Also Pussy Riot, kleptocrats, and ‘the Paris Hilton of Russia”. Fascinating, very readable reporting by Julia Ioffe, in TNR:
… After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 percent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomized and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.
But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernizing the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was—slowly, gingerly—becoming a gentler, more modern country.
And then on September 24, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev—looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying—mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job—he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer—it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”
The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond Internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realized they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.
But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”
The protests came soon after that…