If only because nothing lasts forever, because no one lives forever, the Putin era in Russia will eventually end. President Vladimir V. Putin is 64 years old, and those who oppose his regime are focusing their attention on imagining what will happen after him — especially since his government’s ongoing crackdown makes it so difficult to focus on the present.
Many anti-Putin activists have been forced into exile in the last few years. Two prominent ones among them, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who now lives in New York, and the former oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London, have started organizations that set their sights on the political after. Both men have said that they want to create a sort of human-resources department for a future Russia that will be able to fill tens of thousands of government jobs.
In addition, Mr. Kasparov has launched the Free Russia Forum, a gathering of activists and intellectuals who try to hash out ideas that may someday turn into policies. Two such gatherings have been held so far in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in March and October of this year.
Imagining Russia after Putin begins with its literal contour. The Russian population is sharply and unevenly divided on this issue, and so are its exiles.
Mr. Kasparov insists that Russia must withdraw from Crimea, which it illegally annexed in March 2014. Mr. Khodorkovsky has said that while the annexation was illegal, the future of the peninsula will have to be negotiated.
The map of post-Putin Russia might undergo other changes. The country inherited a complicated federal structure from the Soviet Union: It contains 83 republics, regions and administrative districts — or 85, according to Russian law, including annexed Crimea, which alone counts for two — all of them with different formal rights relative to the government in Moscow. Since Mr. Putin took power in 1999, members of the Russian Federation have lost most of their autonomy: They can no longer elect their governors, and they control only a tiny portion of the taxes collected on their territories. But even as Moscow has exerted ever-greater control, the centrifugal pull on the regions has increased.
Parts of the Far East have forged stronger economic ties with China and South Korea, and Moscow has had to expend both brutal force and extravagant investment to keep Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus in line. Participants in October’s Free Russia Forum generally took it as a given that in the event of regime change, Moscow’s relationship with the other 82 regions will have to be renegotiated — and that the chances of those negotiations being peaceful, and of Russia retaining its current borders, were slim.
Among participants in last month’s forum in Vilnius were one pro-secession activist from Buryatiya, a republic within Russia that shares a border with Mongolia, and another activist originally from St. Petersburg, which is close to Russia’s border with Finland.
Dorjo Dugarov, who said that persecution had recently forced him to move to Lithuania, blamed ethnic prejudice and Russian-only education policies for fueling a nationalist movement in Buryatiya. “The only way out that we see is to create a confederation like the European Union,” he said, speaking on a panel on federalism. “Then we won’t have this situation where we are citizens but feel like foreigners.”
“I can tell you that things are not going to end well,” said Pavel Mezerin, the activist from St. Petersburg, who now lives in Ukraine. “It will be a war of all against all. Then there will be chaos, then there will be local organizing, and only then will we be able to raise the question of a possible confederation.”
A young man stood up in the audience and exclaimed, “We are never going to be able to build a free Russia as a federation!”
Shortly after, the discussion, which had run over, descended into chaos. The moderator, the St. Petersburg-based journalist Svetlana Gavrilina, interrupted speakers and wrested the microphone away from audience members who were commenting.
“You twisted my words!” the Moscow-based philosopher Igor Chubais, shouted to her.
“Get used to it,” Ms. Gavrilina snapped back.
This was perhaps a preview of what Russia might look and sound like when it tries to figure what its future structure should be: a debate that came to a messy end before its terms could even be defined.
What form of government should a post-Putin Russia choose? Participants at the forum generally assumed, or at least seemed to hope, that it will be democracy. But concepts of democracy vary.
Russia has experimented with democracy twice — for some months in 1917 and again for a bit less than a decade in the 1990s — but it missed out on most of the Western world’s debates about it. Most Russians probably understand democracy to mean simply the rule of the majority; many associate it with cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. Russian television portrays Western democratic systems as rigged and rotten, while also claiming that the ways Russia has come by its government are democratic.
The question of what constitutes democracy did not have time to be hashed out in the Russian public sphere before that sphere began disappearing a decade and a half ago. It was no surprise, then, that the exiles in Vilnius did not have a unified vision of the democracy to come.
Some participants suggested granting the right to vote only to people who are educated and pay taxes. Others debated Russia’s constitutional structure. Should power be taken away from the president and a stronger parliament created instead? Do the country’s problems lie with the Constitution itself, or with the man who has seized the powerful office of president? Who should decide? Russia’s current Constitution was drafted hastily behind closed doors in 1993, following then-president Boris Yeltsin’s bloody crackdown on a rebellious Parliament.
How to ensure that any new Constitution would be more representative? Who will run the country, and how, while such decisions are being made? Even if the Constitution remains unchanged, current electoral laws, and the institutions that enforce them, are unsuitable for the job of creating a democratic government. A transition period is inevitable, and inevitably it will be perilous.
The transition will require a wide-ranging public discussion. But what will be the language of a post-Putin Russia? That is, where will the Russian words for a new country be found? Key concepts have been distorted by misuse and discredited by decades of Soviet and then Putin-era propaganda. “Democrat” has become an insult; “freedom of speech” is invoked to legitimize hate speech even while people are being jailed for expressing their political views. The corruption of language reflects a general lack of trust in democratic mechanisms and widespread dismissal of democratic values.
Then there is the issue of securing the democratic gains that will undoubtedly be won hard, if they are won at all.
How would a Russian democracy protect itself from another hostile takeover from within? Over the last few years, activists have revived talk of lustration, a post-Communist concept that means weeding out certain people from certain offices. Some former Eastern European countries, for example, banned Soviet-era secret-police agents from holding any civic office. Russia opted against lustration back in the 1990s for fear of sowing social division. If it had made a different choice back then, Mr. Putin, as a former K.G.B. agent, would probably have been disqualified from holding state office.
But what should lustration be like? Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian parliament who now lives in Ukraine, has argued for what he calls a “class-based approach.” (Mr. Ponomarev is a Marxist.) In his scheme, people who have risen above a certain rank in the civil service under the current regime would not be allowed to work for a future Russian state. Another approach calls for case-by-case review — which leaves open the question of what deeds should disqualify people from working for the state.
The individual-review approach also seems invasive, as well as unrealistic, because of the number of cases that would need to be reviewed. At the same time, the class-based approach raises the specter of collective guilt, which understandably frightens Russian opposition activists. It also involves coming up with some categorical take on Russia’s current regime.
And about that, too, opposition activists have widely different views. In Moscow intellectual circles, the phrase “hybrid regime” has become over the last few years a popular way of explaining why Russia can appear to combine autocracy with some democratic procedures. Terminology matters: If the future leaders of Russia view Putinism as a hybrid regime, they are likely to speak in favor of incremental change.
But the phrase had no currency at the Vilnius forum in October. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser of Mr. Putin who now lives in Washington, called Russia a “semi-totalitarian regime.” Mr. Kasparov called it a “personalistic dictatorship with distinct elements of fascism.” Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist from Moscow, called it “a semi-frozen half-fallen empire combined with a gas pump.” Andrei Piontkovsky, a nuclear-security expert who has fled Moscow for Lithuania, described Russia as a country “gripped by military hysteria intensifying by the hour and threatening to turn into an actual military conflict.”
As a participant in one of the discussions, I suggested describing contemporary Russia as a mafia state with a totalitarian society. While the state is being run like a clan, and the clan’s sole interest lies in accumulating wealth and maintaining its grip on power, society has reverted to old Soviet habits. The arrangement suits both sides, even if it benefits only the ruling clan. Creating a new social understanding will not only require a change of regime, lustration and possibly a new Constitution; it will also mean addressing the trauma that makes Russian society so readily snap into formation.
The challenge of reforming and healing Russia may exceed human capacity, and it certainly exceeds the capacity of a few hundred exiles, even if they are among the few people seriously hashing out the country’s future.
One Russian Revolution — the one carried out by Bolsheviks 99 years ago — was planned and partially executed by that era’s exiles. Subsequent generations of exiles who organized in the hope of toppling the Soviet regime were notably less effective. Our crop of Russian émigrés has been asking itself whether it can repeat the Bolsheviks’ feat in reverse, and bring democracy to Russia.
And for us, as for all new exiles, the central, personal dilemma is this: Should you give up on a country that doesn’t want you and build a solid life in more-hospitable lands? Or should you fight for the right to return and a place to return to?
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.