The Debate

Life Under Putin

Author Gregory Feifer talks about life in Russia today.

Life Under Putin
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell speaks with Gregory Feifer, editor for Europe at Global Post, about his book Russians: The People behind the Power, a look at life in Russia today.

In your new book, Russians: The People behind the Power you draw on personal accounts of individuals to portray life in today’s Russia.  In the intimate conversations you had, what do ordinary Russians see as the biggest domestic issues facing them today?

Of course most Russians are concerned about the same kinds of things than worry Americans: how to make ends meet, bring up their children and improve their lot in life. They wring their hands over the huge wealth concentrated among a very few in Moscow and St. Petersburg while much of the country remains crumbling and destitute and they criticize the arbitrary power of officials.

But when it comes to their government’s shortcomings, it’s clear that Russians are also part of a society that functions differently than ours, based on different values.

Churchill once described the USSR as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Even two decades after the Soviet collapse, Russians remain a mystery to foreigners. Today, many can’t understand why they continue to support their president, the authoritarian Vladimir Putin, who’s destroyed democracy along with his political opponents, overseen an explosion of corruption and threatened to direct nuclear missiles at Western Europe. Does that mean they’re learned nothing from their very painful past?

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Part of the answer lies in Russia’s status as the world’s largest country by territory, a place that’s so unruly and difficult to govern that its all-pervasive corruption provides a relatively easy way for the leaders to exert power by accomplishing two things: it co-opts people by giving them a feeling they have a stake in the system—because they’re getting something in return—and by coercing them because it enables the authorities to prosecute almost anyone.

Where we would see corruption and curbs on individual freedom as a threat to our society’s viability, many Russians see Putin’s presidency and its shortcomings as necessary for providing at least some measure of stability.

After a decade as a journalist in the country, could you illuminate for our readers the realities of the LGBT community in Russia and Putin’s defense of traditional values?  

After some progress in the 1990s, when homosexuality was made legal and a small but vibrant gay subculture began to thrive in Moscow and some other cities, life has become increasingly dangerous under Putin.

In order to shore up support among conservative, largely rural supporters, he’s stoked a culture war that portrays his political opponents as part of a foreign-backed fifth column seeking to overthrow the state. It’s included classing LGBT people as a threat to traditional family values and the Russian Orthodox Church.

With the recent passage of a law banning what’s called propaganda for “non-traditional” relationships, advocating gay rights has essentially been recriminalized. That’s fed mounting anti-gay attitudes that have given rise to vigilante groups that beat and humiliate people.

The move is part of a sweeping crackdown against individual freedoms that makes life far more precarious for Russian gays and harder for the country to rejoin the international community if and when it eventually does.

Do people at home support Pussy Riot or are they merely a Western fixation? 

Only a small minority of Russians champions Pussy Riot. A majority sees the group as a threat to their values.

The feminist punk band symbolized what was going on in Russia in 2011 and 2012, when the first major protests against Putin’s rule prompted a crackdown against the opposition, free speech and civil society. The group’s appearances directly resulted in new laws against blasphemy. Putin also used Pussy Riot in his culture war aimed at consolidating his base of conservative supporters by ostracizing and marginalizing his critics.

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In the larger scheme, however, Pussy Riot was one of a number of targets in the Kremlin’s crackdown against its critics. 

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games have been overshadowed by fears of terrorism.  Yet, organizing committee chief Dmitry Chernyshenko has assured us that the venue is safe, having called it “the most secure venue … on the planet.”  Are those attending the Olympics in real danger or is there something else at play here? Is the West trying to undermine the Russian Olympic effort?

Although making predictions is futile, the Olympics venue will probably remain secure. The military has stationed missiles in surrounding mountains, boats and submarines to patrol the coast and a huge number of troops to secure the country’s southern border. In Sochi itself, the government has brought in 100,000 security and military personnel and required all visitors to carry special passports.

However, the threat of an attack elsewhere in Russia is high. The Sochi games are drawing attention to the country’s greatest security threat: instability and near-daily violence across the neighboring North Caucasus region, which is impossible to police. That’s very real—it’s certainly no case of the West trying to undermine Russia’s hosting of the Olympics.

Bomb attacks on Volgograd’s railway station and a trolleybus, together killing 34 people, just a few hundred miles from Sochi, shook Russia.  It forced the country to confront the challenges it faces to governance and central authority, particularly in the country’s far southwest region of Chechnya and Dagestan.  What is at the heart of these attacks and what does Moscow need to do to tamp down extremism and violence?

To put it very briefly, the violence is fed by the oppressive rule of corrupt Kremlin loyalists in the North Caucasus that’s prompted instability to spread from Chechnya across the entire region. In their ostensible fight against terrorism, the security forces that help keep the system in place abduct, torture and kill local young Muslim men, prompting more to join the handful of militants staging the attacks.

It’s a byproduct of the Putin system of rule and it’s radicalizing society in the North Caucasus, which is tearing at the seams.

Will the Olympics help restore the standing of the state or is the future of the country more uncertain?

Putin has presented the Olympics as showcase of Russian progress. Back in 2007, when the games were awarded to Russia, he said winning the right to host them “wasn’t just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements, but a judgment of our country.”

Rather than showcase the progress of a shining new era, however, the games will come closer to a familiar pattern in Russian history: the latest in a series of typically grandiose projects made at great cost to leapfrog Western countries. They included building St. Petersburg on a swamp, an uncompleted and largely unneeded Soviet railroad across Siberian wilderness, and aspirations to spread communism around the world.

The Sochi games will be the most expensive ever at more than $50 billion, almost four times the proposed amount. The questionable decision to stage the winter event in a subtropical city represents another feat of achievement, together with the staggering amount of corruption surrounding the preparations. Companies connected to one man alone earned more than $7 billion, around the entire budget for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He happens to be Putin’s childhood friend and former judo partner.

Seven years after Sochi won the right to host the games, they’re being held in a country faced with slowing economic growth, falling prices for oil, Russia’s most important export, and the mounting need to reform an economy that is built on corruption.

One of the main questions in Moscow is whether Putin will run for a fourth term in 2016 and who will eventually succeed him—both matters that are impossible to tell now. But whatever happens, Russia will need to confront the monumental task of fundamental reform in order to secure its future.

As a key player in Middle East diplomacy, Russia has organized inter-Syrian peace talks trying to press the Assad regime to come to the negotiating table.  The diplomatic push has been fraught, and a looming shadow hangs over the state of Syria’s future.  What is Russia’s role and is there any hope for a solution to the crisis and a return of peace and security?

I started by saying that we in the West tend to overlook Russian motives and values that are different than ours. In foreign policy, we often discount evidence that defying the West is a central goal for the Kremlin.

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On Syria, Putin’s overriding aim has been to boost Moscow’s role in the world by obstructing international action there, which he’s done by using the threat of Russia’s UN Security Council veto. Like his Soviet models, he believes that to be feared and loathed also means to be respected.

Russia has pursued the so-called peace talks and decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons in order to shield Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, we rashly continue to hope Moscow will finally begin cooperating over Syria by using its influence on its last Middle East ally to advance a political solution to the civil war, even though our doing so lessens the chances by playing right into the Kremlin’s hands.