I first went to the Soviet Union in 1979 as a graduate student. I was immediately struck by how Soviet citizens walked along — looking at their feet. This was a frightened and cowed population, many of whom remembered firsthand the oppression and violence of Stalinism. Repression casts a long historical shadow.
When Putin took office, he reestablished the arbitrary power of the state — destroying the independence of the judiciary; appointing governors rather than voters electing them; and all but closing down independent television. Several journalists who challenged the authorities — such as Anna Politkovskaya — paid the ultimate price for doing so.
But Soviet-style repression it wasn’t — neither in its brutality nor its reach into the general population. Few now remember those darker days. Moreover, while television became the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, the Internet flourished as a place where alternative voices were heard.
At a meeting with young entrepreneurs during a visit to Moscow as secretary of state in 2007, I voiced concern about the absence of independent media. One young man stopped me, saying, “Who watches television? We’re all on the Internet.”
He might have added that all of them had worked outside Russia — in global law, consulting and accounting firms. More than half of them had studied abroad in prestigious business schools in Europe and the United States.
These young people are a relatively small percentage of Russia’s population. But look around Moscow, St. Petersburg or even Vladivostok: There is a burgeoning urban middle class who own their apartments, furnish them at Ikea and spoil their children at McDonald’s. They, too, have become accustomed to normal lives and have different expectations for the future.
Putin has staked his legitimacy on prosperity and order, but he seemed not to understand that a prosperous population would demand respect, too. In declaring that he would be president again and then engaging in election fraud during the December parliamentary voting, he insulted the Russian people. Many are fed up with a political system that sometimes behaves more like a natural resources syndicate than a national government.
It is not yet clear whether change will be revolutionary or evolutionary. If the powers that be read the lessons of the past year and make even modest reforms, they might give their people a great gift, one that knows no antecedent in Russian history: peaceful change. If they do not, conflict is inevitable. And Russia’s experience with revolution is not pretty.