The last time I was in Russia, in the summer of 2015, I came face to face with a contradiction. What if a place was not free, but also happy? How long could it stay like this?
Moscow had become a beautiful European city, filled with meticulously planted parks, bike lanes, and parking lots. The income of the average Russian had increased significantly over the course of the previous decade. At the same time, its political system was moving ever closer to authoritarianism.
Fifteen years earlier, Boris Yeltsin had left power in shame, apologizing on national television “for not having justified the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to make a leap from the dismal and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright and prosperous past.” and a civilized future in one fell swoop.”
By the summer of 2015, his successor, President Vladimir V. Putin, had apparently made Russia shiny and prosperous. The political system he built was increasingly restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.
Many Russian liberals had gone to work for nonprofits and local governments, dedicating themselves to building communities, making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 failed and people were looking for other ways to shape their country. Big politics was useless, it was thought, but one could make a real difference in small acts.
There was another aspect to this deal: Putin was also apparently limited. Political action may have been prohibited, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, for example religion, culture and many forms of expression. His own calculation for the system to run smoothly meant that he had to make room for society.
I lived in Russia for nine years and started covering it for The New York Times in 2000, the year Putin was first elected. I have spent a lot of time telling people, in public writing and in my private life, that Russia can sometimes look bad, but that it also has many wonderful qualities.
But in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, I felt like I was watching someone I love lose their mind. Many of the Russian liberals who resorted to “small acts” also feel a sense of shock and horror, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a Russian anthropologist.
“I see a lot of posts and conversations saying these little things were a big mistake,” he said. “People have a metaphor. They say, ‘We were trying to make some cosmetic changes to our faces, when the cancer was growing and growing in our stomachs.’
I started to wonder if Russia would always end up here, and we just didn’t see it. So I called Yevgeniya Albats, a Russian journalist who had warned of the dangers of a KGB resurgence as far back as the 1990s. Ms. Albats continued to stare at the glare of the idea that at certain points in history, everything is at stake in political thought and action. She had long argued that any negotiations with Putin were wishful thinking.
He said that 2008 was a turning point, the moment when Putin divorced himself from the West, even invaded another country, and the West barely even noticed.
“For Putin, it was a clear signal,” he said by phone last month, “that he can do whatever he wants. And that is exactly what he began to do. He behaved extremely rationally. He just realized that you don’t care.
He was referring to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, which came shortly after President George W. Bush began talking about NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. I covered that war and spent the night with a Russian unit in the Georgian town of Gori and I remember how invigorated the soldiers seemed, laughing, joking. The Soviet defeat in the Cold War had left a bitter sense of humiliation and loss. The invasion seemed to have renewed them.
“When Putin came, everything changed,” an officer told me. “We got some of our old strength back. People started respecting us again.”
Mrs. Albats sounded tired but determined. On the day we spoke, she had traveled to a Russian penal colony to attend the sentencing of her friend Aleksei A. Navalny, the leader of Russia’s popular opposition, who used the allotted time to deliver an anti-war speech. .
“Now we understand that when Putin decided to go to war in Ukraine, he had to get rid of Navalny,” he said, because he is the only one with the courage to resist.
In fact, Navalny never accepted the move away from direct confrontation and was building a nationwide opposition movement, bringing people to the streets. He rejected the deal and was willing to go to prison to defy it.
Ms. Arkhipova pointed out that her mantra, that the fight was not good versus evil but good versus neutral, was a direct challenge to the political passivity that Mr. Putin demanded.
Many people I interviewed said that Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and his imprisonment in early 2021, after years of freedom, marked the end of the social contract and the beginning of Putin’s war. Like the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda on the eve of September 11, 2001, Putin had to clear the field of opponents.
Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Economic and Social Sciences, argues that it was the success of the political opposition, which began to accelerate in 2018 and 2019, that tipped Putin toward war.
Professor Yudin said it was inconceivable to Putin that there could be people inside Russia who wanted the best for their country, but were against it. So he sought out traitors and nurtured an obsession with the idea that the West was after him.
“It is a characteristic of this type of regime,” said Professor Yudin. “Recodes internal dissent into external threats.”
Regarding my question from 2015: how long can a place not be free and also happy? Perhaps we have lived the answer. Many liberals have left. Many of those who have not left face fines or even jail time. In the weeks after the invasion, police arrested more than 15,000 people across the country, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group, a figure considerably higher than in the 2012 protests, when some 5,000 people were detained over 12 months, Ms. Arkhipova said. , who studied that movement.
Albats has stayed and is angry at the Russian liberals who have not.
The message, he said, is that “Russian liberals do not tolerate any problems.” She added: “They just run away.”
At the same time, he said, it is an extremely difficult choice. “Choosing between jail and not jail, I’d rather not go to jail,” Ms. Albats said, adding that she already faces thousands of dollars in fines just for reporting on the war.
Yudin said the election was difficult because the crackdown was complete and the political opposition was now being pulverized.
“The best comparison is Germany in 1939,” he said. “What kind of democratic movement would you expect there? This is the same. Right now, people are basically trying to save their lives.”
Not all, of course. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, a research group that tracks Russian public opinion, told me that about two-thirds of people across the country approve of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
“It is a part of the population that is less educated, older, who lives mainly in rural areas or in small and medium-sized cities, where the population is poorer and more dependent on power,” he said, referring to those who depend on public services. funds such as state pensions and jobs. “They also get all of their reality construction exclusively from television.”
He notes that “if you look at 20 years of our research since Putin came to power, then the spikes in support for Putin and his popularity have always coincided with military campaigns.”
One such campaign was the war in Chechnya, a particularly brutal subjugation of a population that in 1999 was Putin’s signature act before he was first elected president. We are beginning to see some of the hallmarks of that war in Ukraine: bodies with their hands tied, mass graves, stories of torture. In Chechnya, the result was the systematic elimination of anyone associated with the fight against Russia. It is too early to say whether that was the intention at Bucha.
Now the deal is broken, the illusion has been shattered. And the country has entered a new phase. But what is this? Mr. Yudin argues that Russia is moving from authoritarianism, where political passivity and civic disengagement are key features, to totalitarianism, which is based on mass mobilization, terror and homogeneity of belief. He believes that Putin is on the brink of the abyss, but he may be hesitant to make the switch.
“In a totalitarian system, you have to release free energy to initiate terror,” he said. Putin, he said, “is a control freak, accustomed to micromanagement.”
However, if the Russian state begins to fail, whether due to the collapse of the Russian economy or a complete military defeat in Ukraine, “unleashing terror will be the only way to save itself.”
That is why the current situation is so dangerous, for Ukraine and for the people in Russia opposed to Mr. Putin.
“Putin is so convinced that he cannot afford to lose, that he will climb,” said Professor Yudin. “He has played it all.”