Putin’s War in Ukraine Shatters an Illusion in Russia

The last time I was in Russia, in the summer of 2015, I found myself faced with a contradiction. What if a place was not free, but also happy? How long could it stay like this?

Moscow had become a beautiful European city, full of meticulously planted parks, cycle paths and parking spaces. The average Russian’s income has increased significantly over the past decade. At the same time, its political system was moving closer and closer to authoritarianism.

Fifteen years earlier, Boris Yeltsin had left power in shame, apologizing on national television “for having failed to justify the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to make a leap from a totalitarian past dark and stagnant to a bright and prosperous past. and a civilized future all at once.

By the summer of 2015, his successor, President Vladimir V. Putin, had seemingly made Russia bright and prosperous. The political system he built was increasingly restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.

Many Russian liberals had gone to work for nonprofits and local governments, embarking on community building — making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 had failed and people were looking for other ways to shape their country. Big politics was hopeless, it was thought, but real difference could be made in small acts.

There was another side to this deal: Mr. Putin was also apparently coerced. Political action may have been forbidden, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, for example religion, culture and many forms of expression. His own calculation for the system to work well meant he had to make room for society.

I lived in Russia for nine years and started covering it for The New York Times in 2000, the year Mr. Putin was first elected. I spent a lot of time telling people – in public writings and in my private life – that Russia might seem bad at times, but it also had a lot of wonderful qualities.

But in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, I felt like I saw someone I love lose their minds. Many Russian liberals who had turned to “small acts” also feel a sense of shock and horror, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a Russian anthropologist.

“I see a lot of posts and conversations saying these little acts, it was a big mistake,” she said. “People have a metaphor. They say, “We were trying to make cosmetic changes to our faces, as the cancer grew and grew in our stomachs.”

I started to wonder if Russia would always end up here, and we just didn’t see it. So I called Yevgeniya Albats, a Russian journalist who had warned of the dangers of a KGB resurgence as early as the 1990s. Ms. Albats kept fixing the idea that at certain points in history, everything is at stake in political thought and action. She had long maintained that any deal with Mr. Putin was an illusion.

She said 2008 was a turning point, when Mr. Putin divorced the West, even invaded another country, and the West barely noticed.

“For Putin, it was a clear sign,” she said by phone last month, “that he can do whatever he wants. And that’s exactly what he started doing. He behaved extremely rationally. He just realized you don’t care.

She was referring to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which came shortly after President George W. Bush began talking about Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO. I covered this war and spent the night with a Russian unit in the Georgian town of Gori and I remember how the soldiers seemed invigorated, laughing, joking. The Soviet defeat in the Cold War had left a bitter sense of humiliation and loss. The invasion seemed to have renewed them.

“When Putin arrived, everything changed,” an officer told me. “We have regained some of our old strength. People started to respect us again.

Ms. Albats looked tired but determined. On the day we spoke, she had traveled to a Russian penal colony to witness the sentencing of her friend Aleksei A. Navalny, the leader of Russia’s popular opposition, who used his allotted time to deliver a speech against the war.

“We now understand that when Putin decided to go to war in Ukraine, he had to get rid of Navalny,” she said, as he is the only one with the courage to resist.

Indeed, Mr. Navalny never agreed to turn away from direct confrontation and was building a nationwide opposition movement, driving people to the streets. He rejected the deal and was ready to go to jail to challenge it.

Mr Arkhipova stressed that her mantra, that the fight was not good versus evil but good versus neutral, was a direct challenge to the political passivity that Mr Putin was calling for.

Many people I interviewed said that Mr. Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and his incarceration in early 2021, after years of freedom, marked the end of the social contract and the start of Mr. Putin’s war. Like the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud by Al-Qaeda on the eve of September 11, 2001, Mr. Putin had to clear the field of opponents.

Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, says it was the success of the political opposition, which began to gain momentum in 2018 and 2019, that tipped Mr. Putin towards war.

Professor Yudin said it was inconceivable to Mr Putin that there could be people inside Russia who wanted the best for their country, while being against it. So he searched for traitors and harbored an obsession that the West was after him.

“It’s a feature of this type of diet,” Professor Yudin said. “It recodes internal dissent into external threats.”

As for my question from 2015 – how long can a place be unfree and this happy – maybe we have experienced the answer. A lot of liberals left. Many of those who did not leave risk fines or even prison. In the weeks following the invasion, police arrested more than 15,000 people across the country, according to human rights group OVD-Info, a number significantly higher than during protests in 2012, where around 5,000 people were detained for 12 months, Ms Arkhipova said. , who studied this movement.

Ms Albats stayed and is angry with Russian liberals who did not.

The message, she said, is that “Russian liberals, they have zero tolerance for trouble.” She added: “They just ran away.”

At the same time, she says, it’s an extremely difficult choice. “In choosing between jail and not jail, I’d rather not choose jail,” Ms. Albats said, adding that she already faces thousands of dollars in fines just for reporting on the war.

Mr. Yudin said the choice was difficult because the crackdown was complete and because the political opposition was now pulverized.

“The best comparison is Germany in 1939,” he said. “What kind of democratic movement would you expect there? It’s the same thing. People are basically trying to save their lives right now.

Not everyone, of course. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, a research group that tracks Russian public opinion, told me that about two-thirds of people nationwide approve of Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

“This is a less educated and older part of the population, living mainly in rural areas or in small and medium towns, where the population is poorer and more dependent on electricity,” he said. he said, referring to those who depend on public services. funds like pensions and government jobs. “They also get all of their reality building exclusively from television.”

He points out that “if you look at 20 years of our research since Putin came to power, then peaks in support for Putin and his popularity have always coincided with military campaigns.”

One such campaign was the war in Chechnya, a particularly brutal submission of a population that in 1999 was Mr. Putin’s signature act before he was elected president for the first time. We are beginning to see some of the hallmarks of this war in Ukraine: bodies with their hands tied, mass graves, stories of torture. In Chechnya, the result was the systematic elimination of anyone connected with the fight against Russia. It is too early to say whether this was the intention in Bucha.

Now the market is broken, the illusion is shattered. And the country is plunged into a new phase. But what is it? Mr Yudin argues that Russia is moving from authoritarianism – where political passivity and civic disengagement are key features – towards totalitarianism, which relies on mass mobilization, terror and homogeneity of beliefs . He thinks Mr Putin is on the brink, but may be hesitant to make the switch.

“In a totalitarian system, you have to release free energy to trigger terror,” he said. Mr Putin, he said, “is a control freak, accustomed to micromanagement”.

However, if the Russian state begins to crumble, either through a collapse of the Russian economy or a complete military defeat in Ukraine, “unleashing terror will be the only way for him to save himself.”

This is why the current situation is so dangerous, for Ukraine and for the Russians opposed to Mr. Putin.

“Putin is so convinced that he cannot afford to lose, that he will escalate,” Professor Yudin said. “He bet everything on it.”