MOSCOW – In 1811, assessing the possibility – or, rather, the impossibility – of Russia ever undergoing a Western-style transformation, the diplomat and counter-Enlightenment philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously wrote, “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Fourteen years later, the Decembrist revolt – a movement of poets and army officers to topple Czar Nicholas I and establish a constitutional monarchy – seemed to refute de Maistre’s claim. Yet the revolt was suppressed, and the Decembrists were executed or exiled. One doomed officer famously declared, “You can’t hang us all.”
Russia’s brutal twentieth century, with its totalitarianism and gulags, nearly proved that officer – and de Maistre – wrong. No one “deserves” to be ruled so monstrously. An estimated 20 million Russians perished under Stalin’s rule, and the rest were paralyzed with terror.
The twenty-first century has been kinder to Russians, at least so far. But, while terror and famine have been absent, many of the oppressive tactics of the past have been revived under Vladimir Putin’s misrule, now in its 14th year.
Since 2003, when the billionaire oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested for alleged embezzlement and fraud – after he dared to support Putin’s political opponents – Russia’s elite has been largely brought to heel. None of them envisaged rotting in a labor camp like Khodorkovsky. Under Putin, it seems, de Maistre’s maxim has received a new lease on life.