Our unfreedom.
Why Russians don’t resist Putin
March 3, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer
Oleg Kashin attributes Russians’ acquiescence to the war to the omnipotence of the state, a legacy of Soviet totalitarianism. The future of Russia will depend on whether its next leaders are willing and capable of dismantling the system by which citizens are totally dependent on the state.
For Russia, one of the key outcomes of the last year is that mass resistance of Russians to the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin did not materialize, disappointing the hopes of Ukrainian and Western observers. Increasingly, regime critics on both sides of the border are coming to the conclusion that the problem is probably not just the regime, but also Russian society itself, which remains loyal to the state even in a situation where the state is committing crimes on a daily basis.
Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Kyiv, November 2004. Source: Wiki Source
Russians’ tarnished reputation

The silent majority look like accomplices in this war, and among Putin critics it is no longer considered taboo, when analyzing public opinion in Russia, to use the nastiest generalizing clichés like “age-old slaves,” while referring to Russians’ “genetic predisposition” to unfreedom. Whatever the outcome of the war, the Russian people will come out of it with a tarnished reputation – the last year has not given a single sound reason to separate the Russian government and most Russian citizens. In fact, the war of aggression has made common cause between Vladimir Putin and almost all Russians.

For obvious reasons, Ukrainian commentators, including officials, have been the most emotional in their judgement of Russians’ behavior. Contrasting themselves with Russians, they say that Ukrainian are a historically freedom-loving nation that has repeatedly proven its special appreciation of freedom, always being ready to defend it – not only now during the war, but also during the two successful revolutions in Kyiv in the 21st century, and during the fierce armed resistance to Soviet power after World War II. The Russians, meanwhile, had no Maidan, no Bandera. They are supposedly submissive and acquiescent to their rulers – obviously, freedom means much less for Russians than for Ukrainians.

As a Russian, of course, I do not take these reproaches personally. I do not consider myself a slave: I am not loyal to Vladimir Putin, while freedom – personal, professional, creative – is at the center of my entire life. Still, generalizations about Russian unfreedom irritate me, and even though I objectively belong to the small but active minority, and in recent years I have not lived in Russia at all, I would not like to believe that my people are somehow especially predisposed to unfreedom.

Occupation and protest

But the question is not about believing or not believing. There are objective facts. The anti-war protests in Russia amount to a relatively unimpressive list of disparate episodes, most often personal, not collective actions. Millions of Russian citizens not only silently put up with Vladimir Putin, but also willingly participate in the drives organized by the authorities to collect aid for Russian soldiers in Ukraine, while when Putin announced the mobilization, there were noticeably fewer people who wanted to dodge the draft and hurriedly left Russia than those who went to sign up for the war on their own. You can be offended as much as you like, but this is indeed an unfree society, isn’t it?

Probably. However, to lower the triumphant tone of the critics of my people, I want to remind them that last year new people were added to that unfree society, on whose support Vladimir Putin depends. Residents of the occupied cities are not coming out to protest and overthrow the Russian occupation authorities. Sometimes, of course, there is news about partisan attacks, but they are no more numerous than in Russia itself, where, for example, since the start of the mobilization, there have been several dozen incidents of arson targeting military registration and enlistment offices. Overall, the “old” and “new” citizens of Russia now live the same way – adjusting to the Putin regime, without protesting, without resisting.

You might object that in Ukrainian Berdyansk or Melitopol, where Russian troops are on the ground and a Russian administration is operating, political protest is impossible. That is true, but keep in mind that, in fact, troops literally trained for war with their own people are stationed in every Russian city from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok – the special security service Rosgvardiya, under the command of Putin’s long-time bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, was expressly created to suppress mass protests by force. In the Russian news over recent years, there has been no shortage of episodes in which soldiers in uniforms resembling spacesuits (they are sometimes called “cosmonauts”) severely beat protesters, after which lengthy prison sentences are handed out by the Kremlin-controlled courts to both the protest leaders and the widest range of citizens who dare to protest. So, the word “occupation” in relation to your own government might sound strange, but is it not so?

Different fates for Soviet Ukraine and Russia

Russians and Ukrainians really have different conceptions of both freedom and the state, which have truly been shaped by historical factors, though it has nothing to do with the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries Ukrainian Cossacks lived freely on the banks of the Dnieper while serfdom was kept in place in Russia.
All the former differences between the peoples were effectively erased by Soviet totalitarianism, which equally crushed any resistance, whoever offered it."
Kuzbass Miners' Strike, 1989. Source: Wiki Commons
(One form of suppression was forced migration; many descendants of Ukrainian Cossacks are now loyal citizens of Putin’s Russia, while there are Ukrainian patriots whose parents, or even they themselves, not too long ago moved from Russia to Ukraine.)

The Ukrainian partisan movements that fought in the forests in the 1950s – of which they are proud in Ukraine – were fighting on the territories annexed by Stalin in 1940 and that had not known the terror of the early Soviet period, while the east of Ukraine, having gone through the Holodomor in the early 1930s, was rendered incapable of resistance. In the Russian provinces, armed protest against the Soviet regime was widespread in the early 1920s. History remembers the rebellions of sailors at Kronstadt and peasants in Tambov, both brutally and bloodily suppressed by the Red Army and special services.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev liberalized the Soviet government, it confidently controlled the entire territory of the empire, and when the protest movement began anew in the late 1980s, its centers, along with the Baltic countries, Georgia and Moldova, were Moscow, St Petersburg and the coal-mining center of Kuzbas, which became the site of the largest strikes in Soviet history. Kyiv, in fact, remained peripheral on the map of Soviet protest. Until the end of 1989, Soviet Ukraine was led by Leonid Brezhnev’s longtime colleague Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, who kept a tight Soviet lid on Ukraine.

The fate of the Soviet empire was decided in Moscow when hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets and stopped the coup launched by conservative Gorbachev associates. A few months later, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed an agreement to dissolve the USSR. The first presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, sat at the same table, both gray-haired men of about the same age (then they were about 60). And looking at their triumph, it was hard to tell what the fundamental difference between them and their countries was.

But there was a difference. Kravchuk, before becoming president, was a high-up functionary in the Ukrainian Communist Party. He was the leader of Ukraine’s nomenklatura, which took advantage of the Soviet regime’s decay, along with the country’s geographical distance from Moscow, and long before 1991 set up its own national state – even if a vassal in relation to Moscow – developed Ukrainian culture, supported the Ukrainian language and built state institutions. Independence came painlessly and did not cause great shocks. The same people who voted in a referendum in the spring of 1991 to preserve the USSR approved Ukrainian independence in a new referendum in December of the same year. Kravchuk ended up quietly losing reelection in 1994 and becoming an opposition deputy in parliament.

In Russia, everything was different. Its leader, Boris Yeltsin, was a lone wolf who had been expelled by Gorbachev from the Soviet elite and who came to power precisely as an oppositionist in the Russian SSR, which, due to the peculiarities of the Soviet Union’s structure, was deprived of its own state institutions and its own elites.

Alas, politicians always take the path of least resistance. Having come to lead Russia, and despite a general demand for democracy and his reputation as a democratic leader, Boris Yeltsin quickly realized that real democracy carried the risk of losing power and began building a personalist regime, which in 1993 was formalized with a new constitution.
“The vast powers that Vladimir Putin now wields are a direct legacy of Yeltsin, who at the time did not meet serious resistance from the West, which was satisfied with Yeltsin’s democratic rhetoric and uninterested in anything else."
While other freshly independent post-Soviet countries were building up their state institutions, Moscow put the entire infrastructure inherited from the USSR at the service of the personalist regime: the special services, including the all-powerful KGB; the Soviet army that became the Russian army; the system of propaganda based on centralized control of TV; fuel, banking and transport monopolies. Everything remained either in the hands of the state or “oligarchs,” who in reality were people close to the regime to whom the same Boris Yeltsin handed over multibillion-dollar assets almost for nothing.

A country of budzhetniks

Why is that important in a discussion of Russian unfreedom and Ukrainian freedom? Because when Ukrainians take pride in their revolutions, they are taking for granted independent TV channels that supported the protesters, opposition factions in an actually functioning, strong parliament, independent big businessmen who were ready to help the protests without fear that the authorities would take away their assets and money in retaliation. Nothing like this has happened in Russia since the early 1990s. The state in Russia is a system that revolves around a single individual.

Ask employees of any company, big or small, how they view their bosses, their work, the values of their firm. Add that the survey results will be given to the authorities and studied by them. You can bet that a certain number of nonconformists will turn up, but their number will be insignificant – the free individual hides deep inside the corporate monolith and is well protected.

In 1990s colloquial Russian, the word “budzhetnik” emerged, primarily referring to employees of the social sphere, like education and medicine – people whose livelihood is directly dependent on the state, people who could feel more confident in those tough times than private-sector employees, who regularly did not receive their salary or were instead paid with what they produced and then forced to sell it on the streets. Pensioners adjoin this group – since the 1990s, it has become common in Russia for an unemployed son or daughter to take the pension of their elderly parents, the pension being the only permanent source of income for the family. As the post-Soviet economy was restructured, state-owned “natural monopolies” such as Gazprom and Russian Railways became Russia’s largest employers. Keep in mind that many so-called single-industry towns dot the map, where there is typically no other work besides the plant or deposit owned by a state-owned company.
People who are financially dependent on the state form the core of Russian society, with the state giants completely eclipsing private business."
Patriarch Kirill is always demonstrating maximum loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Source: Wiki Common
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.
To convince people that it could be much worse does not take the biggest propaganda operation. Poverty and even hunger are reliable allies of dictatorships."
What dictatorships really cannot abide is alternatives and choices. The ideal situation would be for a Russian specialist or worker to feel the same as an IT-sector employee, knowing that within reach or even at home – remotely – a job that does not depend on the state awaits him, and thus freedom.

The first year of the war showed that this is a utopia – no one is waiting for us anywhere. Thus, to a certain extent this is a good excuse for people’s current passivity, while what will happen next depends on the post-Putin regime. Will it want to voluntarily dismantle the system of mass economic dependence? Will there be people who force it to do that? The post-war and post-Putin democratization of Russia depends on this, and in the future if Russians begin to feel nostalgic for the times of dictatorship, it will not be because of their predisposition for unfreedom, but owing to much more mundane problems. Anyone who wants to see a democratic Russia should offer it an adequate market model that destroys the one that has developed under Putin – “commodities in exchange for indifference from the West.” Otherwise, everything is bound to repeat itself.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy