On Sept. 24, when it was announced at the congress of the ruling party of Russia that our next president will once again be Vladimir Putin, my wife said to me: “That’s it. We need to leave. I don’t not want to spend the rest of my life in the country of Mister Dobby.” “This is not his country,” I replied. “Let’s wait some more. There will be a social eruption. People are not idiots, they will not agree to this castling move.”
But days passed, weeks, and there was no social eruption. Yes, a few of the usual anti-Putin grumblers — me among them — grumbled. As for the rest of Russia, it seemed to care less: if Putin, let it be Putin. Another 12 years? Let him stay for life, no problem. So I also started to think seriously of leaving. If we — those whom the Putin government makes sick to our stomach — are so few, why should we keep our tranquil compatriots from living happily?
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the rest of the autumn was one of the most depressing periods of my life. It’s hard to feel like a stranger in one’s own country — especially for a writer.
Then came December, and in literally a few days Russia awoke and became an entirely different country. Suddenly it was apparent that people like me were not a marginal minority, that we were many. In Moscow we’re actually a clear majority.
All talk of leaving vanished in my circle, as if it had never happened. The discovery that made us euphoric can be summed up in four words: “This is our country.” The last time we felt this way was 20 years ago, when the Communist regime collapsed.
From outside, the events in Russia may resemble the revolutionary storm that swept through Arab countries, ridding them of authoritarian regimes. But the analogy is deceptive. The only similarity is the important role of social networks in organizing spontaneous protests. What is happening in Russia is quite different, and quite unusual: a revolution of the middle class, a class that is inherently nonrevolutionary.
To many people, including Russians themselves, the sudden awakening of society seems like a miracle. But it is not a miracle. It is a consequence of a natural social process. More precisely — two diametrically opposed processes.
The first is the profound changes that have taken place in Russian society over the past two decades. Millions of people learned to live in “wild” capitalism — making a living without government intervention, surviving in a brutally competitive environment, providing a reasonable standard of living for their families. These seeds germinated underground, almost invisibly to the naked eye, and suddenly grass was sprouting everywhere. The black, naked earth suddenly turned green.
This sudden spring was accelerated by a second social process, which also started a few years back: the deepening degradation of the Putin regime. In the absence of any control by elected deputies, courts or the media, the system lapsed into the illusion that everything is permitted, and began to make mistake after mistake, not even realizing that it was destroying itself.
The Russian Spring in the dead of winter was a direct consequence of the Putin-Medvedev swap announced on Sept. 24 and the equally shameless fraud in the parliamentary elections. Suddenly it became clear that Russians would no longer tolerate such stuff. They had grown up, and the authoritarian diapers had become too tight.
Between the two giant rallies on Dec. 10 and 24, Putin still had a chance to reason with the protesters. But the “national leader” (as his supporters like to call the prime minister) made another mistake, a fatal one: He publicly insulted the participants in the movement, saying they were brainwashed and had sold out. After that, the main object of public indignation was Putin himself, and not the ruling party.
In those two weeks, Putin lost the country.
He, of course, has not realized this yet. He thinks it’s all just noisy Muscovites, and that the rest of the country still supports him. Moreover, he truly believes that he will win the presidential election.
In the current circumstances, that can happen only through colossal fraud. And there is no doubt that the enormous crooked machine in charge of counting votes will not stop at any fraud. But the victory will be Pyrrhic. Putin will lose what’s left of his ratings, and will become an all-Russian object of hatred and ridicule. This will be a very weak president, unlikely to survive long in office.
Paradoxical as this may sound, I would prefer if Putin’s regime did not collapse too quickly. Let him resist at least another year or so. If he left right away, without squandering his popularity to the end, he might yet come back in a fully democratic way — when the crisis hits the living standard, people will begin to talk nostalgically of the “fat years.” A “second coming” would be a catastrophe for the country.
In addition, the still very young shoots of civil society need time to grow and become stronger. The best way for them to mature would be a continuing assault on a rigid, unyielding authoritarianism. In such a struggle, civil society would strengthen and learn to organize. A palette of real political parties would develop — not puppets, as in Putin’s Parliament: a powerful democratic center, with the new left of socialists and communists to one side, and the new right of nationalists on the other.
If the change of power occurred after this process was complete, post-Putin Russia would enter relatively painlessly into the next stage of the evolution of the state. Politically, this would be a tumultuous country, with parliamentary crises, abrupt changes of government, demands for impeachment and all the other attributes of a developing democracy.
But in a country in which a middle class had awakened and realized its power, neither the “siloviki” (the power ministers) nor the oligarchs would be able any longer to monopolize power. Nor could one person.
By Boris Akunin, the pen name under which Grigory Chkhartishvili, a Russian writer and literary scholar, has written dozens of best-selling historical detective novels. Under his own name, Chkhartishvili is an expert on Japanese literature. The article was translated from the Russian by the IHT.