“We have never moved in concert with the other peoples. We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either.”
These are the words of one of Russia’s first dissidents, Petr Chaadaev, written in the first half of the 19th century.
This Monday, another Russian dissident and famous journalist, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of much-persecuted newspaper Novaya Gazeta, gave a speech in the European Parliament, emphasising that Vladimir Putin has closed Russia’s window into Europe.
Just like in previous centuries, the Russian intellectual elite finds itself in a struggle for or against Europe.
In many ways, the world's largest country has indeed always been a part of the continent, as Europe is a mosaic of different cultures and historical experiences.
In Russia, Europe is a symbol of modernity, of being in touch with the times and not falling behind.
Add to this the two main currents that have always existed in Russian culture: one ardently pro-Western, and another fiercely anti-Western.
When Russian intellectuals mention Europe, they do this profoundly only in terms of wanting or not wanting to live in the same era and in line with the same principles as most of the continent.
Today, Europe means democracy, and being anti-Europe and anti-European in Russia means being on the side of political serfdom.
Known knowns and unknown unknowns
Yet, there are many Russias, and the fact is that Russian society has always been elitist, further emphasised by the fact that those on the outside often only discuss the elite parts of Russian society.
The elite in Russia is also a very broad concept that doesn’t apply only to those with political power or substantial material wealth.
Russia’s elite is also cultural or scientific, with artists and scientists being adored and venerated by urban, educated people. Russia even produces intellectual rappers like Oxxxymiron.
On the other hand, there are regular people which the Russian elites think of as “the masses”.
Throughout Russian history, these “masses” were considered ignorant, dangerous or corrupted by those above them, yet endowed with the mystical "Russian soul" — strong in spirit but condemned to constant suffering — inside.
Russia is built upon such myths, one atop the other, with these hard-to-believe archetypes being presented to the curious Western observers as fact and then seeping into Western popular culture.
It's too late to demonstrate
In reality, Russia is not a mystery. That’s just one more Orientalist perspective we have to overcome.
Its social groups aren’t that different than most in Eastern Europe, teeming with right-wing populism. The only thing that’s different is that Russia used to be an empire, and other Eastern European peoples didn’t have this privilege.
This is a major part of the equation that can be easily glossed over when contemplating the fact that Russians missed the moment to protest when Putin started to strengthen his authoritarian grip on the country, even as he was keeping up the benevolent monarch façade.
Asking Russians why they don’t protest now is not really a good question.
The answer is obvious – there is already a brutal autocratic regime in place, with every instrument to crush even larger protests and put the demonstrators to torture.
Maybe Putin’s machinery isn’t that good at breaking Ukraine’s defences, but it is incredibly competent at cracking the skulls of Russian opposition activists.
The Bolotnaya protests and other far less significant blips
But the question should rather be, “Why have Russians allowed this system to be constructed in the first place?"
Putin wasn’t born an emperor, he carefully and gradually structured what he calls the “vertical of power”.
Russian society mostly slept through this phase, only to awaken for a brief period of time when Putin was to return as sovereign once more, replacing the unconvincing lame duck Dmitry Medvedev.
Enter the Bolotnaya protests, which culminated in December 2011.
These demonstrations didn’t attract the crowds needed to form a critical mass. Putin solidifying his grip on power didn't prompt Russian opposition to create a united front, either.
Afterwards, the only significant wave of protests was seen during the 2019 Moscow Duma protests.
Yet, the Russian opposition leaders and liberal intellectuals alike fondly remember the two protests against the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which led nowhere and were far less meaningful than the Bolotnaya or the 2019 demonstrations.
Craving someone like Putin
Not only is it too late to protest now — Putin would have to be given a good beating abroad by Ukraine and its allies, coupled with a strike in the back domestically by his own elites in order to leave power.
Let's face it: it was already too late to protest, even in 2014.
The last chance Russia had was when Putin was completing his “rokirovka”, or reshuffle, with Medvedev.
So why didn’t Russians turn out in the hundreds of thousands back then? The answer can be found in the aforementioned empire complex.
Putin didn’t impose his will on Russian society.
Most of it craved a figure such as Putin — a heavy-handed leader coming from the security apparatus — to bring back order from the chaos of the 1990s, to help the state get up from its knees, and to return it to its lost glory and beyond the condition of present-day embarrassment.
A mirage of the nation's might
While their country was considered a global superpower, the citizens never really had much to their name.
Russia's people were mostly poor throughout history: the harsh climate, combined with centralised resources and power in the hands of the few, made sure of this.
The only thing the Russian serfs had — first as Soviet disenfranchised citizens and after that, the impoverished majority caught up in the whirlwind of freedom and financial speculations of the 1990s — was the state’s might.
Putin gave them a mirage of this and added something as a bonus: the high tide of rising oil prices in the first decade of the 2000s, fuelling the rise of the urban middle class in the country's largest cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
The ancient Roman political elite had bread and circuses. Putin gave his people tanks and shopping malls.
Neither the rich nor the poor wanted to cause a stir
Russian society was further split down the socioeconomic line. First, there were the poor people from the provinces, with towns and villages that look like they were teleported to our time directly from the Middle Ages.
Across them sat the self-centred urbanites, always on the hunt for the newest fancy cars or brand-name clothes.
Neither wanted to cause a stir. The poor wouldn't because they were dependent on the state for meagre welfare checks.
Most also believed in the myth of a resurgent Russia and the better-off because they had mortgages and credits to pay, as debts from vacationing and shopping were constantly piling up.
The obscene bumper sticker “We can do this again”, putting the World War II triumph against Nazism in a demeaning sexual context, started to appear on middle-class cars around Moscow during this period.
Even the well-to-do liked to feel like they belong to a glorious state while frivolously travelling around the globe.
Who was left to protest back then when it mattered — back when Putin wasn’t a mad emperor but an aspiring autocrat?
A different Russia or another North Korea?
It was only the most spirited, activist-minded Russians who were extremely interested in politics and committed to protesting for a better Russia as a calling.
We saw these people in the streets even in 2022, when around 20,000 Russians were arrested for demonstrating against the war at the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Putin's repressive apparatus got rid of almost all of them, too.
When Alexey Navalny’s team called for Russians to protest his unfair and targeted imprisonment on 4 June, only around a hundred activists in the whole country turned out to protest.
There won’t be any significant protests in Russia until the elites, at least in part, turn their backs on Putin and call the people to the streets.
If this moment comes — and it’s no longer a wild fantasy but a realistic possibility — we will see literally a million people in Red Square.
The alternative is turning Russia into a larger version of North Korea, isolated from the rest of the world and dependent on China.
If this scenario unfolds, we won’t be witnessing meaningful protests in Russia for years to come.
Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.
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