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The Future Is a Hard Sell in Russia

Maxim Trudolyubov
Image of a man on a bus through the bus's window
Moscow, Russia—April 13, 2020: Passenger on a Moscow bus

There is an invisible struggle taking place within the Russian community, one that is more significant than the endless squabbles between those who have left the country and those who have remained. The divide in question is between those who have a stake in the present and those who would rather bet on the future. One or the other. 

These debates take place in other countries, too. But they normally manifest themselves in political struggles between conservatives and reformists. Groups supporting the present and the future may overlap because individuals with property, businesses, and significant social capital, while benefiting in the present, may also aspire for change. 

But in the Russian case, the gap may be unbridgeable. After all, many of those who are winning in the present are direct or indirect beneficiaries of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

War Supporters by Default

The Russian authorities consciously seek to increase the number of those who are winning in the present and want to tie them to the Kremlin. It is not difficult to do this, since, for many in Russia, there are fewer alternatives to working for the state or working in large businesses connected to the state. What alternatives exist are decreasing in number, since the share of small businesses in Russia’s economy is decreasing. Before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the share of small businesses in the total turnover of small, medium, and large enterprises decreased to 11.5 percent, the lowest level since the beginning of such measurements in 2008. It has likely declined since then. 

Of the 75 million who are employed, 39 percent work in the state sector and state corporations of Russia and 49 percent are employed in the private sector. However, as noted by political scientist Pavel Luzin, many enterprises that are technically private or mixed sector are de facto under state control. This includes major employers such as the oil company Rosneft or the country’s largest bank, Sberbank, which means that the actual share of the state sector should be closer to 50 percent.

The Russian economy is stagnating, and all the efforts of the government’s economic team are aimed not at growth but at preventing a crisis. However, traditionally, Russia has low unemployment, which means that employees of enterprises and organizations in the public sector can expect some stability, albeit with low incomes.

Citizens, including employees of the public sector, are not required to actively support the war against Ukraine, but any attempts to express criticism, including on social media, are harshly suppressed and prosecuted. Just recently, a former teacher from the Russian region of Komi was sentenced to 5.5 years in prison camp for a comment about the explosion on the Crimean Bridge. The number of criminal cases like this is approaching 200, and they are thought to be scaring people into silence about their views on the war.

“Freedom” of Violence and Corruption

Russian elites are kept in check by the Kremlin through a combination of threats and promises. Stories of the mysterious deaths of Russian top managers serve as a backdrop against which those close to power are offered new “freedoms.” Security elites are gaining more freedom in the search for “enemies,” the persecution of citizens for dissent, and the use of arbitrary violence.

For civil elites accustomed to high incomes and opportunities for integration into Western societies and structures, Putin offers greater freedoms, by consistently making old corrupt practices more acceptable. Russia withdrew from the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, ratified in 2006. Officials and MPs are allowed not to disclose their income declarations. A significant portion of registries and databases are closed to public access. Essentially, this is freedom for corruption.

Putin’s elites had a vision of a life of retirement in a place where there is a good future—where their children have prospects, where property is protected, and the weather is better than in Russia. Western sanctions have only limited these possibilities to some extent. Many high-ranking businessmen and officials directly involved in the war still exist in this mode. A recent investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation revealed that close relatives of the head of the Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation, Boris Obnosov, own expensive real estate in the Czech Republic and regularly visit there. This corporation produces missiles with which the Russian army kills Ukrainians and destroys their homes.

If you look at all of this with a fresh perspective, it will be difficult to understand how Putin is still in power. It’s hard to comprehend how Russians, who are deprived of real freedoms, tolerate the expanding “freedoms” of those close to power, the freedom to commit violence and the freedom to plunder.

Time Running Backwards 

My explanation is that Russians, partly due to their own choice and partly due to propaganda, live in a world where they have no good future. The world is deteriorating, not improving, and the future is full of threats. The real supporters Putin has are supporters not so much of him personally, but of the present, with its diminishing possibilities. Perhaps without fully realizing it, they advocate for slow degradation rather than rapid deterioration. 

Political managers have sold Russians a leader under whom life has been deteriorating for over 10 years. And they present him as a guarantor against even more serious crises, catastrophes, or the invasion of enemy forces. This worldview is historically quite traditional and stands in stark contrast to the one that prevailed in Western consciousness for roughly 200 years.

The worldview associated with the Enlightenment era included the idea of progress, which is the idea of the possibility for improvement in the future, made possible by passing down knowledge from past generations to future ones. In the second half of the 18th century, the concept of linear (or spiral) time, rather than cyclical time, became prevalent in European thought. One of the creators of the idea of progress, the Enlightenment thinker and economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, believed that through the “successive progress of human reason” morals would soften, nations would come together, and trade and politics would unite humanity. 

Traditionally, human history has been characterized by the perception of time as a cyclical process moving towards degradation and decay. The past was seen as bright, while the future was regarded as dark. The world, created by God in a complete and perfect form, gradually worsened over time. With each era, humanity lost its original innocence and connection to the divine way of life. This was illustrated in the Bible through the story of the expulsion from paradise. In mythology, this concept was exemplified by the succession of ages symbolized by different metals starting with the Golden Age, followed by the Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Each subsequent metal was less valuable but harder.

Some conservative thinkers merged this perception of time with an understanding of the special role of political authorities. A ruler could not and should not fundamentally improve the lives of people, let alone save his nation. Salvation was the responsibility of the church or a charismatic leader. The state could only fulfill the mission of “holding back” the arrival of the end times. Hence the concept of “katechon” popular in Russia’s far-right conservative circles. The expression means “that which holds back” in Greek, originates with the New Testament, and is associated with the name of the Nazi jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Whether or not the current Russian leadership consciously embraces this gloomy mystical view of political reality, it embodies it through actions. Russian authorities have long abandoned the rhetoric of development, economic growth, and positive aspirations like “catching up and surpassing” America or, for that matter, Portugal, which was a catchphrase in the 2000s. In the rhetoric of the authorities, the Russian Empire of the past or the Soviet Union play the role of the “bright past,” while the “dark future” is represented by threats of crises, the country’s collapse, or its capture by enemies. 

Those who predict the disintegration of the Russian state help maintain this perspective. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the theory of the “dark future” is just one of many possible views, albeit one that is very beneficial to the current leadership of Russia. To maintain power, all it needs to do is continue to scare citizens with disasters and present itself as defender.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more