But over the years Mr. Putin became increasingly less tolerant of dissent, especially as “color” revolutions and pro-Western leanings swept through Ukraine and Georgia and protests over dubious elections filled Russian streets. Independent media was steadily choked off, and nonprofit groups receiving funding from outside the country were required to identity themselves as “foreign agents.”
A growing number of educated Russians began flowing out of Russia, some to Kyiv. When I visited there some years ago, I met several prominent Russian journalists who were, in effect, living in exile, such as Yevgeny Kiselyov, a pioneering Russian television journalist in the 1990s. One Russian reporter told me then that his dream was to build in Ukraine the democracy they were now blocked from building in Russia.
When the word spread that the invasion had begun, the brain drain became a rush for the doors. With flights to more than 30 countries now stopped, the twice-daily trains to Finland have been full, and many more Russians have being fleeing south to Georgia, where they don’t need a visa, or through Gulf States. Their stories are painfully similar, a sense that they have no future in a Russia that has been cast out of the civilized world, and that they are helpless to stop Mr. Putin. One friend, who had been visiting the United States, is applying for political asylum.
Not that Mr. Putin cares. He wields his power through a coterie of strongmen, the “siloviki,” who still view the world through the old Soviet prism of paranoia and ignorance. Many, like Mr. Putin, were officers in the security services, the elite shock troops of the omnipotent State. They never reconciled themselves to the loss of Russia’s status as a great power or bought into the notion that the people, the faceless “narod,” could be anything other than their subjects. And if the nettlesome liberal intelligentsia, or the new breed of wealthy business tycoons, didn’t like it, let them go.
If the polling figures are right, a majority of Russians accept the tough line of their leaders. Unlike the urban intelligentsia, many people spread across Russia’s vast expanse, and especially the elderly, get their information solely from the government’s television stations. The support is not only in the provinces: Thousands of Russians, according to the Moscow police, packed the Luzhniki stadium there for a pro-war rally on March 18, with banners reading “For a world without Nazism.”
However strong that support looks on paper, it could be brittle. A provincial Russian knows the right answer when asked by a pollster whether he supports the president, and many of the participants at the Luzhniki rally were likely state employees or nationalist groups bused in by the Kremlin. And Mr. Putin’s extraordinary efforts to deny there is any war and to minimize Russian casualties speaks to his awareness that if the truth about the “special military operation” and its cost came out, support would likely crumble.
When Mr. Putin recently met with women employed by Russian airlines, they all loyally declared full support for the “military operation,” but their questions reflected disquiet. What is in store for us at the end of this road? Will there be martial law? Will people employed in the private sector receive support? What will we do now that many Russian carriers can’t fly abroad?