In August, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin marked 20 years since he was appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin. Those 20 years have been a slow-motion demonstration of power consolidation, giving rise to the myth of Putin as omnipotent strongman. For two decades, whatever happened in Russia, good or bad—whether it was a war, a terror attack, the Sochi Olympics, or the annexation of a neighboring country’s territory—the credit or blame lay with Vladimir Putin.
As of this summer, that sense of Putin’s omnipotence has been badly damaged.
In July and August, Moscow citizens took to the streets in massive numbers over rigged elections for the Moscow City legislature, the largest unauthorized protests since 2011-2012. The National Guard, a branch of the security services established in April 2016 especially for the repression of domestic unrest, was dispatched to Moscow to beat and arrest thousands of young women and men, all protesting peacefully.
Police brutality made international headlines, as did the immediate trials and sentences for the participants in the protests. Six people have so far been sentenced to up to six years in prison for supposedly assaulting the police, for rioting, and even for tweeting. A teen with cerebral palsy was hauled away. A graphic designer went out jogging, and National Guard troops grabbed him and broke his leg. The man was fined $150. Another Muscovite was sentenced to four years in prison for taking part in multiple unauthorized protests—no violence is alleged. Moscow actor Pavel Ustinov was grabbed and beaten by five police officers while standing near a Metro station. A judge sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for assaulting a police officer and allegedly twisting his shoulder. (Video of the incident tells a different story: the policeman appears to have injured himself in trying to get his blows in.)
Police brutality is nothing new in Russia, even if this time it was particularly egregious. Nor is miscarriage of justice surprising, even though the speed at which it was miscarried this time around is notable. What is new is that the figure of the singular strongman responsible for everything has been replaced in the Russian popular understanding with a vision of a regime run by a whole slew of siloviki—strongmen with ties to the security services.
As he usually does during a crisis, Putin had disappeared from Moscow—a self-serving trick he has honed for decades. While the first round of protests was getting going, Putin bobbed to the surface of the Gulf of Finland in his mini-submarine. A week later, he was seen riding a motorcycle with a sidecar in Crimea alongside his favorite right-wing biker gang, the “Night Wolves.”
Russian political experts, journalists, and think tankers obsessed over the chain of command surrounding the brutality. On whose orders was the head of the National Guard Viktor Zolotov acting? Was it the head of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and his friends in the FSB that were in charge of operations in Moscow? Among more connected figures, the speculation was that Patrushev’s faction had taken too much authority for itself.
Putin’s former spin-master Gleb Pavlovsky joked that Putin was perhaps in Crimea against his own will—a reference to the 1991 coup against Gorbachev. But while Pavlovsky is no longer close to power, a comment from a daughter of Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov raised eyebrows around town. “Perhaps all this absurd injustice and the outrageous behavior of the siloviki amounts to an attempt to commit something like a coup,” Liza Peskova wrote in her blog on the Echo of Moscow website, which was later deleted.
Of course, there was no coup, and Putin was (and is) still very much in charge. But the tone of the speculation pointed to a realization broadly permeating Russia these days—that Putin’s days are finite, even if his exit may not be imminent. This realization seems to have triggered a kind of grappling with the reality of just what kind of political system almost 20 years of Putinism has left in its wake.
There was notable dissent to the government violence at some surprisingly high levels. The most prominent critic was Sergei Chemezov, a pal of Putin’s from their time together in Dresden in the 1980s and currently the head of Rostec, the (sanctioned) gigantic state conglomerate that services the Russian defense industry. As the protests were raging, he weighed in against the regime’s heavy-handedness. “Having a sane opposition benefits any representative body and ultimately the entire country. There ought to be an alternative force that points things out and sends out signals to the other side,” the usually politically reticent Chemezov said. “If we think everything is always going well, we can slip into a period of stagnation—and we’ve been there before,” he added, presumably referring to the Brezhnev period.
A long-time insider, the Editor-in-Chief of Echo of Moscow radio Alexey Venediktov, explained it as a split between the hardliners and the status quo types—between people like Patrushev, the head of Rosneft Igor Sechin, and the speaker of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin on the one side, and Chemezov, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and Sberbank CEO German Gref on the other. Factional squabbles under Putin are not a new feature of Russian politics. But the contours of this split this time around are more visceral—between predator and prey—and extend beyond just the elites.
In the early 2010s, there used to be a relatively clear ideological division in the Kremlin between “conservatives” and “liberals.” The former group stood behind Putin, then the Prime Minister, while the latter were on then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s side. At home, the liberals favored market reforms. In foreign policy, they managed the “reset” with President Obama and cooperated with the United States on Libya at the United Nations. These were the people who the Muscovite creative class and some business executives saw as the future of Russia.
But Putin came back in 2012 and reversed many of the trends that had started under Medvedev. Instead of reforming the economy, he turned more statist. And abroad, he ended up annexing Crimea and breaking decisively with the West. Putin’s return meant the liberals were sidelined, silenced, or simply forced to change sides. The hardliners that had gathered around Putin—gray specters with backgrounds in the security services like Sechin and Patrushev—suddenly became the only game left in town.
But enthusiasm over the Crimea annexation, as well as solidarity over the hardship imposed by Western sanctions and low oil prices, started to break down. Although wealth was no longer being imported into Russia, appetites did not shrink. There was too little to go around for too many grasping hands. Fights over the remaining assets picked up in intensity, especially after 2015. The siloviki, who in the early 2000s were merely the means of shaking down opponents, became independent players themselves, arresting, attacking, and imprisoning with impunity. Their victims were both ordinary Russians and high-level elites: billionaires, bankers, federal ministers, federal senators, governors, businessmen, a theater director—you name it.
The rapacious appetites of the siloviki caused Putin to break the social compact he had made with Russians in the early 2000s: in exchange for his largely unchecked power, he promised them stability and at least a modicum of prosperity (financed by record-high oil prices). The beneficiaries were both average Russians who enjoyed a trickle-down effect, and connected elites who got Putin’s protection and profited from state largesse. This breach of contract, and the shift of power to the siloviki, helps define the new split. The fault line runs along economic class lines, between a corrupt elite and the common man. But it also separates the siloviki clans from their victims, some of who are indeed quite well off. As the case of the Magomedov brothers proves, even financing Vladimir Putin’s Night Hockey League doesn’t keep one safe from the FSB and out of prison.
While the siloviki had been looting, Putin was legitimating his rule by leveraging mythic concepts: he promised a strong Russia, Russia-as-a-Great-Power, Russia as a nuclear-armed empire, a Russia that is taking back lands that belong to it. The only concept he retained largely unchanged from the 2000s is that of himself as a strong leader. But after 20 years in power, mythology without results is wearing thin. The younger generation is increasingly lost to him. Russia’s Generation Z, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, doesn’t remember the oil-fueled “good times” of the late 2000s. They do, however, remember Black Tuesday in December 2014, when the Russian ruble lost half of its value as a result of sanctions and cratering oil prices. To them, Crimea is not a triumphant revival of Russian greatness, but rather the reason their lives got worse.
Even millennials—those who were the driving force of the 2011-2012 protests, and whose life circumstances have not measurably improved unless they chose to work for the government—have also once again started to express their discontent and anger over what’s going on in Russia. The above-mentioned sentencing of Ustinov has prompted a major public campaign among celebrities and television personalities, even those usually loyal to the government given that they work for state media, with many making viral videos demanding the release not only of Ustinov but all political prisoners. Hundreds of celebrities picketed before the Presidential Administration offices last week. And Moscow school teachers and medical workers, both jobs that are paid by the state, wrote, separately, two open letters calling for justice.
And the discontent may be wider than just the younger, working generation. The Russian Orthodox Church, one of the least independent institutions of the Putin era, promised to study whether the rights of the Moscow case defendants were violated, after more than 50 priests wrote an open letter protesting the harsh sentences being meted out.
It’s perhaps most telling that people in Putin’s own inner circle now freely discuss Putin’s political future. The above-mentioned Sergey Chemezov, in the very same interview cited above, suggested that Putin would retire in 2024 because the Constitution doesn’t allow him to get re-elected. It’s not that Chemezov is preparing a revolution or a coup, but it’s just that it has always been up to Putin alone to decide what to do and how, especially when it comes to his own fate. Usually, the elites are silent while the Great Leader issues cryptic statements on the matter.
Vladimir Putin is only a third of the way through his fourth term, but he already has his hands full. The protests in 2011-2012 may have been bigger, but they were narrower: back then, it was mostly Moscow’s creative class out in the streets, people whose basic needs were mostly being met but who wanted more political freedom. Today, oil is trading at almost half the price it was then, and sanctions are in place. As a result, the discontent is felt all over the country. They are protesting in Shiyes over landfills, in Buryatia over rigged local elections, and in Ekaterinburg over the building of a church. And everywhere, authorities are dispatching National Guard troops to crack down on protesters.
Needless to say, there are no carrots left—only sticks.