Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is post-Soviet Russia, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Tuesday, May 5 at 9:00am Eastern we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. We are going to do two things: first, we’ll discuss Tara Zahra’s article “The Return of No-Man’s Land” and Warsan Shire’s poem “Home.” And second, we’ll have a broader discussion about what we’ve learned together this semester. Please note: You are in charge of this discussion! Please come to class with one question or comment about the assigned reading that you would like us to discuss. We’ll start with those and see where the day takes us. If anyone is not able to access the class by video, please let me know.
Today, we’re looking at developments in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Russia, the first post-Soviet decade was a very difficult one. After Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, Boris Yeltsin became president of the new Russian Federation. Untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. It also turned out that he was not fully committed to democracy. In 1993, facing political opposition, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the parliament. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced the adoption of a new constitution with stronger executive power.
Economically and socially, Russia faced a major crisis. Yeltsin took stabilization loans from the World Bank and IMF, but these organizations required implementation of “shock therapy”: strict austerity measures and privatization of state assets. This basically destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy. A few men with inside connections, soon to be known as “oligarchs,” bought up state assets on the cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. They paid protection money to organized criminals, who operated with impunity. Wealth stratification soared as this rough transition to capitalism threw millions of people into poverty. Russia also experienced a major public health crisis as underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS epidemic fueled by drug addiction. Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed.
As if that weren’t enough, Yeltsin also went to war with Chechnya, an autonomous region in the Northern Caucasus that made a bid for independence. The First Chechen War (1994-1996) was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. After the ceasefire, Russia did not commit resources to rebuilding, and that created an opportunity for Islamist militants to filter in and start recruiting. Consequently, when the Second Chechen War began in the fall of 1999, it took on the character of a “holy war.” Officially, the Second Chechen War ended in 2000, but there’s a sense in which it continues, through low level guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks.
The Second Chechen War was not Yeltsin’s problem, though. By the time it started, he was on his way out. After the ruble’s collapse, he often appeared drunk in public and made embarrassing statements. He cycled through several prime ministers, seeking a successor who ensure a safe exit. Finally, in August 1999, he settled on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who had proved his loyalty as deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg. On December 31, 1999, just four months after appointing Putin and three months before the March 2000 presidential election, Yeltsin made a surprise speech in which he resigned. Putin stepped into the top job and immediately pardoned his former boss for all of his corrupt dealings.
Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down, and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. Foreign policy remained a challenge. First NATO, then the EU moved aggressively to expand into the former Eastern Bloc and erected missile sites there, which Russia viewed as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence and its own safety. Relations became particularly intense during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War, both of which Russia saw as having been encouraged by the West. By speaking aggressively and acting decisively, Putin maintained the image domestically of a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.
While Putin was genuinely popular, he also hedged his bets. Between 2000-2008, he cracked down significantly on freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists, particularly those who reported on corruption and the atrocities of the Chechen Wars. In 2006, NGOs that received funding from international sources were compelled to register as “foreign agents.” This has had a chilling effect on their activities, but they continue to find ways to keep their doors open. Protest leaders also remained vocal, including Boris Nemtsov, a Yeltsin-era politician who became an oppositionist under Putin, and Alexei Navalny, a blogger who has made it his mission to uncover corruption in Putin’s government.
The Russian constitution limits presidents to two terms. Interestingly, Putin has so far respected the letter of this law. In 2008, he stepped down and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When Medvedev won, he appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma voted to extend presidential terms to six years. When Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won that election, and a second term in 2018. But as you read, despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.
This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet. Hopefully today’s sources will help us understand this situation in more depth.
Since Putin returned to the presidency, foreign policy issues have heated up significantly. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Agreement, protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. The protests continued from November 2013 to February 2014, when the parliament deposed the president. He fled to Russia, and Ukraine turned back to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, which is home to a large population of ethnic Russians, and more importantly, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This sparked a civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which is ongoing. Ukraine expected help from the West, but while there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear the West is not willing to intervene militarily.
Bolstered by this success, Russia has recently made other bold moves on the world stage. In September 2015, Russia intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war, where American troops were already engaged. Putin’s aim seems to have been to demonstrate that Russia has returned to great power status and no longer has to accept terms set by the West, as it did in the 1990s. Both the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria have significantly boosted Putin’s domestic approval ratings. Many Russians feel he has served them well by returned to Russia the dignity it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The other foreign policy event we surely cannot avoid is Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election and 2017 French presidential election. Analysts agree that in both cases, Russian maneuvers had little effect on the outcome. The larger impact has been the damage done to international relationships. Particularly in the US, politicians have been quick to blame everything on Russia, rather than deeper systemic issues, and consequently, bilateral relations have descended into mutual enmity. Clearly, both sides played a role in this breakdown. The real question is not who is at fault, but rather, what it will mean for geopolitics going forward.
There has been one more recent development. Putin’s two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, he announced a referendum on a constitutional amendment to consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Let’s start with Ann Garrels’ book Putin Country. Garrels begins chapter 3 with the story of Irina Korsunova, a magazine editor in Chelyabinsk. Korsunova was educated in the West. She enjoys Western consumer goods and fashions, but she has a real chip on her shoulder about how the West sees Russia. What exactly is Korsunova’s complaint? How does it help us understand Putin’s popularity in relation to international events since 1991?
2. In this same chapter, Garrels interviews three people with different social positions: the middle-class, cosmopolitan Irina Korsunova; the elite former-oppositionist she calls V; and the steelworker Yura Kovach. All thee support Putin. Can you unpack how Putin manages to court each of these constituencies? Based on their reasons for supporting him, do you think Putin will be able to remain popular with such a broad range of people in the long term? How do their responses to the annexation of Crimea help us understand what Putin has gotten right about how Russians feel about their country’s position in the world?
3. In Chapter 10, Garrels writes about students at an elite high school. She is surprised that they are so disengaged from politics. How might the growing importance of money in Russians’ access to education incline them to support the status quo? How are these high schoolers different from the activists Evan Gershkovich profiles in his article? Is the apathy of these students really a worrying sign for Russia’s future? Or is it typical of high schoolers everywhere?
4. We also get a look at the Russian military in this chapter. Garrels describes how wealthier and more educated young men avoid the draft in large numbers, while those without such means suffer under brutal hazing rituals. She also interviews veterans from the Afghan War and Chechen Wars who feel their sacrifice has been erased from public memory. How does the overall situation in Russia—corruption, limits on free speech, etc.—make these problems especially difficult? Are these problems unique to Russia, or do we find versions of them in the American military, as well? Do you think opposition from veterans and their families poses a serious threat to Putin’s hold on power or not?
5. Garrels returns to the issue of how international relations influence Russians to support Putin in chapter 18. This time, she focuses on how the sanctions imposed by Western Europe and the US are impacting ordinary Russians. She notes that the sanctions are restricting their purchasing power, but this has not had the intended effect of turning Russians against Putin, but rather has strengthened their allegiance to him. How does she explain this phenomenon? Do you think Americans would respond the same way, if the situation were reversed?
6. Evan Gershkovich gives us a different perspective, focusing on the anti-Putin protest movement that has been growing since 2012. One of the most significant aspects of this movement is the involvement of so many young people, who have grown up entirely in Putin’s Russia. Can you analyze their participation? What makes it surprising that young people are taking a leading role? On the other hand, why might “Generation P” be especially likely to get involved? You are living though your third American presidency. If there had been only one in your lifetime, would you join a protest movement? Why or why not?
7. Gershkovich notes that while the protest movement has a longer history, many activists in their teens and 20s first got involved in 2018, in a protest against raising the pension age. (Russia has a typical European welfare system in which pensions are paid by the government, rather than employers.) This is an unusual issue for young people. But Gershkovich quotes one activist saying, “[We] have very different political opinions… We are different people with a common problem: We want Vladimir Putin to resign and we want new faces in government.” (Gershkovich, web) What are the pros and cons of a movement built this way? Do you think the shared experience of protesting Putin will encourage them to support each other’s other concerns or will those concerns ultimately divide them?
8. This article highlights the importance of the internet to the recent wave of protests. Anti-corruption bloggers use YouTube to broadcast their messages, while activists use Telegram to organize events and raise money. How has the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia? What new challenges does it present to a government that likes to keep a lid on free speech? Do you think new control measures on the Russian internet will be effective? How does use of the internet change the demographics of likely participants, in terms of age, wealth, location, and more?
9. One of the activists Gershkovich focuses on is the 17-year-old Olga Misik, who has already been arrested several times. Misik is bold, and even her lawyer thinks she ought to be more cautious. What do you make of her risk-taking? Is it a result of inexperience or conscious choice? Do protest movements need fearless young people willing to risk everything in order to achieve their goals?
10. After reading these two different pieces, what are your predictions for Russia in this new decade and beyond? Will Putin remain popular and hold on to power until his death? (Keep in mind that he is only 67.) Will the protest movement grow and eventually unseat him? Can the relationship between Russia and the West be mended?