It is hard to get through a newspaper these days without laying eyes on Vladimir Putin. Sixteen years after he first ascended to Prime Minister of Russia, the American (and international) press continues to wonder what to make of him. Some recent headlines reflect this confusion: “Putin Defends Russia’s Airstrikes in Syria” (BBC News); “Meanwhile, Putin is Also Arming Iran” (Wall Street Journal); “Vladimir Putin Calls Elton John, This Time For Real” (New York Times); “Vladimir Putin Scores Seven Goals in Epic Hockey Game” (Rolling Stone).
The strange combination of dark warnings and celebrity gossip works surprisingly well with the business models of modern media (and perhaps that isn’t an accident). But it isn’t truly the task of the daily news to parse the soul of a person, or the nation he rules: at PublicAffairs, we think of that as the job of an author who has devoted years, sometimes even a lifetime, to the study at hand.
And so our shelves are filled this fall with Russia books. This issue features an array of them, including an excerpt of Garry Kasparov’s fierce and tightly argued book, Winter is Coming, which shows the dire consequences of the Western failure to understand and contain Putin. We’ll also hear from Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borgan, authors of The Red Web, the story of “digital dictatorship” in Russia. And we’re looking ahead to Robert Service’s The End of the Cold War, an authoritative account of a watershed moment in world history. Finally, Peter Pomerantsev’s highly acclaimed Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, a dazzling tale of the surrealism of new-money Russia, comes out in paperback soon.
The voices collected here could hardly be more different: a mixture of anger, sarcasm, sobriety, and creativity. Yet there is an urgency that underlies all of them: their clarity of purpose, their humming narrative energy, and a steadily growing sense of tension. To live and work among these bright books has helped us see this pressing subject in its full dimension. We hope you’ll want to do the same.
Putin’s dilemma gave those of us in the Russian opposition movement a brief glimmer of hope that the 2008 election could turn into an opportunity to change the course of the country. We knew the election itself would be rigged from start to finish, but we hoped exposing this corruption could lead to more people joining our cause. Russians were aware they were losing their freedoms under Putin, and they could still be sensitive about having their noses rubbed in it, as the massive 2011 protests later showed.
Putin’s decision was a tactical masterstroke. Instead of keeping the presidency himself, he endorsed his first deputy prime minister, the young Dmitry Medvedev, who was generally seen as far more liberal and pro-Western than his boss. The election was as predictable and rigged as could be expected, with Medvedev scoring a small fraction less than Putin had in 2004…Medvedev immediately named Putin his prime minister and the two men switched offices in a graceful pas de deux on the grave of Russian democracy. Four years later, Medvedev duly handed the presidency back to his master, having changed the constitution so Putin could now sit for two six-year terms. In the 2012 election even less effort was made to hide the fact that Russia had truly become a dictatorship once again.
The rise and fall of Russian democracy would make for a painfully short book. It took just eight years for Russia to go from jubilant crowds celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 to the ascendance of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Then it took Putin another eight years to corrupt or dismantle nearly every democratic element in the country—balance in the branches of government, fair elections, independent judiciary, a free media, and a civil society that could work with the government instead of living in fear of it. Uncooperative oligarchs were jailed or exiled and the press quickly learned what could and could not be said. Putin also consolidated the Russian economy, clamping down on free market reforms and emphasizing the creation of “national champions” in the energy and banking sectors.
A potential turning point came in 2008, when Putin’s constitutional limit of two four-year terms was ending. Few expected him to retire gracefully, or at all, but exactly how he would keep control while keeping up appearances was a hot topic of debate. Putin had channeled power not just to his party or to his office, but to himself personally. His leaving would have been like ripping the spine out of the KGB mafia state he and his allies had spent eight years building. He could amend the Russian constitution to run again, but at the time Putin was still sensitive about keeping up democratic appearances.
AS & IB: Well, it's a bit strange: Russia doesn’t send as many journalists and bloggers to jail as, say, Turkey. But freedom of expression here has suffered much more significantly because the Kremlin's approach is based on intimidation and instigating self-censorship. It doesn't need mass repressions, but it's very effective. Because we have so many government agencies (along with pro-Kremlin activists) monitoring the internet, many activists feel it's better to be cautious online. The rules are not clearly defined, so we have to guess what is "allowed" and what isn’t. This leads to increasing self-censorship.
PA: How have the state’s overt efforts at censorship affected the media landscape?
AS & IB: All television channels are strictly under the control of the Kremlin. The only exception, TV Dozhd, was cut from cables packages right in the midst of the Crimea annexation. The largest and most popular online news site, Lenta.Ru, was deeply affected at the same time: its owner asked an editor to sack a reporter for her critical coverage of Crimea. The editor refused, was fired in turn, and more than 70 people left the organization with her. As result, the Ukrainian combatants are portrayed like they’re inhuman fascists, and the militants supported by Russia are shown to be the only force opposing the second coming of fascism. Russia’s recent involvement in Syria is portrayed as a huge personal success for Putin, as though he is the only world leader who can simultaneously challenge US supremacy in the world, and defeat ISIS.
PA: Can you name some burgeoning activist groups to watch? Do you feel at all optimistic about the future of freedom of speech & other civil rights in Russia?
AS & IB: Right after the annexation of Crimea, Putin delivered a now infamous speech at the Kremlin. In it, he said that those who oppose the annexation are "national traitors" and "the fifth column." In these circumstances, it's a bit tricky to mention particular groups, but there are great and brave activists who work on exposing lies about the military presence of Russia in Ukraine and who have helped to reveal the truth behind the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
PublicAffairs: What is it like to be journalists who are critical of the Kremlin in Russia now?
Andrei Soldatov & Irina Borogan: It means to not have a proper job (the last time we were able to work as full-staff journalists for the Russian media was in early 2009), and to be very uncertain about our future. It also means that if we have something sensitive, a real investigation in our hands, we first need to find a way to get it published in the West (that's why our investigations were published in the Guardian and Wired), and then to hope that some Russian media would pick up the story. This is one of the reasons why both of our books were first published in the United States, not in Russia. It's a bit depressing: we live in Moscow, but we feel like we are losing touch with your audience.
PA: How has increasing state control of telecom & internet technology impacted your work & the work of other activists in Russia in recent years?
Gorbachëv accepted the inevitable. On 25 December he appeared on Soviet television and announced that he would step down from office at the stroke of midnight ushering in the New Year. The October Revolution of 1917 was tossed aside. Marxism-Leninism was discredited forever in the country of its birth. Each of the fifteen Soviet republics became an independent state. The political and economic disintegration of one superpower – as well as the outcome of the personal duel between Gorbachëv and Yeltsin – diverted attention from the enormous achievements of the year. The Cold War’s ragged ends were tidied away. A sequence of treaties had rendered a nuclear holocaust no longer a serious immediate likelihood even though both sides retained more than enough ballistic missiles to destroy each other.
And on every channel is the President, who as a made-for-TV projection has fitted every Russian archetype into himself, so now he seems to burst with all of Russia, cutting ever quicker between gangster- statesman-conqueror-biker-believer-emperor, one moment diplomatically rational and the next frothing with conspiracies. And on TV the President is chatting via live video-link to factory workers posing in overalls in front of a tank they’ve built, and the factory workers are promising the President that if protests against him continue, they will “come to Moscow and defend our stability.” But then it turns out the workers don’t actually exist; the whole thing is a piece of playacting organized by local political technologists (because everyone is a political technologist now), the TV spinning off to someplace where there is no reference point back to reality, where puppets talk to holograms when both are convinced they are real, where nothing is true and everything is possible. And the result of all this delirium is a curious sense of weightlessness.