The People Vs. Putin

Can a small but robust civil society trump the powerful Russian state? Or will the curse of oil ensure repression?

  • Photo-Illustration by Hieronymus for TIME

    We exist!" The crowd in Moscow chanted. Even protesters in Russia have a literary and philosophical flair. They also have courage. Over the past decade, political opponents of Vladimir Putin's regime have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. But still, these men and women took to the streets, marching in the Russian winter, asking for the same things protesters around the globe have been asking for--dignity, inclusion, participation and freedom. Can they succeed in Russia?

    The conditions that led to the Arab Spring were various. But chief among them was a sense of alienation and exclusion from the political and economic power structures of the country. That sense is strong in Russia today. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 52% of Russians believe corruption among the country's leadership is higher now than it was even in the 1990s. (In 2007 only 16% of respondents felt this way.)

    The Arab Spring was also about connectivity. A young, restive population with access to social media and other technologies was able to see the outside world and understand its own backward condition. Russia has an aging and shrinking population, but the protesters in Moscow include many young urbanites connected to the world with all the new information technologies.

    Russia also has another crucial component that was part of the Arab revolt: economic growth that created a new middle class and, with it, rising expectations. In Egypt and Tunisia, the economy had been growing for several years before protests began, and liberalization had opened new industries and sectors to the world. In Russia, per capita GDP almost doubled from 1998 to 2010 (in constant dollars). That is why Putin has been popular for years. Of course, the Russian economy was lifted up less by reform and more by high oil prices (now topping $100 per barrel), which empower not Russian society but the Russian state.

    The great drama of Russian history has been between its state and society. Put simply, Russia has always had too much state and not enough society. Historians have pointed out that the Russian nation was literally the property of the Czar, that serfs were more like slaves than simply peasant workers and that the country lacked any institutions that contested the authority of the government. The communist takeover only enhanced these features by building a superstate that dominated every aspect of people's lives. When it collapsed in 1991, it turned out there was only chaos underneath.

    But there has always been a Russian civil society, small but vibrant, espousing universal values and human rights. It is the Russia of Tolstoy and Pasternak, Sakharov and Gorbachev, and it has always believed that Russia's destiny lies with the West. This Russia has not died under Putin. In fact, it's been growing quietly but vigorously over the past decade. In an article in Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs, Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann-Komarova describe a Russia in which civil society is having an increasingly large impact. There are more than 650,000 nongovernmental organizations in Russia today. Many of these groups are not overtly political, but they challenge governmental authority and decisions--on environmental grounds, for example--and sometimes they prevail.

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