Vladimir Putin regularly exploits the importance of history to the Russian identity by peddling a warped version of his nation’s story to justify his abuse of power and expansionist foreign policy. He also knows enough real history to see that nearly all conventional attempts to oust his predecessors have failed. In the light of such precedents, where can his opponents turn?
The Constitution Perhaps?
Article 3 provides that the “sole source” of power is the people expressing themselves through referendums and free elections.
Since the powers that be rig elections, the 30-year-old Russian constitution’s assurances of democracy mean nothing. Public demonstrations also seem destined to fail, as those in power either ignore or crush them – as they always have.
Little has changed since Bloody Sunday in 1905 when the Tsar’s forces shot and killed more than 100 marchers and wounded hundreds more. Strikes and demonstrations wracked the country, and in 1906 the Tsar established a parliament, the Duma, but maintained a veto over its actions. He prorogued the first Duma after just 75 days.
After the Tsar’s abdication in 1917, the Provisional Government conducted elections for a Constituent Assembly. Having won less than one-fourth of the vote, the Bolsheviks were displeased. In January 1918, Bolshevik soldiers let the assembly talk for 12 hours and then dispersed it, never to return. Subsequent Soviet and Russian legislatures have done little except rubber-stamp edicts by the current dictator.
How About Elections?
Communist rule meant that Russians and other Soviet citizens had no free and fair elections for more than 70 years. In 1991, however, voters in the Russian Republic freely chose Boris Yeltsin as their president. After the Soviet Union imploded, Yeltsin moved into the Kremlin, from where he praised democracy but often ruled by presidential decree. In 1993, Yeltsin ordered tanks and airborne troops to shell and storm the Russian Parliament to suppress the opposition’s attempt to remove him.
Six years of chaos ensued and Yeltsin appointed a successor who would not prosecute him for corruption. That man was Vladimir Putin, who was the country’s prime minister and then its acting president. Yeltsin, ostensibly a democrat, had installed a former KGB agent as the new dictator. Since then, Putin’s rivals have been assassinated, imprisoned or so intimidated they moved abroad.
Russia has experienced periods of self-rule. For several centuries, Pskov and Novgorod were governed by popular assemblies known as Veche that gathered to the ringing of church bells. When Muscovy’s Grand Prince Ivan III conquered Novgorod in 1471, he removed its bells to show his rule was absolute.
From the 15th to the 17th century, the boyars of Muscovy formed a closed aristocratic class that surrounded the throne of the grand prince and ruled the country with him. But the boyars often fought each other and sometimes challenged the Tsar. In the 18th century, Peter the Great abolished the boyar class and made state service the exclusive means of attaining a high position.
Some 19th century intellectuals, the Narodniki. wanted to “go to the country,” where most peasants still lived in communes, and persuade the people to rise up against the Tsar and the landlords. However, the Narodniki found the peasants did not like them. Instead, most peasants revered the Tsar. Later, Stalin did not trust the peasantry and claimed instead to lead a dictatorship of the urban proletariat.
The Soviet regime purported to work for and guide the people. Ruling Communist parties everywhere referred to their regimes as “people’s republics.” Whatever a Communist Party did — by definition — was supposed to be democratic.
In Putin’s Russia, there is no equivalent to a veche or to the boyars. There is no longer a Communist Party Presidium to approve or vote against a top leader, as happened to Khrushchev. Those close to Putin got there in an ad hoc manner, and he surrounded himself with “strong men” from the secret services and other powerful ministries. He also collaborated with oligarchs who had become rich in Yeltsin’s 1990s, but when oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky pushed for political reforms, he imprisoned him in Siberia. Most oligarchs got the message: “Don’t challenge the boss.” Other business leaders with political interests have died mysteriously.
In 2023 three private armed forces operated in Russia: Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s 12,000 Chechen fighters, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s “Patriot” private military company. Their rivalries could flare into conflict, but Wagner’s mutiny was short-lived and Prigozhin’s plane soon fell from the sky.
Radical political change is possible, even likely, but not by some established route. The most relevant precedent is defeat on the battlefield. This ended both the House of Rurik in the 17th century and the Romanovs in the 20th. To get rid of Putin, Russia might need to suffer complete defeat in Ukraine.
But there is no Bolshevik Party or movement of democratic reformers ready to take over. The future is open-ended. Continued mobster rule and the disintegration of the Russian Federation are real possibilities.
Walter Clemens is an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Boston University. His latest book is Blood Debts: What Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.