Totalitarianism 2.0

MOSCOW – In his 1970 treatise Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman considered the three options that people have for responding to dissatisfaction with organizations, firms, and states: they can leave, demand change, or concede. In the 45 years since the publication of his book, Hirschman’s framework has been usefully applied in an extremely broad array of contexts. Likewise, using it to understand current Russian politics yields important insights.

In 2011-2012, many of Russia’s well-educated, and relatively well off, citizens took to the streets to demand real democracy, hoping to use their “voice” to change the system from within. But Vladimir Putin, who had received an overwhelming electoral mandate to return to the presidency for a third term, was not listening; instead, he intensified repression.

So, when Putin invaded and annexed Crimea last year, open or latent dissenters had two options left: “exit” (by emigrating or withdrawing into private life) or express “loyalty” (through active or passive displays of acquiescence). With Putin’s approval ratings routinely exceeding 80%, it seems that most Russians have chosen the latter option.

But, just like in the Soviet Union, this “loyal” majority includes a large share of cynics – not to mention people who prefer to withdraw from civic life – who are left to debate politics at the kitchen table or in discussion clubs. Meanwhile, some economic and political experts create informal communities to develop roadmaps for possible reforms, in case the current regime collapses.