The savage terrorist attack against a Russian concert hall near Moscow, with a death toll now surpassing 100, including some children, has been claimed by the Islamic State, or Isis. The grisly assault is in some ways a reminder of Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power. Putin became the incarnation of Russian “virility” as prime minister in 1999, when he launched a war against Muslim Chechens who demanded independence. The war was the deadliest conflict in Europe since 1945, with tens or hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. The Muslims in this part of the world never forgot: they have been since that time Putin’s nemesis, taking revenge with several terrorist attacks against his regime, including in Moscow in 2002 and Beslan in 2004. A permanent Muslim guerilla war in the Caucasus has never stopped since Putin’s military occupied Chechnya.

It is not surprising, then, that the Isis attack takes place days after Putin’s so-called reelection. The Muslim guerillas thus intended to remind Putin when and how it all started. Putin would prefer to forget and go on pretending that everything is normal and under control in Russia. Moreover, by pretending to submit to an election, which was little more than a performative sham, Putin is trying to make people believe that Russia is a democracy. He may even believe this delusion himself.

Yet Potemkinism, not democracy, is actually Russia’s true ideology. Grigory Potemkin, Catherine II’s minister in 1787, was said to have set up models of prosperous villages along the empress’s route through Russian settlements. These claims may be closer to legend than truth, but they are significant. Have Putin’s staged scenes of suffrage fooled the Russian public? We cannot say, as the ballots are pure fiction, the media is state-controlled, and dissidents from Boris Nemtsov to Alexei Navalny are being murdered.

Many European and American observers believe that Russia is destined to remain under the sway of tyrants, with no hope of ever becoming a liberal democracy. According to these self-appointed experts of an eternal Russia, tyranny is Russia’s natural regime, adapted to its unique soul. To support this stance, which is both relativistic and contemptuous of the Russian people, they are quick to cite writers such as Dostoyevsky, who, in his time, was the spokesman for what is now known as Slavophilia. Putin has taken up the torch of this mythology, according to which Russians are not like the rest of us. The doctrine claims that the Russian soul differs from that of the West, that Russians are indifferent to individualism and freedom and instead are willing subjects of a civilization rooted in the inimitable rituals of Russian Orthodoxy.

Such falsely enlightened or hypocritical enthusiasts of this school of thought are careful about selecting facts and authors, however. Instead of Dostoyevsky, they could cite a number of great writers, philosophers, and poets who saw Russia’s destiny as one rooted in liberal individualism and democracy. Look no further than Chekhov the humanist, Tolstoy the pacifist, and more recently the writer and journalist Vassili Grossmann, the poets Anna Akhmatova and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dmitry Muratov. All prestigious and accomplished Russian writers, they have consistently condemned Slavophilia and any concept of voluntary servitude.

If we look back through Russian history, there is also little evidence of continuous despotism. In the late nineteenth century, when Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom, and then when Piotr Stolypin, the head of government from 1906 to 1911, began modernizing the country, Russia seemed neither different nor backward. As World War I was brewing, the general view in Russia and Europe was that Russia would join the European side; its economic development was then comparable with that of Germany. The 1917 revolution was led by Alexander Kerensky, a social democrat open to Western ideas, before he was ousted by the bloodthirsty Lenin. From 1986 onward, when Mikhail Gorbachev began laying the foundations of his humanist socialism, the whole of Moscow was engaged in unrestrained dialogue, debating day and night in the public squares, as well as on radio and television. This liberal hope was almost fulfilled by Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. To Yeltsin’s credit, he abolished the Soviet Union, restored independence to previously annexed peoples, privatized the economy, and freed the media. When the authentic history of the Russian people is written, Yeltsin’s pivotal role should be showcased. Unfortunately, he made a fatal error in choosing his successor, Vladimir Putin.

From the start, Putin fostered the illusion that Russia would join Europe. I remember it; I even believed it. (I met him in 2002.) Yet this was just a ploy, lulling us into a false sense of security. For 25 years, Putin has dismantled the institutions of civil society, leaving murdered entrepreneurs, journalists, and democratic activists in his wake.

But Putin will not live forever, and we must start preparing for his succession now. Given current trends in both Russia and Europe, it is tempting to predict that he will be succeeded by another strongman, recruited from the army or the secret service, who will use the same instruments of tyranny. But we have no idea, really. No one could have predicted in 1986 that Gorbachev would destroy the Communist Party (unintentionally) and that Yeltsin would abolish the Soviet Union. The hypothesis of an eternally Slavophile Russia is as unfounded as another fashionable ideology of the 1990s, that of Homo Sovieticus. Talented writers in Europe imagined that, after several generations of Communist Party domination, a new, evolved humanity had been forged, one incapable of autonomy or personal initiative. As many Russians enthusiastically became entrepreneurs in the early 1990s, this idea fell by the wayside.

The ultimate paradox of Putin’s regime is that even the regime’s own leaders do not believe in their future. In the days of the Soviet Union, apparatchiks were more or less one with Communist ideology. They did not send their children to study in the United States. They did not buy real estate in New York City, Marbella, or London. Yet with Putin at the helm, his accomplices are massively investing their ill-gotten wealth in property in Europe and America. I can only conclude that Putin’s acolytes are more skeptical about the durability of despotism than Westerners themselves are. I am not claiming that a liberal democracy will replace Putin’s authoritarian rule, but neither do I see a continuation of tyranny and war as inevitable.

Europe and America will play a key role in what follows. If they genuinely boycott trade with Russia and contribute in earnest to a Ukrainian victory, the two pillars of Putin’s ideology—war and terror—will collapse during his lifetime. The Russians will recognize, with our help, how tyranny leads only to poverty and slaughter. Meantime, we should ask ourselves: Who is more Russian, Putin or Navalny?

Photo by Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu via Getty Images


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