Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 12, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Political Revolution, and we have no kitty teaching assistant today. I apologize for posting this video so late. I’ve had a ton of meetings this week! Hopefully you’ve been using the time to work on your papers. You should feel free to respond to this video at your own pace.
We have just a couple of quick announcements. Your three-page rough drafts of your final papers were due on Friday, April 24 on Sakai. As of the time of recording on Saturday, only four people have submitted those. If you didn’t get yours in yet, I’m not going to penalize you, but please do submit it as soon as possible! The sooner you get it in, h sooner I can turn it back around to you with written comments. If you have any questions, please email me. And keep in mind that if any anytime between now and May 10 you have any questions or want to meet with me or send me another rough draft, I will be happy to do that. Just email and let me know.
Looking ahead, we have just two more days of content after this one: Putin’s Social Revolution and Putin’s Cultural Revolution. Week 13, Day 1 is our last day with a substantial reading assignment. If you find yourself pressed for time, please focus on the excerpts from Ann Garrels’ Putin Country. The final day of class we are scheduled to discuss the Revolutions Timeline. I think what I’d like to do is make that a real-time day of class. If you’re able, please sign on to Teams at 2:20 on May 4. I’ll send you all an invitation so we can hang out and talk about the Timeline and consider our big takeaways from this semester. See you then!
Today we’re launching our mini-unit on Putin’s Russia. When we left off last time, Yeltsin was in charge, the ruble had crashed, and things were looking grim. One of Yeltsin’s major blunders was the First Chechen War, in which Chechnya tried to gain its independence and Russia fought back in an ineffective but very bloody way. This war “ended” (or at least paused) with a ceasefire in 1996. Something important to note is that this was a nationalist war. Chechens were fighting for independence on the same basis that, say, Latvians would have if their secession declaration had not been accepted by Gorbachev. After the ceasefire, Russia did not commit resources to rebuilding. And that created an opportunity for Islamist militants from elsewhere to show up and start winning recruits. Consequently, when the Second Chechen War began in the fall of 1999, it took on the character of a “holy war,” and that allowed Putin to frame Russia as a partner in the “war on terror.” Officially, the Second Chechen War ended in 2000, but there’s a sense in which it is still going on, through low level guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks. It’s worth considering these events within the framework of Imperial Russia’s long war to conquer the Caucasus in the first place, which we encountered through Pushkin and Tolstoy this semester.
Putin took over from Yeltsin in a manner that is hard to characterize as democratic. As you read, Yeltsin stepped down in December 1999, which meant that Putin advanced to the Presidency shortly before the 2000 election. He then won easily and pardoned Yeltsin for all his corruption. Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down, and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. As Tony Wood explains, foreign policy remained a challenge, particularly around the flashpoints of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War. But even during these events, Putin has managed to maintain the image domestically of a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.
At the same time, Putin has cracked down significantly on freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists. In 2006, NGOs that received funding from international sources were compelled to register as “foreign agents,” and that has had a chilling effect on their activities.
A new protest movement began in 2012, when Putin announced he would be running for president again. In 2008, he ran out his legal limit of two consecutive terms and to the surprise of some commentators, he stepped down. But in his place, his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When he won (which was never really in question), Medvedev appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma changed the constitution to make the presidential term six years. So, when Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won the election—again, this was never in doubt—and he won a second term in 2018. But despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.
This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet. Hopefully today’s sources will help us understand this situation in more depth.
I thought it might be helpful to fill out the background on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As Wood explained, Ukraine spent the 1990s and 2000s pulled back and forth between Russia and Western Europe. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the European Union, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new, pro-Russian president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Association Agreement, pro-Western protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. This was in November 2013, and the protest lasted until February 2014, when, in response to police violence against the protesters, the Ukrainian parliament voted to depose the president. He fled to Russia, and without him, Ukraine turned back to the EU.
The day after the president was deposed, Russia sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which has a large population of ethnic Russians, and perhaps more importantly, a naval base that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Soon after, the “Republic of Crimea” held a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Most people who were against it protested by refusing to vote; consequently, the measure was overwhelmingly approved. Then, rebels in two provinces in eastern Ukraine began fighting to secede and also join Russia. Russia supported them through various covert means, and those conflicts are ongoing. Through all of this, Ukraine expected help from the West. While there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear that NATO and the EU are not willing to intervene militarily. So, Russia basically gets to keep Crimea. All of this created a huge boost in approval ratings for Putin at home, as has Russia’s intervention in Syria, which Wood describes in some detail.
One last note on Putin’s political revolution. In 2008, Putin was not willing to change the constitution to stay in power. His two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, Putin announced a referendum on constitutional amendments, including one that consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Tony Wood’s main argument in Chapter 1 is that while Putin has managed to create an extraordinary political system in Russia over the past 20 years, this “managed democracy” is best understood as a continuation of processes that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What evidence does Wood use to make this argument? Does he convince you? Why or why not? If he’s right, then is Putin not really a political revolutionary after all? Or should we conceptualize his political revolution in a different way? If Putin presidency does represent a maturation of the system developed under Yeltsin, then why has he worked so hard to promote himself as the “anti-Yeltsin”?
2. From 2000-2008, Putin combined a shrinking of political freedoms with a surprisingly strong commitment to abiding by the Russian constitution. When he won the presidency again in 2012, many Russia-watchers wondered if it would be the end of term limits and regular elections. But it wasn’t, and even now, despite the changes to the constitution proposed in January, Putin continues to maintain the framework of legality and legitimacy around his presidency. In your analysis, why does he do so? Why does he keep finding creative ways to stay in power that don’t violate the letter of the Russian constitution?
3. Wood points out that Putin’s economic policies combine neoliberal privatization with a strong role for the state, creating what economists have called an “upstairs-downstairs economy.” How do the state and private interests work together in this model? How does it respond to the difficulties of the 1990s and promote economic growth while ensuring stability? What makes this model so desirable for Putin, as a proponent of “managed democracy”? Do you think this model can work indefinitely, or will these interests eventually conflict?
4. In Chapter 5, Wood places a certain amount of the blame for the current breakdown in relations between Russia and the West on the West itself. The US’ drive to expand NATO into Eastern Europe and create a unipolar world order alienated Russia, which still thought of itself as a great power and expected to be treated accordingly. In your analysis, how could the West have done a better job in its approach to European geopolitics and avoid the adversarial relationship it has with Russia today? Would it have been possible in the long term to harness the good will of the 1990s and keep Russia as an ally rather than an enemy? Consider Putin’s political persona and political goals in your answer.
5. Wood argues that Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2013 were not the result of long-held policy goals and, in fact, were not really about Ukraine at all. Rather, they were improvised moves aimed at the West, which has consistently rejected the idea of partnership with Russia. Essentially, Putin has been trying to show the US and the EU just how far he is willing to go to keep them out of his back yard, let alone his house. Given the economic and strategic costs Russia has incurred, Wood judges the outcome a defeat for Putin. But on the other hand, Russia is still holding on to Crimea, the civil war in the Donbass continues, and the EU shows no signs of making a more serious bid to help Ukraine. In your analysis, has Putin won or lost this conflict? Or are the results too mixed to declare anyone the winner? What about the Ukrainians: should they be angry at Russia, the EU, or both? What resolution, if any, can you imagine for?
6. Wood also analyzes the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. He points out that while Russian did interfere through misinformation campaigns, there were many more significant factors that contributed to Trump’s win over Clinton. Even so, he writes, “For many [liberals] it was more convenient—more emotionally accurate, too—to blame Trump’s ascent on an outside power, and implicitly to identify Trump himself as a foreign body.” (Wood, 142) What are the consequences of this mindset for Russian-American relations? What are the consequences for domestic politics in America? Why does Wood reject the term “New Cold War”? In your analysis, how can we overcome this impasse, assuming Putin remains in power for the next several years? Or should we give up the pretense of cooperation and return to an “old Cold War” mindset of mutual enmity with Russia?
7. Let’s turn to Putin’s “Address by the President of the Russian Federation”—the speech he gave after annexing Crimea in 2014. Make a close reading of the first 15 paragraphs. (I know that’s a lot, but there’s a lot to unpack here!) How does Putin use history to lay claim to Russian ownership of the Crimean Peninsula? How might a Ukrainian nationalist respond? What questions might we ask about this account, as historians? How does Putin’s use of history for political purposes here help us think about the stakes of local histories?
8. In this same part of the speech, how does Putin instrumentalize the history of the Crimean Tatars? Do you get the sense Putin really cares about their issues? If you were a Tatar, would you support Putin based on this speech or not?
9. According to Putin, how has Russia behaved toward Ukraine since 1991? He claims to be sympathetic, and even claims to sympathize with the Maidan protesters. But would he be so “sympathetic” to this kind of protest in Russia? And in fact, is he really that sympathetic to it in Ukraine? What vocabulary is he using here to delegitimize the revolutionaries?
10. Putin also raises the issue of international politics. He raises the examples of the West’s behavior in relation to Kosovo, the Color Revolutions, NATO expansion, and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. That’s quite a list. What is Putin’s overall point in all this? How does he characterize the West’s behavior? Why does this offend him as the president of Russia? How does it give him permission for his own actions? Clearly, Putin is scoring political points. But is he entirely wrong? Given its own record, does the West have a solid basis for opposing the annexation of Crimea? Why or why not?