Forget about revolutions

What does the Kremlin’s low-key approach to the 100th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution tell us? By itself, not a lot. Things are not going well in Russia, but this should not be enough to make Vladimir Putin afraid of a revolution. However, the president, haunted by the ghosts of tsarism, may feel like he needs to hedge against the risks of next year. He may have found the most suitable surrogate to deliver his message, which is: you don’t want a revolution.

The 100th anniversary of Russia’s 1917 revolution has come and gone. No fireworks, no disasters. Instead of commemorating the actual anniversary, a parade was held to remind Russians of Stalin’s speech on 7 November 1941 – itself timed to coincide with the anniversary of the October Revolution. Vladimir Putin participated in the unveiling of the Wall of Grief, a monumental memorial to the victims of political repression. The Communist Party held a march.

At the same time, however much the president wanted to avoid it, the echo of 1917 has been heard all over Russia for months. Orthodox extremists marched and threatened cinemas to prevent the showing of Matilda, a film depicting the romance of Tsar Nicholas II and a young ballerina. Those violently rallying against the movie were supported by two prominent politicians: Natalya Poklonskaya, a firebrand deputy from the occupied Crimea, and Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s autocratic president, who by the way also wants to bury Lenin’s embalmed body. Since March, anti-corruption protests organized by Alexei Navalny’s quickly growing movement have rocked not only Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also Russia’s remote regions. Albeit the intensity of these protests have been decreasing and at their best they were a far cry from a revolutionary uprising, they clearly caught the Kremlin off guard. Youngsters are arguing with their superiors about the regime’s credentials increasingly openly. A growing number of Russians are weary of a long-standing conflict between Russia and the West, of wars in Ukraine and in Syria. Obviously, these do not amount to the devastating war and the more than two million deaths suffered by Russia in World War I, but neither have the wars turned into the entertaining reality show some in the Russian government expected them to. Western sanctions, at the same time, have led to an increase in poverty, growing food prices and limited the opportunities of the energy industry.

A revolution may not be around the corner, but there is a growing sense of discontent. And there is a presidential election coming up in March.

In this uneasy mood the hysteria around Matilda showed something important. It showed how little Russians trust their institutions. Instead of trusting the police to protect them, many movie theatres did, in fact, remove Matilda from their repertoire, despite the Culture Ministry’s openly defending the film. This is not a surprise: after all, it was not anyone, but Ramzan Kadyrov who stood up to side with orthodox extremists; and when it’s Kadyrov against the law, it is usually Kadyrov who ends up winning. In October, the head of the Federal Investigative Committee publicly lamented about the impossibility of working in Kadyrov’s Chechnya.

But it is not only Kadyrov and it is not only Matilda. Orthodox extremism, like many other things in today’s Russia, is a political start-up. One person – for instance, Natalya Poklonskaya – has an idea, throws it into the Dragons’ Den of the Russian political elite, and it gets either supported or discarded. Not that this is a Russian specialty. The problem is that policymaking in Russia today is hardly more than this wild capitalism of ideas across the spectrum. One can never be sure if an idea, once launched, will be stopped before it does serious harm.

In past years, Russians have gradually and steadily been losing trust in their institutions. A study published in March reported that the percentage of those trusting the federal government had fallen from 79.8 percent in 2015 to 59.4 percent in 2016. Municipal parliaments and governors experienced a similar drop. The Levada Center showed, in 2016 that less than 30 percent of Russians trusted the government, the State Duma and courts, and that trust in institutions had fallen considerably across the board in 2016. Alexei Kudrin, a former minister of finance called this the “key problem” of the Russian economy. But it is not only an economic problem. It is a problem that affects people every day. Ask Yulia Latynina, a journalist who had to flee Russia following a series of attacks on her. Ask the people of Moscow who protested plans to demolish decrepit Soviet apartment blocks known as khruschovkas to give way to new housing. Ask the people who participated in any of the hundreds of protests in Russia’s regions last year or this year against wage arrears. Protests and flight are just two ways to deal with the problem of effectively missing institutions.

Of course, there is one safety mechanism: one institution that visibly exists and is alive, at least most of the time. This is the Russian president’s.

While other institutions are losing trust, more than 70 percent of Russians stubbornly trust the presidency. As regards Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating, it has not been under 80 percent since 2014. One has to wonder how much of this popularity is explained by the fact that many Russians simply feel that there is no one else to trust. In an increasingly grotesque political system where few actually fulfil the roles indicated by their titles and where actual institutions, like allegiances, are fluid, Putin’s presidency is what it is generally expected to be.

Changing guards

Into this general distrust of institutions came, dashing, Ksenia Sobchak.

Sobchak, who announced her candidacy last month, will be running, according to her own statement, on an “against all” ticket, expecting the votes of citizens who have had “enough”, offering them to use her candidacy as their platform and write her electoral manifesto.

In past years, Sobchak has indeed been many things: a style icon, a reality show host, a socially conscious opposition supporter. As the daughter of Putin’s political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, she and her mother have enjoyed the president’s personal protection even after the death of her father in 2000. Her ascension to the status of Russia’s first professional celebrity ran parallel to the emergence of the new Russian middle class on the back of the rapid economic growth of Putin’s first two presidential terms, and of Russia’s newfound pride. Throughout the years, she tried her hand at films, various TV shows ranging from reality shows to political debate programs, music and business. One can say that she is Vladimir Putin’s first two terms personified; a product of Putinism, if you will. Minus the political repression.

Following the much-anticipated announcement of Sobchak’s candidacy and especially after her first statements as a candidate, speculations about her planned purpose, her links to the Presidential Administration and the limits put on her public utterances were rife. What did she and Putin talk about only days before her announcement, when they met, ostensibly for an interview? Who is financing Sobchak’s campaign? Who will help her collect the signatures necessary to be registered as a candidate? Will she legitimize an election without Alexei Navalny for the opposition? Will she simply fulfil the role of a court jester, saying things publicly that other, more serious opposition candidates are silenced for? Or is when she says that presidential aide Vladislav Surkov has “blood on his hands” in East Ukraine, the Kremlin’s first step to quietly ending the war in Ukraine?

Sobchak denies being a Kremlin stooge. However, she does not deny his closeness to Russia’s political elite and personally to Putin. On the contrary. In her letter to Vedomosti, announcing her candidacy, she writes:

“I am against revolutions. But I am a good facilitator and organiser. Alexei Navalny offered today’s leaders a peaceful way to leave; this is right, it is very important in order to solidify the procedure of changing power in the country. But they will not believe him. They will believe me. I can talk to everyone because I personally know most of the Russian establishment, but also because I am a journalist whose profession is to talk to everyone.”

For more than a decade, Russia’s elections were carefully choreographed rituals where the main supporting roles were played by parties and political leaders whom one might call the usual suspects: the Communist Party led by the indestructible (though also not quite vigorous) Gennady Zyuganov; the Liberal Democratic Party led by the flamboyant nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky; the Just Russia party, cobbled together by the Kremlin from a collection of smaller parties to tame the Communists, led by Sergey Mironov, a politician so insignificant that he endorsed Vladimir Putin during his own presidential campaign in 2004.

These parties and politicians, with their roots in the 1990s were the useful “fellow travellers” of Putin’s first two presidential terms when the notion of the chaotic 90s was still a living and defining element of Russian politics. They proved themselves to be somewhat uneasy collaborators during the Medvedev presidency when they dared to criticise the government more freely. For Putin’s third term, they have become a laughing stock: so irrelevant that keeping them on life support for the sake of the same theatre that they assisted to in the 2000s risked seriously undermining the relevance of the government and perhaps even of Putin.

The first serious attempt to create a new “systemic” opposition was in 2011 when Mikhail Prokhorov, a businessman with a dynamic, modernising image took over the leadership of Right Cause, a small free-market liberal party. However, Prokhorov took his role too seriously and plans to turn him and his party into a serious political player were discarded as Vladimir Putin decided to return to the presidency. Prokhorov ended up running as an independent candidate, but scored less than 8 percent of the vote and was quickly forced out first from politics then from his media empire.

Most importantly, Prokhorov, a businessman, was a product of the 1990s. He was part of Putin’s political system because he chose to be and when he chose to be. He had the possibility to opt out. Sobchak, on the other hand, is a part of the system, in which Vladimir Putin is the most important or the only real institution, through her provenance, upbringing and personal brand. An opposition candidate whose strongest selling point is her connections to the present political elite. A voice of discontent who nonetheless does not want to turn the government upside down. The perfect opposition politician for the coming era, defined by Vladimir Putin’s fourth and last presidential term.

If you can’t sing it…

One of the often-heard interpretations of Putin’s 2018 presidential election campaign is that the president has run out of stories to tell to the Russian people. All of his previous electoral campaigns ran either on a positive image (the economic growth in 2004 or the promises of social improvements that were turned into the so-called May Decrees in 2012), or on the opposition to a negative experience (i.e. the shambolic nineties in 2000). Putin may have expected the glory gained with the annexation of Crimea to hold out until 2018 and help him to a final coronation. It did not. But perhaps it is not a coronation that Putin needs, after all.

1917 was the only year in the history of Russia since Ivan the Terrible when the political elite was toppled from below and a new elite was ushered in. It happened against the backdrop of a deep disillusionment with the political system and questions about the tsar’s succession. It ended up in a dictatorship. In 2017, feeling a growing disillusionment with Russia’s institutions and a looming, uncertain succession period, the Kremlin has no intention to even talk about revolutions.

No: Putin’s 2018 campaign will probably look for echoes with other parts of Russia’s recent history. Instead of 1917, the Kremlin commemorated a speech, delivered on 7 November 1941 by Stalin before troops who went off to what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. At the unveiling of a new monument to people killed under Stalin, Putin tried to separate violent political repression from other elements of the Stalinist regime. The Russian parliament is discussing new legislation that would ban Western media outlets in Russia. The president describes the ongoing investigation into Russia’s state-sponsored doping program as a part of an elaborate plot against Russia’s international standing.

And, of course, the election will have a candidate who, while claiming to speak for those who have had enough, clearly and firmly said that she is against revolutions. This is a message directed at the electorate as much as it is directed at the Russian political elite. The first person to write into Ksenia Sobchak’s empty book of policies was Vladimir Putin himself. He offered an orderly succession to the people around him and the artificially amplified image of the rational leader in an embattled country to his electorate. If revolution comes, Putin says, you might end up with Kadyrov and Poklonskaya. Or Navalny, if he’s the one who happens to scare you.

Putin may not speak about revolutions, but he certainly knows a lot about them. One of the most shocking formative experiences of the president when he was a young KGB officer in Dresden was the feeling of powerlessness as a group of German protesters appeared in front of the local KGB headquarters. And Putin may also have read about the tipping points and the vicious circles of the French Revolution of 1789, which started with firm, but polite demands addressed to king Louis and led to his execution four years later. To ensure that he can avoid not only talking about revolutions in the future but also facing one – be it on the streets of Moscow or in the Kremlin’s hallways – Putin had to find a suitable speaker for Russia’s restive Third Estate. One that can also talk to the nobility.

It’s still not a story, but it may be the second best thing.

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