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In 2014, the evolution of President Vladimir Putin’s regime appeared to culminate in the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea. A radically new era seemed to be dawning. To some extent, this has been the case. The immediate and long-term effect of the peninsula’s return on the collective consciousness of Russians and on the position of the country’s elites is unrivaled in Russia’s post-Soviet history, perhaps with the exceptions of the liberalization of prices in 1992, the Chechen wars, and the transfer of power from former president Boris Yeltsin to Putin.
Nevertheless, the annexation of Crimea only formalized an intermediary phase in the development of Russia’s political system, which started at the beginning of Putin’s latest presidential term in 2012 and is characterized by growing authoritarianism and isolationism. The trajectory effectively originated in 2003, when the course for a more authoritarian political system was set following the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the defeat of democratic parties in the parliamentary election.
The concept of Crimea’s return was peddled with marked ease thanks to the assistance of the so-called “polite people” of the Russian armed forces, whose existence later gave rise to the notion of a “most polite president.” Everyone who backed the idea of reclaiming the territory of Crimea—that is, the majority of the Russian population—likewise supported the means through which the annexation was accomplished.
In a sense, the concepts of Putin and Crimea have become synonymous. According to a January 2016 Levada Center survey, 83 percent of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea, and only 13 percent opposed it, while Putin enjoyed an 82 percent approval rating. Very few people, only 4 percent, told pollsters that they found it difficult to answer. The Crimean gambit fits firmly into the overarching mythological narrative of the restoration of Russia’s great power status (see figures 1 and 2). (See my article “Russian Ideology After Crimea” for more details on the importance of this ideology.)
It appears that in order to get off its knees, Russia felt it had to reclaim a key imperial territory that is rich in symbolism and full of nostalgic, historical, and nationalist significance.
On March 1, 2014, the Federation Council approved Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine. On March 16, a referendum was held in Crimea on the status of the region. According to Putin, voter turnout on the peninsula exceeded 82 percent, and more than 96 percent voted in favor of reunification with Russia. On March 18, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Crimea signed an agreement on Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation and the establishment of new constituent entities in the Russian Federation. Three days later, Putin signed laws on the admission of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation. Later that month, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko noted at Putin’s meeting with members of the Federation Council, “Russia is a different country since the historic event of Crimea’s reunification with Russia. It’s been a long time since our citizens have experienced such pride, patriotism, and national solidarity. Support for the president’s policy has not been this unanimous in all of Russia’s contemporary history.” This was an important pronouncement, not just idle words uttered in the spirit of the moment. The effect of the annexation of Crimea on Russia’s collective consciousness was so powerful that, two years later, near-unanimous popular support endures, which undergirds Putin’s popularity. His approval rating serves as an indicator and reminder of the population’s support for what occurred.
Most Russians probably know little about Catherine II’s Greek Project, which aspired to create a Garden of Eden in the Taurida Governorate following the annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Empire in 1783. However, the ideological effects of the capture of Crimea in the early twenty-first century without a single shot being fired parallel those witnessed in the late eighteenth century, mixing astonishment, pride, and elation. In his ode “On the Acquisition of Crimea,” Russian poet Gavrila Derzhavin (1743–1816) underscored the peaceful nature of the annexation: “Crowned you with bloodless laurels.”1 Centuries later, Putin’s speechwriters—or perhaps the orator himself—reiterated the sentiment in prose on March 18, 2014: “They keep talking of some Russian intervention in Crimea, some sort of aggression. This is strange to hear. I cannot recall a single case in history of an intervention without a single shot being fired and with no human casualties.” In this same address, the president spoke to State Duma deputies, Federation Council senators, heads of regions, and civil society representatives about the importance of Crimea for the Russian national consciousness. “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia,” he said. “This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire twentieth century.”
Unknown artist. Catherine the Great's Journey to the South of Russia. Source: aria-art.ru
In the consciousness of most Russians, Crimea is culturally and geographically part of the empire. The majority’s support for the annexation is not so much a sign of Russian nationalism as it is a sign of Russian imperialism, with its attendant phantom pains and vestiges. This phenomenon is why the Crimea effect has been so powerful, and why the post-Crimea consensus has remained so stable.
Of course, Russia does not possess the power and resources to re-create its empire, even within the confines of the abstract Russian world. Putin admits as much himself. However, in order to revive the feeling of restored historical justice, to reinforce the sentiment of a return to great power status, and to find a cause for solidarity and consolidation, it was important for Moscow to select just the right location. Crimea had become a locus of cultural and historical geography—a meaningful, multiform concept and a component of Russian self-identity, which is generally not deeply analyzed or clearly articulated. The Crimean concept unites people through an intuitive and emotional discourse rather than a rational response.
Many years before the annexation, historian Andrei Zorin used the mythology of Crimea as an example of how cultural memory is transmitted. He posited that for many Russians, “possessing Crimea represents the pinnacle of Russia’s historical mission, the purpose of its civilization. . . . A realm of white houses adorning the seaside, gravel footpaths winding among laurel bushes, alabaster vases and statues dotting cypress alleys, red-kerchiefed trumpeters playing reveille at the famed Artek summer camp, vacationers strolling around in light-colored pajamas—this is our Ancient Greece, our paradise, albeit purged of its ethnic diversity by Stalin during the postwar years, but accessible to those denizens of the empire who can secure trip vouchers from their labor unions or youth organizations.” 2
Crimea’s importance lies in the psychological notion that the annexation is specifically a return—to harmony, to ideal justice, to a lost paradise.
For many Russian progressives, even those who rallied in Bolotnaya Square in 2011–2012, the annexation of Crimea has become an excuse to finally start supporting Putin, even if they have reservations about doing so. While this trend is difficult to prove with sociological data, it is nonetheless easy to observe via social networks. Individuals across all age groups and educational levels approve of the annexation; the majority—even among the intelligentsia and the former “angry urbanites” who took to the streets—does not question the legitimacy and moral justifiability of the actions of Russian authorities in March 2014.
Konstantin Kostin, a former official in the presidential administration and now a political analyst close to the Kremlin, recently offered a sobering assessment of the situation in an interview with Interfax: “Until the events in Crimea, potential support for such a [liberal] party was about 15 percent. Today, the liberals who went against the national consensus on Crimea have lost many of their supporters. As a result, the liberal wing has split into patriotic liberals and pro-Western liberals.”
Nevertheless, the annexation divided the nation instead of uniting it. Aggressive supporters of Putin and his actions label those who are not part of the post-Crimea majority as being, naturally, against it. The severity of the split is unmistakable. Opponents of the annexation remain intractable: they view Crimea as an occupied territory, and they are morally opposed to visiting the region. At the same time, these opponents are a small minority; although they are not literally outcasts, they feel very uncomfortable surrounded by the largely aggressive supporters of the annexation, and they are labeled “traitors.” On March 18, 2014, Putin set the tone for this attitude toward the disgruntled minority: “Obviously, we will encounter external opposition, but this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves. Are we ready to consistently defend our national interests, or will we forever give in, retreat to who knows where? Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors,’ or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?”
Serious shifts in public opinion commenced with the annexation of Crimea, reinforcing a trend in the mass consciousness toward greater statism, nostalgia for the Soviet past, and an aversion to liberal ideas.
Public opinion has effectively begun to mindlessly mirror Putin’s statements and actions. Russian democracy was born out of protest movements—namely, the demonstrations during the perestroika era and the social movements that reached their zenith in August 1991. Putin himself is, administratively and politically, an heir to Boris Yeltsin and the so-called Family. Yet even so, the attitudes of the post-Crimea majority toward political rallies, Yeltsin, politician Yegor Gaidar’s reforms, and the USSR are diametrically opposed to the fundamental and shared values of the early 1990s. It is rather striking (not to mention unusual) that the country’s ruling elite and the dominant public opinion vehemently deny that anything positive happened in the first years of their own state’s existence. Likewise, the regime in Moscow traces its lineage not necessarily to the broader Soviet period but to the Stalinist period. This is largely because Putin, who sets the tone for public opinion, views former leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and Vladimir Lenin negatively, while harboring decidedly mixed feelings about Joseph Stalin.
Participants at a March 18, 2016 rally in Vladivostok dedicated to the second anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Photo by Yuriy Smityuk/TASS
Faster shifts in public opinion are another new feature of the current Russian collective consciousness. People pay little attention to nuances and contradictions, and they do not bother to think deeply. They see no connection between the decisions of their rulers and their own depressed state. Instead, they blame their less-than-stellar socioeconomic conditions on the United States, the West in general, and the policies of Putin’s predecessors—namely Yeltsin and Gaidar, but also Lenin, whom Putin accuses of creating many problems that still reverberate today.
Yes, the average post-Soviet Russian acquired Crimea while sitting on the couch, wearing slippers, and holding the TV remote. But his or her feelings about the annexation are not merely the result of manipulation; the phenomenon is more complex. And public opinion polls reveal more than simple fear. They also demonstrate a refusal to analyze the situation, a desire to stay in line with the majority, and an inclination to adapt to the existing climate of opinions—that is, they exhibit typical crowd psychology, described many years ago by sociologist Gustave Le Bon and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset.
The expert community was nearly torn apart by fervent debates regarding the credibility of public opinion surveys and the various measures of approval for the regime, in particular. It is true that the average survey respondent or focus group participant finds it easier to say that he supports a leader than to say that he does not. This is not just a result of fear and suspicion but also a reflection of passive conformism that occasionally escalates to aggressive conformism. Likewise, such a response represents support for an immutable quantity: a government that has remained in power for more than a decade and a half. (Indeed, an entire generation has never known, or does not remember, state leaders other than Putin.) This lack of aspiration for change is one of the main characteristics of today’s collective consciousness and resembles the collective consciousness that prevailed during the Soviet period. In this sense, the period of perestroika and the first few months of the new Russia were unique.
When it comes to disputes about the credibility of surveys, I find the position of Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov to be the most reasonable and convincing, from a practical standpoint: “It is difficult to assess the candidness of respondents, but the important thing is that it is a constant. The Levada Center, like most polling organizations, uses the same methodology in the majority of its surveys: personal interviews conducted in the homes of respondents. People’s accessibility—that is, their willingness to take part in surveys—has not changed over the past twenty years. The same number of people open their doors today as did two or five years ago, and almost all respondents still provide their contact information at the end of the interview in order to make it possible to verify that the survey was carried out.”
To be sure, most people think axiomatically. That is, Russia is a country of people who find questions difficult to answer. This is neither good nor bad, necessarily, but a mere reality. Now the situation is starting to change because those who do not have personal opinions have no trouble embracing positions formed for them by others—on Crimea, on consolidation, on unity, and on the restoration of Russia’s great power status. For many years, Russia has lacked variety when it comes to political parties and politicians, a shortfall that has left most people feeling that they have no alternatives and that the current regime is effectively permanent.
Another reason that Russians support the regime is that it is the source of benefits, perks, privileges, and funds. Only the regime can change laws, resolve problems, and punish offenders. The opposition, of course, cannot, as it is bound to remain without real powers—it is clear to all how much the authorities have oppressed, and continue to oppress, their opponents. Most Russians believe that their country has only one effective institution: the presidency. Accordingly, they will trust, vote for, and approve of this institution. Instead of protesting against the president—that is, against the system—they will appeal to the president in the hopes of gaining support, money, social benefits, and favorable legislative amendments, as was the case during the truckers’ protests against the Platon payment system.
War has been another mobilizing factor. In the eyes of the public, the peaceful annexation of Crimea catalyzed a number of triumphant, just, defensive, and preventive military operations, such as those in the Donbas and in Syria, in addition to the trade war with Turkey. The Russian majority supports the government’s heavily militarized discourse, the use of force, and increased defense spending in order to sustain a key value in the collective consciousness—stability. The public embraces the need to protect Russia’s recently reacquired great power status, which relies on both military and geopolitical might.
It is hard to find anyone more knowledgeable about the remarkable ability of average Russians to adapt to worsening economic conditions than Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in economic geography. She wrote: “The Russian periphery, which is used to everything, will grow dependent on subsistence farming—more potatoes, more chickens, another feeder piglet. In addition, there will be increased foraging—berries, mushrooms, nuts, any other supplemental foods—with all of this as shadow income.”
Separately, thus far, labor protests have not been a major threat to the authorities. For example, in January 2016, the Center for Social and Labor Rights described a demonstration by construction workers building a perinatal center in Surgut who were not receiving their wages on time as the “protest of the month.” It would have been a stretch to say that their campaign was political or that the construction workers blamed Putin or the current political regime for their problems. Indeed, they would have been more likely to take to the streets against U.S. President Barack Obama or against a so-called fifth column in Russia. In this case, however, the contractor coordinating the project was to blame, not the U.S. military. Incidentally, the total number of Russians who were owed overdue wages at the end of 2015 was 90,000, or 0.12 percent of all employed persons.
Strikes and demands for lost benefits are not claims against the regime but, rather, protests against the local administration or management of enterprises. The federal government and, even more so, the president are not the institutions being criticized; instead, they are the bodies that can resolve problems and punish offenders. Thus, these instances of pushback are appeals to the regime, and not protests against it. They are, if you like, open letters to the highest authorities, entreaties for aid, financial assistance, benefits, or retribution.
Meanwhile, the scale of the Russian population’s adaptability is greatly underestimated. And moreover, analysts who have contended that mass unrest will begin in Russia imminently have not taken into account the diversity of subsistence and survival in various regions of the country. (Higher School of Economics professor Simon Kordonsky and his colleagues, for example, have been conducting research in this field.)
The average Russian is quick to revert to the briefly forgotten culture of poverty and to focus on basic necessities—namely, food and clothing—without overanalyzing the nature of the political regime (see, for example, assessments by sociologist Marina Krasilnikova). Data on the situation in the regions—including the problematic, but salvageable, state of local budgets—are not indicative of a large-scale catastrophe that could precipitate mass hunger, strikes, walkouts, or other such protests (see, for example, the Gaidar Institute’s latest economic monitoring report). This form of adaptation is negative, as it is an adjustment to deteriorating rather than improving circumstances. But it is actually a more or less successful acclimatization to external conditions—a decrease to a standard of living and a quality of life that the population is willing to accept as the new normal.
The situation could still change and social protests could become more frequent. The social mood is, to be sure, steadily deteriorating. For instance, the Consumer Sentiment Index is relentlessly decreasing, which, incidentally, results in declining retail turnover.
Crucially, however, social protests are rarely being transformed into political ones. Even the discontented are not quite sure whom they can count on and how far they can go without landing in prison and being branded as extremists. This is an external limitation. But there are also internal limitations: the absence of a single platform for protesters, of a common agenda for various disadvantaged or disgruntled social and professional groups, and of a single leader who might enjoy the confidence of all who are angry—whether that anger is directed toward the regime or toward wage arrears in Surgut.
Local protests are also frequently easy to quell. For example, in January 2016, retirees in Sochi who were upset about changes to the structure of fare discounts blocked traffic on a central street; similar protests in Krasnodar followed. On February 1, 2016, fare discounts for retirees in Krasnodar Krai were restored. Even the protests by truckers—who were clearly treated unfairly and had complaints that hit close to home for many Russians—have yet to acquire a large-scale political character. In December 2015, Putin thought that the problem would be resolved after a 90-fold reduction in fines for nonpayment of tolls on federal highways. However, the truckers were not satisfied and found themselves facing a dilemma. They could either refrain from further action or radicalize—that is, politicize—their protests at the risk of being repressed. It is difficult to gauge the level of support from other citizens, although most Russians clearly sympathize with the truckers. This may be the only truly extraordinary protest in the post-Crimea period. However, its political effect is likely overestimated; the authorities have learned to assess risks associated with such protests and to approach decisionmaking in a calculated way. In late February 2016, the government accepted a resolution indefinitely freezing tolls at 1.53 rubles per kilometer. Previously, tolls had been expected to rise to 3.06 rubles on March 1, 2016.
Elites after Crimea depend entirely on the president, and they are in a permanent state of proving their loyalty to him. This is clear in Chechnya, for instance, which demonstrates a model of public administration based on absolute loyalty in which officials have essentially become Putin’s foot soldiers. This was the logic in the appointment of Alexei Dyumin—an aide-de-camp to Putin during his days as prime minister under Yeltsin—as acting governor of Tula Oblast.
In the system that has crystallized in 2016, it is difficult to predict outcomes, including who might be punished, who might be accused of corruption, who will remain innocent in the eyes of the president and the public, who might be denounced as a failure, and who will be commended for doing a good job. Personnel decisions are frequently made personally by Putin and are at the mercy of his attitude—or indifference—toward particular individuals or ideas. For instance, why has a corruption scandal erupted in the Komi Republic? Why did regional head Vyacheslav Gaizer become a target? Or, on the contrary, why has Prosecutor General Yuriy Chaika remained immune? The answer lies in selective treatment. Officials in post-Crimea Russia are, in essence, appointed as corrupt.
The Russian president follows a similar pattern in managing his inner circle. There have been no wholesale moves to replace the old guard with relatively young and well-regarded technocrats. The departure of Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin remains an isolated incident as of this writing. Still, the Yakunin precedent can serve as excellent incentive and deterrent for the future. Putin clearly wants to refresh and rejuvenate the team that will accompany him into the new political cycle.
At the same time, Putin is known for his cautious and unhurried approach to personnel policy. Furthermore, there are some objective constraints to excessive personnel changes in certain sectors. For example, in this time of mobilization, the security ministers—that is, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu—have become very popular officials, although it would be a stretch to call them politicians. And elections and parliamentary systems would not be viable without Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia chief Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose parties—which are driven more by personality than by ideology—are capable of keeping many nominally leftist or rightist voters within the broader political rubric. When, say, a Stalinist votes for Zyuganov, he does not suspect that he is actually reinforcing the system because the longtime leader of the Communist Party is a pillar of the current political model. At the same time, no one can take Zyuganov’s place. Finding successors for these figures will be a task for the next political cycle.
There is also a group of loyalist liberals who hold key posts in the financial and economic bloc of the government. For Putin, they balance out the hawks in the military and special services, including structures such as the Security Council, which churns out conspiracy theories about the West. In turn, to keep the liberals on their toes, Putin supports counterweights such as ultraconservatives like Sergei Glazyev. The liberal wing has to mitigate the harsh social and economic consequences of political and foreign policy decisions—an important and thankless task. Putin clearly holds the contributions of loyalist liberals—notably their ability to maintain some level of stability—in high regard. He well understands how difficult it is for them to manage trade-offs in a heavily militarized budget to the detriment of productive expenditures on human capital, healthcare, and education.
In the absence of healthy political competition, Putin has built a system of checks and balances around Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Keeping Medvedev in this position serves not only a technical purpose—in the 1990s, a government commission for operational matters had similar responsibilities—but also a political one, allowing the president to keep an equilibrium between hawks and loyalist liberals. Appointing someone too closely identified with either camp—for example, a conservative such as Igor Sechin or a liberal such as Alexei Kudrin—would tilt the system too much one way or the other and upset the balance.
This system of checks and balances precludes the possibility of an anti-Putin conspiracy for three reasons. First, there is no institution that could enact a conspiracy; those who colluded against Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964 could take advantage of the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What platform can Putin’s potential opponents in the elite use to carry out a conspiracy? Second, how can people who depend entirely on the head of state and owe everything to him agree to change their patron and find a figure that would satisfy them all? Some form of agreement would be necessary, at the very least among the siloviki. Third, why should they bother? They are already in power and dominate the elites.
Economically, this coterie is also doing fairly well, even if their incomes have decreased somewhat as a result of the sanctions and falling oil prices. As analyst Kirill Rogov wrote, “The multi-faced ‘party of rent’—the party of those who amassed wealth in the early 2010s by expanding their redistribution practices—has become the ideal audience for Putin’s doctrine of ‘resource sovereignty,’ which is interpreted as a special Russian form of economic development, together with its pro-authoritarian and anti-Western implications. The annexation of Crimea was a signal to this party of the fundamental break with the doctrine of inadequacy within the Russian economic model, of the need for modernization and further Westernization of the social order, and of the reduction of the scale of political centralization and government participation in the economy.”
Furthermore, the bulldozing of retail pavilions in Moscow in February 2016, dubbed the “Night of Long Scoops,” demonstrated that ownership rights are basically meaningless when they interfere with the predilections, aesthetic or otherwise, of top officials with the power to make decisions that are final. That is because no court would dispute the legitimacy of a feudal lord’s actions on his own territory.
These elites have no need for political or economic reforms, regardless of how much the socioeconomic situation deteriorates. And the existing post-Crimea political system is not likely to change materially. The cult of immutability is a pillar of the existing Russian system, just as it was during the late Soviet period.
In the foreign policy arena, the post-Crimea system has become mired in confrontation with the West, without having completed a pivot to Asia. Isolationism in the post-isolation era—that is, the post-Soviet era—is an oddity with which the West is not quite sure how to deal. In such a situation, NATO is once again acquiring ideological and military significance. The Euro-Atlantic alliance was founded on principles of negation; it was the product of the Soviet threat, aligned under a system of values aimed at counteracting this threat. Now, in an era of a loss of universal Western values and a reassessment of the results of globalization, a common platform is reemerging. However, it is once again an identity of negation, of opposing the Russian threat, whether real or imaginary. Russia’s self-identity, based on the government peddling threats to the population, is aggressive and militarized. This is the foundation of the consolidation around the regime.
The current system has existed for a long time. Its key features came into view after the 2012 election and experienced a culminating moment in 2014, when it crossed all remaining redlines. The system is now trying to adapt, with varying degrees of success, to conditions associated with a protracted economic, political, and social depression.
The system, its leader, and the popular majority formed after Crimea will survive the 2018 presidential election. Then, they will have to share responsibility for the depressed state of their country. The existing regime is incapable of democratization, while the elites are afraid of any departure from the equilibrium, even one that might prevent a collapse. It is possible but dangerous—including for the regime itself—to ratchet up repression and overstimulate citizens in an effort to maintain high mobilization. For its part, the government is trying to encourage inertia, but this is becoming increasingly difficult after Crimea, Donbas, Syria, and Turkey. Aggression is self-perpetuating.
Can Russians adapt to deteriorating inertia? Absolutely. But it is impossible to say how long such a process might last and what a way out of the Crimea dead end might look like. To cite the example of Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, the author of the well-known book Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, observers should be asking, “Will the post-Crimea regime survive until 2024?” For the time being, at least until 2018, there is no answer to this question.
1 Andrei Zorin, Kormya dvuglavogo orla... Literatura i gosudarstvennaya ideologiya v Rossii v poslednei treti XVIII−pervoi treti XIX veka [Feeding the double-headed eagle . . . literature and state ideology in Russia in the last third of the eighteenth century and first third of the nineteenth century] (Moscow: Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye, 2001), 98.
2 Ibid, 121.
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