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When will a different future seem possible for Russia?

As Russia continues to adapt to its new isolated existence, it appears that nothing will change in the country’s domestic politics. Despite this, history has shown that opportunities to challenge Moscow’s seemingly impenetrable status quo can and will eventually appear.

April 26, 2024 - James C. Pearce - Articles and Commentary

The Kremlin tower reflected in a puddle of melting snow. Photo: Oleg Elkov / Shutterstock

Russia’s first quarter of 2024 has been a mixed bag. The economy is in a strong position, as is its war footing in Ukraine. Putin rode to victory in the sham presidential elections without any drama. Once the harsh winter finally ended, the country was shaken by the awful terrorist attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Mall.

I used to tutor someone at Crocus and lived just two metro stops away. Crocus was quiet most mornings. Security was at every entrance, as were metal detectors. Many cleaning staff and those in the food hall were Central Asian migrant workers, all working extremely hard in poor conditions. Customers could often be extremely rude to them. A terror attack seemed unimaginable.

Since the holidays, I have found myself routinely wondering when normality might return. When I was reading an account of the 1991 coup by my great hero, Vladimir Pozner, I began to really question at what moment a different future might look possible? It is hard to see what could change on the average day. People are only too happy to keep their heads down, carry on with ordinary life and uphold what normality remains. Change is not on people’s agenda. Instead, getting through to the summer is more important. Any optimism for a brighter tomorrow concerns home renovations, holidays and perhaps new additions to one’s family.

Anyway, the optimism of the early 1990s that Pozner wrote about was quick to dissipate when the social contract was ripped up and a new one written that excluded the majority. Today, things could still change on a whim at any moment. 

Late last year, I argued in the Moscow Times that any future for democracy in Russia will be decided by its people, not the wishful thinking of foreigners. Indeed, the country faces many obstacles in getting there. However, as Yegor Gaidar once pointed out, big changes in Russia come later than we think but earlier than we expect. On New Year’s Eve 1979, few could have imagined perestroika as Leonid Brezhnev slurred through a lengthy and oftentimes embarrassing speech. Yet ten years later, a moment came when a different future for the USSR looked possible. It offers lessons for today.

The Sakharov moment

At the 1989 Congress of the Communist Party a frail old man, whose name used to be a huge taboo, took the stage. Soviet citizens watched this figure openly challenge Mikhail Gorbachev and the system itself. It was not the content of his speech that gave hope. It was the fact that he refused to be silenced and ultimately could not be stopped. That man was Andrei Sakharov.

Sakharov came from the depths of the Stalinist system. He was a creature of the system and one of its biggest critics. His envisaged future was one where human rights, justice and dignity formed the Soviet system’s backbone, and ultimately were not antithetical to its existence. Exiled for his criticisms of the Afghan War, the changes ushered in under perestroika allowed him to return, be elected as a deputy and set up an independent political group.

For a short while in 1989, the liberal “Inter-Regional Deputies” group that Sakharov co-led had the upper hand in Soviet politics. This was not just because Gorbachev’s economic reforms were going horribly wrong. This minority were more vocal than the Communist hardliners. Instead of rushing out the back doors of meetings to avoid journalists, they embraced their questions. In those meetings and committees, they refused to be silent or rubber stamps. This new group embodied the spirit of perestroika, and created a sense that the Soviet government was no longer cloaked with mystery as they openly criticized the KGB and war in Afghanistan.

At the 1989 Congress, Sakharov gave the opening and closing speeches. He addressed matters of integrity, honesty and the nature of the human capacity to prevail. He critiqued the USSR at length, called for the transfer of power to the Soviets, the privatization of land and re-organization of the USSR along federal lines. As Sakharov dragged on, Gorbachev grew increasingly impatient. He told Sakharov repeatedly that his time was up and to return to his seat. But Sakharov continued. Gorbachev then switched off the microphone. Sakharov still continued, being heckled and clapped down.

The most shocking thing was that the live TV broadcast continued. It was the first time Soviet citizens had ever seen something like that. How was it even allowed to happen? This was not your grandfather’s USSR. Sakharov showed the status quo to be failing, but he was not calling for the government’s demise. He only proposed reforms. His unwavering principles could not be slapped down. Sakharov had foregone all the privileges the system could offer and dared to demand that it change. For that reason, he was the conscience of perestroika for many citizens.

Patience is a virtue

Sakharov’s moment is the perfect parallel for today’s Russian government. Decisions are made behind closed doors by mysterious figures for unclear reasons. Ordinary people have no impact or ability to influence them. The Duma does not host debates on policy or future directions. There are no rousing speeches that make the headlines or go viral. And nobody pretends otherwise.

Two notable public challenges have happened from within since the war started. The first was when the journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupted a live broadcast with an anti-war protest sign. It shocked and awed not due to her bravery but simply because it happened. Conventional wisdom was things like that do not and cannot happen. Yet, it gave people a glimpse behind the curtain and exposed a weak point in this impenetrable fortress. Prigozhin’s mutiny had a similar effect. How was he able to take over a military building, reach the outskirts of Moscow and so openly challenge the state?

But unlike Sakharov, Ovsyannikova and Prigozhin were silenced. Neither had built a career on principle and opposing the Kremlin. A clear moral figure within the government and opposition is also lacking, although Boris Nadezhdin might yet have his day. Alexei Navalny was too polarizing to be that figure.

A modern-day Sakharov moment would be profound and show that things might just be different. Someone from within the system’s reformist wing, exposing it in a way that only they could, will represent the moment when a different Russia looks possible. That moment looks unlikely anytime soon, however, a generational shift is well underway. Those coming of age with no memories of socialism and few, if any, of the liberal 1990s do not much care for what they decry as “zombie ideas”. They are independent of the state, outward looking and have time on their side. Any Sakharov moment will belong to them. For now, it must wait.

James C. Pearce is a historian and author of The Use of History in Putin’s Russia (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2020). He is currently writing a history of Russia’s Golden Ring Cities.

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