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Putin’s War in Ukraine Shatters an Illusion in Russia

The last time I was in Russia, the summer of 2015, I came face to face with a contradiction. What if a place was unfree, but also happy? How long could it stay that way?

Moscow had blossomed into a beautiful, European city, full of meticulously planted parks, bike lanes and parking spaces. Income for the average Russian had risen significantly over the course of the previous decade. At the same time, its political system was drifting ever closer to authoritarianism.

Fifteen years earlier, Boris Yeltsin had left power in shame, apologizing on national television “for having failed to justify the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to make a leap from the gloomy and stagnant totalitarian past to a bright, prosperous and civilized future at just one go.”

By the summer of 2015, his successor, President Vladimir V. Putin, had seemingly made Russia bright and prosperous. The political system he built was increasingly restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.

Many Russian liberals had gone to work for nonprofits and local governments, throwing themselves into community building — making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 had failed, and people were looking for other ways to shape their country. Big politics were hopeless, the thinking went, but one could make a real difference in small acts.

There was another side to this bargain: Mr. Putin was seemingly constrained, as well. Political action may have been forbidden, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, for example religion, culture and many forms of expression. His own calculus for the system to run smoothly meant he had to make some room for society.

I lived in Russia for nine years, and began covering it for The New York Times in 2000, the year Mr. Putin was first elected. I spent lots of time telling people — in public writing and in my private life — that Russia might sometimes look bad, but that it had a lot of wonderful qualities, too.

But in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, I have felt like I am watching someone I love lose their mind. Many of the Russian liberals who had turned to “small acts” are feeling a sense of shock and horror, too, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a Russian anthropologist.

“I see lots of posts and conversations saying these small deeds, it was a big mistake,” she said. “People have a metaphor. They say, ‘We were trying to make some cosmetic changes to our faces, when the cancer was growing and growing in our stomachs.’”

I began to wonder whether Russia was always going to end up here, and we just failed to see it. So I called Yevgeniya Albats, a Russian journalist who had warned of the dangers of a K.G.B. resurgence as early as the 1990s. Ms. Albats kept staring into the glare of the idea that at certain points in history, everything is at stake in political thought and action. She had long argued that any bargain with Mr. Putin was an illusion.

She said 2008 was a turning point, the moment Mr. Putin divorced the West, even invaded another country, and the West barely noticed.

“For Putin, it was a clear sign,” she said by telephone last month, “that he can do whatever he wants. And that’s exactly what he started doing. He behaved extremely rationally. He just realized that you don’t care.”

She was referring to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which came shortly after President George W. Bush began to talk about NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. I covered that war, and spent the night with a Russian unit in the Georgian town of Gori and remember how invigorated the soldiers seemed, laughing, joking. The Soviet defeat in the Cold War had left a bitter sense of humiliation and loss. The invasion seemed to have renewed them.

“When Putin came, everything changed,” one officer told me. “We got some of our old strength back. People started to respect us again.”

Ms. Albats sounded tired but determined. The day we talked, she had traveled to a Russian penal colony to be present for the sentencing of her friend Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s popular opposition leader, who used his allotted time to give a speech against the war.

“We now understand that when Putin decided to go into war in Ukraine, he had to get rid of Navalny,” she said, because he is the only one with the courage to resist.

Indeed, Mr. Navalny never accepted the turn away from direct confrontation and was building a nationwide opposition movement, leading people into the streets. He rejected the bargain and was willing to go to prison to defy it.

Ms. Arkhipova pointed out that his mantra, that the fight was not of good against evil but of good against neutral, was a direct challenge to the political passivity that Mr. Putin was demanding.

Many people I interviewed said the poisoning of Mr. Navalny in 2020 and the jailing of him in early 2021, after years of freedom, marked the end of the social contract and the beginning of Mr. Putin’s war. Like Al Qaeda’s killing of Ahmed Shah Massoud on the eve of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Putin had to clear the field of opponents.

Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, argues it was the political opposition’s success, which began to accelerate in 2018 and 2019, that tipped Mr. Putin toward war.

Professor Yudin said it was inconceivable to Mr. Putin that there could be people inside Russia who wanted the best for their country, yet were against him. So he looked for traitors and nursed an obsession with the idea that the West was after him.

“It’s a feature of this kind of regime,” Professor Yudin said. “It recodes internal dissent into external threats.”

As for my 2015 question — how long can a place be unfree and also happy — perhaps we have lived into the answer. Many liberals have left. Many of those who have not left face fines or even jail. In the weeks after the invasion, the police detained more than 15,000 people nationwide, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group, substantially higher than in the protests in 2012, when about 5,000 people were detained over 12 months, said Ms. Arkhipova, who studied that movement.

Ms. Albats has stayed and is angry at Russian liberals who have not.

The message, she said, is that “Russian liberals, they don’t have any tolerance for any problems.” She added, “They just run away.”

At the same time, she said, it’s an extremely hard choice. “Choosing between jail and not jail, I’d rather choose not jail,” Ms. Albats said, adding that she already faces thousands of dollars in fines just for reporting about the war.

Mr. Yudin said the choice was hard because the crackdown was complete, and because political opposition was now being pulverized.

“The best comparison is Germany in 1939,” he said. “What kind of democratic movement would you expect there? This is the same. People are basically right now trying to save their lives.”

Not everyone, of course. Lev Gudkov, a sociologist at Levada Center, a research group that tracks Russian public opinion, told me that about two-thirds of people nationwide approve of Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

“It is a less-educated, older part of the population, mainly living in rural areas or in small and medium-sized cities, where the population is poorer and more dependent on power,” he said, referring to those who rely on public funds like pensions and state jobs. “They also receive their whole construction of reality exclusively from television.”

He points out that “if you look at 20 years of our research since Putin came to power, then the peaks of support for Putin and his popularity have always coincided with military campaigns.”

One such campaign was the war in Chechnya, a particularly brutal subduing of a population that in 1999 was Mr. Putin’s signature act before being elected president the first time. We are starting to see some of the features of that war in Ukraine: bodies with hands bound, mass graves, tales of torture. In Chechnya, the result was the systematic elimination of anyone connected to the fight against Russia. It is too soon to say whether that was the intent in Bucha.

Now the bargain is broken, the illusion has shattered. And the country has been pitched into a new phase. But what is it? Mr. Yudin argues that Russia is moving out of authoritarianism — where political passivity and civic disengagement are key features — into totalitarianism, which relies on mass mobilization, terror and homogeneity of beliefs. He believes Mr. Putin is on the brink, but may hesitate to make the shift.

“In a totalitarian system, you have to release free energy to start terror,” he said. Mr. Putin, he said, “is a control freak, used to micromanagement.”

However, if the Russian state starts to fail, either through a collapse of Russia’s economy or a complete military defeat in Ukraine, “unleashing terror will be the only way for him to save himself.”

Which is why the current situation is so dangerous, for Ukraine and for people in Russia opposed Mr. Putin.

“Putin is so convinced that he cannot afford to lose, that he will escalate,” Professor Yudin said. “He has staked everything on it.”

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