Opinion: Russians suffer under Putin. Will they ever kick him out?
What punishment will the Russians suffer?
About a thousand Russian soldiers die every day in Ukraine. Victory is not in sight, and tens of thousands more, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, will die before the end of the war.
The economy is bursting at the seams, living standards are steadily declining, young professionals are either leaving en masse or are about to leave, and every day the prospects for modernization and development of Russia are shrinking.
Russia’s responsibility for the brutal Putin regime and its genocidal war against Ukraine grows with every arrest of a dissident or resistance member in the country and with every death of a Ukrainian abroad. At some point, the collective indifference to suffering and massacres will begin to be fixed on Russian citizens as collective guilt.
Russia has become a pariah. Most of the countries that have historically harbored Russians have closed down, and the Russian language and culture—traditionally Russians’ great pride—has been demoted to instruments of imperial oppression as Putin has used both as weapons.
And yet, almost a year after the invasion of Ukraine, Russians continue to support dictator Putin and the war.
Leaving aside the immorality of such a position, let’s consider only what it says about the desire of the Russian people to seek their own survival. Russia is moving towards Armageddon, and yet most Russians, instead of sounding the alarm and doing everything possible to save their country and themselves from destruction, are either busy attending Putin’s rallies or hiding their heads in the sand.
If Russia really collapses, how many experts in Russia and in the West they are waiting for this, the Russians themselves will be to blame. Except for repeated protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, they have watched Putin build a fascist dictatorship since 1999, seizing territory in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and launching a full-scale invasion of the latter in 2022.
Putin made them feel great again. Putin and his propaganda convinced them that the West is a monster, that Ukrainians are Nazis and Russians are helpless victims. Two decades of authoritarian rule by a charismatic leader have taught them non-resistance, self-doubt, and self-deception. Centuries of political culture that nurtured precisely these views did not help.
Russian citizenship has become, as many liberal oppositionists in Russia and Ukraine like to say, “zombified” – a living dead. This metaphor is taken to a terrifying extreme as wave after wave of inexperienced Russians who shouldn’t be on the front lines continue to attack even as Ukrainian forces mow them down.
Putin also frightened the Russians by signaling that any act of public protest would immediately result in jail time or worse. Last year, the secret police devastated small pockets of civil society – autonomous social, political and cultural institutions that encourage collective action – that barely survived two decades of Putin’s iron rule.
As one independent Russian journalist wrote using a pseudonym, “There is no heroism left in Russia, whether you stay or leave, or go to jail, or remain free. Everyone walks into 2023 alone, no matter how many people are around.”
The picture is depressing, but not entirely hopeless. Thousands of Russians took to the streets immediately after the invasion. The Russians blew up dozens of recruiting stations. A pseudonymous journalist wrote last month: “Many people continue to do important work. Helping the millions of Ukrainians who ended up in Russia as a result of the invasion is what I do. Or feeding the homeless. Supporting each other. Protecting political prisoners and writing letters to them.
The problem is that, in her words, these tens of thousands of people “have no representation.” And Putin, a career KGB officer, knows full well that preventing the emergence of a strong Russian civil society is the key to his continued misrule in Russia.
If the only factor contributing to the development of civil society were a democratic political culture, Russia would be hopeless. But, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s post-Stalin thaw and perestroika show, Russians can act collectively and autonomously when repression eases and the threat of immediate arrest recedes. This is partly because even today many Russians continue to hold critical views of Putin and the regime.
Andrey Kolesnikov Two weeks ago, a spokesman for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote: “Classic literary works with subtle anti-war messages are especially popular in Russia right now. The most read book at the beginning of last year was George Orwell’s 1984. Other well-selling books include books about everyday life in Germany in the 1930s, in which people recognize themselves and their fears.
Collective action against the regime will only happen in Putin’s Russia if he leaves and the power struggle reduces the regime’s ability to crack down—or if Russia is defeated in the war. In both cases, the “forces of coercion” will be weakened and popular protest will become possible. And in both cases, Russia’s defeat in the war would trigger Putin’s exit and weaken the army and secret police.
The victory of Ukraine would be a boon not only for Ukraine and the world. This would be the salvation of Russia.
Alexander J. Motyl, specialist in Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, professor of political science at Rutgers University.