After unsuccessful Russian blitzkrieg in Ukraine, lingering questions persist about the possibility of a political crisis unfolding in Russia. While numerous experts entertained the idea last year, and some still do so albeit with less conviction, it is essential to analyze the ongoing social dynamics and their implications for Russia.
The war and the Russian authorities’ mobilization in 2022 posed a substantial challenge to the Russian society, disrupting the plans and aspirations of millions of citizens. The discontent stemming from these events had the potential to ignite widespread protests, yet as events unfolded, this potential remained unrealized. This underscores the hypothesis that Russians may have largely lost the capacity for collective action. If the society did not respond to such an unexpected stimulus, it’s doubtful it would react to more foreseeable ones.
Usually, in times of crisis, there is more than a twofold increase in discontent, and Russia witnessed it several times: in September 1998 against the background of a default (48%), in February 2009 against the backdrop of the global crisis (39%), and in January 2021 (43%) against the backdrop of the lockdown.
Today, even regular direct attacks on Russian territory do not significantly increase the level of anxiety among Russians. There is currently no clear correlation between the level of anxiety and such incidents. The level of anxiety in Russian society has decreased to 42%, while feelings of calm have increased to 52%.
This appalling dynamics of public sentiment likely necessitates a revision of expected reactions and basic scenarios for society’s response to extraordinary events. The Russian population’s adaptability to emergencies has increased over the last year, giving the authorities more leeway. Critics of the regime who believe that, for example, the announcement of a second wave of mobilization will topple the system may be unpleasantly surprised.
Due to the atomization of Russian civil society and active mobilization propaganda amid geopolitical tensions, protests that took place after February 24, 2022 were local and lacked institutional support. Thus, social discontent and protests did not pose significant challenges for the authorities and had a very small and indirect impact on them, if any.
In twenty years Putin’s regime succeeded in localising protests and disconnecting the discontent from the political sphere and its actors form a convenient structure for the authorities. So, protests either remain local or diffuse, with little impact on the country’s socio-political life or society’s attitude toward the authorities. This is the current state of affairs, and the authorities constantly increase pressure on those expressing discontent.
Russia will undoubtedly face greater challenges in the near future, with the Kremlin likely to continue mobilizing Russians for war in the fall of 2023. However, it’s almost certain that the upcoming mobilization will only result in passive protest. The current political regime, which many are quick to dismiss, may well endure and potentially strengthen regardless of the war’s outcome.
It’s crucial to remember that any revolutionary situation is transient. Major upheavals are more likely when society is gripped by fear or desperation. However, when fear gives way to apathy, the window of opportunity for revolutionaries closes. For Russia, this window closed long ago. The 2022 mobilisation presented a great opportunity for the Russian internal opposition to destabilise the government, yet this opportunity went unrealised, potentially leading Russia down a path to a larger North Korea.
However, it’s worth noting that most assessments of Russian politics are rooted in a Western scientific approach and methodology, and may not fully capture the intricacies of Russian politics. In the Western paradigm, the opposition is viewed as an alternative to the existing power structure. In Russia, however, there hasn’t been such a form of opposition since at least 1917. Consequently, there are no established practices or positive experiences of power transitions and opposition becoming a ruling structure in Russia.
The Russian opposition operates differently; it often consists of private gatherings, discussions, and, more often than not, is not intended for public consumption. It is an exclusive “elite club” with members who are more focused on intellectual discourse and preserving the status quo rather than taking active steps to challenge the existing power structure. In this concept, the idea of capturing a chance does not inherently exist.
The West applies increasing sanction pressure on Russia with an wishful hope that Russians will want to stop their sufferings and overthrow Putin. It is worth noting that the suffering of ordinary people often plays a smaller role in major upheavals than one might assume. People starvation in the countryside is typically seen as their own problem and rarely poses a an existential threat to the regime. The real danger lies in the surplus of ambitious, educated, and young individuals who cannot find a place within the existing system.
The bloodiest war in Chinese history began when a young southerner, Hong Xiuquan, failed three consecutive examinations for an official position. After the third failure, it was revealed to him that he was not an ordinary mortal but a junior member of the Holy Trinity, consisting of God the Father (Sabaoth), God the Elder Brother (Jesus Christ), and God the Younger Brother (Hong Xiuquan). The elders entrusted him with a sword and charged him with eradicating idolatry from the earth. Hong Xiuquan shared this revelation with his comrades, who had also failed their exams, and they began to take action.
This marked the start of the Taiping Rebellion that lasted for 14 years (1850-1864), taking an estimate of 20 million lives: the bloodiest conflict not only in Chinese history but in the history of humanity, second only to World War II.
In 2022 Russian partial mobilization echoed events in Iran, where, on September 16th, a young girl tragically passed away in a hospital following an arrest by the religious police. Over the subsequent months in Russia, more than 20,000 individuals were detained for participating in anti-war activities, with nearly 400 facing prosecution. While rallies against mobilization drew thousands across the country, no widespread demonstrations in favor of regime change were observed.
During the same period, Iran experienced several mass demonstrations, each gathering over half a million participants, along with a significant strike that paralyzed the country in December. Tragically, clashes with government forces resulted in the deaths of over 500 people, 47 of whom were executed, and thousands were imprisoned.
Civil protests and opposition appear feasible in almost any country, regardless of its political system and economic conditions, yet not in contemporary Russia. Such comparisons highlight the fact that the Russian populace is not yet politically mature, lacking the foundation of a developed civil society and a corresponding political consciousness. At the same time Russian opposition is hampered by a lack of effective leadership, with individuals more focused on personal gain than seizing power.
The primary challenge confronting the opposition is the lack of a solid support base for it. A significant portion of the Russian population remains largely apolitical, apathetic, disengaged, and disinterested in matters of politics, exhibiting a pervasive sense of disbelief, fearlessness, and a reluctance to inquire or question the status quo. This political inertia characterizes what can be aptly termed as a “political swamp.”
This is not to suggest that the opposition cannot be formed on the basis of shared values. At the same time the events in Iran featured a clear dichotomy in public discourses, notably between secular and religious ideologies. This dichotomy created a certain tension, a dynamic space where the struggle becomes all-encompassing, involving individuals from various backgrounds, from fervent zealots to moderate neutrals. Such a dynamic does not exist in Russia. The authorities have effectively cultivated an environment of political inaction, akin to a quagmire of emulated activities that has absorbed any unauthorized action or convincingly mimicked it until the participants became disenchanted or developed a sense of “learned helplessness.”
Protests do not pop up out of nowhere: for people to take to the streets, certain conditions must be met. One of them are strong horizontal ties in the country: communities, labor unions. And Putin’s regime has craftfully destroyed them.
When Putin closes doors, he leaves windows open. Putin is smart enough to let the discontented leave Russia, sending to jail the naive or unlucky. During and after the last year’s mobilisation the Kremlin preferred to lose a substantial number of educated and passionate citizens who fled Russia. Struggling with a shortage off these people for the needs of the Russian economy, Putin does not have them inside Russia opposing his regime.
To effect change requires radical action, and at present, most of the radical individuals in Russia appear to be on Putin’s side, as they are driven more by the process itself than specific reasons, and they are averse to losing. Therefore, any systemic breakdown could lead these individuals to support the regime rather than oppose it. Those who could not be coopted by the regime left Russia, and those who didn’t are in prison. Pushing the passionate people out, sending them to jail or even killing them keeps the Kremlin stable, with no clear signs of upcoming collapse.
For the past ten years Putin’s regime increasingly intruded into the private lives of Russians. The Putin-led power vertical asserted its right to dictate what people could say, read, watch, wear, who they could associate with, and even what they should think. The delicate power-society equilibrium was irrevocably disrupted. What had once been characterized by mutual respect and a respectful distance between both sides transformed into a stark demand for unwavering obedience.
Now, the balance between the Russian government and society has tilted significantly in favor of the former, as citizens bear the brunt of hardships without receiving commensurate benefits. This imbalance stands as the principal threat to the Putin regime, eclipsing concerns about spies, traitors, or external influences from the West. What truly imperils the regime is the legitimate desire to renegotiate the social contract, where the interests of ordinary citizens are genuinely taken into account.
Any astute political analyst recognizes that society cannot indefinitely endure a position of subjugation. Inevitably, circumstances will compel the nation to seek ways to restore equilibrium between the government and the people. This underscores the assertion that Putin’s regime is not immortal; it fails to provide an opportunity for a reconsideration of the relationship between the government and society, a need that will only become increasingly pressing. The old system is destined to crumble because it opted for demanding servile devotion from its citizens rather than engaging in meaningful negotiation with them. But crumbling of the system does not equal to the revolution that reinvents the system. In the absence of opposition leaders and ideology that might unite ordinary Russians, no revolution is possible: 1917’s dynamics have gone for ever.