In Russia, the old saying goes, the tsar is always right.
Whether an imperial Romanov, a Soviet commissar or President Vladimir Putin, no matter how harsh the regime, Russians have traditionally viewed their leaders as virtually infallible.
Contrary to the logic that oppression breeds discontent, Russians have endured some of the worst despots in history, yet they have a near-apocalyptic fear of change of power. The end of a regime promises not hope but a cataclysm.
Throughout Russian history, the population has supported its leaders regardless of the policies they implement, often despite them. This explains the Russian people’s enduring devotion to a “strong hand” ruler, and their equal distrust of pluralist democracy. In addition, when the “other” — for example, the United States or European Union — lectures the Kremlin on its oppressive politics, Russians band together even more tightly behind their ruler. As we are seeing with Putin today.
So the hopeful expectations that the Moscow protests sparked by the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov might sweep out the Putin regime may be far too hopeful.
Polls in February, just days before Nemtsov’s murder, show that only 15 percent of the public sympathized with the opposition, while 68 percent did not. A majority, 54 percent, think Russia under Putin is “heading in the right direction.”
Russians continue to like Putinism, a hybrid of central power, KGB-ism, state-controlled market economics with such freedoms as selective protests or publication of a few independent newspapers. Yet critics insist that if Putinism made sense in the 2000s, it doesn’t any more.
High oil prices earlier this century gave Russians a stable job market and access to consumer and luxury products they had never experienced before, this argument goes. The stability helped foster widespread public trust in the superiority of Russia’s state-directed, oil-driven businesses over an uncontrollable free-market version of capitalism.
Putin’s policies, however, have now brought on crippling Western economic sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last March. Political opponents are no longer just arrested, as was anticorruption lawyer Alexei Navalny; they are being killed. There were, of course, deaths before — anti-Kremlin journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned downed in her building’s elevator. But Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister and Putin colleague, was the first prominent politician to lose his life to Putinism.
Yet only 12 percent of Russians think that they should confront Putin through demonstrations. The rest believe that it is far more important that Putin is standing up against the West. For they also believe the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to see Russia weak and brought “to its knees.”
True, Russians are not getting all the news. Roughly 90 percent of the population receives information from the Kremlin-controlled TV networks, which are afire with U.S. bashing and European Union thrashing because of their unwillingness to accept Russia as an equal. The problem may be, however, that Russians want to believe this inaccurate view. Alternative news sources, including the Internet, are available but remain largely unused.
Consider: Russians don’t want to think of themselves as aggressors in eastern Ukraine, so they choose the news that tells them the West created the Ukrainian crisis to undermine Russia’s position in the world.
Russians don’t want to be the citizens of a weak, insignificant country. It is hard for them to admit that since the end of communism in 1991, Russia has been losing size and status, even as Western cultural and economic influences increase. Russians historically came to believe that influencing Ukraine’s affairs is their right because Ukraine had long been a part of the immense empire. They may feel that the deaths of Putin’s opponents are sad occurrences; but they argue that, ultimately, it’s the critics’ fault because they are Western puppets hatefully presenting the Kremlin in an unfavorable light.
To show that Russia hasn’t entirely lost its famed soul to Putinism, an estimated 50,000 marched in Moscow to honor Nemtsov last week. Thousands more came to his funeral — but only because these events had few political slogans.
Russia’s reluctance to protest, though there have been occasional large waves of dissent, including the 2011-12 protests against Putin returning to the Kremlin for his third presidential term, reflects both our love for the tsar and our ingrained anti-Westernism. The 19th-century Russian Tsar Alexander III, a conservative, anti-European nationalist, once announced that Russia has only two allies — the army and the navy.
This attitude was shared by 20th-century Communists, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. They both closed Soviet borders in an effort to restrict Western influences. Stalin repeatedly eliminated his political opponents — for example, prominent Bolshevik ideologue Nikolai Bukharin — by accusing them of being British capitalist spies.
Competition usually makes the Russian people feel insecure. When they don’t feel on top of the world, they accuse others of sabotaging their success. Nemtsov was wrong to say that Putin, a former KGB recruiter who used to read people for a living, “has programmed Russians to hate strangers.” Putin didn’t need to do this. We Russians can be patriotically bigoted and nationalistically narrow-minded all by ourselves.
Therefore, tens of thousands of challengers who went to the streets to pay respect to Nemtsov’s memory won’t pose a threat to the Kremlin rule. There will still be millions who support the state, dutifully rallying behind the flag against the West and warning of chaos that may come if Putin is dismissed.
One hope remains, however: a palace coup. Other politicians, frightened by the prospect of untimely death in Putin’s Russia, may decide to put an end to Putinism.
Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at the New School University in New York City. She is the author of The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.