Meanwhile, there are technically private companies owned by “Putin’s friends” (such as Surgutneftegaz), meaning that the percentage of people who are paid by the state is close to the results of polls that constantly attest to Russians’ loyalty to the regime.
And even if a citizen were to work up the courage to ask what his taxes are being spent on, how would he force the authorities to spend the money differently? Through elections? The electoral system in Russia is controlled by the Kremlin. Through protests? In recent years, they have essentially been banned. There are no legal channels to influence the Russian government.
Even in dictatorships, there are always entrenched institutions that the dictatorship must reckon with. In Poland at the end of the 20th century, when the communist authorities opposed Solidarność, the Catholic Church, which could say “no” to the totalitarian regime, was a reliable ally of protesting citizens. In African and Latin American countries, if a dictator began to completely lose his sense of proportion, military coups were par for the course – the army turned out to be an institution capable of keeping the country from slipping into insanity.
Putin’s Russia has problems neither with the Church nor the army, nor theaters. All the institutions of post-Soviet Russia have been preserved as the Soviet authorities shaped them for their own needs. Destroyed in the early 1920s, the Church was resurrected by Stalin during World War II – naturally, the process was entirely orchestrated by the state, and to this day the patriarch demonstrates his utmost loyalty to Vladimir Putin on a daily basis, while nowadays there is much less Christianity than militaristic rhetoric in his sermons, indistinguishable from what Russian politicians say from their podiums.
The Russian army is the direct heir of the Red Army, created by Lenin and Trotsky in 1918 and maintained since then. When the Bolsheviks needed to look after the old military specialists who they suspected of disloyalty, a system of control by special services and political structures was put in place.
As for the creative intelligentsia, here the post-Soviet government left the Soviet legacy behind. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, Kremlin-controlled magazines could print Solzhenitsyn (until 1974), Tarkovsky films were shot in state film studios, and theaters put on plays full of political allusions understandable to the Soviet audience, like Hamlet. Even before the war, the Presidential Administration took a tough line toward state-subsidized film studios and theaters (there is practically no money in this sphere), openly declaring that political disloyalty meant no support from the state. Since the outbreak of war, many actors disloyal to the Kremlin have lost their jobs, including 84-year-old theater and film star Liya Akhedzhakova, known for her sharp political statements.
In contrast to the Soviet period, when the authorities put communist ideology at the center of state life, Putin’s state is emphatically non-ideological. Instead of communism, and in many ways instead of religion, there is a hypertrophied worship of the victory over Nazi Germany, reinvented by the Kremlin’s political strategists for the 21st century. In the Soviet years, the memory of the war was tragic, with the song dedicated to the victory referring to it as a “celebration with tears in the eyes,” while the most popular film about the soldiers who fought did not contain battle scenes and discussed how they could not find themselves in civilian life, like something out of Remarque. Writers and public figures who went through the war paid much attention to its cost – 27 million dead – and Stalin’s mistakes in the war.
Now such conversations are a criminal offense, and the memory of the war has been scrubbed of tragic notes and hints at an inevitable revanche in the confrontation with the West. It was under Putin that the slogan “We can repeat it” (“Mozhem povtorit’”) appeared – several years before Putin actually decided to repeat it in Ukraine.
It’s not the propaganda
Does the intrusive propaganda of values, hastily concocted by the Kremlin’s strategists, resonate with Russians? In the short run, obviously yes. Though people are out there who seriously believe that the Ukrainian state has been taken over by Nazis and is in need of liberation, the more propaganda is pumped out, the more cynicism, apathy and disbelief there is. Kremlin propagandists often do not even try to pretend to believe what they say on TV, and they are hardly any different from ordinary budzhetniks nodding in support of Putin’s last speech. Propagandists and budzhetniks are on different levels of the same system – they are bound by social and economic conditions that link ordinary welfare with loyalty.
It is this circumstance that renders meaningless the issue of Russians and unfreedom. In spheres where they are not dependent on the state, Russians are indistinguishable from people in any Western society. It is telling that the profession most often mentioned, even by officials, in relation to the mass emigration after the start of the war and amid the mobilization has been IT specialists, as they can work remotely. It’s not that IT people are more freedom-loving, it’s just that their way of life allows them to pay no heed to the state, which is a well-understood privilege compared to their fellow citizens who are forced to go to work in a state-owned company and risk being shipped off to fight in the war. If the Russian economy were freer, if people’s dependence on the state were not so unbearable, there would be no reason to see Russians as obedient cogs in the state system.
You might think that sanctions against Putin’s Russia are weakening the system of dependence built by the state and thus citizens’ loyalty, but no – sanctions are increasing people’s dependence on the state. Firstly, the shrinking of opportunities in the economy, along with the impoverishment of citizens, allows the state to get rid of the burdensome social obligations without taking responsibility for them. Secondly, it makes the state even more dominant as an employer, literally a savior ready to take care of citizens in the face of market forces.
The gradual weakening of the Russian economy is pushing society into poverty without the experience of a shock – a similar situation, albeit on a smaller scale, was seen after 2014 by the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, for whom poverty has become a reason not for revolt, but for gratitude toward the occupation regime for household utilities and a living wage.