Russians are restless. Following the parliamentary elections of last month, in which the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin appeared to resort to massive fraud to win a bare majority of seats, tens of thousands of angry citizens have taken to the frigid streets of Moscow and other cities to protest the results. The cry of “Putin is a thief!” echoes across the country. Not since the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago has popular outrage at the Kremlin run so high.
In the West, some observers see the protests as a welcome stirring of a democratic impulse — a Russian Spring, in the midst of winter, to bring freedom to a society oppressed by the authoritarian regime of Putin. “It’s all good, what’s been happening in Russia, for democracy,” the Russia expert Stephen Cohen of New York University said on the Democracy Now! multimedia network.
But a longer view of Russian history suggests that what looks like a harbinger of democratic change can be better understood as something else: a familiar drama pitting the father of the nation against a flock of discontented children. It is a dynamic that has played out cyclically in Russia over the centuries, back to the pre-Soviet times of the czars. In this case, a generation that has come of age under Putin, at first accepting and in many cases admiring of his strict rule, is now tiring of it. “This is the Putin generation that has grown up,” Tina Kandelaki, a 36-year-old talk show host, told The Wall Street Journal. “That doesn’t mean they have to love Putin.”
As the protest movement gains strength, which seems likely, it will be important for the West to keep this dynamic in mind. A revolt bent on toppling a father figure could produce a dangerous vacuum in which the pattern, the arrival of a new strongman, is repeated. Russia may be headed for a future without the embattled Putin, who is bidding for a six-year term as president in an election set for March. But to understand how this cycle plays out in Russian history is to realize that it isn’t necessarily heading for a democratic promised land.
Russian society has deep and abiding patriarchal roots, a legacy of its Orthodox Byzantine culture, in which the father — otets — is enshrined as the imperious (and infallible) ruler of the household. “Domostroi,” the 16th-century Orthodox manual for household management, promoted by both church and czar as an idealized expression of how Russians should live, calls for strict and unquestioning obedience of wife to husband and of children to parents, for the communal good of all.
The nation, in these terms, could be understood as a large family, presided over by a czar. “The peasant’s loyalty was a personal loyalty to the idealized image of a distant ruler whom he saw as his terrestrial father and protector,” the Harvard scholar Richard Pipes wrote in his classic work “Russia under the Old Regime.”
This mindset held up even under the Soviet Union, which was supposed to represent a radical break with Russian tradition but in practice embodied many of its features. The cult of personality around Stalin, ruler from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, essentially made him a Red Czar — the father of a nation now supposedly built around a venerated set of communist principles.
When the Soviet Union imploded, Russia faced a leadership vacuum. The new Russian Federation had a European-style parliament — the Duma — but it was widely seen by the people as a weak and corrupt institution stuffed with mediocrities. The presidency was potentially a strong institution, but the first president, Boris Yeltsin, suffered from poor health and alcoholism and embarrassed his countrymen with buffoon-like antics on trips abroad.
When Putin, an ex-KGB colonel born in 1952, took the reins of power, at the end of 1999, he satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud. As I gleaned from my own reporting — I was living in Russia at the time — ordinary Russians hailed him as a strongman, a silne chilovek. A worshipful pop song about Putin played on the radio, with the all-girl band singing of its desire for “a man like Putin, full of strength/ a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink/ a man like Putin, who doesn’t hurt me/ a man like Putin, who won’t run away.”
Keen to take advantage of the political moment, the Kremlin cultivated a pro-Putin following among young people, who were encouraged to revive Orthodox traditions such as having large families. (Putin propagandists may have had a hand in that “man like Putin” song.) There were few objections as Putin consolidated his hold over the media, made regional governors subject to the Kremlin’s appointment, and imprisoned or exiled Yeltsin-era business magnates who bridled at his autocratic rule. Putin had become an intimate, familiar presence in the Russian national family — the so-called pervoye litso or first face in Russia, not just head of government but custodian of the national soul. “The importance of the pervoye litso is overwhelming, much more important than in America,” I was reminded at the time by an Orthodox priest who served as Putin’s confessor.
But a good father can become a bad father — a beneficent czar turn into an abusive one. And when that happens, the “Domostroi” model, in its worshipful attitude toward paternal authority, offers no solution to the problem of replacing a father who has led the nation astray.
Sometimes the replacement can come only through catastrophic upheaval. The best-known, of course, is the Bolshevik Revolution. But another striking example came in the 19th century, when generations of young people, often the best educated, from well-off families, railed against the iron rule of the czars — and against the patriarchal ways of thinking and living that seemed to insure Russia’s backwardness as the West modernized. Incipient rebellions were generally snuffed by the czar’s police, driving the surviving activists underground and hardening their views. When Ivan Turgenev immortalized this period of strife in his 1861 novel, he called it “Fathers and Sons” — or, in the original Russian, “Ottsy i Deti,” which translates as “Fathers and Children.”
These days, the supposedly new Russia, no longer part of a multicultural grouping of Soviet republics, is in certain respects an Old Russia, with a return to traditions of pre-Soviet times. (Ethnic Russians, a minority in the Soviet Union, are now about an 80 percent majority in the country.) With Putin bearing a likeness, in the cult of personality built around him, to czars of old, a wave of rebellion was bound to be set in motion at some point. In his case, the bill of indictment is corruption — of the graft that permeates his regime, from top to bottom. The “Putin is a thief!” slogan refers to the “stolen” parliamentary election, but even more to the lining of the pockets that preceded this insult. An entire cadre of elders, grouped around Putin, is being called to account for the systematic looting of the realm.
Young Russians, their future on the line, are in the forefront of the anti-Putin movement — a poll taken at the Moscow demonstration on Dec. 24 found that 64 percent of the as many as 100,000 who participated were from 18 to 39 years old. Some 62 percent were university educated. The sources of their unhappiness are easy enough to grasp: from the bribes that university instructors routinely demand for awarding passing grades to the exorbitant kickbacks demanded by government bureaucrats of small business people struggling to survive. Even Putin’s regime acknowledges the pervasiveness of corruption in a society ranked an abysmal 143 out of 182 countries in the “corruption perceptions” index published by the group Transparency International.
For the West and for America in particular, Russia has always been a difficult read, in part because of an insistence on seeing the society as desiring the Jeffersonian democracy we espouse for ourselves. But it is best to read Russia not from the outside in, but from the inside out. And from that vantage point, the anti-Putin movement appears to be motivated most of all by a generation’s rage — and not by a vision of a democratic society.
If there is a “new leader” waiting in the wings, one disquieting possibility is the most popular figure of the protest movement to emerge so far: Alexei Navalny, a charismatic 35-year-old commercial lawyer and anticorruption crusader who is hinting at a challenge to Putin for the presidency.
Navalny may seem like a familiar (and therefore comforting) Western sort. He mobilizes his hipster followers with blog posts and tweets, and has done a fellowship at Yale. He is better seen, though, as a particular Russian archetype — the angry young man of action. The model, in Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons,” was the hero, or anti-hero, of the tale: Bazarov, the medical student who derisively rails against authority as irredeemably fraudulent. Refusing to embrace any particular ideology or program of reform, Bazarov says “we must first clear the ground” and, towards that end, “a whip is a good thing.”
Navalny’s ideology is also murky. He was once a member of Yabloko, the Russian political party that espouses Western-style democracy and liberal, pluralistic values — but the party’s elders expelled him for his affiliations with nationalistic groups. His rhetoric is habitually aggressive, suggestive of violent purges. Back in November, at a rally staged by nationalists, he said, with reference to a pair of Russian-Jewish oligarchs in exile in London: “We must exterminate these thieves who are drinking our blood and chewing on our livers.”
A righteous anger can be salutary. It’s conceivable that the movement, if successful, will sweep aside a spent band of elders and replenish the country’s leadership with fresh recruits. The affairs of the Kremlin and its crown jewels — such as Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant that is especially well known for its self-enriching frauds — might be managed more honestly. There surely would be extensive investigations of the abuses of the Putin era, as there should be.
But it is possible that this dynamic could play out in a non-democratic fashion. After all, Russia has not spent the last 20 years, since the end of the Soviet period, establishing and fortifying democratic institutions. On the whole, it has backtracked from democracy, as exemplified not only by Putin’s rule but also by Yeltsin’s. (It was Yeltsin, remember, who abruptly left office to make way for Putin as successor, without an election.) Should Putin, now serving as prime minister, recapture the presidency in March in an election viewed by the public as tainted, there is the prospect of street violence to force him to step down, with many Russians, understandably, seeing electoral democracy as a bankrupt avenue of change.
At this point, Washington is taking a cautious posture, urging Putin to take seriously the allegations of fraud in the December parliamentary election. Washington’s firmest bond is to a group of liberal elders from the Yeltsin era — but those folks do not have much standing with the young people now protesting in the streets. At the same time, any US effort to encourage the anti-Putin movement in a highly public way is likely to backfire, because such a strategy would give Putin the opportunity to play the card of “foreign interference” in a domestic matter.
Russia is in the midst of a family feud — and as with all family feuds, outsiders are apt to have only the dimmest appreciation of the lines of conflict, of the grievances arising from the past, of the possibilities for resolution or for an intensification of hostilities. “Your father is a good fellow,” Turgenev’s Bazarov tells one of his friends, “but his day is over; his song has been sung to extinction.” Today’s Russians are coming around to that view of Putin, the father they once embraced. But a problem with fathers is that they almost never accept that their time is up.
Paul Starobin, a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, is the author of “After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.”