For years, we’ve seen Russia in black-and-white terms. This new book on the Putin regime and its discontents puts people first.
With all the attention the media showered on the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, it’s easy to forget that two years earlier mass protests were rocking Moscow, not Kyiv. Naturally, you could argue that we remember Euromaidan not only because it was successful, but because it was closely followed by the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. If we ignore the 2011-2012 “White revolution” in Russia, it is only because it failed. Fair enough, but why did it fail?
The simple answer is that Vladimir Putin and his cronies suppressed the opposition and intimidated it into submission. While there is a lot of truth behind this argument, it only scratches the surface. How did the Kremlin manage to so effectively hobble its opponents? Who were its opponents exactly, and what flaws or weakness did they have which worked in the authorities’ favour?
The new edition of Marc Bennetts’ I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition goes a long way towards answering these questions. The years 2011-2013 were interesting times indeed, and I was fortunate to witness them. In spite of this, I feel lucky that I’ve never had to explain those days to outsiders. Where does one even begin?
Clear, simple, and wrong
Watching news broadcasts in the west during 2011-2012, you might have seen massive crowds of “liberal” opposition supporters protesting on Bolotnaya square or Sakharov Avenue. But if you were there, on the ground, you knew better. You could identify the different groupings by their flags — there were the Communists, there were the Trots, the anarchists, the liberals, the nationalists, the neo-Nazis, the LGBT rights activists. Rarely would western audiences ever see this diversity.
Rarer still would they ever learn about the Kremlin’s reaction, much of which took place behind closed doors. Bennetts’ menacing title derives from an alleged incident that occurred in May 2012. Holding anti-government protesters responsible for the pathetic turnout to his inauguration for a third term as president, Vladimir Putin was reported to have remarked: “They ruined my big day. Now I’m going to ruin their lives.” From then on it would be open season on virtually any organised opposition to the system, and Bennetts walks us through Putin’s “war” from the trials of Pussy Riot to the February 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov and beyond.
By providing this context, figures on both sides cease to be heroes and villains — instead, they become humans with both virtues and vices
I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives serves as an excellent primer for anyone trying to get a handle on Russian politics not just from the Putin era, but from the very beginning in 1991. How else can you hope to explain all the contradictions and Phillip K. Dick-level twists and turns of Russian politics so someone with no background in Russian politics can accept the idea that “liberals” who are at the same time xenophobic nationalists are indeed a real thing?
For beginners, Bennetts’ book provides the right amount of background to keep the reader informed without historical digressions that might sever the reader from the human stories which unfold throughout the book. We are introduced not only to key figures of the opposition, but also some of their pro-Kremlin opponents. Indeed, one of Bennetts’ most entertaining interviews comes from Duma deputy Evgeniy Fedorov, founder of the pro-Putin “National Liberation Movement”, which asserts that Russia is actually “occupied” by the US (and has been since 1991). Bennetts comes away from the interview with the impression that Fedorov sincerely believes his own rhetoric — despite its glaring internal contradictions.
There is, however, a more important reason why this book is so sorely needed for newcomers to the subject. I can sum it up in three words: context, context, context! For years, much of the coverage of Russia has been inadequate, often in black and white. This state of affairs seems to have led to the rise of Russia-watching armchair experts who choose their respective camps based on romantic or oversimplified criteria.
Back to the beginning
Right off the bat, Bennetts lays down the most important foundation to understanding what happened — a description of Russia’s woes from the 1990s. Whereas much of the western media gave first Russian president Boris Yeltsin a free pass, even as he brutalised his own people whether in Moscow or Chechnya, by Putin’s time they had started to wake up and smell the authoritarianism.
The extreme contrast between the western media’s treatment of Yeltsin and Putin has led to misconceptions both in Russia, where pro-government Russians believe western affinity for Yeltsin stemmed from Russia’s alleged weakness under his tenure, and in the west, where Putin’s abuses of authority are believed to have begun with his presidency beginning in 2000.
The problem with this view is that if one does not understand Russia’s experience in the 1990s, one will never understand how Putin garnered popularity in the first place, or how he still manages to get a majority of Russians to at worst begrudgingly tolerate him.
Many western observers failed to understand Russia’s failed “White revolution” of 2011-2012, just as they failed to fully understand Maidan in Ukraine
Over the years, Putin’s political technologists have manipulated people’s memories of the “wild 1990s”, presenting Putin as a force for stability who “raised Russia from its knees” as the popular saying goes here. Repression and propaganda, both of which are described at length throughout the book, certainly play a large role in maintaining Putin’s rule and discouraging dissent. However, the memory of the 1990s, characterised by a near-total socio-economic collapse and rampant criminality, still resonates with much of Russian society. Hence the national obsession with “stability”.
The other context Bennetts provides is about the opposition figures themselves. Westerners, including some who showed up in Russia during those years, seemed to fall in love with figures like Alexei Navalny and Pussy Riot, projecting their own values onto them and failing to grasp the cultural context in which they existed.
Bennetts gives us a much more accurate, complete picture of Navalny — a crusader against corruption and a believer in reform, but also one who has long held xenophobic nationalist views and was virtually unknown outside of Moscow years after the protests of 2011-2012. Likewise, Sergei Udaltsov of Left Front may attract admiration from leftists of many different stripes for his radical politics and Spartan, proletarian style. Udaltsov’s willingness to give Joseph Stalin the benefit of the doubt might make some liberals and anarchists uneasy.
Pussy Riot might have been a perfect fit in western protest movements, which often feature performance art or other attention getting stunts, but in Russia, where this thing wasn’t common, their infamous protest performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior struck many people as incoherent and insulting. By providing this context, figures on both sides cease to be heroes and villains — instead, they become humans with both virtues and vices.
Autopsy of a failed revolution
When I say the book is an excellent guide for newcomers to the topic, I do not mean that veteran Russia watchers won’t gain any knowledge from it.
Although I was an eyewitness to some of the events in the book, I wasn’t writing back in those days. I was also very skeptical of the opposition, a nebulous term, and as such I largely ignored much of their activities after 2011. When I started blogging in 2014, there were many gaps in my memory. Key protests, trials and arrests seemed to blur together. I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives filled in those gaps and rekindled memories of those times which had been lost.
Even if most Russians don’t imagine taking to the streets today, there’s evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is expecting mass unrest in the near future
As for flaws, I would have liked to have seen the author at least once challenge the myth about Russian “weakness” in the 1990s. Experience has taught me that the “weakness” many Russians refer to when they discuss that period relates strictly to foreign policy, where Russia was unable to exert its will on other countries. Of course, this was not entirely the case: Russia managed to maintain strategic positions in Moldova and Georgia while exerting influence on countries like Ukraine and Belarus. The background on Maidan was slightly simplified, but of course this book isn’t about Maidan, and the narrative it provides was relatively agreed upon by both the major western media outlets and the Russian state press.
Bennett’s book is timely in light of Russia’s approaching legislative elections, which have been moved forward to take place in September of this year as opposed to the traditional December date. After all, the protest movement was sparked by the previous parliamentary elections in 2011.
In 2016, though, Putin’s approval ratings remain high. The “war” on the opposition has undoubtedly been effective. Yet Russia’s economy is in a tailspin, with rising unemployment, falling real-wages, inflation and wage arrears among other indicators of declining living standards. Even if most Russians don’t imagine taking to the streets today, there’s evidence to suggest that the Kremlin is expecting mass unrest in the near future.
Many western observers failed to understand Russia’s failed “White revolution” of 2011-2012, just as they failed to fully understand Maidan in Ukraine. With the help of the comprehensive yet accessible history found in I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, perhaps those observers won’t repeat the same mistake when the next wave of demonstrations crashes on Moscow.