Russia votes: can Putin survive? (Update)

Updated with transcript. Video originally published 3 March


Just a few days before the presidential election, openDemocracy Russia and the Russia Foundation hosted three leading activists and journalists for a fascinating panel discussion on elections, civil society and the new Russia. Here we present transcripted video highlights from the event.

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
12 March 2012

Panel with leading Russians Artemy Troitsky, Mikhail Zygar and Maxim Trudolyubov

Hoare Memorial Hall, Westminster, London


Oliver Carroll (co-editor at openDemocracy Russia)
: We’re here today to continue a discussion about a new Russia. Just six months ago, if you would have read anything but the most optimistic analysis of the country, you would have read about political void, passivity and apathy, a preference of Russians to concentrate on their personal space -  their friends, their colleagues, and their family. Not so today. The full carnival of Russian life is reengaged in politics, and I think the panel you see in front of you are as important as any players in that process.

I wanted to begin by turning to Artemy. You were quite involved in the youth cultural revolution in the pre-perestroika and perestroika era. I wondered how similar you see the social and cultural expression today and whether there is any comparison to be made. So if you would like to make a few opening remarks…

Artemy Troitsky (activist, journalist): Maybe yes, maybe I can be considered a veteran of the people’s protest movement in Russia, because I was involved in it in different ways since the late seventies. The situation in that time was utterly different from what is happening now. First of all, in the eighties, say the perestroika times, everyone was very naïve and full of hopes. We thought that we would throw away the communist system and that would automatically bring us to the brave new world of freedom, prosperity, democracy, lots of fantastic goods, and free travel. But the core of Russia hasn’t changed a tiny bit, Russia being a feudal  country, an ever feudal  country in which nothing has really changed since the time of Ivan the Terrible, which of course was the sixteenth century. I think that the key word to describe Putin’s modern Russia is cynicism. There have been much scarier times in Russia in the twentieth century – like Stalin, with millions of people killed and tens of millions of people put in prison camps and so on – right now we don’t have atrocities like this. Why the movement has started and why it has started so late: it was actually absolutely non-political and very natural, and like say in  Greece or Spain this is not a movement of the poor people, of the unemployed or the people who can barely survive on welfare and so on. The core of this movement are actually now what we call in Russia the creative class, it’s the young professionals, it’s the middle class, it’s the small time businessman, it’s the IT crowd and so on, who are actually doing quite well.

OC: I wanted to turn to Mikhail now. In the two years of existence of ‘TV Rain’, which Mikhail takes editorial responsibility for, it’s become quite a symbol of the protest movement in general. Just last week of course there was the freedom marathon, ten hours of free and pretty frank discussion on the future of Russia, from experts, activists, journalists and quite a wide range of Russian opinion. It’s the kind of television that Russia hadn’t really seen since the heydays of NTV, before that of course was abruptly censored. I was wondering if you could explain the idea behind that particular program and in general the idea of the channel, how has it developed and how has it become that platform of opposition expression.

Mikhail Zygar (editor-in-chief, TV Rain): First I would like to start with some general points… The main difference between free media in Russia and those media which are controlled by the government or are loyal to the government oligarchs is that those controlled and un-free are really popular and most of really free media in Russia are rather unpopular. An important thing is that internet in Russia is absolutely free. There is no censorship on the internet or any kind of state control, but during the last ten or more years Russian internet was not about politics at all. No one cared about news websites or political websites. The only points of interest were kittens, sex and music. And that’s the point where I should start my short story about our little humble TV channel which was launched two years ago. It was a very dramatic start, from the beginning we had several philosophical principles and the most important principle was that we were planning to make for those who are not indifferent, for people who care. All our friends and colleagues told us that we were going to fail, not because we didn’t have an informal agreement or permission from the Kremlin administration, and we didn’t have it. We had all the legal licenses, but we didn’t have unwritten permission to start our TV channel. But to our colleagues the main proof that we would fail was that we were giving the audience something that it didn’t want. We were talking about politics and they assured us that nobody cared about politics and that everybody was fed up with it. We all found out that that wasn’t true. The last thing that I would like to mention is that I see that Russian media are now in a very tough position, because those journalists who feel sympathy for the protests, who are probably participating in all the meetings, many of them expected that Putin’s regime would fail in a couple of weeks or months. That’s not a good position because we all know that we should be patient and any transformation, especially in Russian media, would be very weak.

OC: Maxim, I wanted to ask you about scenarios. The outcome on Sunday is fairly clear, at least if opinion polls are to be believed and that’s a big ‘if’. Putin looks to be consolidating his lead. But where are we going to be in two, five or ten years down the line and if you were in the Kremlin control room, what advice would you give them?

Maxim Trudolyubov (opinion editor, Vedomosti): Well, I probably have the toughest questions, which are impossible to answer. It’s impossible to talk about the future, especially in Russia. Russia is notorious for being short term. No one knows, I’m sure Putin himself doesn’t know what happens in May or June. Roughly, what can happen, this is the first one: The system takes over the opposition – the system meaning roughly the Kremlin, but it’s actually broader -, the system takes over the anti-corruption agenda, it takes over the language of that agenda. This would by definition include appropriating some of the opposition leaders. So we will probably see three or four figures invited and they will probably agree. So it’s actually quite likely, it’s probably the likeliest scenario.

The second option or scenario is opposition taking over the system, which is a lot less likely. But still it’s actually quite possible, actually a lot of things are possible in Russia… But this option, I haven’t invented it – I talked to a few people close to the ruling elite who reminded me about the situation twelve years ago. Putin was actually the product of a compromise, when the outgoing elite was seen by everyone as corrupt and completely dysfunctional. There was this counter elite, forming around a political movement that was called Otechestvo-vsya Rossiya These people wanted change and actually if they were not stopped they could stage a coup and come to power in a rough way. The forces within the system – the so-called [Yeltsin] “family” or whatever you call them – were smart enough to compromise. This is a scenario of essentially the opposition taking over the system, in terms of the system staying the same, it’s still there. This is less likely but actually a lot better for Putin himself because then he would be fine.

The third option is even less likely than the previous two. It’s actual change, a system change. I don’t know how it come about. I would personally support this option. I totally agree with what Artemy said: somehow Russia was able to preserve the old, outdated type of relationship between the elite and the population at large, with the elite being essentially above the law. There is a group of even less than two thousand people who are completely untouchable. They control probably more than half of Russia’s GDP. This is essentially the system. It’s economical in nature, these people run the country like a colony. Of course they have a lot to lose and they would do anything to preserve the system.

Jamison Firestone (Firestone Duncan): You sound pessimistic that great change is around the corner. But on the other hand, are you personally pessimistic that the government can make the kinds of concessions that will make the Russian people feel that they live in a fair and equitable country? Assuming that the government continues to preserve untouchability and inequality under law, do you think the system can hold?

Elizabeth Teague (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) : Maxim, you talk very interestingly about the untouchability of the elite, but I’m always very surprised about what you can read, particularly on the internet, for example when Boris Nemtsov published about the billions of dollars that Putin possesses. What is the purpose of that being published if you said that people are being untouchable?

AT: I think that the scenarios that Maxim gave you are not pessimistic. In my opinion they are tremendously optimistic, and they are way too clever for the people ruling Russia right now. I think that we all have to understand one simple thing: Vladimir Putin is not a politician. I mean he may be a politician but that is not his main occupation. It may sound absolutely primitive and childish and even stupid, but his is absolutely true: first and foremost Vladimir Putin is a thief. The only good outcome is that it is not possible that Russia becomes a giant North Korea. It’s simple not possible because this is the twenty-first century, because in the current situation of economic globalisation and internet and information globalisation he cannot isolate the country. Another reason why is – like one Russian rock singer sang is his song: ‘You cannot tighten the screws because all the bolts have been stolen’. This is also the situation is Russia. I think of course the scenario will be different. After Putin wins the elections he will try to keep the status quo, but it’s like in a steam engine:  when the pressure rises higher and higher it will absolutely and inevitably lead to some kind of explosion.

MT: Artemy, basically I think I agree. I will try to put it politely in terms of the system taking over the opposition. They will speak the language of reform, they will speak the language of anti-corruption…

AT:… but it could be fake!

MT: Yes, of course. The question about an impact. This is an old story: Russia doesn’t have an institution of free media, an institution the way Britain has it. It’s a matter of insider talk usually whenever something is published. But I think that the media influence is actually growing.

 MZ: I can help you here with the very impressive fact that last December for the first time the word ‘politics’ became more popular as a trend in Russian blogs on the Russian internet than the word ‘sex’. For the first time ever.

MT: I’m sure that something like that happened last year when what we had been doing in the quiet of our little tiny newspaper for years suddenly became very mainstream and very popular.

MZ: A very important thing Maxim said is that, which I remember when working at Kommersant, we published some very bold investigation and the next day we saw no response or quote from any information agency or radio station or other newspapers, just nothing. That proved that we were absolutely alone. Now that situation is over, now we’re not alone and our number is growing. But, a very important thing, I don’t agree with Artemy because I don’t believe in an explosion. I don’t think that all those people who are participating in the meetings in support of Putin are forced to take part. I really think that the number of Putin’s supporters is still higher than the number of those who are not happy with him.

Peter Pomerantsev (journalist): I have a question about splits. Do you see any splits developing within the elites, especially between little financial blocks, between the Kovalchuks and the Friedmans, between these different people, there have been rumours but never something specific, and also between the ‘siloviki’ and the liberals, the Sechin-Kudrin splits

David Clark (The Russian Foundation): I just wanted to ask very quickly whether the panellists think an urban, middle class based movement on its own is sufficient to win power in Russia and, if they don’t think that, whether that protest movement is capable of building alliances with other sectors of Russian society, sufficient for them to become a potential governing force?

AT: I know the movement from the inside and I know it quite well. What I like about it is that it is absolutely sincere. It’s what the Americans call a grass roots movement. It’s really a people’s movement. It has nothing to do with political parties who have absolutely no authority among the people. The symbol that is most frequently used to describe it is Noah’s Ark. All kinds of people, from monarchists to anarchists, the whole range, all these people are now aboard this anti-Putin Noah’s Ark. Of course a lot of them hate each other, but to me it rather reminds me of the situation of the Soviet underground of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, when I also was friends with Nazis, with orthodox people, only for one reason: we all hated Brezhnev and the soviet power. I really have no idea whether it will become more organised or not. Will it be able to form the governing force as David says or not? These guys (Mikhail Zygar and Maxim Trudolyubov, ed.) are too well off and fun loving, too intellectual and too soft and so on. I personally am just like them, but unlike them I can criticise this.

MT: I think Artemy explained very well the way the opposition functions from within. Basically, it’s dysfunctional at this stage. I want to add what I think Aleksey Navalny  could present in the future. His prospects for becoming a political leader are better than anyone else’s I think. He says that there is a time horizon of about two to three years when Putin’s popularity goes down and essentially disappears. That will be the time frame he is aiming at. Navalny says that he doesn’t immediately want to start creating a party for example, because of the current system which hasn’t changed so far, it’s still the old Putin system. I think the hope of the opposition is not to rush to create parties right now, it is to continue this flash mob-like protest which is very effective. At this point it’s the only asset the opposition has, because whenever there is a huge showing in the street it has a real impact on what Putin and other groups within the system are doing. They immediately start thinking of some concessions. So at this stage it’s a very effective dialogue.

MZ: Speaking about splits. It’s very important good news that all of them hate each other. We have about fifty groups inside Putin’s inner circle and that’s a very important source of optimism for me personally, because every time I’m warned that after the presidential elections my TV channel will be closed I answer that we are not in the year 2000 when Putin was popular and his inner circle was united, a very rigid mechanism. Now it is not. I spoke to Kudrin about a month ago and I asked him if Putin is really going to make some concessions and he swears that Putin has changed and that he is going to negotiate and he’s not as stubborn anymore as he used to be. Do I believe that? No I don’t.

Lindsey Hilsum (Channel Four News): Can you tell us what roll nationalism is playing? Because I realise that the government tries to tar the opposition leader Navalny as a nationalist, but he has been quoted as making some shockingly anti-immigrant statements, and other opposition leaders whom I have interviewed have also made quite strong anti-immigrant statements. I wondered if you could explain that to us.

Maria Ordzhonikze (EU – Russia Centre): What happens when Putin wins the elections, I guess he has sixty to eighty per cent of votes, what is going to happen next? What is going to keep the protest movement going?

AT: First of all I don’t think that Putin can win the elections in a fair way. I think there will be violations of all kinds. And I think there is absolutely no probability that the protest movement will be knocked-out by victorious results of the elections for Putin.

MT: Actually what happens depends on lots of unknowns. Yes, there will be fraud, with different strategies and tactics in big cities and in small towns in the south of Russia for example. If they allow Moscow to vote almost freely and fairly, they would have I think thirty per cent for Putin. So this gap will probably be a good predictor of how people behave. He will accept five per cent, but if it’s ten or fifteen per cent than people will go mad. Nationalism is of course a very difficult question. I discussed it briefly with Aleksey Navalny. He has this sense of identity and thinks that the Russian identity is important. He has a rough idea of introducing the principle of the melting pot in Russia. He thinks that the Russians should be just like the Americans. It’s not about ethnic nationality but it’s about being loyal to the country and being essentially good citizens. My impression is that he doesn’t have the language and the ways of expressing it because it’s a difficult concept and in a country that doesn’t have a tradition of civilised national politics it’s really difficult, because whenever you step into this, you get a lot of things thrown at you. We have a long liberal tradition which doesn’t even accept any talk of national identity. We also have a tradition of nationalism, which is rather scary. He (Navalny, ed.) will need to clarify and find what he needs. I don’t think that this is really an important issue right now.

MZ: Speaking of nationalism, I really think that the problem is a bit exaggerated. Is Aleksey Navalny really a nationalist? Probably a bit, but he’s not a scary one. He is playing this card and he knows that that can earn him some popularity. Speaking about what happens after Putin wins 65 per cent – I’m not sure that he is going to win 65 per cent – if he gets 65 or a bit less I think the leaders of the protest movement would have some difficulty in convincing people to take part in the protests. But also I hope that after last December we have a civil society that is mature enough.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski  (openDemocracy Russia): I wanted to ask Artemy how the rest of the world should react?

Judith Herrin:  Could I ask the panel please about the resurgence of religious observations in Russia and the force of the Orthodox Church and whether this is a force within the nationalist camp?

David Hearst (The Guardian): Would it be a good idea did absolutely nothing and left Russia completely alone, considering what a mess they made of their support for Yeltsin?

AT: I’m quite amazed about how the west reacts to what is happening in Russia now. I remember last year, exactly one year ago, when all western countries were giving a standing ovation to Muslim fundamentalists vandalising the centre of Cairo. I think some people were against it, but everyone else thought: great! Now, when Russian intellectuals are trying to do something in their funny, clumsy ways in Moscow and St Petersburg, the reaction is: what is this, we’ll see… Maybe Russia is a country that made the world so sick for such a long time now already – Russians are so tired of themselves that the rest of the world is also totally tired of Russia. And the west now is totally obsessed with economic problems, the crisis, the euro, you know it better than me. But I think there are some things in the world more important than economic interests. Dignity and humanity are such issues.

MT: I agree that Putin is what he himself probably considers very pragmatic, but in fact he is rather cynical. That probably has to do with his upbringing and his generation of people who were growing up in the dying Soviet Union where they could see that the prevailing ideology was just a façade. That’s his strength and that’s his weakness as well. When he is confronted with an idealistic movement he just doesn’t know what to do with it, he doesn’t know what to do with all those people in the streets who don’t have any kind of economic purpose. They don’t want any money from him. This is a situation that he doesn’t know what to about it.

MZ: I don’t think that the west should support any kind of protest in Russia, because that would help Putin and the elite in blaming the protesters for being mercenaries of the United States. But my friend Elena Panfilova, head of the Russian branch of Transparency International , always says that it’s impossible to find corruption in Russia. Russian corruption can be found in the United Kingdom, , Switzerland and other European countries …

AT: Offshore islands!

MZ: … Yes, in freezing accounts, or at least in providing us with information about villas, houses, accounts and so on. That would be a huge blow for all this kind of patriotism and nationalism and any kind of rhetoric. And speaking about the Russian Orthodox Church, I think it has almost no influence on the political process. They are trying to use it now, they are trying to use [deputy PM] Dmitry Rogozin and that doesn’t look very impressive.

AT: Patriarch Cyril, he’s a billionaire himself by the way, has prospered fantastically in the nineties, selling alcohol and cigarettes without tax. He was the main guy in this whole operation. He has very little authority, even within the Russian Orthodox Church. The true orthodox are against him for one reason, the liberals are against him for other reasons… Generally speaking, the Russian Orthodox Church now has even less influence than in Soviet times I think. Although of course they do al lot of business.

OC: And - on that note - I think we’ll wrap up. Thanks so much to our panel, who have taken time out of very busy schedules to be with us today, and sorry for running a little bit late. But I hope you found it interesting. Thank you.


Speaking at the event were: 


  • Troitsky2010.jpg
    Artemy Troitsky – A celebrated activist, cultural critic, university lecturer and journalist. In the eighties, Troitsky played a significant role in the anti-Soviet cultural revolution of the Soviet youth; in recent months, he has become one of the leading figures of the Moscow protest movement. Troitsky is author of “Back in the U. S. S. R.: True Story of Rock in Russia” (British edition 1987) and “Tusovka: Who's Who in New Soviet Rock Culture” (British edition 1990).
  • Zygar.jpg
    Mikhail Zygar – The editor-in-chief of Rain TV, Russia's most independent TV station, which has been at the forefront of the opposition movement. He was formerly deputy editor-in-chief of Russian Newsweek and correspondent of the highly regarded Kommersant daily newspaper. As well as being editor-in-chief of Rain TV, which is playing a leading role in the protest movement, in 2008 he co-authored “Gazprom. Russia’s new weapon”.
  • Trudolubov.jpg

    Maxim Trudolyubov – A prominent author, journalist, political analyst. Trudolyubov was one of the founding editors of Vedomosti (a sister publication of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal), which has since forged a reputation as Russia’s most reliable source of news, and he continues to edit Vedomosti’s opinion pages. He is author of the monologue “My Nation and myself – the common cause”. In 2010-2011 he was Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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