Russia is a country of symbols. Major political shifts here are always accompanied by a change of outward trappings, as a graphic demonstration of a rupture with the old. In March 1917, as the Russian throne stood empty after the abdication of the last Czar, the crowned double-headed eagles — the symbols of the fallen empire — were being toppled all over the country: thrown down from the façades of government buildings, bridges, theaters, department stores, and spectacularly from the rostrum in the State Duma’s hemicycle in Petrograd. The new currency printed by the provisional government featured the eagle without the crowns or the scepter — a rare collector’s item as it only lasted a few months, until the eagle was eliminated altogether when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup d’état later that year.
Trying desperately to cling to power as the country — and the world — was changing around them, a new generation of Communist leaders attempted another coup d’état in August 1991. It seemed bound to succeed — after all, the leaders of the coup, who tried to stem a democratic tide provoked both by the half-hearted reforms of the 1980s and by the deteriorating woes of the socialist economy, held all the levers of power. The self-proclaimed “emergency committee” included the USSR’s vice president, prime minister, ministers of the interior and defense, and the chairman of the KGB — the top brass of the regime which had control of the party and state machinery, the propaganda apparatus, and all branches of the security forces, from the regular army to the secret police. And they had tanks, which they sent to occupy downtown Moscow.
What they failed to account for was a changed Russian society: people who had tasted a sampling of freedom, however imperfect, were not prepared to give it up. The Muscovites who went into the streets — initially in the thousands, then in the hundreds of thousands — were not armed with anything except their dignity and a determination to defend their freedom. They came and stood in front of the tanks, and the tanks stopped and turned away. A mighty totalitarian system that had held the world in fear for decades went down in three days, defeated peacefully by its own citizens. I was a ten-year-old boy in Moscow — too young to join my father at the barricades by the White House (the seat of the Russian parliament that became the center of resistance to the coup) but certainly old enough to grasp the lesson of what was happening: that however strong a dictatorship, when enough people are willing to stand up to it they will succeed. The tanks will stop and turn away.
The fall of the Soviet regime was followed, inevitably, by the overthrow of its symbols. On August 22, as the Russian republic’s president, Boris Yeltsin, who had led the opposition to the coup, addressed a huge victory rally from the White House balcony, thousands of Muscovites went over to Lubyanka Square, the site of the KGB’s headquarters, to tear down the monument to its founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky. The nineteen-foot bronze statue of the Soviet secret police chief hanging from a noose as a crane lifted it from its pedestal remains among the most enduring images of Russia’s democratic revolution. That same evening, a memorial plaque honoring Yuri Andropov was dismantled from the façade of the KGB building. Andropov was someone who had epitomized both the domestic repression and the external aggressive-ness of the Soviet system. As ambassador to Budapest, he was among those who oversaw the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. As longtime chairman of the KGB, he made a priority of targeting political dissent, setting up a special directorate to fight “anti-Soviet activities” at home and expanding the gruesome practice of punitive psychiatry in which dissidents were confined to torturous conditions of forced psychiatric “treatment.” A plaque honoring this man as a “distinguished statesman” was inconceivable in a democratic Russia.
In December 1999, President Yeltsin was preparing to hand over power to a former KGB operative by the name of Vladimir Putin — a relatively obscure apparatchik who had recently been appointed prime minister and enjoyed a meteoric political rise on the back of mysterious apartment bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists and a brutal military campaign in Chechnya that culminated in his newly formed party’s victory in parliamentary elections. Much of the world media, pundits and foreign leaders everywhere, wondered who this Mr. Putin was and what they should expect from him, domestically and in the realm of foreign policy. For anyone willing to notice, however, the answer was already there. On December 20 — the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police — Putin held a low-key ceremony on Lubyanka Square, attended by a few former colleagues and a handful of journalists, to unveil the restored memorial plaque to Andropov, the “distinguished statesman.” It was the same one that had been dismantled in August 1991, carefully preserved and waiting for its moment.
In this country of symbols, Putin could not have chosen a more potent one to mark the start of a new political era. As if in confirmation of his intentions (if one were needed) he proceeded, in the first year of his presidency, to reinstate the Soviet-era national anthem once personally selected by Stalin. “A national anthem is a symbol,” Boris Strugatsky, a celebrated Russian science fiction novelist, wrote in 2000. “What can be symbolized by a return to the former Communist Party anthem except a return to the former times? This is frightening… It seems we are destined for a new spiral of suffering: a rejection of democracy, a return to totalitarianism and great-power games, an inevitable failure — and then another perestroika, democratization, freedom, but in the context of a total economic collapse and an impending energy crisis. I would very much like to be wrong.”
Alas, he wasn’t. Symbols were followed by substance. On the fourth day after Putin’s inauguration as president in May 2000 — in keeping with the Russian saying that “those who will offend us won’t survive three days” — he dispatched armed operatives from the prosecutor-general’s service and the tax police to raid the offices of Media Most, Russia’s largest private media holding and the parent company of NTV, an influential television network. For years, NTV had been a staple in millions of Russian households, carrying critical news coverage, unfettered talk shows, and hard-hitting political satire — including the weekly program Kukly (Puppets) that did not shy away from deriding Russia’s most powerful politicians. Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov once recalled how President Yeltsin, during one of their meetings in the Kremlin, remarked that he was tired of constant criticism on NTV and asked for the remote so he could turn off his television set.
For Putin, turning off his own TV was not enough — he had to silence everyone else’s, too. NTV was destroyed within a year as its studios were seized in an early dawn raid on Holy Saturday in April, 2001. Within three years of Putin’s coming to power, by June 2003, all the other private television networks were silenced too, with the state regaining its Soviet-era monopoly on the most important source of public information. And though there was no single “moment” that could be said to mark Russia’s transition from its imperfect democracy of the 1990s to the perfect authoritarianism overseen by Putin today, the year 2003 was an important turning-point. After pulling the plug on Russia’s last private TV network in June, Putin went after a prominent rival in October — the oil tycoon and Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had the tenacity to accuse the government of corruption and funded opposition parties and civil society groups. Khodorkovsky was arrested in a raid on his private jet by FSB operatives while on a trip to Siberia, brought back to Moscow, and displayed on television sitting in a courtroom cage.
The goal was not only to silence Khodorkovsky but to send a message to the rest of Russia’s business community: stay out of politics or end up like him. The message was heeded. (Khodorkovsky would spend a decade in Putin’s prisons before being expelled to the West, Andropov-style, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.) Finally, in December 2003, Russia held a parliamentary election that, for the first time since the end of Soviet rule, was assessed by international observers as “not fair,” with the effect of banishing genuine opposition voices from the Duma and turning it into a rubber stamp. “Parliament is not a place for discussion” — this imperishable observation by Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma and Putin’s party colleague, would be a fitting epitaph for future history books on Russia under Putin.
Corruption has always been a feature of Russian life, but the removal of checks and balances and the institutionalization of authoritarian rule under Putin enabled kleptocracy on a scale never seen before. Putin’s personal friends — from his childhood, from his KGB days, and from his stint at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s — sprung from obscurity to join the ranks of Europe’s richest men, helped by lucrative no-bid government contracts and requisitioned private assets. Names like Arkady Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, and Igor Sechin have come to symbolize the crony capitalism of the Putin era. The much-maligned “oligarchs” of the 1990s paled in comparison. From time to time, glimpses from that world would come into public view, as with the contract to build a thirty-mile road for the Sochi Olympics that exceeded the cost of NASA’s Mars exploration program; a $2-billion offshore account belonging to a cellist friend of Putin’s, found among the Panama Papers; a $1.3 billion Italian-style palace reportedly constructed for Putin’s personal use on the Black Sea coast. For evident reasons, such stories never become subjects of tame parliamentary debates or state-controlled television programs.
As the screws tightened and conventional channels of political activity and public communication were shut off, Russians — especially the younger urban middle classes — began taking to the streets to voice opposition to Putin’s rule. The protests snowballed in the winter of 2011–2012 as tens of thousands filled the streets of downtown Moscow to denounce a blatantly fraudulent parliamentary election, in which Putin’s party secured “victory” through large-scale ballot-stuffing. Among the leading voices at those rallies was Boris Nemtsov, who — unlike many of his former colleagues in the Yeltsin-era establishment — was not willing to be complicit in Russia’s turn to authoritarianism. “Putin, leave! You don’t know your own people,” he said, addressing a 100,000-strong crowd on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, in December 2011. “You don’t even understand why we are here. We are here because we have a sense of dignity. We are here because we are not slaves.” Once the face of Russia’s hopes for democracy in the 1990s — a successful regional governor, deputy prime minister, and presumed heir to the presidency — Nemtsov emerged as the most prominent opponent of Putin’s corrupt and despotic rule, leading street protests, organizing local election victories for the opposition, successfully advocating for targeted Western sanctions on Putin’s cronies and oligarchs.
He was too principled to be bought, too bold to be frightened, and too dangerous to be tolerated. On the evening of February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was gunned down, five bullets in the back, as he walked home across a bridge in front of the Kremlin. It was the most high-profile political assassination in the modern history of Russia. To this day, its organizers continue to be protected by the highest levels of the Russian government. An oversight report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020 has concluded that the reason for this continuing impunity is “not the capabilities of the Russian law enforcement, but political will.” After all, one cannot be expected to investigate oneself.
The last public demonstration Nemtsov had led was against Putin’s war against Ukraine. In September 2014, tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards in protest at the Kremlin’s aggression against Russia’s close neighbor and traditional ally. Earlier that year, following a popular “revolution of dignity” that ousted a corrupt and authoritarian Ukrainian leader, Putin moved full-scale against that country, starting an unannounced but deadly war in eastern Ukraine under the guise of a phantom “separatist” conflict and formally annexing the Crimean Peninsula for Russia. This was the first time one European nation seized territory from another since the end of the Second World War. It was not the first time Putin crossed another country’s borders, though: in 2008 his forces had attacked the former Soviet republic of Georgia, occupying (but not formally annexing) some twenty percent of its territory.
To Western leaders, the war on Ukraine came as a shock: one official statement after another derided Putin for “breaching international law,” “violating commitments,” and “passing a point of no-return.” The only cause for shock, though, should have been how long the leaders of Western democracies had not only tolerated but enabled Putin and his regime — by lending him much-needed international legitimacy and by allowing his cronies to use Western countries and financial institutions as havens for their looted wealth. The late Vladimir Bukovsky, a famed Soviet-era dissident, once remarked that for many Western politicians the ability to fry their morning bacon on Soviet gas trumped any concern for human rights.
In this respect, not much has changed since the 1970s. In 2001, weeks after Putin’s government seized control of NTV, President George W. Bush famously stated that he had “looked the man in the eye… [and] was able to get a sense of his soul.” (An impossible feat, given Putin’s remarkably soulless eyes.) Later he praised Putin as “a new style of leader, a reformer… a man who is going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful by working closely with the United States.”
Barack Obama continued this line of rapprochement, beginning his presidency with a “reset” in relations with Putin following the Georgia war; trying (unsuccessfully) to block Congressional passage of the Magnitsky Act that imposed targeted visa and financial sanctions on Kremlin officials involved in human rights abuses; and publicly praising Putin for his “extraordinary work… on behalf of the Russian people.” On March 5, 2012 — the day after Putin “won” an election characterized by what OSCE observers described as a lack of “real competition” and “abuse of government resources” — the Obama administration announced that “the United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections, and looks forward to working with the president-elect.” I vividly recall that we in the Russian opposition received the news of this endorsement as we stood in Moscow’s Pushkin Square with thousands of people who came out to protest the sham vote. It was difficult to say whether the people on that square — and the millions around the country who shared their outlook — felt more mocked or insulted.
Glaringly, the next American president, Donald Trump, professed his personal admiration and even reverence for Putin, invited him back into the Group of Eight (from which he had been expelled after the annexation of Crimea), and appeared to equate Russian intelligence officers accused of meddling in American elections with Americans who had helped craft the Magnitsky Act. In a pointed episode in 2017 — remember how much symbols matter for the Kremlin — the Trump administration, acting through a friendly senator, tried to block the effort to name a street in front of the Russian embassy in Washington D.C. after Boris Nemtsov. The administration’s attempt failed as the D.C. Council stepped in to legislate the street naming — the first commemoration of Nemtsov anywhere in the world — but the intention was telling.
In fairness, the policy of accommodation toward Putin (in a different historical era it would have been called “appeasement”) was not limited to the United States. With rare exceptions, European leaders did little better. I will never forget a lavish banquet honoring Putin during his state visit to the United Kingdom in June 2003 (which I was covering as a journalist), with champagne toasts and merry renditions of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” — literally days after his government pulled the plug on Russia’s last independent television network. The banquet was held at the London Guildhall, not far from the spot where, three years later, Russian agents, likely acting on Putin’s personal orders, would poison Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned political émigré, with radioactive polonium: an attack against a NATO citizen on NATO soil.
As history has repeatedly shown — and very clearly so in the case of Vladimir Putin — appeasement is not only morally wrong but also practically ineffective. By turning a blind eye to Putin’s domestic abuses in the hope of being able to “do business” with him in international affairs, Western leaders ignored a fundamental maxim of Russian history: foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy. Repression at home and aggression abroad follow each other. This interrelationship has been manifested throughout Russia’s history, but perhaps never as pointedly as in the past three decades. Democratic aspirations at home in the 1990s were duly translated into progressive international posturing, from President Yeltsin’s support for the independence of the Baltic States and Poland’s NATO membership to Russia’s own accession to the Council of Europe and the Group of Eight and its cooperation treaty with NATO that affirmed a “shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free.” With Putin’s authoritarian turn, Russian foreign policy was redirected to supporting dictators and rogue regimes all over the world, often through confrontation with democratic nations — including a direct military collision with U.S. forces in Syria in February 2018. Putin’s national security strategy has designated NATO actions as “a threat”; one of his state-of-the-nation addresses featured a computer animation of a ballistic missile attack on Florida; Russian military exercises have included simulated nuclear strikes on NATO countries and allies; and state propaganda chief Dmitri Kiselev has boasted on the air about Russia’s ability to “turn the U.S. into radioactive ash.” Alongside the actual wars against Ukraine and Georgia, Putin’s aggression has come in “hybrid” forms designed to undermine the security and sovereignty of others, from as near as the neighboring Belarus to as far as the Central African Republic.
There is no reason to expect a regime that violates its own laws and tramples on its own citizens to respect international norms or the interests of other nations. History, as they say, knows no “if,” but one can only wonder what the world would look like today if Western leaders had taken a more principled stand against Putin’s attacks on democracy early on.
The main purpose of historical analysis is not the study of the past — however fascinating it may be — but the preparation for the future. History has not been kind to Russia, but it has given it a number of openings for democratic change — and, no doubt, there will be another. To avoid repeating past mistakes, it is important to learn from them. The main reason for the failure of Russia’s transition to democracy in the 1990s lay in the inability — or the unwillingness — on the part of its new democratic leadership to fully break with the Soviet past. While Russia moved toward free elections, media pluralism, open borders, and a market economy, it never went through a process of public reckoning with the crimes of the former regime. There was nothing like the Stasi Records Agency in the former East Germany, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, or the Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism in the Czech Republic. Some of the Soviet archives were briefly opened — and quickly shut again.
Russia’s Constitutional Court did rule in 1992 that “the governing structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been the initiators of repression… directed at millions” — but no practical consequences followed. A lustration bill restricting former Communist and KGB officials from positions of power was introduced in the Russian parliament, but was never adopted. The old regime remained only half-condemned. “Be careful, it’s like dealing with a wounded beast,” Bukovsky warned members of Yeltsin’s government in the early 1990s. “If you don’t finish it off, it will attack you.” His warning came sadly true with Putin’s political rise just a few years later. The lesson for those who will shepherd Russia’s next transition to democracy is clear: symbols are not everything. It is not enough to shed the outward trappings of a dictatorship, not enough to change national anthems, topple monuments, and remove memorial plaques. The underlying problems must be identified and addressed — and only such a process of atonement and reform can guard against an authoritarian resurgence. The successful experience of many emerging democracies, from Chile to South Korea, testifies to this.
But the West should learn its lessons, too. Although the main reasons for Russia’s botched democratic transition of the 1990s were undoubtedly domestic, the reformers could have been greatly helped by a promise of European and Euro-Atlantic integration — a promise that played such an important role in incentivizing successful post-communist transitions in other countries of Eastern and Central Europe. In February 1990, in his historic address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Václav Havel, the dissident playwright and new president of Czechoslovakia, framed that entire transition in terms of his country “returning to Europe.” For many former Warsaw Pact states, this return meant not only a symbolic affirmation of their status as “fully” European but also tangible practical benefits to their citizens in the form of open markets, free trade, and visa-free travel. In many cases, this prospect provided a crucial impetus for policymakers to stay the course in the face of acute economic and social challenges.
No such prospect was given to Russia in the 1990s. Indeed, overtures from Moscow were often met with silence. On December 21, 1991, as NATO diplomats gathered at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels to meet with their counterparts from former Warsaw Pact countries, Russian Ambassador Nikolai Afanasyevsky read out a letter from President Yeltsin to NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner vowing to work toward “strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent” and “raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO … as a long-term political aim.” According to contemporary press accounts, “NATO officials, from Secretary-General Wörner on down, seemed too taken aback by the Russian letter to give any coherent response.” By the time Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev finally received assurances from the Clinton administration that the United States would be open to Russian membership in NATO in 1995, the democratic window in Russia itself was rapidly closing. As for potential accession to the European Union — which, under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty, was supposed to be open to “any European state,” Russia being the largest one — that prospect was not offered to Yeltsin’s government even as a distant possibility. Western reluctance to accept the nascent democratic Russia as one of its own would later be skillfully played by Putin’s propaganda to portray the community of democracies as inherently anti-Russian.
Many of those mistakes came not from malice but from unpreparedness, both in Russia and in the West. For many Western policymakers in the late 1980s, the very prospect of democratic changes in Russia seemed to be in the realm of fantasy — whether because of confident predictions by Kremlin-watchers that the Soviet regime was secure and stable, or because of the misguided (and offensive) stereotype that Russians are somehow inherently unsuited for democracy — a stereotype that Ronald Reagan had described in his Westminster speech as “cultural condescension, or worse.” In fact, it is a matter of historical record that when Russians were able to choose their fate in a free election — be it the State Duma election in 1906, the Constituent Assembly vote in 1917, or the presidential election in 1991 — they chose democracy over dictatorship, and by a landslide. Democratic reformers in Yeltsin’s government were equally unprepared for the momentous task before them, making mistake after mistake and ignoring advice from those who knew better, including Bukovsky and the prominent pro-democracy lawmaker Galina Starovoitova, the author of the unsuccessful lustration bill. Honest mistakes were compounded by cynical schemes by those more interested in personal enrichment than in the success of Russia’s democratic experiment. That unprepared-ness of the early 1990s came with a high cost — primarily for Russia but also, eventually, for the West.
It is imperative that we not repeat this error. If Russian history is any guide, big political shifts in our country come unexpectedly — including for their own participants. It is unlikely that the Czar’s interior minister, Vyacheslav von Plehve, a fervent advocate for a “small victorious war” with Japan in 1904, expected that war to result in Russia’s first revolution a year later. In a speech in Zürich in January 1917, the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin told a group of Swiss social democrats that “we of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution,” but the revolution in Russia began six weeks later. In early August 1991, as I remember myself, no one predicted that the Soviet regime would not survive to the end of the month — and the Soviet Union itself to the end of the year.
Today we hear familiar tunes, both from Kremlin propagandists and from their apologists in the West: that Putin’s regime is secure; that he is popular among Russians; that any alternative would be worse. As proof we are supposed to accept the results of bogus elections, with opponents disqualified from the ballot, and Putin’s public approval numbers in an unfree society where people are hesitant to share political opinions with strangers; and the false image of unanimity carefully crafted by state media. “There is no Russia without Putin,” as Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma, has said publicly — perhaps the biggest insult to my country I have ever heard.
In truth — and despite the coercion and the pervasive propaganda — there are millions of Russians who have a different vision: one of a modern country that would respect its laws and play a constructive international role; that would be accountable to its own citizens and be respected rather than feared in the world. This Russia can already be seen — not in the dour halls of the rubberstamp legislature or in the staged shouting matches on state-run television, but in the hopes and the aspirations of Russia’s youth, the people who never witnessed any political reality except Putin’s but who are growing tired of a two-decade rule by one man whose circle increasingly resembles Leonid Brezhnev’s ageing Politburo. Even with the inevitable skewing of public opinion, surveys conducted by the independent Levada Center in the run-up to Putin’s sham plebiscite waiving presidential term limits in 2020 showed that the prospect of his continued rule split Russians fully in half, with most of those below the age of thirty in opposition. Perhaps more tellingly, a clear majority of Russians of all ages, 62 percent of them, wanted to age-limit Putin out of the presidency, while 59 percent said it was time for “decisive, large-scale” change in the country.
The signs of this coming change are unmistakable. In local elections across the country — most spectacularly in Moscow in 2019 — pro-regime candidates have been losing to technical spoilers and political no-names even after real opponents had been disqualified from running. It should be difficult to lose elections when the opposition is not on the ballot, but such is the growing public fatigue with the system that Putin’s party is managing it — and this is likely to be repeated nation-wide in the parliamentary election in September. In a realization of the Putin’s regime’s greatest fear — its phobia after a series of “color revolutions” toppled authoritarian leaders in other post-Soviet states — Russians are increasingly willing to go to the streets to challenge the system — as hundreds of thousands did across the country, defying official threats and police violence, to protest the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in January.
With his skillful social media outreach, his unique appeal to the young generation, and his organizational prowess, Navalny has emerged as Putin’s most dangerous challenger, attacking the regime not only over its repression, but also over its weakest spot: corruption. His investigative video detailing Putin’s lavish palace on the Black Sea has been viewed by a hundred million people, more than the combined audiences of Russia’s state television networks. The Kremlin has tried to silence Navalny in traditional ways: first, by an attempted poisoning, a method borrowed from the Soviet KGB and increasingly popular under Putin (it was tried — twice — against the author of this essay), then by arrest and imprisonment. The effect, it seems, has been the opposite, only strengthening Navalny’s public appeal and moral clout. As history shows, most dictatorships fall not under the power of their opponents but under the weight of their own mistakes. It seems Putin’s will not be an exception.
Boris Nemtsov had long predicted that demands for change in Russian society would reach a critical point around the mid-2020s — and while no one can say exactly when or how this will happen, the more far-sighted are already preparing: organizing grassroots campaigns; building, despite the regime’s best efforts, a vibrant civil society on the ground; running in municipal elections to gain invaluable experience; learning to stand up for themselves in the face of police brutality during street demonstrations. Needless to say, any change in Russia can and should — and eventually will — come from Russians themselves. It is important, however, that Western democracies stay true to their values by refusing to accept or legitimize Putin’s attempts at further usurpations of power (including an extension of his rule, in violation of the term limit, in 2024); by stopping the import of corruption into their markets and financial institutions and finally targeting the Kremlin’s dark money abroad; by resisting calls for yet another “reset” or “détente” with an abusive and aggressive regime; and, above all, by engaging in dialogue with Russian society in anticipation of the task of integrating a post-Putin Russia into the community of law-abiding democracies — this time, for everyone’s sake, successfully. Just imagine the difference a democratic Russia would make for the world. Sooner or later, that day will come. With the right efforts and a shared commitment, it may come a little more quickly.