Clifford Levy had a fantastic piece in yesterday’s New York Times, giving a granular, micro-level account of Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Nizhny Novgorod, formerly the political home base of Boris Nemtsov who’s now a leading figure in the anti-Putin opposition.
This was of particular interest to me because I spent the summer of 1998 living in the city in question. And here’s the one area where I feel a lot of this kind of reporting on Putin’s authoritarianism falls down. I never met anyone in 1998-vintage Nizhny Novgorod who was really excited about the state of Russian politics. The general feeling was that rather than democracy, they were suffering from a regime of chaos and corruption. People would talk openly about their yearning for a strong leader who could restore order and prosperity — Singapore, Pinochet’s Chile, postwar South Korea — those were the models on people’s lips. And this, I think, is more-or-less what most people think they’ve gotten from Putin. In reality, it’s almost certainly the case that Russian prosperity is founded on the current high price of fossile fuels (the oil crisis years were very kind to the Soviet consumer) rather than on anything Putin’s done, but that’s how it’s seen.
I think that’s the context you need for Levy’s stories. The kind of tactics Putin used to consolidate control would never have worked if Russia had featured real liberal political parties with meaningful mass support. But by the time Boris Yeltsin put him in power, the screw-ups, deprivation, and corruption of the previous years combined with the sense that Russia’s position on the world stage was slipping had badly hollowed out support for liberalism at non-elite levels.