Since then, the police have begun to act against nationalist extremists. They have carried out mass arrests, and the incidence of violent acts has sharply declined. In 2011 there were “only” 20 murders and 130 injuries that were ethnically motivated. The tension between Caucasians and Russian nationalists, however, continues to simmer just beneath the surface and could explode into violence at any time.
When Putin announced in September that he would run for president again, Russians began calculating how old they would be when he finally left office in 2014, after two more terms. For most, the prospect was one of national stagnation and professional futility caused by the need to be part of a corrupt system. Some decided to vote with their feet. In the last three years, 1.25 million Russians have left Russia, and 40 percent between the ages of 18 and 24 would like to leave.
The key to Putin’s success was a steadily expanding economy. Although Russians were aware of the corruption, Putin retained support because, during his two terms as president, the economy grew at an average rate of 7 percent a year, making it possible for ordinary Russians to experience a significant increase in their standard of living and for persons connected to the regime to benefit from the corruption in spectacular fashion.
Now Russian investment bankers are warning their clients of an approaching economic crisis that will be worse than the one in 2008. If it arrives, a protest movement in the capital could be reinforced by strikes in the industrial centers. After a certain point, at least a part of the elite would be liable to abandon the regime and ally themselves with the protesters.
It might be assumed that the Russian leadership, insofar as it is the beneficiary of massive corruption, has every incentive to stick together in the face of a powerful social movement that calls for its members to be held to account. This, however, is not necessarily the case. In a game without rules in which huge amounts of money are at stake, hatreds develop quickly and jealousy can lead to betrayal. Although based ultimately on personal ties to Putin, the Russian leadership can be divided into two factions: the liberals, who are considered slightly more Western-oriented, and the “siloviki” (the power bloc), which includes many former members of the security services. The former are led supposedly by Medvedev; the latter, by Igor Sechin, until recently Putin’s deputy prime minister.
Over the years, hints about tensions between the factions have circulated. But the most striking evidence came with the discovery of the bodies of Konstantin Druzenko, an officer with the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), and Sergei Lomako, a former colleague of Druzenko’s, in a St. Petersburg ditch on October 27, 2007.
The FSKN was reputedly aligned with the liberals. An FSKN spokesman said the two men were victims of poisoning. Their deaths happened in the context of a conflict — between the FSKN and the FSB — that became public after the arrest, on October 2, 2007, of General Alexander Bulbov, the head of the FSKN’s operational department, on charges of bribery and illegal wiretapping. He had been leading the agency’s investigation of a massive smuggling operation that was run by relatives of high-ranking officers of the FSB. “We nearly had a fight between two security agencies,” said a former security-service officer familiar with the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Bulbov and the other FSKN officers. “This time, the agents were able to keep their cool, and there was no gunfight. But if this battle continues, you can be sure they will start shooting at each other. And it would be difficult to stop.”
An end to the Putin regime would represent a turning point for Russia. It is often wrongly assumed in the West that Yeltsin was a democrat and that Putin suppressed the freedom that Yeltsin tried to create. In fact, it was the massive corruption of the Yeltsin entourage that led Yeltsin to engineer the elevation of Putin, a former KGB officer, as his successor. Putin’s first official act was to issue a preemptive pardon to Yeltsin, freeing him of responsibility for any crimes committed while in office. With the spectacular increase in oil prices, the scale of corruption in Russia did grow significantly after Putin took power, but the Yeltsin and Putin regimes are nonetheless inextricably linked.
The possible fall of the Putin regime raises the question of what is likely to succeed it. Neither the regime itself nor the opposition is giving this question serious thought. It sometimes seems as if the two sides share a desire not to look ahead. Putin has tried to appeal to Russians on the basis not of his plans for the future but rather of his claim to being the guarantor of “stability.” The opposition, in part because it is composed of disparate groups, has limited itself to calls for honest elections.
Removing Putin might be the easy part. There is agreement across many sectors of Russian society that he has to go. Only a segment of the opposition, however, has liberal-democratic values, and for those values to emerge victorious in any political struggle after Putin is gone, Russia must face the question of why Russia has failed to establish democracy in the past.
To the extent that the opposition has an issue beyond the call for honest elections, that issue is corruption. An attack on corruption is certainly necessary. But corruption is only a symptom of a deeper ill, which is disregard for the moral worth of the individual. It was the notion of the individual as raw material for the achievement of political ends that made possible the triumph of a Soviet regime that was ready to create “heaven on earth” at the cost of millions of lives. It was the same disregard for the value of the individual that led Yeltsin’s “young reformers” to introduce capitalism without law and to build market institutions at the expense of the criminalization of the country.
To restore respect for the individual as the foundation for a new beginning, Russia must take an honest look at its past. It has failed to face the full truth about the crimes of the Communist regime. Under Putin, projects for commemoration of the victims of Communism were abandoned, and mass-burial sites were left unexplored. The only attempt to acknowledge the past in Lyubanskaya Square, the site of the buildings of state security, was the erection of a plaque honoring Yuri Andropov, the former Soviet leader and head of the KGB, on the wall of the present FSB building.
No attempt has been made to examine seriously the crimes of the post-Soviet period, either, including the 1993 shelling of the Russian parliament, the 1995 carpet-bombing of Grozny, and the murders and swindles that accompanied privatization of industry. In the case of Putin’s period in high office, the crimes include the strange apartment bombings in 1999 that were used to justify the second Chechen war; the sacrifice of hundreds of hostages during both the 2002 Moscow Theater siege and the 2004 school siege in Beslan; the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London; and the unsolved murders of the journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov and the rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
Russia now stands on the verge of important events that may have significance not only for Russians but also for the West. There will be temptations toward radicalism as Russians, under the pressure of the battle with an authoritarian regime, are exposed to the political appeal of extreme ideologies. They can avoid these extremes and create a new basis for their country’s future, but to do that and to take advantage of post-Soviet Russia’s second chance at democracy, they will have to focus on the value of the individual and let truth be their guide.
— Mr. Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past and the director of a documentary about the fall of the Soviet Union, Age of Delirium, which is based on his book of the same title. This article appeared in the July 30, 2012, issue of National Review.