Last month, Vladimir V. Putin was re-elected as Russia’s president in a plebiscite-like ceremony with all other candidates essentially decorating the ballot’s margins. Years of aggressive campaigning, tinkering with electoral rules and eliminating competition had long prepared the field for an easy win.
The tough part now, for Mr. Putin, is to deal with the consequences of 18 years of being able to do whatever he pleases. His fourth term (fifth if we count the four years of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency as what they were, a Putin regency) is off to a tumultuous start.
Russia is facing a coordinated, if symbolic, retaliation by the West against Moscow’s alleged chemical attack in Britain. American sanctions against Russian oligarchs have wiped out billions of dollars of their wealth and weakened the ruble. Russia’s economy is stagnant. And Russians are recovering from the shock of 64 people, including 41 children, dying in a fire at a shopping mall in the year 2018. The shock has deepened as the realization sets in that Russia is one of a few countries in the world in which these horrific, preventable tragedies are still common. Russia’s rate of deaths by fire is 7 per 100,000 residents a year. Brazil’s is 0.56 and China’s is 0.6.
Yet there is a sphere where progress has been steady throughout the Putin years — in spreading acceptance of the principles that underlie his rule. For years, Russia watchers, and Russians themselves, have asked to what extent the Kremlin is driven by an ideology, or at least by a consistent value system. Is it nationalism, isolationism, irredentism, judo?
Far from any belief or ideology, the principles form an ethos, something you must “get” to make progress in the society. Russia’s rulers no longer bow to any ideology. But they do follow some basic working rules.
First: A disaster, natural or man-made, makes the state vulnerable. After an explosion, flood or fire, enemies of the state can try to hold the authorities accountable. How an emergency is covered in the news is as important as how it is resolved. This is why the Kremlin rushed to place all federal television channels under control immediately after the early disasters of the Putin era (the submarine Kursk sinking in 2000 and the 2002 terrorist siege at a Moscow theater). One consequence of this view is a conviction that all information disseminated through channels outside state control, including social media, is damaging and foreign-funded. A few days ago, the Russian government moved to block the popular messenger and social network Telegram after its owner refused to give the secret police access to the network’s user data.
Second: A threat originates only from an external or foreign source. That is why laws and rules regulating foreign companies, foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations and religions and ideologies considered “fringe” have proliferated. Wild hints that big foreign interests are behind a given problem is the first trope on state-run media after any disaster or potentially damaging episode. It follows that all grass-roots activism not authorized by the state has a foreign origin and is foreign-funded.
Third: A civil servant is accountable only to his or her superior, not to the public. It follows that a subordinate can be held accountable but the superior standing at the very top can be seen only as a savior, not responsible for any wrong. You do not blame President Putin for anything; you only appeal to him for justice. From this, it also follows that, in Mr. Putin’s view, there is no right to resist or to overthrow a government, no matter how terrible or murderous it is. That is why Bashar al-Assad of Syria stays in place.
Those are the laws Mr. Putin has followed domestically and internationally during most of his rule.
The destruction of real accountability, the never-say-sorry attitude and the rejection of grass-roots activism are widely accepted as realities in Russia, if not as universal truths.
Whenever President Putin is touted as the world’s most powerful or influential politician, I feel puzzled. The rules that Mr. Putin follows are technical. He is no philosopher of government; he is a skilled practitioner. These rules are simply ad hoc mechanisms for holding onto power in a dangerous environment. And the Kremlin political managers are skillful plumbers who deal with old leaky piping and loathe the idea of replacing it.
Do other nations really have anything to learn from them?
I would argue that perceived similarities between President Trump’s thinking and Mr. Putin’s do not necessarily mean that Mr. Trump has been learning from Russia’s president. When your objective, like Mr. Trump’s, is surviving in power, you arrive, on your own, at pragmatic rules that work for you. The extent to which President Trump values survival is unique among Western leaders. Mr. Putin has been fighting for survival for years, and he has become a grandmaster of that dark art.
But playing this game has consequences. Just as the Kremlin has ad hoc rules, most Russians have some, too. They “get” what it takes to prosper in their system: Pretend you are loyal, tell the interviewer you approve of the president, mark the right box and there you go. Freedom!
This doesn’t sound heroic, but heroes are a rare breed. The Russian people and the Russian state cohabitate, each minding its own business.
Disasters and tragedies are occasions when state and people meet. Sparks of conflict start to fly because both sides realize they’ve been fooling each other. The Kremlin and its viceroys have pretended to manage, and the people on the ground have pretended to be loyal. There’s a crisis of loyalty, if you will. It’s not that loyalty is lacking; it’s that there’s too much loyalty, and it’s all fake. And that brings a moment of truth, when everyone realizes that Russians would jump at any opportunity to turn their relationship with the state back on its feet.
But all of that goes away quickly because it bumps up against precisely what the Kremlin is there for: to close down the pockets of normalcy. Any attempt at holding the president accountable is made so costly for the people, and the propaganda of the opposite view is so relentless, that Russians put up with all of this just to stay out of trouble and have a normal life.
The principles recounted above are not the sort in which you choose to believe; they must be imposed. And by the time you recognize that a system like this is around you, it is probably too late to resist. You will have to learn the Putin creed or something similar.
Maxim Trudolyubov is an editor at large for the business magazine Vedomosti in Moscow, and editor of The Russia File, a blog published by the Kennan Institute in Washington.