“Ordinary people do not believe in anything, and they don’t trust anyone,” Kanayev says. “The entire society is silent and passive.”
No ‘symbols of change’
For years, the independent polling and analytical organization called the Levada Center has been studying Russian political and social behavior, watching disillusionment with democracy set in.
“At the end of the 1980s, anything to do with the Soviet system was reviled,” says Boris Dubin, Levada’s director of sociopolitical studies. “Then people lost everything in the economic upheaval of 1992 and 1993. They lost all of their savings. They were threatened with unemployment. There was a bigger gap between the more successful and the less successful, and this was very painful for anyone brought up in Soviet times.”
Instead of blaming the legacy of the unsustainable Soviet economy for their suffering, Russians blamed the reformers. Democracy began to acquire a dubious reputation.
Long-entrenched interests proved more difficult to subdue than coup plotters. The old legislature, still sympathetic to the bloated industries sustained on a rich diet of state subsidies, opposed many reforms and refused to disband. Yeltsin turned his own tanks on them as they holed up in the White House in 1993, traumatizing the nation. Later he made what he would describe as his biggest mistake, sending tanks into separatist Chechnya at the end of 1994.
“Yeltsin lost the support of most people,” Dubin says. “There was a question of whether he could win the next election in 1996, and he dropped democratic tools step by step, drawing closer to the power structures.”
By the end of the 1990s, many were feeling nostalgic for Soviet times. “They wanted a young strong leader who could create order,” Dubin says. “So most were ready for Putin, and they did not think they should be frightened because he was a man of the power structure [the former KGB].”
Putin used state-controlled television to relentlessly send the message that life was better and Russia stronger under him than it was in the 1990s, a time of national humiliation. When he restored the old Soviet anthem, people hummed right along.
He dispensed object lessons, as in the case of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who financed political opposition to Putin and in 2003 was arrested on fraud charges. His jail term was recently extended to 2016. A few weeks ago, Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, was denied parole because he had lost a pair of prison pants. In June, a liberal political party was refused the registration that would have allowed it to participate in the Duma elections in December.
“There are no leaders who can become symbols of change,” Dubin says. “I don’t see any change for 15 to 20 years.”
Of course, today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, says Grigori Golosov, a St. Petersburg political scientist. “But at the same time, it is an authoritarian regime that violates human and basic rights.”