Where does modern Russia come from geographically

Russia

Jens Siegert

has been head of the Russia country office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow since 1999. Before that, he worked for ten years as a correspondent for German-language print media and radio stations in Moscow.

Society in Russia has changed much more in the past few years than was perceived from outside. In the course of this change, contradictions that shape politics and social development have become increasingly visible. Society is divided socially and geographically. The importance of these factors for current social and political development only became generally clear through the protest in winter 2011/12.

Russian opposition activists hold up a banner reading "Stop the dictatorship" during an anti-government demonstration in front of the Central Election Committee in Moscow, 2012. (& copy AP)

Summary

Society in Russia has changed much more in the past few years than was perceived from outside. In the course of this change, contradictions that shape politics and social development have become increasingly visible. Putin's two most important political goals - economic modernization and retention of power - are in contradiction to one another. Society is divided socially and geographically, but also socio-culturally: a modern-postmodern and profane and a pre-modern-patriarchal, deeply religious Russia face each other. The importance of these factors for current social and political development only became generally clear through the protest in winter 2011/12. Today, an increasing number of people in Russia no longer see Putin as the man who is able to create the "agreed" order and prosperity. The system is losing credibility and at the same time politics is returning to Russia as a public power struggle. Until last autumn, most observers assumed that the development would be determined by an "inertia scenario". Significant changes in Putin's system seemed unlikely. The acceleration of political developments since autumn 2011 has made these considerations obsolete much faster than expected.

Political accelerations

In the first ten years after Vladimir Putin took office in late 1999, many Russian NGOs were in a contradicting situation. Independent NGOs were perceived by the state on the one hand as a threat, as a vehicle for overthrowing the regime. On the other hand, they served the Kremlin as a line of communication in society, since all other channels (parliament, political parties, mass media) had been subjected to the will of the authorities, meaning that the leadership only reflected its own ideological guidelines. This dual character shaped the relationship between the state and NGOs right down to the institutional regulations. But in autumn and winter 2011 the situation began to move. Two events played a prominent role: the announcement of Putin's return as president on September 24, 2011, and on December 5, the arrest of several hundred people who protested against the massive falsifications in the Duma election the day before. The hubris of Putin's decision to return was the trigger for widespread social displeasure. The importance of elections as a starting point for political protest had also been criminally underestimated by those in power (but also by large sections of the opposition and most observers). This is particularly surprising in view of the role that rigged elections have played in the emergence of social protest movements in many countries over the past decade. Ultimately, they also led to changes in power and the replacement of semi-authoritarian regimes. One explanation for this type of collective blindness may lie in the predominant perception of history as a (time) continuum. In reality, however, history "jumps", makes bigger and smaller hops in which development processes accelerate, as it were. This is especially true for frozen political systems (as is increasingly the case in Russia), which no longer have the ability or the will to react in a timely and appropriate manner to political challenges. In the past few years, society in Russia has changed much more internally than was seen on the surface above. I would like to particularly emphasize three processes that were of course not completely invisible, but whose significance for current social and political developments only became generally clear through the protest. I will begin with what I call "Putin's dilemma": the economic modernization of the country was part of Putin's agenda from the start, as a prerequisite for Russia's regaining the great power role. However, it was repeatedly subordinated to maintaining power. Putin reacted to every crisis by dismantling participation rights and expanding authoritarian structures. At the latest with the economic crisis of 2008/9 it became clear that a thoroughgoing economic modernization can hardly succeed without a political opening of the system. The disappointment with the hopes aroused in particular by Medvedev's rhetoric of modernization meant that even before the protests in December 2011, more and more mobile, active, younger and well-educated people turned their backs on Putin. But it is precisely these people that are needed for modernization. Another important process is the increasing division in Russian society, as, for example, Natalja Subarewitsch impressively describes in her model of the "four Russia" who live next to each other rather than together. These are: the modern megapoles Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as some other megacities (in which people tend to vote against Putin); the outdated industrial centers and the so-called monocities (which tend to vote for Putin because state transfers ensure their modest prosperity); the small towns and villages from which the young leave and where the old die early (there is hardly any hope here); the national republics and territories, whose socio-cultural structures differ significantly from the rest of the country (which, as a sign of loyalty, tend to vote for those in power in Moscow). The third, perhaps even more important process is likely to be the increasing socio-cultural division into a modern-postmodern and profane and a pre-modern-patriarchal, deeply religious Russia. These two Russians are on the way to a cultural war that will revive the old opposition between "Westerners" and Slavophiles "under new conditions. Putin promotes this cultural war and is increasingly using it as a means of maintaining power. The most recent example is the case Pussy Riot, in which the Kremlin cleverly managed to turn the indignation over the "desecration" of a church against the opposition as a whole. Even for many who tend towards pre-modern patriarchal values, Putin is no longer the benevolent leader of the country leads from a glorious past into a glorious future. But he still successfully understands how to act as the last bastion against the advancing modernity (from the west) with all the unreasonable impositions and fears associated with it Russian society has a growing need for clear rules and functional sta national institutes led to a growing alienation from Putin. The protest against Putin is also a protest against traditional patriarchal forms and hierarchies, which are not only perceived as increasingly dysfunctional, but also culturally alien and restrictive. The protest also endangers the unspoken, but for everyone obvious, political ban.