Every leader in Russia's more than 1,000 years of history has faced the same problem: The unwieldy nation is inherently unstable, regardless of what type of system governs it. And for all his administration's bravado, President Vladimir Putin is no exception. The challenges he faces today, as he nears the end of his 17th year in power, are eerily reminiscent of those that heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it. But Putin is a savvy pupil of history. Drawing from his predecessors' failings, he may be able to defer his administration's demise, or forestall it altogether.
Russia's Latest Savior
Putin rose to power as a savior in a time of chaos, a role not unfamiliar to past leaders in the country. Czar Mikhail I, founder of the Romanov Dynasty, and Vladimir Lenin alike emerged from tumult — the Time of Troubles in the 17th century and the 1917 Russian Revolution, respectively — to restore order. Putin likewise catapulted himself to prominence during the turbulent 1990s as Russia floundered in economic crisis under President Boris Yeltsin, the country's first post-Soviet leader. At the time, a handful of wealthy businessmen had pilfered most of the country's assets, secessionist movements were taking shape in many Russian regions, the military and security services were decaying, and another war in Chechnya was brewing. The government, meanwhile, was in disarray, a cacophony of clashing viewpoints.
To the world — and to much of Russia, as well — Putin was an enigma, having made his name in St. Petersburg rather than in the capital. But his decisive leadership as head of the security services, prime minister and then president soon won the Russian people over. Putin brought the country's dissenting regions in line, sent the Russian military charging into Chechnya, began returning strategic assets to the state's control and purged disloyal politicians, all while promising the public a paycheck. The new leader vowed to rebuild Russia and restore it to its rightful position on the international stage. He also wanted to improve the country's ties with the West.
However different his vision for the country was, though, the difficulties of ruling remained unchanged. Putin, like so many Russian leaders before him, still presided over a massive country inhabited by diverse peoples, hampered by a shallow economy and surrounded by rival powers. And like his predecessors, the Russian president began to adopt a more authoritarian style of governance to maintain stability. The Kremlin banished independent media, non-systemic political parties and foreign nongovernmental organizations; dissidence is punishable as terrorism today, and protests are swiftly quashed. Putin's tactics, although not as brutal, follow a line of reasoning similar to that of Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin: Russia is too fragile a country to rule without force. He has even pitted the country against the West in a standoff worthy of the Cold War. The leader who once suggested Russia could eventually join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now claims the alliance is enemy No. 1.
Holding Fast in Times of Trouble
After years of demonstrating his might as a strongman, Putin now faces a host of internal challenges that are starting to test his system's sustainability. Russia's economy is settling into a period of prolonged stagnation, and while the country's government can muddle through, its people are a different story. Russians on average spend half their income on food. One-quarter of them have experienced cuts or disruptions in their salaries, and some 20 million people, or 14 percent of the population, now live in poverty. The poverty rate, in fact, is rising faster than it has since the 1990s. In addition, the Kremlin is dealing with changing demographics. More than 25 percent of Russia's population today was born after the Soviet Union collapsed, meaning a growing number of Russians have little or no memory of the chaos that prevailed before Putin took power. The rise of social media, moreover, has made it harder for Moscow to control the news that reaches its public. The political system is beginning to decline as the country's leaders age. And at the same time, tensions are mounting between the country's waning Orthodox Christian population and its growing Muslim community.
Compounding the Kremlin's domestic worries are its foreign policy concerns. By failing to uphold Viktor Yanukovich's government in Ukraine during the 2014 Euromaidan uprisings, Russia cost itself an ally and jeopardized its national security. The United States and European Union have kept sanctions on Moscow in the years since, and NATO has continued its buildup along Russia's periphery. Furthermore, the Kremlin's interferences in foreign elections have backfired, as has its barrage of cyberattacks, propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed at Western targets. Now Russia faces an increasingly unified front against it.
Yet notwithstanding these changes — along with the spate of mass protests across Russia and the growing resistance from its regional leaders — the Kremlin is holding fast to the system that has been in place nearly 20 years. Putin will probably seek a fourth term in office in March 2018, and the government has banned opposition leaders from running against him. To further shore up his rule, the president has cracked down on dissidence and deployed a new security force across the country.
Putin is holing up in a system whose cracks are widening. Under similar pressure, Czar Nicholas II and Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev responded in much the same way, digging their heels in and refusing to reform the atrophying political and ideological structures around them. The resemblances are striking and doubtless have not escaped Putin's attention.
Echoes of Times Gone By
When they assumed power — Nicholas II in 1894 and Brezhnev 70 years later — both leaders inherited long-standing and ostensibly stable political systems. They succeeded rulers who had vacillated between autocracy and reform. But by the time they took the reins, the imperial and Soviet governments confronted problems so severe that neither solution would work.
Russian society was in flux in those days, as people became more urban and mobile. During Nicholas II's tenure, for example, Russia's population grew by 31 percent, helping its urban centers double in size. The Soviet Union experienced a comparable transition under Brezhnev; when the leader died in 1982, 64 percent of Russians lived in cities. Along with a more urban populace, Nicholas II and Brezhnev faced an increasingly educated — and disobedient — public. An educated lower class emerged in Russia in the 1870s and 1880s, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861. And in Brezhnev's time, the number of Soviet citizens with a college education tripled to reach 1 million people in the 1980s.
The economy couldn't keep up with the growing numbers of educated people in need of work. A slump in Europe, where Russia's government and nobility had heavily invested, caused the Russian economy to contract sharply in 1899. The Soviet economy, likewise, declined during Brezhnev's reign, known as the Era of Stagnation. Average annual growth fell from 5.2 percent in 1960 to just 1.8 percent in 1980, according to CIA estimates — a marked departure from the rapid rise in living standards that characterized the 1950s. By the 1970s, shortages in basic goods and foodstuffs were the norm in the Soviet Union, and citizens throughout Russia became accustomed to long lines and rationing.
On top of their domestic problems, both Brezhnev and Nicholas II had to reckon with crises abroad. The Russian Empire found itself embroiled in World War I less than a decade after its sound defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and went on to lose more than 9 million people in the conflict. The high costs of the war added to the grievances of educated radicals and struggling workers who were fed up with the Russian autocracy. Half a century later, Brezhnev was contending with large NATO buildups, a proxy war in Vietnam (and, later, a war in Afghanistan) and popular uprisings in the Eastern Bloc. Many Soviet leaders, aware that the system was stretched beyond its capacity, feared the ferment within and along its borders would erupt into a widespread uprising.
To Reform or Not to Reform?
Given the strain on the imperial and Soviet systems, advisers to the czar and then the secretary general advocated reforms to keep their governments from collapse. Nicholas II acquiesced after the failed 1905 Revolution, agreeing to give the Russian people greater freedom to elect their legislators. The result was a legislature in which radical or liberal lawmakers occupied one-third of the seats. Prime Minister (and Interior Minister) Pyotr Stolypin saw the writing on the wall and urged the czar to overhaul Russia's political system to create an independent working class who would still be loyal to the crown. Stolypin's proposed reforms might have averted the Russian Revolution of 1917 and brought the empire closer in line with its more prosperous Western counterparts. But the czar stalled on the measures, preoccupied with war underway internationally and the revolutionary sentiments rising at home.
Brezhnev, too, resisted suggestions to reform the Soviet system in the mid-1960s. Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin proposed a raft of changes to decentralize the Soviet economy and to make the working class more driven, innovative and productive by introducing incentives, such as pay raises and bonuses. The plan, however, met with opposition from the Soviet bureaucracy (hardly a surprise since it aimed to reduce the number of economic administrators in the government) and was only partially implemented. Brezhnev further centralized the economy and reaffirmed the Soviet system's emphasis on gross output, increasing the pressure on workers who were by now coming to resent their government. Martin Walker, a British journalist and author, wrote that Russia underwent "a social revolution while Brezhnev slept." The Soviet leadership, meanwhile, was frail: Within three years of Brezhnev's death, two subsequent secretaries general, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, had also died in office. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, saw signs of the coming destabilization and tried to implement the economic, social and political reforms to stave it off. By then, though, it was too late.
As the Russian government takes on an ever-more authoritarian role, Putin now faces the familiar question of whether to adapt his government to accommodate his changing country. The biggest advocate for reform today is Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minster and current unofficial adviser to Putin. Kudrin left the Kremlin in 2011 during a fierce debate over how to manage Russia's resources. He now proposes gradually decentralizing the ownership of Russia's strategic enterprises, such as energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom, to give them a boost in capital and technology. Taking into account Gorbachev's experience, he understands that the system can't handle too much change too quickly — though he also knows that time is short. Kudrin has cautioned that if the Kremlin doesn't introduce economic and political reforms now, its stability will be at risk in the years to come.
An astute student of his nation's history, Putin has nevertheless failed to heed Kudrin's warnings. Instead, like Nicholas II and Brezhnev before him, he has continued to reinforce the system he built. And the Russian president has introduced an additional element of uncertainty to the mix: With no clear successor in place, the system hinges on him, at least for now.
Putin's reluctance to reform may be due to his grasp of the differences between the Russian Federation, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Contemporary Russia, for example, isn't interested in retracing the borders of the immense Russian Empire or Soviet Union as it works to influence nearby countries. The Kremlin understands its limitations well enough to know it can't manage that many diverse lands and peoples. What's more, it recognizes, despite its rhetoric, that outside powers aren't trying to collapse the Russian Federation. Russia is the world's 12th-largest economy, as well as one of its largest energy producers, and it holds one of the biggest nuclear arsenals on the globe. Its collapse would devastate the global system; instability in the country, moreover, could also re-ignite conflicts throughout the region, including in Chechnya, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Along with his knack for history, Putin has demonstrated his ability to evolve with Russia. Rather than overhauling his government, he will probably opt to keep cherry-picking reforms and introducing them alternately with repressive measures to keep instability at bay. He has picked up enough momentum by consolidating the Kremlin, the military and a large support base to keep the system moving for a while longer, perhaps even in his wake. Still, he knows as well as any Russian leader that nothing lasts forever.