullets fired from quarters unseen (occasioning at times lethal results and spates of panic among the spectators) would not hit me, I followed them. The tanks opened fire, and the Supreme Soviet’s middle floors exploded in concrete dust and flames and belched black smoke. Troops later stormed the building and led out the dazed deputies and their leaders, who had been huddling in the basement. Officially, 200 died, but Communist sources put the figure in the thousands. It was hard to know what to believe. One thing was clear: not since the 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power had such violence shaken the city.

The coup attempt—the second in two years—was over. But I did not seriously consider leaving Moscow. It had long been my dream to live in Russia. Though Muscovite friends expressed shame over the shelling (How could we have come to this? We’re not a Third World country!), we were all happy that Yeltsin had prevailed over forces perceived to be at best antidemocratic and at worst fascist (in the Russian sense, meaning extremely nationalistic and prone to violence). But for the next two weeks a curfew kept us confined to our apartments at night. The curfew did not mean peace and quiet. Every evening, soon after it came into effect, automatic rifle fire and shouting of indeterminable origin reached us from the ill-lit streets below. Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen by birth, was said to have quartered Chechen guerrillas throughout the city, and Yeltsin’s army was purportedly hunting them down. On hearing screams from the alley behind our building, one of my neighbors looked out her window and was almost shot; after that, I stayed away from the windows. At times troops would enter our stairwell, pound on doors and demand to be let in, presumably in search of hiding insurgents. “We won’t open! Go away!” shouted my neighbors. They did go away.

Thus ended Russia’s last, brief experiment with unfettered democracy. The lesson to be drawn could not be clearer: here, freedom equals anarchy. Accordingly, Yeltsin and his advisers drafted a new constitution that would, once adopted in December 1993, turn Russia into the ultrapresidential republic it is today, with the head of state wielding powers befitting a tsar and no real competition from the legislature. The office of vice president, too threatening to the chief executive, was abolished. Yet broadly speaking, Yeltsin did not use his authority to restrict civil society, interfere with the media, or even persecute his opponents. (Within months, he freed from prison the men who tried to overthrow him.) Rather, he resolutely hewed to pro-Western policies, in both domestic and foreign affairs. At summits in Russia and elsewhere he openly chummed it up with President Bill Clinton to the extent that he came to be seen by some as a stooge of the West. The rest of the 1990s was anarchic, a time when anything was possible. But if millions suffered hardship, a good many made fortunes, licit and illicit; and Russians at least started to join the modern world.

The October 1993 rebellion scarred Yeltsin, who became heavily reliant on his security personnel. Always a heavy drinker, he began appearing intoxicated in public, even on nightly news broadcasts; his slurred baritone verbiage, his boozy teetering at state events, his tipsy antics (grabbing a baton from the conductor of a band in Germany, his ungainly, if heartfelt, on-stage dancing) transmogrified him, in the eyes of most Russians, from a democratic savior into a risible cynosure of national shame.

Not that they lacked other reasons to resent him. The privatization schemes Yeltsin oversaw stripped the state of its assets and handed them to insiders, turning, overnight, a number of them into “oligarchs” while impoverishing millions and depriving the government of funds with which to pay salaries and pensions. Worse, the Russian economy depended, as it does now, preponderantly on revenues from hydrocarbon exports. During Yeltsin’s tenure, oil prices sank to historic lows—just above $10 a barrel—which further depleted state coffers. Then, as social tensions and lawlessness increased, Russia’s economy reached a nadir in 1998 with a national default and the collapse of the ruble. It was hardly the best way to segue into presidential elections, scheduled for 2000.

Would Yeltsin, whose approval rating had plunged to two percent, run again? His only serious contender was the Communist Party chief, whose victory would certainly result in chaos and might spark civil war. With democracy (at least as Russians knew it) discredited, a bankrupt government, a besotted leader, and an ever-angrier populace, catastrophe loomed. But of just what sort, no one could say.

Apprehensions mounted, and as it turned out, they were justified. In August 1999 Yeltsin appointed as prime minister a short, sullen, obscure colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB) who had headed Russia’s chief spy agency. Vladimir Putin did not appear to be presidential material, to put it mildly; one friend shook her head and declared to me, “Such a man can never be our leader. We need a real muzhik in the Kremlin, or no one will respect the presidency.”

They did, though, get their muzhik (real man). A month later nighttime terrorist apartment bombings rocked Moscow (and two other cities), killing almost 300 people. The bombings crisis and the repeat Russian invasion of Chechnya (Chechen terrorists were popularly held responsible) gave Putin a chance to prove himself on the national stage, even as evidence seemed to link the FSB to the explosions. (An official investigation eventually laid the blame on an ethnic Karachay and Arabs reportedly linked to Al Qaeda.) Once again, there were rumors of uprisings and talk of revolt. The country seemed about to come apart.

But what about the elections?

I was watching television on the afternoon of December 31, 1999, when the network interrupted programming: Yeltsin would deliver an address. Something big was up: the president usually spoke before midnight, wishing Russians a happy new year just before the Kremlin bells sounded. The camera showed him seated before a New Year’s tree looking bloated. His speech seemingly impaired, he announced, wheezing, “Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am resigning. I’ve heard people say Yeltsin will hang on to power by any means, he’ll never hand it over to anyone. That’s a lie. … We’re setting the very important precedent of a civilized, voluntary transfer of power from one Russian president to another. … I’m leaving before my term ends. … Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians.” And with one newly minted politician in particular, “a strong person worthy of being president, one to whom almost every Russian ties his hopes for the future … Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

Startlingly, Yeltsin asked for forgiveness for all that had gone wrong and wished everyone a happy new year. The screen then faded to black, and Russia’s first president, from that moment on, began fading into history, rarely to be seen or heard about until his death in April 2007. But he would be remembered as the first president, general secretary, or tsar in Russian history to resign voluntarily. Later that day, Putin rang in the new year in a televised address, asserting, grimly, that there would be no vacuum of power and warning that any attempts to subvert the law or the constitutional order would be suppressed.

That many Russians had simultaneously come to support the former spymaster and quietly blame his former agency for the bombings hardly seemed paradoxical by then. Post-Soviet Russia had proved an almost impossible country to govern; presumably, only a ruler as cunning as Putin could succeed at the task. In any case, Russia’s crisis-battered people wanted stability above all and did not necessarily associate it with the rule of law, something they had never known. Wearied by the chaotic Yeltsin years, Russians showed scant appetite for further politics. This would change only after Putin and his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, announced (offensively to so many, as if the electorate had no say) in September 2011 that they would swap jobs, just before tainted elections to the State Duma that brought crowds of angry demonstrators onto the streets.

Putin soon benefited mightily, even fatefully, from macroeconomic trends beyond his control. When he assumed the presidency in 2000, Russia’s gross domestic product stood at a trillion dollars. Since then, GDP and per capita incomes have doubled, changes mostly attributable to an exponential growth in the price of Russia’s chief export commodities—oil and gas. The last traces of the dark, gritty, post-Soviet Moscow of the 1990s disappeared amid glitter and garish flashing lights, including those atop the black Volvos carrying the newly rich past Bolotnaya Square; housing complexes with palatial dachas began appearing throughout the suburbs; a surfeit of expensive restaurants opened; and Russians, not just the wealthy, but the middle class, started flocking to resorts on the Mediterranean, in the Seychelles and the Maldives. With standards of living continually rising, Putin, as he steered Russia back to authoritarian governance, managed to maintain a popularity rating, year after year, of 60 to 70 percent. The grim colonel of 1999 was gone, replaced by a tongue-lashing ruler as admired and buff as he was cheerless.

The State Duma elections of 2011 upended everything: young Muscovites (mostly), outraged over instances of apparent fraud documented on various social networks, took to the streets, and a diverse array of opposition leaders followed. Which led to Shevchuk’s soulful performance on Bolotnaya Square. But there was one obvious problem: no opposition figure had managed to establish primacy, and almost none were sufficiently known outside Moscow (and St. Petersburg). Behind such disunity, some Russians—forgivably—saw the specter of disorder rise should Putin be forced out.

Today, eight months after an anti-Putin rally in May turned violent (seemingly because of police action) on the day before Putin’s inauguration, the opposition movement has stalled, with some of its leaders mired in lawsuits launched by the authorities, others simply having returned to the sidelines. Few outsiders seem to care. Starting last summer, the State Duma went on a xenophobic legislative spree aimed at hitting back at the United States, which Putin accused of funding the demonstrators of the previous year. It passed laws raising fines on demonstrators more than a hundredfold, labeling NGOs engaged in political activity “foreign agents,” prohibiting NGOs from employing directors with U.S. nationality, felonizing defamation, allowing the authorities to block “harmful” websites, and even banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans. The Russian government has also terminated USAID’s 20-year presence, turned down American funds for further nuclear arms reductions, and ended cooperation in crime fighting.

This may all be bad, but however much Duma deputies lambaste the United States on the airwaves, no anti-American hysteria has seized the population. No aura of crisis exists. The economy continues to grow, if sporadically. Stores are full; restaurants do brisk business. Most Russians want above all for the government to leave them alone, and so far it has. Still, long-term trends are worsening, with the population shrinking, corruption now sapping as much as a third of GDP, little investment going into infrastructure, and Russia’s hydrocarbon revenues threatened by increased U.S. gas production (thanks to fracking) and the return of Iraqi oil to world markets. Since late 2010 Putin’s popularity has steadily fallen and currently stands, according to the Levada-Center, a Russian polling organization, at 25 percent. It’s hard to imagine that he will complete his six-year term, but it is equally difficult to envision a scenario that would force his early departure.

If I’ve lost the hope I felt on Bolotnaya Square last year, I do not share the pervasive Russian fatalism. The late Russian historian Nicholas Riasanovsky has given me reason for calm. In an edition of his seminal A History of Russia, written, I believe, during the Brezhnev stagnation years—a time when no one, despite obvious, deepening flaws in the Soviet system, could imagine how it could ever change—Riasanovsky wrote that history has a way of advancing, even when historians are baffled as to how.

I agree. Bolotnaya Square is calm now, but maybe not for long.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of seven books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind and River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.


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