The Rise and Fall of Putinism

MOSCOW – How did “Putinism” – that distinctively Russian blend of authoritarian politics and dirigiste economics – happen? And, now that it has, how can Russians move beyond it, to realize the rights and liberties promised to them in the country’s constitution?

An active Russian civil society, which seemed to appear out of nowhere in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union of 1989-1990 after the long Soviet hibernation, receded far too quickly. The astounding difficulty of everyday survival following the USSR’s collapse trapped most Russians into focusing on their families’ most urgent needs. Civic apathy set in.

So Vladimir Putin came to power at a very convenient moment for any ruler – when the people are quiescent. Cunningly, Putin then strapped this apathy to the first shoots of post-Soviet economic growth in order to conclude a new social contract: he would raise living standards in exchange for ordinary Russians’ acceptance of severe limits on their constitutional rights and liberties.

Until recently, both sides adhered to this tacit contract. But, with the global financial crisis, the Kremlin stopped meeting its side of the bargain. Thus, a new social contract is needed, especially as a new, post-Soviet generation of Russians has entered political life – a generation that has not been poisoned by the fear that decades of state terror in the USSR implanted in their forebears.