Is Vladimir Putin's Russia Reverting to Soviet Times?

Rafal Milach

When the history of Russia's next revolution is written, Vladimir Putin's decision last month to return to the Kremlin will surely mark the point where it all began. Before the prime minister's announcement of his 2012 presidential bid, Russia had a chance—a slim one—of eventually becoming a functional democracy where regimes change through the ballot box. With Putin's return, Russia tips inexorably toward becoming just another petro-dictatorship whose regime is propped up by oil money and repression. This is a fateful moment in Russian history, because suddenly it's more likely that change, when it does come, will arrive from outside, not inside, the system. "Revolution is now inevitable," says blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny. "Maybe in five months, maybe in two years, maybe in seven years."

After the Putin news broke, Photoshop jokers posted images of Putin in 2024—the date when his likely two next presidential terms will come to an end—as a jowly, Brezhnev-like figure in a uniform studded with self-awarded medals. "The return of Putin means long years of Brezhnev-style stagnation," says Eduard Boyakov, director of Moscow's avant-garde Praktika Theater. The parallel is an apt one. After the oil crisis of 1973, the Soviet Union, then as now the world's biggest oil producer, was flush with cash that covered up the catastrophic dysfunction of the Soviet economy and allowed the Communist Party elite to enrich itself. Apparatchiks pretended to believe in the lofty principles of communism as they built themselves villas and rode luxury yachts. Meanwhile, the KGB ruthlessly squashed any signs of opposition and rewarded conformist writers and filmmakers with places at the trough. Substitute "democracy" for "communism" and "FSB" for "KGB," and you're back to the future.

Pity the outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev and those who believed in his reformist message. Like the tragic hero from a Russian novel, Medvedev saw his country's doom all too clearly—but was unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it. "Should Russia continue to drag into the future our primitive raw-materials economy, endemic corruption, and inveterate habit of relying on the state, foreign countries or some all-powerful doctrine to solve our problems?" Medvedev wrote on the Kremlin's blog in the early days of his presidential career. Yet instead of fixing the problem by jailing corrupt officials and stimulating real economic growth, Medvedev just talked. During his four years in power, corruption grew to a staggering one third of Russia's GDP, or $300 billion a year, according to Russia's Anti-Corruption Committee, an NGO. At the same time, resentment of thieving bureaucrats and dysfunctional government has only grown. Polls show that Russians harbor a deep distrust of just about every state institution, from the police (distrusted by 78 percent of the population) to bureaucrats (a whopping 99 percent of respondents said they didn't believe officials' income declarations).

"There is a huge negative energy among the public ready to explode any moment," says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel and Duma deputy from the opposition Fair Russia party. "To relieve this increasing aggression Russia urgently needs free debate—but that will weaken the Kremlin." In other words, Putin and his circle have "eaten so much power and money" that they can't afford to allow real democracy or dissent for fear of being brought to account—and losing their money and freedom. "Reform is dangerous for Putin," says Gudkov. "Because he is the creator of the system and he is now its hostage."

Medvedev, in a particularly cruel piece of political theater, announced the end of his career in front of orchestrated crowds at the annual conference of United Russia, Putin's pet party. But even more cruel was Medvedev's admission that he and Putin had agreed as early as 2007 that the older man would return in 2012 (the Russian Constitution bans more than two consecutive presidential terms, so Putin stood down in 2008). Putin loyalists like Nikita Borovikov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement, are delighted at the return of a "super-effective manager who is focused on the needs of society"—and at the end of Medvedev's experiment with liberalism. Nashi also seems to welcome a return to the cult of personality. To celebrate Putin's 59th birthday last week, 1,500 Nashi members lined up and sang a birthday song to please him.

It's likely that Putin 2.0 will be, if anything, more repressive that the first version. "Nobody changes at the age of 60; Putin will eventually develop into a tougher dictator and run Russia the way [Hosni] Mubarak ran Egypt or [Muammar] Gaddafi Libya," says former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, now an opposition leader. "Russia is entering a destructive stage of its history that will cause the country to fall apart." Last week, in what looked very much like a manifesto for his third and fourth terms, Putin published an article calling for a "Eurasian Union" based on Russia's fledgling customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Medvedev tried to talk up democracy and reform—but polls show that the general public would prefer to go back to the U.S.S.R. Russians overwhelmingly favor "order" over democracy by nearly five to one. And the corrupt practices of Duma parties in the 1990s—high jinks like selling parliamentary seats to mafia bosses, for instance, or voting to give themselves apartments, cars, and sinecures—gave democracy itself a bad name. An attempt by Medvedev's team to create a pseudoliberal party headed by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov this summer was summarily stamped out by Putin loyalists. It was a clear signal that more dissent would not be tolerated.

"We are going to see a different Putin from the Putin we saw in 2000 or 2008," says Alexei Venediktov, the director of the radio program Echo of Moscow, who interacts with Putin personally on a regular basis. "I can see that an authoritarian style of rule is closer to him than any other." He also remains, very firmly, a Homo Sovieticus. Putin famously doesn't use a computer and, says Venediktov, "despises" the Internet because it "enlarges the zone of free thought for Russian society and changes people." As for the media, Putin sees it as "an instrument of a dictator's communication with the public."

Why, if his instincts are so authoritarian, does Putin bother with maintaining the charade of democracy at all? Those who know him well say that one reason he remains attached to the forms—though obviously not the practice—of democracy is sentimental. It's easy to forget that for all his later crackdowns on liberty, Putin was originally the protégé of two great Russian democrats, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and President Boris Yeltsin, and remains a close personal friend of the Yeltsin family. Paying lip service to democracy is part of Putin's "personal moral debt" to the men who put him in power, according to one former member of the Yeltsin inner circle who remains close to Putin.

As for the practicalities of Russia's fake democracy, look no further than East Germany, where Putin spent the formative years of his KGB career in the 1980s. The Democratic Republic of Germany had political parties, contested elections, and a Parliament—all under the watchful eye of the Communist Party, who approved all "parties" and candidates. As the German Communist leader Walter Ulbricht put it, "Everything has to look democratic, but it should be under our control." Putin took that principle very much to heart. Vanity, too, plays a part. Being a member of the world's top democratic club is a key part of the self-image of Russia's leaders. To keep Russia's place at the top table of the G8, Russia needs to preserve at least a semblance of democracy.

What Putin doesn't rate is the real utility of democracy—a safety valve for social tension and a mechanism for essential feedback on government policy. As Medvedev put it, "Democracy is not an abstract value, it's an effective management system." Putin apparently disagrees. Real democracy—along with a free press and independent courts—would allow corrupt and incompetent officials to potentially be brought to account. That would clearly undermine the very basis of Putin's power, built on a vertically integrated pyramid of bureaucrats who pass money up the chain and receive protection in return. Hence the "managed" democracy cooked up by Kremlin ideologues early in the Putin era, guided by the words of Ulbricht.

A real opposition that refuses to cooperate with the Kremlin still exists but is tiny and marginal and hasn't had any seats in the Duma for years. Figures like former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov are banned from state-owned TV channels, their parties poll in single digits, and their meetings are regularly busted up by overwhelming police force. More effective dissent has been achieved by people with no explicit political agenda—ecological activist Yevgenia Chirikova, for instance, who successfully led a rebellion of Muscovites against the clear-cutting of a greenbelt forest to make way for a new road. Or the blogger Navalny, who began publishing documents and details of outrageous government corruption, and whose site now attracts leaks, information, and donations from hundreds of thousands of citizens disgusted by the thieving of government employees.

Meanwhile, the authorities' attempts to bump up United Russia's poll numbers in the run-up to Duma elections in December range from the farcical to the grotesque. Cheesy publicity stunts have been cooked up: a "Congress of Blondes," for instance, is to be held in the Kremlin's favorite resort city of Sochi in support of Putin. Support has been drummed up in true Soviet style: last month 200 students of Moscow's Maimonides State Jewish Academy found themselves lined up in a concert hall. The rector asked all those "brave enough" to refuse joining Putin's All-Russia People's Front to step forward and explain their reasons to the whole university. Only 15 did.

Many members of the elite—including senior members of the government—realize that crushing dissent is foolish and self-defeating. "A crackdown will sooner or later make people want to revolt," says Sen. Alexander Pochinok. "To avoid that it would be logical to have normal democratic elections—everybody in the Kremlin understands that."

But what's really shocking is how many Russians—even smart, educated ones—welcome the idea of Putin's return. Indeed, the key disconnect between Russians and foreigners lies in this: seen from the West, Russia could be so much better. Seen from Russia, through the wreckage of empire and totalitarianism, it could be so much worse. "Probably we do not have perfect democracy, but we do have a kind of democracy, albeit with our own national characteristics," says United Russia Duma deputy Robert Schlegel, the youngest Duma member and a former Nashi commissar. "Only 20 years ago we had a totalitarian regime in Russia. If we let people decide who they want to rule them, the majority would choose Stalin."

The depressing thing is that Schlegel is probably right. In 2009, during an infamous TV phone-in to select the Hero of Russia, Stalin was chosen by a wide margin (the true results were suppressed on Kremlin orders). Debating why the Russian people are so allegedly backward, masochistic, and reactionary has been a favorite dinner-table conversation topic among Russia's intelligentsia for a couple of centuries now, with no definitive answer in sight. Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent analyst, puts Russia's political development "somewhere between a stone age of slaves and the developed feudalism with weak signs of the first bourgeoisie." But the point is that it remains an article of faith among today's elite that Russia's people are, in the words of one minister close to Putin, "not ready" to be given real power. "Look what happened in 1993 and 1995," he says: two years when Russian voters elected rabid ultranationalists and then Communists into Parliament.

Above all, Putin's return is an admission that post-Soviet Russia has failed to create functional state institutions. It's also the sign of a failure of nerve—when confronted with even as small a challenge as Prokhorov's tame liberals, Putin's circle panicked. Clearly, the system Putin created is incapable of bearing even a few pounds per square inch of real dissent. Putin's return changes nothing about the way Russia is run today. But the return of Russia's once and future tsar changes everything about Russia's future—which now bears a chilling resemblance to its past, repression and revolution included.