After eras of prosperity and patriotism, Russia’s president is now ramping up repression to hold on to power
March 11, 2021
by Henry Foy
Clad in a light-brown sheepskin overcoat that fell over his wool felt boots, Vladimir Putin strode from a dacha outside Moscow across the thick snow. It was 17 degrees below zero on the morning of January 19. Putin disrobed, draping the coat over a wooden railing, and stepped out of his boots. Wearing just a pair of blue swimming shorts, he descended through a crucifix-shaped hole cut in the six-inch-thick ice, wading into the frigid water.
A 10ft-high cross, carved from clear ice, towered over the pool as Putin crossed his chest with his hand and crouched down to rapidly submerge his head three times. Like millions of Russians that day, the country’s president was marking the Russian Orthodox feast of Epiphany, when believers baptise themselves in the country’s rivers, lakes and ponds, and emerge shivering, but cleansed of their sins.
The 68-year-old president had reason to feel purged on that particular morning. Hours earlier, a makeshift court set up in a police station on the outskirts of the Russian capital had imprisoned Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic and the leader of the country’s largest grassroots opposition movement, on charges for which he was later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail. Navalny had only been in the country for 24 hours. He was detained at the airport upon returning from five months of recuperation in Berlin, following an assassination attempt using a Soviet-developed nerve agent. Navalny says Putin ordered the hit. The Kremlin denies this. But it certainly condoned his incarceration on the grounds that, while in Germany, he missed penal meetings mandated under the terms of a 2014 fraud conviction.
The intended message was clear: after years of handicapping and intimidating opposition groups but reluctantly accepting their existence, Putin had lost patience. No longer would Navalny and his followers simply be suppressed. Now they would be silenced.
For Russians who oppose Putin, Navalny’s imprisonment represents a bellwether moment that they have long expected and feared. As part of a forceful, sweeping effort to tighten political freedoms, it signposts a new era for a regime now extending into its third decade. After 20 years in which Putin’s rule was propped up first by economic prosperity and then by pugnacious patriotism, his government has now pivoted to repression as the central tool of retaining power.
“Putin has always been a person who supports the idea of an iron fist, a strong and powerful state,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian domestic politics programme at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Maybe he was always brutal, but now he has decided to be brutal freely, openly, without restrictions.”
The Russian president enjoys a global reputation as an imperious and seemingly invulnerable strongman, but his recent ruthless suppression of dissent at home underscores both his lack of alternatives to placate a restless electorate and his fear of popular protest. Such uprisings came close to toppling his dictator ally Alexander Lukashenko in neighbouring Belarus last year.
A blizzard of laws passed late in 2020 not only allow Putin to extend his rule for longer than Joseph Stalin’s 29 years, but also to further tighten restrictions on those who seek to end it. The crackdown stretches from intensified police violence against protesters to a judicial system beholden to the Kremlin. It includes stricter rules on who can run in elections and what content websites can host. Russia is now a country where retweeting a protest joke gets you 15 days in jail, and where a deaf-mute person can be fined $70 for allegedly shouting anti-regime slogans.
“The red line is in the past. We have already experienced the moment where Putin crossed the line into an autocratic state,” says Kolesnikov. “It is part of a broader process. And Navalny is just an outcome of that.”
The new repressive approach has long been clear to its prime target. “The main thing in this whole trial isn’t what happens to me. Locking me up isn’t difficult,” Navalny told the court in an impassioned 16-minute-long critique of Putin before his sentence was handed down. “This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.
“They try to shut people up with these show trials,” he continued. “This isn’t a demonstration of strength, it’s a show of weakness . . . You can’t lock up the whole country.”
Yet Navalny was just the first to be put behind bars. As he spoke, riot police were already manning barricades that closed off Moscow’s historic city centre. Later that night, as supporters gathered to protest his jailing, hundreds were chased, beaten and detained. Over the four weeks that began with Navalny’s return, police detained more than 11,000 people across more than 125 cities, according to OVD-Info, a non-profit legal organisation that tracks detentions. It described the police response as “an unprecedented scale of persecution”.
Journalists wearing press jackets were beaten to the ground with truncheon blows. Squads of riot police grabbed bemused onlookers and dragged them to waiting vans, while cameras with facial-recognition software, deployed last year to help with Covid-19 regulations, were used to hunt participants after they had gone home.
“Now there is horror and fear in everyday dialogue,” says Artem Berlin, 19, who was beaten by police and arrested during a protest in Moscow in late January. “Frustration, on both sides, now leaves space only for direct violence.” Berlin was violently detained while standing with a group of friends inside the entrance of a metro station, close to where protesters had gathered.
“They pinned us all down, trampled us all down, and took us to the police truck, strangling one of us with a truncheon,” he says. Released that night, he has been fined Rbs10,000 ($134) for “participating in an uncoordinated mass action”, a sentence he and his lawyer are appealing. Berlin believes that, with authorities fearful of potential protests related to the parliamentary elections this autumn, the violence doled out was “a chance to test the protesters’ patience on the one hand, and the level of loyalty and sustainability of power structures on the other”.
The scale of the January crackdown was so large that there were not enough empty jail cells to hold those detained. Even after dozens were crammed into cells designed for fewer than 10, many others were forced to sleep overnight in a line of police trucks parked outside a prison on the outskirts of Moscow. In the capital alone, three times as many people were detained on charges of participating in a public event than over the past 15 years combined.
“The scale of detentions, administrative and criminal prosecution in connection with the protests of January-February 2021 is clearly the largest in the entire history of modern Russia,” OVD-Info said in a statement. “The events of early 2021 demonstrated the complete lack of readiness on the part of the authorities to respect the rights of citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly and, conversely, their readiness to resist protests by any means, including illegal ones.”
For many, the unprecedented severity of the police measures underlined the outsized influence that hardline former military and security service officials now have on the president.
Known collectively as the siloviki, this loose clique of conservative reactionaries are a blend of Putin’s old friends; former colleagues from the KGB spy agency and its successor, the FSB; and military figures who have won his trust. They include former classmate Alexander Bastrykin, who runs the country’s chief investigative agency; former bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, who now heads Putin’s “praetorian guard”; and Igor Sechin, a longtime aide who today runs Rosneft, the country’s biggest oil producer.
“We made some mistakes in the way [the protesting] was handled . . . It was very heavy-handed,” says a senior Kremlin official. “But the pressure from the siloviki around [Putin] is greater than ever. It has become very hard to resist that.
“You cannot forget that Putin learnt about wider society as an officer of the KGB,” they add. “He is a product of that system, and deep down will always think like that system does.”
While he is often labelled an autocrat by the west, Putin’s decades-long grip on Russia has undergone a series of guises. Assuming power in 2000, his first two four-year presidential terms coincided with an oil boom that funded a rapid rise in Russia’s wealth. Cultivating an image as the bringer of plenty and prosperity, Putin became genuinely popular among voters eager to forget the economic and social chaos of the 1990s, and he was embraced by many foreign leaders.
Then, as the oil surge faltered in 2008, next came Putin the patriot. Aggressive anti-western rhetoric replaced tentative rapprochement. Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and his bombers and special forces turned the war in Syria in favour of Bashar al-Assad. Russia was strong again and, Putin declared, under threat from the west. His popularity soared to historic heights.
That belligerent attitude has now proved costly. Western sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea have handicapped Russia’s economy and made it harder for many of the country’s biggest businesses to expand. Real incomes have fallen for five of the past seven years and poverty has risen by a fifth. The country’s GDP per capita is 30 per cent lower than in 2013.
At the same time, Putin has increased protection for his regime by ramping up spending on police and security forces. Last year, more than one-tenth of declared budget spending was allocated to internal security, second only to defence spending and Rbs525bn ($7.1bn) more than the healthcare and education budgets combined. “Now we have reached the moment where he has decided to lock in the results of his first 20 years in power,” says Kolesnikov. “Putin is rolling back liberalism in domestic and foreign policy . . . The state is now very sincere in its brutality and is not prepared for any more efforts of normalisation.”
On paper, Russia still has a parliamentary opposition, a group of smaller parties that theoretically compete with Putin’s United Russia party for votes. But this “systemic opposition” is supported and directed by the Kremlin, designed to absorb voter anger at the government but never to challenge its absolute control over lawmaking. Instead, the real threat to Putin comes from the “non-systemic opposition” — Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and other activists, campaigners and oppositionists — who are ignored by state-controlled media and subject to myriad bureaucratic hurdles to compete in elections.
There is no longer a willingness in the Kremlin to separate this active opposition from ordinary citizens who merely disagree with Putin. Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a Russian political analysis company, describes the situation as an “unfolding war of annihilation between the repressive machine of the regime and the liberal opposition”.
“There used to be a non-systemic opposition and also a liberal crowd. But for the FSB, they are one and the same enemy,” she says. “Now, when ‘all the pro-Navalny rats’ have become extremely toxic — and everyone is indiscriminately lumped together — the liberal community must retreat and look for a politically safe place for hibernation.”
For years, the internet provided that sanctuary. Unlike in China, Russians’ online access has been largely unfettered. Social media networks such as YouTube, Twitter and Telegram have provided a means for angry citizens to let off steam and for Navalny and others to bypass traditional, state-controlled media.
But the ability of Russians to post freely online is now under pressure. In late December, parliament passed legislation to block foreign websites, fine providers which host content banned in Russia and jail people making defamatory comments online. This week, Putin signed a decree that allows Moscow to block websites hosting material deemed to be illegal political campaigning.
Days after Navalny’s return to Russia, his team published a two-hour video investigation on YouTube alleging that a group of oligarchs had built Putin a lavish $1.3bn palace on the Black Sea coast, complete with €700 Italian toilet brushes, an ice-hockey pitch and an escape tunnel to the beach. Despite Putin’s denials that he or his family own the palace, it has been viewed almost 115 million times. A poll by the independent Levada Centre found a quarter of Russians had seen it.
In the lead-up to the pro-Navalny rallies, Russia’s communications watchdog ordered social media sites including TikTok, which featured popular videos of schoolchildren taking down portraits of Putin from their classroom walls, to remove all content mentioning the protests. The watchdog said 89 per cent of the content was removed and that it would fine YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for keeping up the remainder.
“The problem that we have is that it is easy to shut down the centre of a city and fill it with riot police, but it is much harder to control people on TikTok,” says the senior Kremlin official. “We have not worked that out yet.”
As Navalny adjusts to life in a prison 130km east of Moscow, memories of autumn 2013 must feel like a different world to him. That September, he ran in the capital’s mayoral election against Putin’s former chief of staff, winning 630,000 votes and 27 per cent of the electorate — almost enough to force a run-off. Back then, the Kremlin had at least a measure of grudging tolerance for dissent. But Navalny’s strong performance meant it would be the last time Russia’s most prominent opposition politician appeared on a ballot.
“By allowing Navalny to run in 2013, the government made a serious mistake. Still now, experts closest to the Kremlin do not understand why,” says Alexey Chesnakov, a political analyst who advises the Kremlin. “Having obtained a good result, Navalny felt he had more space to play. And now the situation is similar.”
“[But] non-systemic opposition is unacceptable for the Kremlin. The Kremlin sets the rules of the game and requires all players to follow them,” Chesnakov adds. “The system imposes a number of artificial restrictions upon even those who support it. And what is the point of letting your opponents do what you forbid your supporters?”
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, points to summer 2019 as the moment when Putin’s reluctant tolerance of FBK snapped. That summer, Navalny associates were blocked from running in an election for the Moscow city council, sparking large protests. When the vote was held, FBK deployed a “smart voting” initiative that directed disgruntled citizens to the candidate most likely to defeat the United Russia incumbent. Putin’s party lost 13 of its 38 seats in the 45-strong chamber.
“That was the final decision to get rid of us,” Volkov says. “That was when the decision was made that our organisation was denied the right to exist.” Between August and October 2019, police conducted more than 70 raids on FBK offices across the country, while the group was pushed into bankruptcy after a court ordered it and Navalny to pay a Putin-allied businessman Rbs29.2m ($400,000) in a defamation case.
Today the threat has intensified. “People are feeling terrorised . . . But we are still operating at the same scale,” Volkov says, adding that 80 per cent of FBK’s regional co-ordinators have been jailed this winter. “Now there is another summer, another election coming, and we are still active.”
In September, Russia goes to the polls for parliamentary elections that FBK has long targeted as an opportunity to use “smart voting” nationwide. Putin’s ruling party looks unusually vulnerable: its popularity rating hit an all-time low of 29.4 per cent in February, according to state-owned pollster VCIOM.
But changes to Russia’s infamous “foreign agent” law rushed through parliament late last year could ban FBK and other opposition groups from competing. The term, which carries heavy connotations of treachery and espionage, can now be applied to any individual who is deemed to have been supported by organisations labelled a foreign agent — such as FBK.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have proposed further expanding the law to ban “foreign agents” or their associates from participating in elections altogether. “We cannot and will not allow any blows to the sovereignty of Russia, to the right of our people to be the masters of their own land,” Putin told the leaders of Russia’s parliamentary parties last month. “I know that here we have a common approach, a consensus.”
Yet Volkov says the group remains unbowed. Despite everything, it plans to run about 10 candidates and support another 1,600 in parliamentary and regional races. “To some extent it will be possible [to participate],” he says, adding that the government’s efforts to bring small administrative criminal cases against potential candidates, which block them from running, was more crippling.
“This is not a death blow . . . but it is part of a campaign of death from a thousand cuts,” he says. “It is a thin paper cut, but the 500-and-something-th one. So they need a few more [to kill us].”
The Kremlin denies that its opponents are subject to repressive actions. “The Kremlin does not see such characteristics in Russia . . . We have enough plurality on the political scene, and the Kremlin has many opponents,” says Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “No one in Russia seizes the assets or imposes sanctions upon fellow citizens for the simple reason of the existence of certain beliefs or differences of opinion with the government.”
Putin’s popularity may remain higher than that of his party but growing national disgruntlement is clear. His approval rating hit a historic low of 59 per cent last May as the coronavirus pandemic raged, but recovered to 64 per cent in January, according to the Levada Center. More importantly, a poll released this month showed just 48 per cent of Russians would like to see him stay as president after 2024, with 41 per cent opposed.
That indicator, down from a high of 65 per cent in 2017, masks strikingly divergent opinions among age groups, a trend exacerbated by Navalny, the protests and the resulting crackdown. Just 31 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they wanted Putin to rule after 2024, with 57 per cent opposed. Among those aged over 55, the results were almost exactly the opposite.
The major role played by TikTok, an app popular among schoolchildren and teenagers, in promoting the protests suggests younger Russians are far less afraid of demonstrating their opposition.
“Sociologically and politically, the situation is getting worse and worse . . . They should think about this huge gap between them and the new generation, which gets bigger and wider every year,” says a person who regularly speaks with Putin, adding that the Kremlin overlooks such “strategic problems” in favour of solving short-term issues.
“[Repression] does not help to increase popularity. It helps to keep power but not popularity,” they add. “Now he is losing parts of his popularity, especially among young people. They are internally free, they don’t remember Stalin, they do not remember the gulag. They are relatively brave . . . [And] every year they are becoming more and more politically active and are growing in numbers.”
While the pro-Navalny rallies attracted a wide age range, many young people present told the Financial Times they were protesting against what they saw as a regime that did not represent their generation. “Maybe this is just what always happens when one man is in power for more than 20 years. But it makes me think that I don’t want to live in this country any more,” says Yana, a 20-year-old web designer from St Petersburg. Two of her friends were detained last month while waiting for a bus in the centre of Moscow during a protest, and later fined.
“People joke about whether there are human rights in Russia. But frankly that kind of thing just isn’t funny any more, you know?” she adds. “The things that make my life difficult are all kind of because of Putin . . . And I don’t like thinking that when I work, or pay tax or whatever, that’s a contribution to him.”
Putin is now in his 22nd year in charge of Russia, and his 18th as president. He has given no hints as to when he may step down — if ever. Under the terms of his new constitution, he could remain in power until 2036 when he will be 83. Last October, when asked if this meant he intended to rule until death, he responded: “No, it must definitely end one day, I am perfectly aware of that . . . But for now we all just have to work hard like St Francis, everyone in his or her role.”
Putin still refuses to utter Navalny’s name. The president, who has spent much of the past year in isolation at a countryside residence to avoid catching Covid-19, has barely referred to the protests or the police deployments that turned central Moscow into a no-go area for consecutive weekends.
Asked by students on a stage-managed conference call a week after Navalny’s arrest what he thought about young Russians’ interest in the unrest, Putin referenced the 1917 October Revolution and the collapse of the USSR in warning of the dangers that can stem from changes in power.
At a meeting with pro-Kremlin media editors last month, he shifted tack to an accusation he has made throughout his rule: that foreign powers were fomenting discord in Russia. “It has always been thus, from times of ancient folklore through to our modern history,” he said. “Our opponents or potential opponents have always used very ambitious, power-hungry people . . . Used not in the individuals’ interests, of course, but for those behind them.
“People, including Russians, are growing tired. In all countries of the world, people’s irritation has grown, and there is displeasure, including about living conditions and income levels,” he added. “When a person’s living standards decline, he starts blaming the authorities . . . And, of course, people in Europe, in the US and in other countries are trying to take advantage of that.”
Navalny and his team deny they work for foreign governments and reject allegations FBK received $2,100 from individuals in the US and Spain — cited to justify its “foreign agent” status. “Of course, he’s losing his mind over this,” Navalny said of Putin in court. “Because everyone was convinced that he’s just a bureaucrat who was accidentally appointed to his position. He’s never participated in any debates or campaigned in an election. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner.”
The challenge to Putin is that Navalny has not just tapped into the restlessness of a generation of young Russians: he also represents them. At 44, he is a quarter of a century younger than Putin and his most senior lieutenants. As the president ages, his regime is ageing with him, a team of longstanding and loyal aides consistently preferred over injections of new blood — or fresh ideas.
The law has even been changed to work around Putin’s reliance on the timeworn and trusted. In January, he submitted a bill that nullifies the existing rule forcing federal bureaucrats to retire at 65 years old. Anyone appointed directly by the president can work until their death. And increasing numbers of those closest to him are drawn from the siloviki, with almost all the liberals appointed prior to 2014 now pushed from the Kremlin’s corridors.
“The siloviki cannot but fulfil their function. Otherwise there will be questions about their effectiveness,” says Chesnakov, who was deputy head of Putin’s domestic policy department from 2001 to 2008. “Non-systemists sometimes act too bluntly and the security officials have no choice — they must act as the law dictates to them. And the law gives them enormous powers.”
Volkov says FBK will organise more protests in the spring, and few doubt that September’s elections will provide another flashpoint for uprisings, especially if United Russia vastly outperforms its low poll ratings and opposition candidates are blocked from the ballot. Putin’s police will be waiting. This winter’s crackdown saw officers in opaque helmets and without badges, tasers used to immobilise protesters and allegations that detainees were subject to torture techniques. “We see more brutality, more aggression towards his opponents,” says Kolesnikov. “And it works, it works.”
“But nevertheless it does not mean resistance is ending. People are just adapting, becoming more internally opposed with their private thoughts and their words,” he adds. “This was the Soviet way of quietly standing against the authorities. And I see it returning now.”
Henry Foy is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief