When Crimea was annexed in 2014, the Kremlin temporarily allowed patriotic activism to rally support. The authorities soon saw the potential risks of self-initiated action. Who knows where that might lead? Russia’s return to traditional top-down rule may seem dull, but, paradoxically enough, might prove beneficial to future reformers.

by Alexander Baunov

Except for a few short-lived revolutionary periods, Russia has largely stuck to a static style of rule—reserving political activity for government actors. Between about 2012 and 2015, Russia moved toward a more dynamic regime style—and then seemingly changed its mind and went back to a static, conservative model of governance.

The key difference between these two types of authoritarian regimes can be seen in how they deal with pro-government, bottom-up initiatives. Dynamic regimes consider unplanned initiatives helpful, while static regimes are wary of them. The authorities in the latter case fear that self-initiated, supportive action might lower the threshold for all types of action. Who knows where that might lead? These two types of regimes diverge on how much bottom-up activity to tolerate, and equally unfree citizens live significantly different lives under these respective kinds of governments.

Creating Nashi

For Russia, a temporary shift from a static to a more dynamic regime began in the early 2000s. During the color revolutions early in his rule, Putin made serious attempts to defend Russia’s political system with the help of informal patriotic groups.

In the 1990s, most Russians were shocked by their country’s dramatic decline on the international stage, and this helped create an eager constituency for patriotic, anti-Western rhetoric. However, for a time, the state refrained from taking part in any of this, leaving it up to the parliament and the radical opposition. This changed in the early 2000s, after the color revolutions and the rise of Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, when the Kremlin finally saw the light and decided to create its own youth organizations.

Vasili JakemenkoVasily Yakemenko, leader of Kremlin's youth organization Nashi. Photo free of rights

This led to the advent of organizations like Nashi, United Russia’s Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guards) and others.

Opponents labeled as fascist

During Putin’s first presidency from 2000 to 2008 such groups sought to support the Russian government. During these early years, these Russian groups took on a so-called antifascist orientation, although they remained under tight central control and rarely resorted to violence.

The group Nashi appeared after the first Kiev Maidan in 2004 and 2005. It was composed of Walking Together and several other smaller organizations. Vasiliy Yakemenko, the head of Walking Together, was put in charge, and the Kremlin’s idea man, Vladislav Surkov, oversaw the new organization.

Not much changed in the activities of the movement, but a new element was introduced: although nobody had used the word fascist to describe the first Ukrainian Maidan protesters—as would later happen during the Euromaidan demonstrations—Nashi was dubbed an antifascist organization.

This, in some sense, turned all of its opponents into fascists overnight. Antifascism later became one of the main devices of the regime’s new ideology. Russia is the country that defeated fascism in 1945, the logic went, so those who oppose or criticize Russia must be facilitators of fascism.

All of Nashi’s actions displayed one key difference from contemporary bottom-up activism: they were not violent. Despite all its rhetoric, the group did very little actual damage to people or property.

Владислав Сурков на V съезде НАШИхVladislav Surkov speaks at the 5th Congres of Nashi. Photo free of rights

Molodaya Gvardiya acted as the ideological ally of Nashi and sometimes competed with it for the Kremlin’s resources. Their enemies, ideologies, and methods were similar, so the two quarreled about which should receive approval, financial support, and television spots. The Presidential Administration controlled the Molodaya Gvardiya indirectly, working through United Russia and its local organizations. Nashi took its orders directly from the Presidential Administration, which is why it failed to survive the departure of its Kremlin supervisor, Vladislav Surkov, whereas Molodaya Gvardiya still exists today.

Young patriots fail

Somehow, the Kremlin’s best-laid plans for a youthful counterassault on its opponents sputtered. In the winter of 2011–2012, when anti-Putin rallies took place, these groups’ leaders failed to produce the tens of thousands of young patriots they had promised. The state had to quickly clean up the mess and find other methods for organizing their rallies.

Starting with the Bolotnaya Square protests and in the subsequent crises in Crimea and the Donbas, the state began to rely on adult activists—military volunteers and veterans, Cossacks, bikers, anti-Maidanists, and factory workers, not to mention Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s cheerleaders.

The state and the opposition began to compete over who could organize better rallies. The Kremlin continued to bus in state sector workers, and each effort proved better than the last. Informal opposition rallies were juxtaposed with informal pro-Putin rallies, which were organized not by the Kremlin but by other nationalist groups. Of course, without the Kremlin’s bureaucratic resources they never would have been able to mobilize approximately 100,000 supporters as they did in February 2012, when pro-government groups held an anti-Orange rally.

Threat of violence

By using large, pro-government rallies, the state tried to create a rising tide of public support amid hard times. It tried to make Russian authoritarianism more dynamic, but also opened the door to greater animosity toward perceived opponents of the state and even violence.

In Russia, the rulers found that expressing support for a set of values—including anti-Westernism, moral conservatism, and Orthodox Christianity—guaranteed their popularity.

Bikers in Kaliningrad 2015Bikers with religious flag in Kaliningrad, 2015.

Promoting laws that pleased the majority of ordinary Russians and punished the angry urbanites who turned out for the street demonstrations in 2011–2012 was a winning formula. Levada Center surveys from this period showed strong support for a series of restrictive laws the Duma adopted in 2013.

Pro-government activists used these laws to identify new enemies, rallying against the LGBT community, supposedly obscene artists, NGOs, and opposition politicians.

The usual breaking up of gay pride demonstrations was complemented by attacks on gay clubs and assaults on members of the LGBT community and activists. After Pussy Riot staged an anti-regime performace in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in February 2012, religious activists started feeling justified to go anywhere. Previously rare attacks on art exhibitions, plays, and historic buildings that are perceived to be sacrilegious now occur one after another.

Volunteers in a hybrid war

The Maidan protests of 2013–2014 and the early phase of the war in eastern Ukraine marked the high point of patriotic activism and decentralized violence. The Russian government needed volunteers for their hybrid war, which required recruiters, informal armed groups, and logistics and propaganda experts. To pass off the military action as spontaneous and homegrown, the state needed to publicize and praise the actions of the volunteers. Yet eventually these unchanneled actions became difficult for the Kremlin to manage and began to pose a challenge to its authority.

By lionizing the heroes of Crimea and the people’s republics the state embraced autonomy and independence. A plethora of organizations facilitated the hybrid war. They enlisted volunteers, outfitted them, and transported them to the conflict zones. But their activities were not highlighted in official media outlets, which decided to paint a different picture. They claimed that the fighting was mostly between locals and a few concerned Russians, each of whom had come to the region when they heard about the Ukrainian atrocities and the suffering of the people there.

Reining in the Masses

Before long, the Russian authorities realized that this revolutionary style of support from below does not quite fit with Russia’s national traditions and its customary style of governing.

The war in the Donbas, with its ragtag, disorderly volunteers, eventually gave way to the war in Syria, which is fully controlled by the Ministry of Defense. The Ministry learned a tough lesson from the July 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 about the downsides of not maintaining close supervision over advanced military technologies.

Operations in Syria are a government-led affair, and Russia’s armed forces are front and center. The conflict’s heroes are not miners-cum-militants or goodwill volunteers pouring into a foreign country from across Russia; rather, they are special forces, educated in military academies, who are just cogs in the official Russian military chain of command.

shutterstock 206669620Igor Girkin, Russian nationalist and organizer of separatist rebellion in Donbas, feels betrayed by Kremlin

This has been a wise move. The loyalty of volunteers was far from a given. They were unequivocally loyal to the Russian state as long as the two pursued the same goals. But when the intentions of the activists have diverged with those of the regime, activity has remained and loyalty has disappeared. In June 2016, the All-Russian National Movement, under the direction of Igor Strelkov Girkin, released a defiant statement: 'We believe that the current Russian order is doomed in the historical perspective. We refuse to grant the current regime our support.'

Consequently, Russia has started curbing volunteer activity—dissolving the groups of Cossacks in the people’s republics and disciplining volunteers and activists.

Data collected by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in March 2015 shows that 65 percent of Russian citizens at that time sympathized with the volunteers fighting in Donbas. Their popularity could have posed a problem for the bureaucrats if the volunteers, under the right circumstances, had become players in domestic politics. But as the government began disciplining the DNR and the LNR, the media began moving stories about volunteers into the background.

Some of the heroes of Novorossia returned to their motherland after being given something of an ultimatum by the Moscow-appointed supervisors (or kuratory) of the separatist republics. The Donbas region craved order, and the volunteers were preventing Russia from withdrawing, which impeded negotiations with the West.

Generally speaking, in addition to the discomfort that the ruling bureaucracy feels, the citizens of conservative regimes experience fear and confusion when private individuals, rather than the government, take up arms against enemies and defend avowed national values. Russian citizens are ready to support the revolutionary, chaotic activities of volunteers abroad in the lands of their enemies, but they don’t want to see these bottom-up activists participate in homeland politics. They are concerned for stability in their own country.

Nemtsov's murder 

Nemtsov’s murder placed Putin in a difficult position. He was forced to choose between the federal security forces and Ramzan Kadyrov—in effect, Putin found himself again in a situation in which he had to answer for what other people had done. This is the position that he and the Russian government generally find themselves in after any high-profile attack perpetrated by out-of-control supporters. In this case, the risks of independent actions outweighed the benefits.

Nemtsov’s murder did not please the general population. Rather, it caused fear and bewilderment.The state immediately began legal proceedings against the perpetrators. But it was harder to sanction the people who had inspired and organized the attacks.

In memory of NemtsovFlowers in memory of Boris Nemtsov on the bridge near the Kremlin where he was murdered

The government has taken other measures to reinforce its control over the use of violence. Russia’s new National Guard has been described as an extension of Putin’s personal monopoly on power, akin to the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome. However, Putin himself has specified that the guard is mostly a means of controlling people who own weapons. It is supposed to have command not only over special police forces and troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but also over military clubs, private security organizations, and regular armed citizens. 'Its primary function is control over arms circulation. It will be in close contact with the Interior Ministry and the FSB in the fight against terrorism and organized crime,' Putin announced at an induction ceremony for the new force’s highest ranking officers on April 21, 2016.

Some are concerned that the Kremlin’s new forces may crack down on liberal critics, but it seems that, for the moment, they are equally concerned with disciplining semi-autonomous patriots and maintaining the state’s monopoly on force. In reality, their top current priority is to impose new constraints on and guidelines for Ramzan Kadyrov’s work as regional head of Chechnya. One reason for this is that he has become a risky role model and potential patron of the supporters of autonomous patriotic action.

In Russia, the regime’s source of legitimacy—its moral and legal foundation—is based not only on the idea that the national leader rules the country, but also on the principle that the leadership does everything lawfully and according to established procedures. Yes, the authorities may sometimes bend or break the rules and the institutions are totally subservient to the leadership, but the last thing they are interested in is the total destruction of these institutions.

Decentralized and uncontrolled political activism—which breaks laws in the name of truth, justice, and the struggle against enemies—looks extremely inorganic as a foundation of power for the modern Russian regime. In addition, the Russian leadership understands that pro-government activists aren’t going to save them in a tight situation. The so-called titushky - rent-a-thugs and the boys from Donetsk could not save former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The camel cavalry could not save former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and adoring crowds could not save Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. It is far more effective to use professional security forces and to remove the underlying causes of protest in the first place.

Liberals seen as a far greater threat

Why, then, is the Russian regime more afraid of liberal critics than ultra-right nationalist ones? The Kremlin takes solace in the fact that these activists do not seem to be backed by the West. Even though they are more popular than the liberal opposition, the patriots are a purely domestic threat and more easily managed. After all, even the weak Yeltsin defeated both the far left and the nationalists barricaded in the White House in October 1993.

By contrast, the liberal critics of the Russian regime have foreign backing. That formula helped a group of weak, often disparate dissidents succeed in breaking up the Soviet Union—or so the logic goes. Real danger comes not from internal strength, but from external support. This method of evaluating political threats conforms to the worldview Russia’s current rulers hold, not to mention the vast majority of Russian citizens.

Sensing these potential risks, the Russian government has reevaluated relations with its supporters, even though this relationship seemed at first glance to guarantee greater, more sincere support and a livelier political environment. Yet while the Kremlin’s return to a static political model may appear on the surface to be an unpleasant dip into the quagmire of political apathy, it could actually turn into a foundation for future reforms.

The late Soviet Union proved surprisingly easy to dismantle, even though many had believed that this would occur only after a third World War. Because they extinguish as much public activity as they can, static dictatorships are more prone to reform or collapse under the right conditions, just as the dictatorships of Franco and Pinochet disappeared almost overnight. Inactivity, or the imitation of activity, may be more amenable to reform than sincere involvement.

This is an abridged version of Going to the people and back again - the changing shape of the Russian regime published at Carnegie.ru