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Power Without Purpose

MOSCOW – For more than two decades, August has been the cruelest month for Russian leaders. The August 1991 coup led to the departure of President Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Soviet Union. The August 1998 debt default and ruble collapse laid waste to President Boris Yeltsin’s free-market reforms and resulted in the sacking of his prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko.

The following August, a sick and feeble Yeltsin announced that Vladimir Putin, the fourth prime minister in a year, would soon take over as President. Four years later, in August 2003, a Kremlin-inspired tax raid against Russia’s leading oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, followed by the confiscation of his oil company, Yukos, demonstrated what Putin meant by the “dictatorship of law.”

This late-summer curse now precedes a “December of misery” – at least for democracy activists. In December 2011, mass protests against Putin’s election-fixing and upcoming third presidential term simply fizzled out. Likewise, December 2013 (the unlucky “Devil’s Dozen” according to superstitious Russians) was full of omens.

The month began with international calls to boycott February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi in protest against a Kremlin-sanctioned law banning “gay propaganda.” This was followed by political turmoil in neighboring Ukraine, where protesters tried, and once again failed, to topple their anti-democratic leaders. The year ended with two suicide bombings in Volgograd, which claimed dozens of lives. In attacking Volgograd, formerly Czaritsyn (city of the czars) and later Stalingrad (the symbol of Soviet wartime perseverance), the terrorists – most likely Chechen Islamic fundamentalists – could hardly have picked a more emblematic Russian city.