I grew up in a hidden city. Neither a forgotten city, nor a distant city, a hidden city. My hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, is east of Moscow, along the Volga. It was a center of international trade before the Russian Revolution, but it was bombed by the Nazis during World War II; to preserve the crucial industries housed there, the Soviet authorities effectively closed it to the world after the war. It did not exist on many Soviet maps, and foreigners were not allowed to visit it. Cruise ships only stayed overnight so tourists didn’t get to know the ancient city on the shores.
Despite the heavy restrictions, many well-known intellectuals worked in Nizhny Novgorod, in seemingly anonymous Soviet facilities known as “mailboxes”. Nuclear physicist and future Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov was one of them. It was only at the local foreign language institute that I first met a foreigner, an American who taught English. Mary Sebastian – or Mary Petrovna Alferova, according to her Soviet passport – arrived in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1930s as a teenager with her father, an engineer helping to build a car factory. She fell in love, got married and decided to stay.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the first Democratic governor of Nizhny Novgorod was a charismatic scientist, Boris Nemtsov. He reopened our city, then called Gorky, symbolically returning it to its original name. During these first euphoric years, locals welcomed liberal reforms, as did foreign delegations and tourists. Today, Nizhny Novgorod has superb street art, English-named cafes and bars, and an international airport. It hosted thousands of American and European football fans during the 2018 World Cup.
This year 800 years mark since the founding of Nizhny Novgorod, and as if to mark the occasion, the local communists innovated on a new monument to Joseph Stalin. The gesture is symbolic, but shocking: they are not simply to honour a dictator ; they honor the dictator whose regime has forced Nizhny Novgorod into solitude. And yet, what was once shocking in Russia has become normal: Nemtsov, the former governor, was murdered outside the Kremlin in 2015 after becoming a critic of Vladimir Putin.
In the two decades since Putin’s rise to power, Kremlinologists, journalists and historians have desperately tried to decode the Russian leader’s belief system. Many ultimately defined it as an ongoing struggle, with Putin having to balance two major factions in Russia: the siloviki, or “men of power,” an autocratic group backed by security agencies, and technocrats, a group of capable and (by Russian standards) liberal managers who have largely seemed to rule over economic matters.
The common misconception about Russia is that Putin controls everything, sees everything, knows everything. He doesn’t. His regime depended on the membership of interest groups, oligarchs and powerful clans within the police. Behind the scenes, decision-makers among the siloviki and technocrats fought as analysts scrambled to guess who was at the top and how deep the tensions were. Putin is not a liberal, but he himself described his government as divided between “WesternersAnd “the people of the soil”.
No longer. The local people have won. They monopolize almost every aspect of Putin’s government and impose their will – his will – on Russian society in ways that were previously unimaginable.
The clearest example of this trend has been the force with which Putin’s main critic, Alexei Navalny, and his movement have been circumscribed. Navalny is in prison until 2024, although many predict that sentence (like Putin’s rule) will almost certainly be extended. Its supporters have been legally declared “extremists” – the first time such a designation has been used against a political group in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union – ensuring that any pro-navalny supporter anywhere in Russia risks up to eight years in prison. prison if they pursue any form of activism.
This internal political change has been rapid and pronounced, and has implications beyond Russia. More than anything, it illustrates how little Putin has to offer Joe Biden, and how unlikely Russia and the United States will come up with some form of long-term accommodation after years of bizarre bonhomie during the presidency of Donald Trump. Putin no longer believes that he must appease a Westernizing gang in his government; the siloviki now have an unfettered rule.
At the same time, Biden retains little leverage. If Putin does not have an internal pro-Western lobby, then any support from the US president is unlikely to result in significant change, only punishment for those who ostensibly get the help.
Suddenly, Russian civil society is paralyzed, Mikhail Zygar, the author of All the men of the Kremlin, a book about Putin and his government, told me. Independent political voices are silent or risk being labeled “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”. Even officials and politicians who were openly liberal have now changed course. People behave, Zygar said, “as if they were hostages.” Yet the West, by extension, cannot free them. “They can only provide food and water to those who choose to stay and help other hostages. “
It’s a sentiment echoing on both sides of the divide.
Biden “should focus on solving security and nuclear issues, preventing violence, discussing the battlefield as if there were no dissidents imprisoned in Russia,” Alexander Cherkasov, a senior member of Memorial, a human rights group. A US president negotiating to free dissidents would only align their movement with a country officially described as unfriendly, an enemy of Moscow.
Among the victors, there is triumphalism. “We will succeed because we Stalinists, the people of the soil, swallow up the liberals and expel the West, or transform them ideologically,” Yuriy Krupnov, a conservative politician, told me.
In some ways, the fact that Putin took so long to put an end to his balancing act is surprising: from a distance, his power seems assured. In 2019, he told the Financial Time that liberalism had “Survived its target”. Krupnov even admitted to me that he thought Putin would have acted sooner to strengthen conservative forces. “I hate liberalism,” he said, “but the problem is, most of the Russian elites are“ Westerners ”.
These elites have constantly struggled to gain and maintain power in Russia. Every time they try, a tragedy befalls them: Tsar Nicholas I executed the Decemberists, a 19th-century group calling for constitutional monarchy; Stalin filled the Gulag prison camps with dissidents and reformers. The anti-autocratic revolutions of 1917 and 1990 both resulted in the coming to power of illiberal rulers.
Today, the Kremlin is pushing intellectuals to make a choice: pledge allegiance or lose their careers. Some opt for the first; Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning director, has called for Russians who support Western sanctions to be deprived of their citizenship.
As with much of Russian politics, episodes like these echo the past. Historian Mikhail Milchik told me how he and Jacob Gordin, the editor of Russia’s oldest literary magazine, Zvezda, attended the spectacle trial of their close friend Joseph Brodsky, the dissident poet and future Nobel Laureate, in 1964. Milchik said it was the most traumatic day of his youth: Brodsky had been detained by the KGB, questioned and accused of “having a view of the world prejudicial to the state”. Brodsky’s father brought his military boots to the trial; Joseph put them on and walked to the Gulag. Decades later, Milchik and Gordin see parallels with modern Russia.
In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, historian Daniil Kotsyubinsky had hoped to see Russian democracy flourish. This dream has died out. Now, he told me, he is only asking the West to relax the sanctions and accept the Russian government for what it is. “The new cold war only strengthens the legitimacy of authoritarian power,” he said. He said the sanctions empowered Putin, leaving the rich and powerful with no choice but to embrace the Russian leader.
This leaves Biden with few options to confront Putin over his revanchism and military adventurism. Still, Kotsyubinsky has shed light on a potential path for the US president, which dovetails with the White House’s own priorities. Biden has spoken on several occasions of how the world has turned into a struggle between two camps – the democracies led by the United States and the autocracies led by China and Russia – and argued that Washington must show that democracy can work.
Kotsyubinsky said America could, over time, help Russian liberals without openly seeking to empower them by strengthening the cause of democracy, and the West, elsewhere. “Whenever the West’s own stability shook,” he told me, “Russian conservatives have become more powerful.