“How bad are things, really?” This is a question that those of us who write about Russia — or live in Russia, or think about Russia — are asked often, and ask just as frequently. It has its variants: “Is it as bad as it was before perestroika?” “Is Putin as bad as Stalin?” And the rhetorical king of them all: “Is it 1937 yet?” The reference is to the year widely considered the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror, or the most frightening year in Russian memory.
People have different reasons for asking such questions. Non-Russians want to understand the news, put events in context and gauge the accuracy of their own reactions. Russians often ask the questions, of themselves and others, with more urgency. Are things so bad that it’s time to drop everything and flee the country? Certainly, if that had been an option in 1937, emigration would have been a wise choice for many people. These days many prominent Russians are leaving — most recently, Ilya V. Ponomarev, the lone member of the Russian Parliament to have voted against the annexation of Crimea, has said that threats drove him to move to the United States months ago. Less-famous Russians are asking if they should also be worried.
Every news event precipitates a new round of questions. Did the murder of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov signal the beginning of a new, more frightening era? Did it communicate something even worse than the murder of the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya portended in 2006? How bad are things, really?
The director of a theater in Novosibirsk is fired for staging a Wagner opera that the Orthodox Church finds offensive. Does this mean the country is returning to full-fledged censorship? Is it as bad as it was before perestroika?
A young British academic is discovered in the Nizhny Novgorod region conducting research on early-20th-century Russian revolutionary movements, accused of espionage and deported. A mother of seven is accused of high treason and briefly arrested for spreading a rumor she heard on public transport (the charges have since been dropped). Is this a return to the spy paranoia of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s? Is Mr. Putin as bad as Stalin?
A school teacher in the Orlov region is on trial, and facing possible jail time, for writing a poem about Ukraine. The alleged crime was reported by his colleagues, and the poem has been deemed “extremist” by the authorities. Is it 1937 yet?
It’s probably natural and even right for any country to measure current events against its own history. The problem with Russia is that its history sets an unconscionably low bar. Hundreds of thousands of people are not being sentenced to death for imaginary crimes today — so, no, it’s not 1937, at least not yet. The laws on espionage and high treason read roughly the same as they did during the purges, but seem to have affected no more than a couple of dozen people — so, no, Mr. Putin isn’t as bad as Stalin.
There are still some independent media outlets, though they are struggling to survive, and there is no legally mandated censorship in the strictest sense: Government employees do not screen items before they are published or posted on the Internet. There are no food shortages — unless you count the shortage of good cheese due to Russia’s economic counter-sanctions against the European Union. And despite the economic downturn, large Russian cities have not lost the luster of prosperity. Some restrictions on foreign travel have been quietly introduced, but most Russians are free to go abroad. So, no, it’s not as bad as it was before perestroika.
Frightening and heartbreaking as Mr. Nemtsov’s murder was for anyone who opposes Mr. Putin, it likely marks yet another step in a slow descent rather than a fall off the precipice. The last apparently political murder that produced similar feelings of despair and fear was that of Ms. Politkovskaya, and that was more than eight years ago. It is conceivable that years will pass before the next such murder. This awful calculation may be calming for a number of people.
While Mr. Putin has done much to restore the ideological mechanisms of the totalitarian system, Russia is not run by means of total terror. It is, rather, a country that sounds like a totalitarian one when it speaks through its media, or even through most of its citizens, but has not yet squashed all public space and restricted all activity. Russians know — and some Russians actually remember — that things can indeed be much worse. The problem with that knowledge, and with the questions that stem from it, is that it can make life in Russia seem tolerable in comparison. At least until the next firing, trial, deportation or murder happens.
Masha Gessen is the author of seven books, including, most recently, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.