A Bed Time Story for Putin


Vladimir Putin was likely told the bedtime story of Baba Yaga as a child growing up in 1960s Leningrad. As a wizened old hag, who flies a floating mortar using its pestle, habitually kidnapping, then eating, misbehaved children, Baba Yaga cuts a terrifying figure in Slavic folklore. But why such speculation about Putin’s childhood? Ultimately, regardless of whether or not young Vladimir was interested in flying mortars and pestles, such myths provide important insights into Russian cultural expectations and societal identity. In the case of the Baba Yaga folktale, it contains a powerful lesson about dissent: break the rules and you will pay the price, a lesson that continues to be widely reflected in Russia’s political system today. Such an analogy is particularly relevant to Putin’s manipulation of the status quo to cement his personal rule, and the increasing resistance from dissidents in response.


Here, two important points can be drawn regarding the dynamics between the Kremlin and political opposition in the modern Russian state. Firstly, narratives matter. A nation’s shared mythologies strongly define individuals’ social prospects and aspirations. Where power is associated with fear, this serves as a strong deterrent to the rebellion of the masses, as well as a ready-made toolkit for autocrats. Secondly, such narratives endure when they are backed up by political ritual. Here, actors use such repeated and symbolic practices to direct attention towards ideas and behaviours that legitimise their power, which in turn may provoke resistance. In this way, rituals draw a red line between dissent and deference.


Yet these two lessons can be co-opted by either government or opposition for their own political self-interest. This fact is particularly clear in the upcoming Russian elections in March 2018: the question is not whether Putin will win, but rather with which narrative and rituals he will package his next presidential term, and in turn, how Alexei Navalny, a long-term dissident, will frame his opposition movement. For dissent operates as a discourse between establishment and resistance, rather than a dichotomy. Ultimately, each needs the other to define itself. In this way, the true value of dissent in Putin’s Russia does not lie in its capacity for electoral breakthrough, but in its role to reveal the Kremlin’s weaknesses and thereby change the behaviour of those in office.


Since 2000, each of Putin’s presidential terms has been bolstered by a different narrative. According to Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker, his first term centred on restoring state authority in the wake of the Chechen War and on bringing a basic sense of order and competency to government administration in contrast to his predecessor Yeltsin’s deep unpopularity. His second term, from 2004 to 2008, was focussed on the redistribution of the country’s windfall oil and gas profits, fuelling a consumer boom and effectively buying the population’s political disengagement. Following a faux withdrawal from power as Prime Minister under Medvedev, Putin’s regime since 2012 has become defined by Russia’s stand-off with the West, played out in Ukraine, Syria and the cyber-space. Such nationalism, emphasising Russia’s self-image as a great power and influential player on the world stage, is essentially a diversion from a present-day reality of stagnating economic growth and tightening political freedoms.


The real issue at stake here is what comes next. With elections only a few months away, it is key to understand what bargain Putin wants to make with the Russian people in his fourth, and presumably last, term. Increasingly, Putin is behaving as a “new tsar”, as stated in The Economist in its appraisal of the centenary anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. Proving that narratives still matter, his presidency evokes Russia’s imperial history to shore up an authoritarian system based on his personal rule. However, the legitimacy of a tsar requires constant reaffirmation. Here, political rituals, in the form of national approval ratings, state television appearances and military war-games, highlight the Kremlin’s patronage over the economy, media and security forces. Most importantly, the point of the upcoming election is not to provide an alternative to Putin, but to prove that there is none. “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia”, the Kremlin’s Deputy of Staff recently claimed, neatly encapsulating the present political atmosphere. Ironically, therefore, the stronger Putin is today, the harder he will find it to continue to consolidate his rule, and eventually choose a successor, in future.


This weakness provides a valuable opening for dissidents to stake their claims over important issues in Russian politics. Such opposition groups emerge from all spheres of life, including popular culture (Pussy Riot, repressed since 2011), journalism (Anna Politkovskaya, poisoned in 2006) and politics, most notably Alexei Navalny. Following the “colour revolutions” of the early 2000s, in which former Soviet Union and Balkans countries protested against their Russian-backed autocratic leaders, Navalny emerged as the key opposition figure to Putin’s United Russia party, which he popularly termed “the party of crooks and thieves”. In stark contrast to the current gerontocratic oligarchs, he is a young tech-savvy liberal, thus offering not only a change in personality at the top of the Kremlin, but also a fundamentally different political order in a modern Russian state. For “Putin’s generation”, those under twenty-five who have no significant memories of any other Russian leader, this is an unprecedented alternative.


Navalny uses a wide repertoire of dissident tactics to erode the Kremlin’s legitimacy. In addition to traditional protest marches, his Progress Party harnesses social media through memes, including one of Navalny’s bright green face after a chemical attack, and satire, such as analogising Putin to a ‘turnip’: “If the only thing you have been fed all your life is a turnip, you are likely to rate it as highly edible”. This grass-roots approach challenges prevailing top-down narratives and rituals, thus undermining traditional spin-doctoring, which is euphemistically known as “political technology” in post-Soviet states. Yet such opposition comes at a massive personal cost. Navalny has been arrested many times since 2012, and is currently banned from running in the presidential election on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. Moreover, it is unclear where the breaking-point in Putin’s regime lies, if there is one at all.


Nevertheless, dissidents hold the competitive advantage in the long-term. Putin’s tsarist master-plan is a widely known strategy, against which opposition figures can mobilise against in rapid, adaptive, and often unpredictable ways. For that reason, dissent is valuable because it empowers individual actors with the leverage to change the narrative and political rituals of far more powerful forces. Just as young children invariably run the risk of kidnap by Baba Yaga by pursuing their independence, dissidents challenge political regimes for values of democracy, pluralism and free expression. Ultimately, rules exist to be broken – and the price is worth paying.