Ellen Hinsey

Putin Cracks Down: The Russian Presidential Election and Its Aftermath

issuu logo PDF view



1. MARCH 2012

When I arrived in Moscow, a week before the March 4 presidential election, it was below zero and winter was grinding to a close. At midday the downtown was completely tied up—lines and lines of cars were stalled in one of the city’s eternal traffic jams. The advancing tires slowly churned a black sea of slyakot—a tenacious type of slush—that splashed on BMWs and tinted-glass luxury cars, as well as on the capital’s poorer pedestrians’ boots. For security reasons, Lenin’s tomb on Red Square was closed; a single soldier in uniform paced back and forth in the snow. A few streets away, a piercing wind circled the Lubyanka, the former home of the KGB and now headquarters to its successor, the FSB—the Russian Security Forces—and still a working prison.

But beyond the season’s familiar features, there was a feeling of something unexpected in the air. In Moscow, every conversation I had began with a discussion of the last four months of large-scale demonstrations, initially called as a response to the highly contested December 4, 2011, Russian parliamentary elections. The most symbolic event had taken place on December 10, 2011, at Bolotnaya Square. This gathering was followed by some of the biggest political protests Russia had seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Muscovites said that something extraordinary had happened: during the winter they regained a sense of pride and solidarity. Crowds wedged shoulder to shoulder in the cold, or linked arms to create a human ring around the city and the Kremlin, participants wearing white ribbons to symbolize a demand for fair elections and a new era in Russian democracy.

These demonstrations were organized largely by a generation of activists in their twenties and early thirties. Having grown up after the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991, they are an internationally educated and well-traveled group. For them, the initial protests were a reflection of frustration that had been growing over the last ten years. Following a decade of relative economic stability and the rise of the internet, they felt it was time for Russia to start being a “normal” democracy. In the wake of the rigged December elections they had been able to assemble a movement quickly using social media. The December 10 Facebook initiative, “Saturday at Bolotnaya Square,” was attended by fifty thousand people. 1

By the time the second major event had taken place on December 24, 2011, at Academician Sakharov Avenue, a number of spokespersons for the opposition had begun to emerge. This included a mixture of new and familiar faces: Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov, and Garry Kasparov. Other speakers at that gathering included Kseniya Sobchak—daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak—and the writer Dmitry Bykov. Despite fears of police repression, these demonstrations unfolded without incident, and the absence of violence encouraged the activists. By the time of the third protest on February 4, 2012—which included a march from Kaluzhskaya Square to Bolotnaya Square under the banner of the “For Fair Elections” movement—there were 120,000 people. 2

This said, despite the buzz of something important happening in Moscow—as well as in St. Petersburg and a number of other cities—before the March presidential election, the capital was also caught up in business as usual. In Russian politics, “business as usual” is shorthand for what both supporters and detractors call the “Putin System,” i.e., the extremely complex power structure associated with thirteen years of Vladimir Putin’s governance, including his first term as Prime Minister (1999–2000), his two terms as president (2000–2004, 2004–2008), and a new term as Prime Minister (2008–2012). More generally it refers to the centralization and personalization of power—the “power vertical”—that has emerged, not only under Putin but during the country’s “transition to democracy” over the past two decades. No one underestimates the nature of this command structure: its far-reaching scope fuses political power and business interests in a Gordian knot. Yet despite this, even many of the terminally pessimistic, shoulder-shrugging Moscovites felt in March that Russian society was on the verge of something different—though what that might mean was not entirely clear.

The Kremlin, as one might imagine, was worried about all this. In the run-up to the election, government-controlled media outlets like NTV were anxious to convince everyone that the president still enjoyed a high approval rating and that the protests reflected only the views of a small percentage of the population; and also that those who participated in such rallies were not the most loyal or “Russian” of the electorate. The official press had voters divided into two asymmetrical camps: the majority of the population—particularly older voters and those living outside the large cities—were said to be primarily concerned with the traumatic legacy of the 1990s, a period of significant destabilization, including hyperinflation, the inability to assure salaries, vanished savings and pensions, and an absence of law enforcement. This was heavily played upon by Putin’s party, United Russia, whose slogan “Vote for Stability” reinforced collective fears about any political or social change.

Precisely because the Kremlin was concerned, it employed a range of tactics to make sure that there were no surprises. Before the parliamentary elections, United Russia “helpers” canvassed workplaces and offered small bribes as incentives to vote for the party’s candidates—strategies to be repeated in the presidential election. But these kinds of persuasive measures were really only the tip of the iceberg. While much emphasis was being placed on the voting conditions for the presidential election (in a grand gesture after the fall’s violations, the government announced that it would pay $478 million for two hundred thousand webcams to be installed in polling stations 3), few anticipated a “free and fair election.”

In my first days in Moscow, the overlapping themes of democratic advancement and political corruption were epitomized by one particular conversation. A gentleman in his late sixties discussed with me how proud he was of Russia’s hard-won freedom; he resented the idea that his country might be perceived as having further to travel to achieve the benefits of a full democracy. Sitting next to him, and speaking essentially at the same moment, his companion recounted how prior to the parliamentary elections, members of Putin’s United Russia party had showed up at her workplace and announced that anyone who voted for UR would receive two hundred rubles. Cars were made available to shuttle people to the polls.

But for the presidential election, long before the actual voting, the issue of candidate registration had already proved to be problematic: only five individuals had been allowed to run, from among the sixteen candidates who presented themselves. This selection process reduced the field to well-known figures such as Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Sergey Mironov, all of whom had been previous candidates and none of whom during the last ten years—with the exception of Zyuganov—had ever won more than 10 percent of the vote. Only Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals oligarch, was unknown before the election, yet his candidacy was widely perceived to be—like the 2006 creation of a second, pro-government party “A Just Russia”—a “Kremlin project.” Indeed, the lack of a viable opposition candidate was one of the key issues of the election. Together with the disparity of political resources and exposure allocated to each candidate, this precluded anything other than a predetermined outcome. Such upstream strategies are, however, generally less visible to outside observers who focus on election day results.

As had been the case in the 2006 presidential election, there was also a fairly pitched campaign against what was alternately called a “fifth column,” “foreign agents,” and “color movements”—this last after the “color” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, which the Kremlin claims to have been the direct result of Western influence and manipulation. Given the genuine popular support for the winter 2011–2012 Russian demonstrations, however, this rhetoric didn’t have much traction with Muscovites, who just shrugged and recalled the omnipresent propaganda of “internal enemies” during the Soviet era. It was nevertheless an important governmental line and, far from being abandoned, it would be intensified following the election.

While these “preventative” strategies taken by the Kremlin to secure a victory for Prime Minister Putin seemed largely adequate, the government apparently wasn’t so sure. A week before the election all sorts of dramatic intrigues were announced in the press. Some resembled the twists and turns of nineteenth-century novels—or, more ominously, harked back to Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot. 4 A threat on Putin’s life was uncovered, and two men were arrested, their capture recorded with much media fanfare. 5 This event was topped, however, by a macabre rumor: in a campaign meeting with political analysts and supporters, Putin suggested that there might be an assassination attempt against one of the opposition leaders. But, rather than being a Kremlin-backed initiative, this crime would be perpetrated by the opposition itself, who would then blame it on the government with the intention of discrediting it. 6 The popular consensus was that this allegation was on the extreme end of electoral stunts.

And this, with two days to go before Sunday’s election.



Lyudmila and Ellen grayscale

The author with human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva.

On Friday morning the sky was overcast. The television was running continuous talk shows of Putin speaking to audiences packed with supporters. Most people believed Putin would win in the first round. Nevertheless, this fact had not entirely demoralized the opposition. There was still the hope that what could be “won” was an increased level of transparency and an end to unchecked political corruption. But governmental corruption has a long history in Russia, and one must take a long view on such matters. In an effort to gain such a perspective, in the early afternoon I headed over to the Arbat to meet with human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Alexeyeva was a founding member of the 1977 Moscow Helsinki Group, and she is among the most important figures of an older generation of Soviet dissidents. In her living room, two blue couches and an armchair were grouped for conversation at the end near the kitchen. At eighty-four Alexeyeva is physically frail but intellectually razor-sharp.

Before analyzing the upcoming election, we talked about past protests linked with current events. For Monday, the day after the election, the opposition had obtained a permit to hold a rally on Pushkin Square. Alexeyeva pointed out the significance of the location: the first-ever Soviet-era demonstration had taken place there, in response to the arrest of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, later convicted of “Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda.” 7 Alexeyeva is also a long-term member of the Moscow group “Strategy-31,” formed on July 31, 2009, to protect the right of assembly guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. The group gathers on the 31st of every month with 31 days, and it was their permit that was used for the first 2011 Bolotnaya protest. 8 Strategy-31’s simple demand reflects what, years ago, Alexeyeva had noted in her book Soviet Dissent: Andrey Amalrik’s belief that the dissidents had accomplished something “simple to the point of genius: in an unfree country they behaved like free men.” 9 Despite the current optimism, Alexeyeva stressed that, just as during the Soviet period, enlarging the scope of democratic freedom was not going to be easy, due to the deep entrenchment of political power. Alexeyeva is acutely aware of the sacrifices of her generation, having witnessed the disappearance of friends into prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. Some of the young Russians I spoke to in March 2012, buoyed by recent events, rejected the idea of sacrifices of this kind, stressing that they had “day jobs” and couldn’t imagine accepting such extreme terms to fight for a free society. Though we didn’t know it yet, in only a few months the legacy of these older dissidents—and the specter of renewed sacrifice and prison sentences—would return to haunt Russian society.

Another rift between generations stems from the belief that older Russian liberals failed to react to the tactics of President Yeltsin’s party during the 1996 election, in which oligarchs’ money and media influence were employed heavy-handedly to deliver a victory. Many young people hold that this led directly to the current “power vertical” and an end to authentic Russian democracy. At the time, however, older voters believed that a return of the Communists had to be avoided at all costs. In various conversations, this dilemma resurfaced, as well as the conviction that the 1996 election represented one of the key “lost opportunities” of the 1990s. Now, Alexeyeva said, Russian society would have to begin rebuilding the mechanism of free elections from the ground up.

But the importance of such a struggle has an even deeper significance for Alexeyeva: it is connected with an historic “struggle for basic human values in Russia.” She ended our talk by saying: “I believe it is the spiritual dimension that is most important for us today. It is crucial for those who attend the protests to demand respect for their human rights and their human dignity—even more than overcoming corruption. If we have our dignity we can do anything.” 10 Though very frail, she planned to serve as an observer at a nearby polling station on Sunday.




Moscow police monitor a polling station on election day.

On Sunday morning, election day, light filtered through bare trees planted in a rectangular garden that separated my apartment from a local polling station. Early on, election monitors in Moscow reported cases of “carousel voting,” i.e., individuals with absentee voting documents who cast ballots at multiple polling stations. There was also alleged ballot stuffing, 11 although, in other districts, the voting proceeded without incident. Night fell and a last few voters made their way down the snowy, shoveled paths before polling stations closed at 8:00 p.m.

An hour earlier, at 7:00 p.m., thousands of Putin supporters had begun to fill Manezh Square by the Kremlin walls, many shuttled in from outside of Moscow. In the middle of the square, a T-shaped stage had been erected, surrounded by white, blue, and red Russian flags. Cameras panned the crowd, focusing on the faces of young people, many of them members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement. The band Lyube began to play. Enthusiastic, the young danced along with the music and waved. As the television cameras showed, Putin was clearly a favorite with the young. At exactly 9:00 p.m. Moscow time, Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Elections Commission—who, following the contested 2011 parliamentary elections, had been called on to resign—announced the results. Based on exit polls, Putin was estimated to win by 58.3 percent—a figure that was immediately revised upward to 61.8 percent. There would be no second round.

At 9:54 p.m. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin took the stage. After Medvedev said a few words of introduction, he passed the microphone to his predecessor–successor and completed what Russians call, referring to chess, the tandem’s successful “castling,” i.e., their “swapping” of offices. Moved, a tearful Putin raised the mike and began his acceptance speech, which covered some of the election’s main themes: “No one can impose anything on us. [. . .] We have shown that our people are indeed capable of making a distinction between a desire for renewal and political provocations whose sole objective is to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power. The Russian people have today shown that such scripts and scenarios will not succeed in our land. [. . .] We have won today also thanks to the support of an overwhelming majority of our voters. [. . .] I promised you that we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia.”

By morning Putin’s percentage would be 63 percent. His new six-year term had been assured.



Pushkin Square2

Troops on standby near Pushkin Square.

The “day-after” Pushkin Square demonstration took place as planned, although the authorities had only granted the right of assembly for ten thousand people. Early Monday morning was not as discouraging as one might have thought. Certain developments—like the election of young opposition candidates to district council seats—indicated some political alternation. That said, by early afternoon it appeared that there had been a change in Kremlin policy. While the winter’s protests had been largely tolerated, suddenly the streets surrounding Pushkin Square were the site of an impressive display of military force. There were rumored to be twelve thousand military personnel amassing. As I walked up Bolshaya Bronnaya towards the square, both sides of the boulevard were packed with requisitioned city buses filled with police in riot gear, their fiberglass shields leaning against the seats. Across the median strip separating two parallel streets, Tverskoy Bulvar was lined not with city buses but with actual troop carriers.


Troops sealed off the square’s entrance with metal detectors.

The opposition rally was slated to be held behind Pushkin’s statue in a rectangular park closed in on three sides. The police, however, had sealed off the front end with metal detectors, creating what amounted to a penned-in area. At the park’s far side, by the Pushkinsky movie theater, a small stage had been erected. In all directions along Tverskaya Ulitsa—one of the city’s main boulevards—there were more troop carriers and police vehicles. Threading my way through soldiers and trucks, I headed to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, located on a corner of the intersection. In the lobby, while waiting for my passport to be checked, on the reception desk’s old black-and-white monitor waves of soldiers with machine guns and in formation—two abreast and seven deep—could be seen marching down the sidewalk. The distorted curve of the tiny screen rendered the image surreal. Less than twenty-four hours had elapsed since the election results had been announced.

The Carnegie Center’s silent offices floated above the massing military below. The fellows at this Western-style think tank include Lilia Shevtsova, one of Russia’s most outspoken critics. I met with Shevtsova’s colleague Natalia Bubnova, and our talk immediately turned to the developing situation outside. Bubnova had attended the first Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue protests. These experiences changed those present. Under a skylight we talked about the 1990s and whether a different course of action would have been possible in those early years. About what might have happened if, from the very beginning, Yeltsin had made it his priority to consolidate institutions. We discussed how, as in other Central and Eastern European countries, there is the sentiment that the West had failed to provide real technical support for the process of economic liberalization. What is not clear, though, given the different subterranean forces and clans already at work, is whether the Russians would have agreed to “let themselves be helped.” “On the positive side,” Bubnova said, “in those early years before 1996, the political parties and the elections were still functioning, and there was a free press.” Halfway through our conversation we had to pause because of the loud helicopters hovering just over the roof. Bubnova said, “I didn’t wear my good earrings today, just in case. But I’m not planning to go to jail.” I shared her view, but she responded: “We have an expression in Russian: ‘Don’t say you will never wear a beggar’s bag, nor go to prison.’” I took this into consideration.

Pushkin Square1

Troops assembling on the day of the demonstration.

In her book Change or Decay and subsequent articles, Bubnova’s colleague Shevtsova has written that “the 2011–2012 parliamentary and presidential elections are intended to perpetuate a personalized power system that has become the source of decay.” 12 If, as Bubnova said, in the early 1990s there had still been a sense of genuine democracy, all agree this was lost by the end of Yeltsin’s presidency. The chaos and decay of the Yeltsin years were what, in 2000, President-elect Putin had promised to eradicate, having campaigned on a slogan promising “a dictatorship of law.” This “dictatorship” was to bring about “a stable and predictable legal environment, and the key role of the state as a guarantor of law enforcement.” 13

Like the expression “sovereign democracy,” coined six years later by Putin’s key ideologue Vladislav Surkov, the formulation “dictatorship of law” was regarded by many with trepidation. At the time, the political scientist Vladimir Gel’man hypothesized two possible outcomes: “a revival of the Russian economy and society with the emergence of a state bound by law . . . [or] the rise of a police state [. . .] bearing in mind Russia’s autocratic traditions.” Believing that the already well-established political elite had little to gain by a firm rule of law, Gel’man predicted the second scenario: “strong arbitrary rule” or “an inconsistent oscillation between strong arbitrary rule and the façade of legal innovations.” 14 By 2003–2004, according to Shevtsova, it was clear that this process had gone so far as to “undermine the independence, and therefore the effectiveness, of regional structures, the Duma, and the judiciary.” 15 The 2011 rigged parliamentary elections signaled that the situation had deteriorated further, to the point that “leaving the Kremlin would mean not only losing control of assets but a threat to personal security,” 16 i.e., the loss of immunity.

When I left the Carnegie Moscow Center, the military presence outside was even more imposing than when I arrived; the tension was palpable. Pushkin Square was packed with army personnel. The atmosphere was more reminiscent of an invasion than a demonstration. Large dump trucks pulled up and were wedged in front of the park’s metal detectors so that people exiting could not gather together or spill into the street. Police in riot gear were now manning the metal detectors inside the park’s entrance. There were bands of undercover policemen in black civilian clothes mingling with young men in tight leather coats who appeared to be what the French call les casseurs, “helpers” who provoke violence if the police decide they want to crack down. If the Bolotnaya and Sakharov Avenue protests had unfolded in relative good humor, it was unclear if this would still be the case that night.

On the rally’s stage a young woman was making a valiant effort to organize the arrival of the press under the deafening sound of the helicopters. When asked if she was afraid, she said, “Of course. But I am more afraid for the future.” What was clear was that March 5 at Pushkin Square represented a turning point. Despite this, incredibly, the event unfolded almost without incident, though at its end, Alexei Navalny, now a leading figure of the opposition, made good on his promise to try to set up an encampment. This led to the arrest of about a hundred people. The same evening across town in front of the election headquarters, there was a second, unsanctioned rally, resulting in further arrests. But the full crackdown had yet to begin.



After the Pushkin Square protest, Tuesday morning was grim. I had arranged to meet P., a young opposition organizer, at the Strelka Bar, nestled in part of Krasny Oktyabr, a renovated factory neighborhood in the center of the city. Like all bars around the world, the Strelka was a bit down and out in the early morning light. When P. arrived, after being stuck in traffic with the rest of Moscow, we conducted a postmortem of the previous night’s protest. P. was stunned: “What did they expect? We were going to show up with machine guns?” A likeable young man with shaggy black hair and high-top sneakers, he swore he had backed into his role as organizer by chance, though he clearly had a charismatic air about him.

For him, the story behind the first demonstrations was providential, even at times comical. Following the parliamentary elections, the Facebook discussion he was involved in had gathered steam, and someone suggested organizing an event. Before they knew it, they had ten thousand followers. Then the momentum began to take over. The young people were buoyed by their ability to get things going quickly. Regarding yesterday’s gathering at Pushkin Square, however, P. wasn’t happy. In fact, he began our conversation with the stark declaration: “The movement is over.” “The elections were a focal point for galvanizing public sentiment,” P. said. “People aren’t going to keep coming to protests based on past elections. We need to broaden the issues; we need to create real political parties.” This said, P. thought the opposition’s actions had been a success. Six months earlier apathy had reigned and there had been no widespread dialogue about Russian society. “These things are no longer virtual,” he affirmed. The gains, he believed, could not be taken away.

“Moscow is an international city, a European city,” P. said, emphasizing his point. For P., to be European is not about “bending to the will of the West” but about being able to live “normally.” For P.’s generation, young people in their twenties, the term “normal” has undergone a transformation. For them, words like “democracy” had become discredited in the 1990s when gangster-mafia capitalists, oligarchs, and neo-communists all vied for a share of Russia under the banner of its “democratic rebirth.” Progressively, the idea of “normal,” which encompasses “normal political parties,” “normal elections,” “a normal government,” and “a normal judiciary,” etc. had become a political concept.

At the end of Putin’s presidency P., currently in his mid-twenties, will be thirty-two. All in all, this is a long time to wait to see if the winter’s protests will bring about a “normalization” of Russian society or, conversely, will herald the way in which the term was used in Czechoslovakia after the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring: repression, reprisals, and a retrenchment of power, i.e., “business as usual.”



Moscow in the autumn was a changed world. The six intervening months fulfilled the warnings of the Pushkin Square demonstration. While “the mood of a city” may not be measurable with any degree of scientific precision, after the upbeat and optimistic civic pride of the early spring, the capital now seemed particularly dispirited. Nevertheless, the opposition was trying to keep things going. The weekend of October 20–21 17 was set for the election of a forty-five-member “Opposition Coordinating Council.” The goal of this project was to bring together different civic groups under a single organizational umbrella to create a united front, which might in time develop into a viable political party. The election’s organizers, Fyodor Krashenninikov and Leonid Volkov, explained that “Civic self-organization is the precursor, the main driving force and guarantee of the existence of democracy in any society,” and that the OCC election was “the first step on the long road to the establishment of a . . . free society in Russia.” 18

The Coordinating Council’s elections were slated to take place online over two days, but—as was perhaps to be expected—as the weekend approached, the project was besieged on numerous fronts. On the first day, the Council’s website came under such intense DoS attacks that the voting nearly ground to a halt and tents had to be set up in Moscow’s parks to allow for in-person ballots. A few days prior to the elections, I went to speak with Ksenia Filimonova at the Andrei Sakharov Center. 19We talked in the center’s conference room below an elaborate, modern chandelier; behind us was a wooden cross sculpture topped with representations of the heads of five famous Russian dissidents. We quickly began to establish a timeline of the government’s post–presidential-election measures, which had been put in place over the summer and early fall.

For the West, the most widely reported event was the arrest and trial of three members of the Pussy Riot band, following their February 21, 2012, performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ Our Savior. The musicians’ art-action, a response to the contested parliamentary elections, also expressed their concern regarding a lack of separation between the State and the Russian Orthodox Church (assured by Article 14 of the Russian Constitution) and the “enforced civic passivity” of the population. 20 The performance lasted less than a minute and was reminiscent of 1970s feminist “happenings”: five women, dressed in colorful clothing, entered the nearly-empty church and occupied its altar—a sacred space in the Russian Orthodox tradition. There they jumped and gesticulated in the air. The activists were immediately ushered out of the church, though not initially detained. After the performance a video was created with an added “punk prayer” soundtrack imploring the Virgin Mary to help remove Russia’s Prime Minister Putin. Three band members were arrested over the course of the following three weeks. At the end of their trial, on August 17, 2012, they were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. 21

While important in itself, the verdict in the Pussy Riot trial was only a small part of the government’s political and legislative response to the opposition that had unfolded since the election. More significant, perhaps, was the aftermath of the May 6, 2012, Bolotnaya Square demonstration—held on the eve of Putin’s inauguration—an event now simply called “Bolotnaya.” During the rally, clashes occurred between the protestors and the authorities—though the origin of the violence remains in dispute. 22 The event resulted in a considerable number of arrests and accusations of minor police injuries. What is certain is that the protest provided a convenient basis for a comprehensive crackdown strategy to be put in place. On June 6—a month after the demonstration—the State Duma passed a bill imposing stiff penalties of up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $9,000) for individuals and 600,000 rubles for organizers for participating in unauthorized protests. On June 12, in advance of the next major rally, there was a series of early-morning police raids on the apartments of opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Ksenia Sobchak, and Sergei Udaltsov, as well as Navalny’s in-laws and Udaltsov’s parents. Photos were immediately available on Twitter showing law enforcement agents stationed with machine guns outside of Navalny’s apartment, while black-hooded assistants exited with boxes containing personal computer equipment, files, discs, and photos.

By midsummer, Putin’s “dictatorship of law” had been taken to another level. In July, laws recriminalizing defamation 23 and tightening internet control were introduced. 24 Then on Saturday July 21, President Putin signed into law a now-notorious amendment requiring all Russian NGOs that receive foreign funding and that engage in “political activity” (which turns out to include groups ranging from legal assistance organizations to the Yaroslavl regional hunters’ and fishermen’s society) 25 to register as “NGOs carrying functions of a foreign agent.” All NGOs must also clearly indicate this status in their publications. The law, aimed at suppressing civil society, also subjects organizations to extensive accounting procedures, including lengthy semiannual and quarterly reports and annual audits. 26 Organizations that fail to register as “foreign agents” can be closed down or subjected to extensive fines. This legislation blends old-fashioned Soviet-style “smear tactics” with state-of-the-art bureaucratic intimidation. Both the Sakharov Center and Memorial, among other organizations, announced that they would not comply with the legislation. Filimonova leaned over the conference table: “Above all, what the government cannot accept is this: it’s not foreigners but Russia’s own people who are protesting.”

At the Sakharov Center, Filimonova said one of the spring’s disappointments had been the recognition that “the protests don’t change anything.” She faced this reality with the kind of resignation usually seen in older people. This was not a reflection of any lack of commitment on her part, but rather a realistic assessment arising from the omnipresent pressure to conform and “live quietly.” As Filimonova and I spoke, the shadows of the dissidents’ heads hung over the table. Pausing in our conversation, we stared at the elaborate chandelier, where intertwining strands of metal leaves sprang from a great hand, like the Garden of Eden’s foliage emerging from the Creator’s palm. Looking up, Filimonova shrugged and sighed, “the staff thinks it’s probably bugged.”



I returned to speak with Lyudmila Alexeyeva on a dark, rainy afternoon. She looked older and infinitely more tired. Her blue living room was somber; she was sitting with the lights off. Without any pretense of small talk, we attempted to sort out the developments of the last few months. Over the preceding week, an aide connected with the “A Just Russia” parliamentarian Ilya Ponomaryov and two Left Front activists had been placed under investigation. The charges followed the October 5, 2012, airing of the documentary “Anatomy of a Protest 2,” shown on the pro-Kremlin channel NTV. 27 The film included footage of Sergei Udaltsov supposedly seeking foreign funding from Georgian politician Givi Targamadze in order to plot mass disorder in Russia. 28 Though Alexeyeva doesn’t share Udaltsov’s political views, she was unequivocal about the principle of free speech and considered such tactics worrisome in the extreme. She feared it would only be a matter of time before similarly politically-motivated charges were brought against Alexei Navalny or Ilya Yashin. As it turned out, a trumped-up embezzlement case against Navalny—a case that had been declared closed in April 2012—would soon be reopened, awaiting a propitious moment to bring him to trial.

Alexeyeva noted that all this went hand in hand with one of the most significant parts of the crackdown’s legislation, the recasting of Russia’s Treason Law, 29 which was adopted during the weekend of the Coordinating Council’s elections. In the past, high treason had been defined, as it is in many countries, as a “hostile action that threatens the external security of the Russian state.” Under the amended law, assistance to “an international or foreign organization, or their representatives” could now be considered as an action taken “against the security of the Russian Federation.” Thus, activities once considered part of normal academic, civic, or even personal exchange could now fall under the revised law’s scope. Looking at me intently, Alexeyeva said, “it is now unclear whom one may speak to . . .” Indeed, in less than six months’ time, parliamentarian Dmitri Gudko—returning to Moscow after participating in an international conference on Russia and human rights in Washington, D.C.—would be charged with treason. 30 We discussed the similarity of the Treason Law with practices during the Soviet period: “Of course it has the same goal,” Alexeyeva said. “Both attempted to make speaking to foreigners actionable. But during the Soviet period, it wasn’t a law, it was the practice. Now they have established a law. This is critical, because this way they can achieve the same ends more quickly. It will be a tool for the courts and the interrogators; it can be used at their discretion.”

Alexeyeva was categorical: “I believe that human rights is an international problem, and it’s very important that citizens of any country know about the human rights situation in any other country. I believe this, but our interrogators and judges think differently. They will decide whether I am guilty or not.”

Then, Alexeyeva, frail, bony, but fierce, complained that she was “on a schedule” and had to head off to a midafternoon radio station interview. I wanted to ask her if she thought that she would ever again find herself working under such conditions. But she shrugged off my question. Later, I understood that the question was not relevant; she has simply never stopped fighting.



The last ten years of democracy studies have seen a shift in what was initially understood in the 1980s and 1990s as the “transition paradigm.” Following 1989, political scientists studying the evolution of formerly authoritarian countries had a tendency to assume that “any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition towards democracy,” and that “democratization tends to unfold in a set sequence of stages.” 31 Moreover, only secondary attention was paid to a country’s “economic level, political history, institutional legacies, ethnic make-up, [or] sociocultural traditions.” Further, it was assumed that these structural transitions were “being built on coherent, functioning states.” 32 More than two decades later, this optimistic theorizing has come under scrutiny.

From the beginning, despite enjoying a certain amount of political and press freedom, countries like Russia—but also Romania and Bulgaria—have struggled with dual forces. Fledgling democratic institutions vie with shadowy “clans” made up of bureaucratic, business, military, and secret service cartels. Over the last twenty years these groupings have become institutionalized, creating a separate state within the state. Their extra-constitutional nature, along with the unlikely relinquishment of entrenched political power, makes them particularly problematic. The legacy of the handover or “privatization” of previously state-held commodities to former communists-turned-entrepreneurs in the weak post-1989 democracies also remains a significant operative feature. These factors have resulted in new post-1989 hybrid forms of governance—sometimes called “semi-competitive,” “managed,” “illiberal,” or “sovereign” democracies—whose evolution is not entirely clear to us. 33

One potentially significant framework for understanding these governments, however, is the concept of a “dual state.” Ernst Fraenkel, in his work The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship, analyzed the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany by describing the danger of two coexisting states: a “normative state,” which establishes laws and is subject to those laws, and an extra-constitutional or “prerogative state,” which is “regulated by arbitrary measures in which the dominant officials exercise their discretionary prerogatives.” 34 While the dual state formation already represents a deviation from democracy, it is the encroachment into and eventual takeover of a country’s legal and political institutions by the “prerogative state” that eventually transforms an “illiberal democracy” into a full-fledged authoritarian regime.

Updating the idea of the prerogative state for the Russian context, the political scientist Richard Sakwa has written that prior to the 2007 Russian elections it would be technically incorrect to “label Putin’s Russia an authoritarian regime tout court, since not only did it remain formally committed to constitutional democracy and liberal capitalism, and these remained the source of its popular legitimacy, but these commitments moderated its behavior and allowed the formal constitutional framework to structure and influence the conduct of politics.” 35 For Sakwa, this does not mean that Russia was functioning during this period as a full democracy, but rather that it still respected some of its legal and institutional commitments. That said, Sakwa observes that “for many the 2007–2008 election cycle represented conclusive proof of the political bankruptcy of the regime and the failure of democracy to take root in Russia’s harsh climate.” 36

The dual state conceptualization is extremely useful when one is attempting to describe the overlapping forces in contemporary Russian politics. It is problematic, however, to the extent that it is based on the assumption of a preexisting “coherent functioning state.” Other important observers, such as William Pomeranz, place their emphasis on the lack of a strong legal tradition in pre-revolutionary Russia and the USSR, and weak institutions after 1991. By looking at specifically Russian models—including Putin’s hero Pyotr Stolypin, Russia’s pre-revolutionary Prime Minister, and his vision of the state—Pomeranz thinks it is possible to gain a more nuanced understanding of recent political trends. 37 For Stolypin—in whose honor Putin has established a medal and erected a monument in Moscow—the state was the central unifying force. Stolypin also believed that “there are difficult moments in the life of a state when the state must necessarily stand higher than the law.” Pomeranz posits that, following the 2011–2012 demonstrations, “Vladimir Putin thought that the state was indeed in peril, and used his powers to reinforce the state at the expense of civil rights, the rule of law, and other constitutional principles.” 38

While it is Stolypin’s legacy as a modernizer that Putin has sought to draw upon—the former was responsible for important pre-revolutionary land reforms—in the 1980s Leonard Schapiro had already affirmed that, “when [Stolypin’s] policies met with opposition, he had no respect for either the electorate, or the law.” 39 The question therefore still remains as to where exactly to draw the line between a “sovereign” democracy and a fully authoritarian regime. Given Russia’s record of falsified elections, blanket repression of media and political dissent, as well as extra-judicial assassinations, many would say that that line had been crossed some time ago. However, the post-2012 election legislation and arrests do seem to indicate a further step in this direction. Activists like Alexeyeva are clear that Russia, despite the current repression, is not the same as it was during the Soviet period. At the same time, the government’s manipulation of politics in “the gray zone” is an intentional strategy, and the system in many ways thrives precisely on what Gel’man termed “inconsistent oscillation,” and all-too-familiar “thaws” and “freezes.”

The international community’s potential response to this is also a complex matter. Some critics, like Shevstova, feel that rather than accommodation, an opposite tactic should be employed. Russia should be “held to its word” and forced to comply with the “range of conventions governing human rights and other international norms of behavior” that it has ratified. This approach refuses to “accept the claim of some Russians that their country has its own unique set of values,” which become an excuse for the government “to act as it pleases.” 40 In certain respects this viewpoint shares something with Amalrik’s idea that in an unfree country “men should behave like free men.” That is, if Russia is held to standards shared by the international community—and by its own people—there is hope that the country will one day be obliged to become a “normal” democracy.



Last October, it looked as if the “Russian Awakening” would only with difficulty survive until the start of the new year. Indeed, the coming spring would see the arrest of other prominent activists, many of whom participated in the May 6, 2012, “Bolotnaya” demonstration. Civil society workers from all areas, including journalists, lawyers, and LGBT advocates, would be targeted. As Alexeyeva predicted, a trumped-up embezzlement trial against Alexei Navalny opened in April 2013, despite the fact that he was an official candidate in the fall 2013 Moscow mayoral race. Following a massive wave of spring “inspections,” nine notable NGOs would have court cases opened against them, and Golos, the only independent Russian election monitoring association, would be ordered to close its doors. 41 Repeated threats and increased surveillance of all activists would begin to take their toll, precipitating a new wave of politically motivated emigration. But the government’s legal proceedings would reach further, entangling previously protected insiders. After the crackdown on street demonstrators, in-system liberals and those with close ties to the Kremlin would also come under pressure. In early May, Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, the father of “sovereign democracy,” would be temporarily forced out 42—some say for sympathizing with the opposition, others claim as a result of an internal “housecleaning”—and at the end of May, among other casualties, the well-known economist Sergei Guriev, following a series of meetings with investigators, would choose to seek exile in France. 43

As I planned for departure in fall 2012, all this lay ahead. The night before I left, I found myself reflecting on how far the country had evolved from the closed Soviet society from which it had, in historical terms, only recently emerged. I was thinking about this as I waited on my cell phone while my partner, on the other end of the line, asked a question of a train station employee. Suddenly the voice I heard speaking clearly and directly into my phone was not my partner’s but rather a deep, exasperated Russian voice, which, after a number of exhalations expressing a bored impatience, said something menacing in Russian, and—without my touching the keypad—my call was terminated.

Later, Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian poet and dissident, related to me the story of a Polish activist whose phone calls were routinely terminated. On one occasion, the Pole said into the receiver, “I hate this country and everything it stands for.” His police interlocutor responded, “I do too, but I am still terminating this call.” This humorous anecdote aside, though my experience was minor, combined with a number of other related incidents it was nevertheless unnerving—as it was meant to be. I had anticipated that the people I had chosen to speak with might be under surveillance, but despite everything I had a hard time not thinking that I had fallen into a Cold War mindset. But as I sat with my silent cell phone in my hand looking out at the Moscow night, I worried—as the young woman on the stage in Pushkin Square under the helicopters had said—“not about myself,” but rather, about the future of Russian democracy.



Over the last few months, the Russian political landscape has been dominated by two surprising events. In July 2013 the trial of Alexei Navalny—an embezzlement case that had previously been dismissed due to a lack of evidence—entered its closing weeks. Navalny had long predicted a guilty verdict, something foreshadowed by the government itself: during an April 2013 interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Federal Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin remarked, “If a person tries with all his strength to attract attention, or if I can put it, baits authorities . . . well, then interest in his past grows and the process of exposing him naturally speeds up.” 44

On July 19, the trial ended, and judge Sergei Blinov withdrew to arrive at a verdict. Those in attendance were so sure of the trial’s outcome that, when a longer than expected time had elapsed, a Navalny supporter famously tweeted “the Skype connection to Moscow must be particularly slow today,” alluding to what the Russians call “telephone justice,” i.e., verdicts handed down from on high. When judge Blinov returned, he announced the long-anticipated guilty verdict. The state prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov then asked that Navalny and his associate Pyotr Ofitserov be handcuffed immediately and led away.

Nothing about the trial, including the embezzlement charges, the fact that it was held in Kirov rather than Moscow, the official Russian press’s smear campaign, or the proceedings themselves—during which Navalny was not permitted to call a single witness in his defense—was a surprise. Equally predictable have been the tactics used in the summer’s other important trial, that of twelve “Bolotnaya” activists arrested after the June 6 demonstration. Though dismayed, the Russian response to such court cases is often a fatalistic shrug, reflective of the Russian expression “закон – что дышло, куда повернешь, туда и вышло,” which literally means, “the law is like a cart’s axle—whichever way you turn it, that’s the way it goes.”

The morning following the Navalny verdict, however, there was an astonishing development. The same state prosecutor had the two defendants brought to the Kirov Oblast Court and asked that they be set free pending appeal. In recent Russian political trials this is unheard of, so the suspended sentence was met with incredulity by supporters. Most suspected that the Kremlin needed a temporarily freed Navalny to prove that the fall Moscow mayoral race would be “fair.” Other experts hypothesized, however, that Navalny’s release was more generally a reflection of fractures inside the Kremlin regarding how to “manage” the resistance of a progressively politicized population.

Into the midst of this domestic tumult the second surprising event occurred in the form of Edward Snowden’s June 23 arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. For the Russian government, he materialized like a deus ex machina, as he attempted to transit to Ecuador following his disclosures regarding the NSA’s extra-legal surveillance program. The significance of an American citizen accusing the United States of major civil liberty abuses was not lost on Putin’s government, which embraced it as a strategic opportunity. Nor was it lost on Russian human rights activists, who understood it differently, as a potentially devastating setback for the painstaking democratic work underway in the Russian Federation.

The NSA revelations are of paramount importance for American democracy. How they are addressed and resolved will set the course for the country’s future endurance. One hopes that Tocqueville’s maxim that “the great advantage of the Americans consists in their being able to commit faults that they may afterwards repair” still miraculously holds true. 45 But people like Alexeyeva—with her long experience of totalitarianism—believe it is dangerous to conflate the situation of the two countries. In response to the Snowden affair, she observed, “If in America he didn’t have enough freedom, then how is he going to live here with us? I don’t know.” 46


*Photos courtesy of the author.


  1. “Moscow protest: Thousands rally against Vladimir Putin,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16324644.
  2. Tom Parfitt, “Anti-Putin Protesters March Through Moscow,” The Guardian, February 4, 2012.
  3. Nikolaus von Twickel, “Webcams Ready for Electoral Debut,” The Moscow Times, March 2–4, 2012.
  4. In 1953 nine doctors were arrested and accused of a conspiracy to murder leading party officials. Their sentences were commuted due to the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953, after which it was acknowledged that the case had been fabricated.
  5. Miriam Elder, “Vladimir Putin Assassination Plot Foiled, Report Says,” The Guardian, February 27, 2012.
  6. “Путин: на митингах могут грохнуть кого-то известного, выберут сакральную жертву и обвинят власть,” gazeta.ru, http://www.gazeta.ru/news/lastnews/2012/02/29/n_2222441.shtml. See also: Robert Bridge, “Putin Warns Opposition Against ‘Sacrificial Victims’,” http://rt.com/politics/putin-elections-opposition-democracy-2012-533/.
  7. Robert Hornsby, Protest, Reform and Repression in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 280–283.
  8. The Strategy-31’s original permit for Revolutionary Square was for three hundred people. This permit was exchanged for one that would allow for a larger gathering. Conversation with P. March 6, 2012, Moscow.
  9. Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), p. 268.
  10. In conversation with Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Moscow, March 2, 2012.
  11. Emily Alpert, “Russian election webcam appears to catch ballot stuffing,” Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2012, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/03/russian-election-ballot-stuffing-fraud.html.
  12. Lilia Shevtsova, “The New Russia’s Uncertainty: Atrophy, Implosion, or Change?” Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West, Chatham House Report, February 2012, p. 9.
  13. Vladimir Gel’man: “The Dictatorship of Law in Russia: Neither Dictatorship, Nor Rule of Law.” PONARS Policy Memo 146, 2000, p.1.
  14. Ibid., p.4.
  15. Lilia Shevtsova, Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011), p. 55.The 2011
  16. Shevtsova, “The New Russia’s Uncertainty,” op. cit., p. 12.
  17. Due to disruptions, voting continued until Monday, October 22.
  18. Krashenninikov, Fyodor and Leonid Volkov, “Blue skies, clear thinking: Russian democracy in the Cloud,” Open Democracy, 16 November 2012. See: http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/fyodor-krashenninikov-leonid-volkov/blue-skies-clear-thinking-russian-democracy-in-cloud.
  19. Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) was a leading scientist, human rights advocate, and deputy of the All-Union-Congress of People’s Deputies.
  20. For the complete text of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement see: http://www.businessinsider.com/pussy-riot-trial-nadezhda-tolokonnikovas-closing-statement-2012-8.
  21. “Pussy Riot Members Sentenced to 2 Years in Prison,” Russian Legal Information Agency. http://rapsinews.com/judicial_news/20120817/264313856.html.
  22. RFE/RL Russian Service, “Russian Commission Blames Authorities For Bolotnaya Protest Violence,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-commission-bolotnaya-violence/24966016.html.
  23. Federal Law No. 141 of July 28, 2012 on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, art. 1. See: Peter Roudik, “Russian Federation: Defamation Is Criminalized Again,” Law Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/servlet/lloc_news?disp3_l205403291_text.
  24. Law No. 139-FZ. See: Human Rights Watch, “Russia: Laws of Attrition/Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency” for an overview of current legislation: http://www.hrw.org/world report/2013/publications/115059.
  25. For a comprehensive list of NGOs see: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/14/russia-foreign-agents-law-hits-hundreds-ngos-updated-august-26-2013.
  26. Law No. 121-FZ. See: Council of Europe (2012) “Secretariat Working Paper: Russia 2012 NGO Law.” See: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/youth/Source/IG_Coop/Documents/Russia%202012%20NGO%20Law.pdf.
  27. “Q&A: Russian Opposition Plot Allegations,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20093239.
  28. During the same week, another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, was reported to have been abducted and returned to Moscow while in the process of seeking asylum in Ukraine. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/world/europe/leonid-razvozzhayev-says-abductors-threatened-his-children.html.
  29. Law No. 190-FZ, adopted October 23, 2012.
  30. David M. Herszenhorn, “Russian Legislator Accused of Treason After U.S. Visit,” New York Times, March 15, 2013.
  31. Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13, 1 January 2002, pp. 6–7.
  32. Ibid., p. 8.
  33. For an analysis of hybrid regimes see: Steven Levitsky, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 13.
  34. Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship (New York, Oxford University Press, 1941 [reprint, Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, 2006]), p. 3.
  35. Richard Sakwa, The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. xiv.
  36. Ibid., p. xv.
  37. William Pomeranz, Public lecture, “Putting the Rule above the Law: Putin’s Statist Policies,” Georgetown University, September 27, 2012.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Leonard Schapiro, Russian Studies (London: Collins Harvill, 1986), p. 95.
  40. “Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West,” op. cit., p. vii.
  41. This number does not include “official notices of violations” or “warnings not to violate the law.” Cf. footnote 25. See also: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/golos-ordered-shut-for-6-months/482372.html.
  42. See: Vladimir Pribylovsky, “Clans are Marching,” http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/vladimir-pribylovsky/clans-are-marching.
  43. Ellen Barry, “Economist Who Fled Russia Cites Peril in Politically Charged Inquiry,” New York Times, May 31, 2013.
  44. See: http://izvestia.ru/news/548376.
  45. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), p. 235.
  46. Celestine Bohlen, “A Lifelong Fight for Human Rights in Russia,” New York Times, August 16, 2013. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/world/europe/17iht-letter17.html.

Comments are closed.