Commentary: Inside Putin’s unburstable bubble

A few days before the Russian parliamentary election, the Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny released a video of the country house used by the prime minister -- and former president -- Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny and his colleagues had located Medvedev after he posted a photo on Instagram of his mushroom-picking excursion near the Volga River.

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts a ballot at a Moscow polling station during the parliamentary election on September 18, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via REUTERS

Navalny’s foundation hired a drone kitted with a camera and sent it over the area. The resulting footage revealed a vast estate of some 80 hectares, around 200 acres, with helipads, swimming pools, an artificial ski slope, servants’ quarters, guest houses, communication stations, large garages, a harbor with two hovercraft and a large, beautifully renovated 18th-century mansion. The compound, allegedly paid for by two billionaire oligarchs, is registered as belonging to a charity, Dar, with ties to Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana.

As a piece of evidence of corruption at the top, the video was powerful. As a ploy to get voters to use their ballots to protest against such behavior, it was a flop. In the parliamentary election it was designed to influence, President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia substantially increased the number of seats it commands in the Duma. Three other parties that usually vote with United Russia also returned to parliament, though all with fewer seats.

The bright side: Though United Russia won more seats, it commanded fewer votes. Indeed, for the first time in post-Soviet Russia, fewer than half the voters went to the polls. The dark side: None of the liberal opposition parties surpassed the five percent qualifying barrier to win parliamentary representation, and the sole liberal deputy, Dmitry Gudkov, lost his seat.

President Vladimir Putin, the unambiguous winner, greeted the electoral success briefly and unemotionally -- a response that might either be seen as modest, or as a reflection of the view that parliament is just an irritating distraction from governing. The historian of the Slav world, Timothy Snyder, observed this week that the president is a fan of the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who in essays in exile after World War Two called for a Russian fascism in which elections would be held only as a ritual of support for the state’s leader.

At a gathering of mainly liberal Russians in the Serbian capital of Belgrade this week, I heard Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center--an independent polling firm effectively banned after being named a “foreign agent”-- give an excoriating and brilliant account of the state of his country. Gudkov explained the puzzling fact that a sharp drop in Russian living standards had not caused Putin’s 80 percent-plus approval rating to fall. It was, he said, because the Russian president is effectively above the kind of criticism often leveled at others in government. That means Putin lives in a sphere reserved for those terrifying figures who are seen to have protected Russia and made it great in the world: Ivan IV (the Terrible), Peter I (the Great) and Josef Stalin.

Said Gudkov: “People don’t deny that Putin may be connected to or even organized corruption -- but it’s not important when compared to what he does and what he symbolizes. He has given us a better life, they say.” Besides, noted Gudkov, even Russians who have become middle-class consumers still have a habit of patience in adversity, of “thinking that life should be hard -- and so don’t protest, except when they feel that their dignity is damaged.”

Neither he nor the Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, believes this will change soon. Said Makarkin: “There is really only one voice now. Freedom of speech is freedom to say what is right. How can you say what is wrong? Suppose children heard you and were raised with the wrong ideas?”

If he wins the presidency again in the 2018 election, Putin will have been in power either directly or through his accommodating colleague Medvedev for more than two decades. The culture his rule has encouraged, the propaganda his media have published, the sense of encirclement and need for strength and aggression he has imposed, the imperial urge he has furthered, will be all that two generations have ever known. To them, Putin, the doyen among the new crew of autocrats, is the most remarkable example of power that works.

When Russians see a Europe weakened by economic stagnation, an unstable euro and high youth unemployment, they are told, “Look what happens with democracy.”

Democracy, however, still means a set of policies, conventions and laws that nurture civil society and freedom of speech and the press. These still need protection in a world in which they are too easily -- and in some quarters ferociously -- dismissed. Indeed, dismissed nowhere as ferociously as in Russia. As the sociologist Ella Paneyakh said in Belgrade, Russia may presently be an authoritarian state, but public behavior and conversations below are changing fast. Russians give more to charity, are more open to each other and discuss sex more openly -- a development that has increased the use of contraceptives, reduced the abortion rate and prompted greater public discussion of sexual abuse.

We must hope that generations more open to social change will, sooner or later, refuse to tolerate rule from older men who use the resources of the state to live like the richest aristocrats of the tsarist age.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics.” He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.