The courageous return to Russia and arrest of Alexei Navalny opened a new phase in the opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Not only were the ensuing demonstrations the largest and most widespread since 2011-2012, but the opposition also showed itself to be more daring, aggressive and creative. The authorities responded with arrests of organizers and activists throughout the country and recently detained 200 elected local officials and others gathered at a conference in Moscow to discuss municipal self-government. The run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for September will be the next opportunity for the opposition to show its strength.

A rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Jan. 31, 2021. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
A rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Jan. 31, 2021. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

These events occur in the context of a persistent decline in Putin’s approval ratings over the last several years and growing weariness throughout Russia with the regime’s authoritarianism, foreign adventures, high-level corruption and unfulfilled promises of economic prosperity. 

The obstacles to change in the political system are many and formidable, however, and Putin has redoubled his efforts in the face of growing opposition. He has put in place a huge security apparatus to crush domestic threats and instituted a burgeoning series of laws to penalize dissidents as “foreign agents.” He atomized elites, making them directly dependent on his personal authority, and prevented the growth of independent organizations or institutions. The plebiscite on constitutional amendments held not long before Navalny’s poisoning last summer achieved Putin’s immediate goal of potentially extending his rule to 2036 and centralizing more power in the Kremlin. But the exercise — which was rammed through during the coronavirus pandemic, allowed no opposition campaigning and was subject to probably the highest levels of electoral fraud in the post-Soviet era — did little to alleviate, and perhaps exacerbated, Putin’s declining popularity and the decaying legitimacy of his regime. The more repressive the regime becomes, however, the more isolated and paranoid will become its leadership, increasing the chances that some unforeseen crisis or set of circumstances could pull the thread that unravels the whole system.

American Engagement: A Diplomat’s Perspective

No one can predict how things will play out in the years ahead. But my interactions with ordinary Russians as principal officer at the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg in central Russia from 2017 to 2019 gave me cause for optimism about the country’s long-term future.

Americans are vaguely aware of the region and its significance through literary references and occasional news items. The Urals city of Perm was the model for the fictional Yuryatin in Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, and Yekaterinburg was the site of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, as well as where the Soviets shot down American U-2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960. Today the Urals and western Siberia are Russia’s industrial heartland. Much of the country’s oil and gas comes from the region, and there are many mining operations. Industrial production is mixed, with many heavy-manufacturing plants closed, while others have modernized and branched into consumer markets.

Consulate officers and I traveled throughout this enormous region to explain American policies and help Russians become acquainted with the United States. We issued tens of thousands of tourist visas and sponsored many American lecturers, artists and musical groups to travel to remote areas to showcase our culture, society and achievements. We sponsored exchange programs that sent Russians to the United States and held monthly English Club and Young Diplomats events giving people an opportunity to practice their English and learn about the work of American diplomats. My successor and her team have worked hard during the pandemic to maintain these connections through creative online programs.

The Russian authorities aggressively tried to restrict our access and to portray us as spies and fifth columnists seeking to undermine the country. In 2017, the Russian government ordered the U.S. Mission to Russia to reduce staffing by 65 percent then a few months later expelled many of our diplomats as personae non grata. We often had small groups of demonstrators outside the consulate, and local officials were told not to meet with us. Despite the harassment and negative propaganda, our events and programs were very popular with ordinary Russians, who were hungry for information about Americans, our system and way of life. We saw ever-increasing attendance, and our event venues invariably were filled. It was always a struggle to keep up with the demand for visa-interview appointments, and our celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the consulate in Yekaterinburg drew an unprecedented crowd of 2,000.

Ready for Change?

I was surprised at many people’s openness about political topics. This was the case for young people who were not direct products of the Soviet era, but for many of the older generations as well. Some were stalwart defenders of Putin and his policies, but most were lukewarm or critical. They complained about the regime’s policies and their impact, particularly income inequality, corruption, environmental degradation and citizens’ growing inability to have a say in what the authorities were doing. We also saw little enthusiasm for further costly international interventions or a closer embrace of China. One well-placed former official told me the current regime was “cut-off from the people and ignorant of their concerns.” He said it was becoming more and more obvious of the need for a wholesale change and a democratic government. 

People were increasingly willing to express their preferences by taking part in demonstrations. Even before the recent Navalny demonstrations set records for attendance, the international press reported the large protests against construction of a new Orthodox cathedral on popular park land in Yekaterinburg.  Other demonstrations drew crowds in the thousands, including those against abolition of the direct election of the mayor and the tearing down, without popular input, of a landmark television tower to make way for construction of an ice-hockey rink, a move widely assumed designed to curry favor with the president (hockey is one of Putin’s favorite sports). Similar demonstrations took place in other cities in our district on such issues as the raising of the retirement age and environmental issues. Although the consulate was accused of orchestrating these marches, they were genuine Russian productions, and we were not involved in any way.

Young people had abandoned propaganda-laden television for globally connected social media as the source of their news, and their posts were often anti-regime and pro-democracy. After it was revealed in the local press that the minister of education of the Yekaterinburg district had sent a letter to all educational institutions discouraging teachers and students from participating in consulate programs, many older people were shocked and saddened by the report. Many young people, showing they already had moved psychologically beyond the current system, greeted the news with ridicule and sarcasm. 

Whether all this adds up to a real movement toward fundamental change and, perhaps, democracy remains to be seen. Russians have little experience with democratic government, and, moreover, the society is still only slowly overcoming the trauma of communism, not having gone through the catharsis of a national process of de-Sovietization and self-examination. But as we and the Russians themselves try to make sense of developments, let us not pre-ordain the outcome by assuming the current regime is the only possible one, and that Russians genetically are supporters of strong men and authoritarianism.  Had Yeltsin chosen Boris Nemtsov as his successor instead of Putin, the country might look very different today.

At the very least, ordinary Russians want the same things Westerners want — decent salaries, health care, good educations for their children, and basic fairness in the political and economic systems. They are essentially Europeans and instinctively drawn to Europe and the West. Now, this may not be a sufficient condition for creating post-Putin democracy in Russia, but it is a necessary condition and a reason for hope.

Paul M. Carter, Jr., Ph.D., is a State Department senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg, Russia, from 2017 to 2019. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

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