Late last week, Sergei Guriev, a respected economic adviser to the Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, announced from Paris that he was not returning to Russia. The former rector of Moscow’s liberal New Economic School, where Barack Obama spoke in 2009, had come under investigation from the state prosecutor’s office after criticizing the ongoing incarceration of the former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“I won’t go back even if there is a small chance of losing my freedom,” he told a reporter for this newspaper. “I have not done anything wrong and do not want to live in fear.”
Guriev’s self-exile is the latest in a series of recent departures from government by wealthy, educated and Westernized elites who had aligned themselves with the leadership’s more liberal Medvedev-led faction, which as become increasingly beleaguered since President Vladimir Putin’s controversial re-election in May 2012.
Earlier, the banker Pavel Borodin was granted political asylum in Britain. The American financier William Browder was deported from Russia. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former chief propagandist, was recently dismissed from government and is now also reportedly being investigated.
The most common narrative surrounding the crackdown describes it as a stealth purge against the country’s best and brightest.
“We’re talking about a major brain drain,” Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Moscow’s chapter of Human Rights Watch, told The Moscow Times.
But another key characteristic many of these men share is their former loyalty to the government they are now leaving: a stark reminder that Putinism was built with the massive complicity of the country’s liberal elite, much of which has stood by the regime through its worst excesses of the past decade.
Apart from the anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny and a few other exceptions, like the leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, many of the high-profile victims of Putin’s latest purge had been enthusiastic fellow travelers, even enablers of the regime.
Guriev was a long-time ally of Medvedev. Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief ideologue in Putin’s first term who constructed the entire ideological carapace that is now being deployed against him. Browder and Pavel Borodin spent years accumulating shady money while talking up Putin to foreign investors until their game was up. For years they reaped the fruits of such collaboration: prestigious government and academic positions, lucrative consultant jobs, the freedom and money to buy property abroad (including, in Guriev’s case, a Paris apartment where he is now hiding out).
Is it any wonder that as they begin to turn away from Putin, he would try to destroy them?
As more and more former insiders fall foul of the Kremlin, parallels with the Stalinist purges have begun to appear in the media. In the 1930s, nearly everyone in the government was vulnerable to blackmail for having colluded in earlier rounds of witch hunts against old friends. And those few who hadn’t could be safely rounded up anyway — because no one would believe the possibility of innocence.
East Germany also springs to mind, where Putin’s service as a K.G.B. agent may have taught him some old Stasi methods.
Yet there is a key difference between those historical episodes and the present situation: the absence of force. Under communism, people were forced to collaborate with the security services (even then, there were thousands who refused). But in the absence of such totalitarian means of coercion in today’s Russia, who or what, apart from his own greed and ambition, made Guriev and those like him shill for the Kremlin for all those years?
“I have no complaints about Vladimir Putin or Dmitri Medvedev,” Guriev told the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy as late as last week. The statement is telling: Could Guriev really not think of anything to complain about after two rigged elections and at least five years into the largest crackdown on civil rights since the Brezhnev era?
Yet whatever one might think about their principles, there is little doubt that the crackdown on Guriev and others is obscene, politically motivated and entirely at odds with the rule of law. Nothing can justify the Kremlin’s treatment of these dissenters, even if they had in many ways set their own traps.
But they should not expect much by way of popular sympathy. After all, during their time in the sun, few of them expressed much concern for the plight of ordinary citizens, many more of whom remain on government hand-outs than have found wealth and success under Putin.
So long as the fallout now suffered by the Guriev class remains a minority affliction, their current travails are unlikely to rouse any major solidarity among their less fortunate countrymen, who have yet to become fully fledged stakeholders in the system. Meanwhile, the crackdown is being framed in much of the Western media as an assault on Russia’s best and brightest.
But having arrived at the top by hitching themselves to the Kremlin’s leviathan, can the new dissenters really justify such a label, let alone be taken seriously as principled dissenters?
Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russia analyst.