Drawing the Boundaries of Prospects for Russia

Russia’s future: somewhere between a nuclear winter and a methane bog; somewhere between a vigorous, centralized state and an archipelago of autocratic fiefdoms and democratic city-states; somewhere between a massive granite monument and a mass grave. Its path, only a year ago, seemed as likely to be mundane as apocalyptic. Recent events, undeniably, have stretched the world’s imaginative limits as to what might happen next, says Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a photographer and writer.

Russia will have a future, however much its current leaders desire to live in the past. Of course, no one can predict its precise shape. Prognostication is at best speculation and at worst hubris. We can explore, however, what happens as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, and its effects on Russia’s internal politics. While we don’t know how the war will end, the competing hypotheticals are evident: from Russian military collapse leading to political collapse, to a Russian resurgence, military stalemate and some continuation of a Putinist regime, with or without Putin himself, to the remote possibility of nuclear attack that draws the West into the fight, with likely disastrous results for many.

While Russia’s war on Ukraine has already influenced its political future, we should not assume that change will be quick or beneficial, for either the world or for Russian citizens. Other outcomes are equally, if not more likely to be true, as the Russian editor and analyst Vasily Gatov unpacks in great detail in his recent work, and as dozens of Twitter prognosticators remind us daily.

Russia, like most other places, operates under the inertia of its own habits, processes and norms. As we talk about what Russia might become, perhaps it’s helpful to reflect on how Russians manage decisions and conflicts. Russia is often described as a procedural state; it may not have democratic processes for establishing rules, but it is the inheritor of both imperial and Communist legal traditions, and can be a ferociously bureaucratic place.

It is tempting to assert that much of Russia’s procedures and processes are simply performative, creating the appearance or aesthetics of legitimate authority. Why else bother to hold elections that miraculously depict near-unanimous approval, even as anyone who lifts their eyes from the ground can see they are falsified. Russia’s procedural norms are undermined by a secondary, underground economy, expressed through double bookkeeping, crime and barter, by the underground language of prison slang, and by the loving and committed community spaces that millions of individuals create in their lives, despite the Russian state.

And yet, though traffic fines may be negotiated through bribes instead of tickets, and opposition politicians who cross the Putin and his entourage risk poisoning, Russia’s leadership remain curiously captivated by their own procedures. Most obviously, given the seemingly false distinction between a war and a special military operation, Russia has foreclosed for itself certain paths, even as it commits war crimes in Ukraine on a daily basis with the arbitrary and punitive shelling and murder of civilians. It is precisely in this space, between a mania for rules and a brutal and brutalizing culture, that we should look for the contours of Russia’s next political transition.

Russia’s leadership remain curiously captivated by their own procedures

Will Russia’s next leaders be chosen through a procedural path, to provide the aura if not the actuality of legitimate power? Or will the struggle for power break out into open conflict and extra-legal contest? Does this distinction matter? Recent examples of performative, procedural change in other inheritors of the Soviet legacy have occurred without significant violence across society, even as protest and conflict or even civil war or neighboring invasion was on the menu of analysts. While we should treat these “post-Soviet” comparisons with some caution, because each has its own unique history and political factors, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and of course Russia itself all managed peaceful transitions, even without the order of a Chinese-style succession ritual.

These transitions occurred with considerable repression of democratic and opposition political movements. Yet something curious has happened in the years following; successor leaders have all sought to remove the influence of their predecessors. They have all, to some degree, created more space for political inclusion and civics, though not for actual democracy. Some have also sought to build and maintain multilateral relationships with other states, and to work within international frameworks.

Other regional political transitions in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, and of course Ukraine, were marked by both more upheaval and more liberty and genuine civic participation. Importantly, Russia’s influence in the outcomes of those successions has been in every case significant, if not always determinative. Russia is much less likely to take this path. Given the lack of enfranchisement of its citizens, the absence of a strong opposition, extra-legal events are more likely to be in the realm of elite competition.

Should, somehow, a genuinely democratic political movement arise in Russia, we should look to the few remaining spaces of civic action for clues. Over the past 30 years there have been abundant examples of Russian initiative and positive civic energy. Rarely, however, did they move outside of online and local community spaces, and those with national impact were brief and quickly quashed. Specifically, we can learn from local and hyperlocal civic participation, from mutual support for education, environmental protection, culture and media. It is worth following the effects of Russia’s recent mobilization, and the possible influence of hundreds of thousands of expatriated Russian men and their families within Russia. Though historically, Russian exiles lose influence at home, such a rapid depopulation in an era of internet communications could change that dynamic.

Putin’s departure from Russian life and politics is as inevitable as time, although his place in history is now assured. Whether that transition happens next week or next decade, the question is whether his successor will continue and deepen his repressive policies internally and his imperial nostalgia externally, or whether he (perhaps the only thing we can say with near-certainty is that it will be a man), will break with this path.