Sept. 4 marks Russia's Day of Solidarity, a remembrance of two brutal terrorist incidents: the start of an apartment bombing campaign in 1999 and the bloody end of a siege at a Beslan school in 2004. Much as the 9/11 attacks changed the national psyche of the United States, those events altered Russia's trajectory and shaped the identity of the Russian people. They were also key to Vladimir Putin's rise to the heights of power.
In the late 1990s, Russia was struggling with its identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian people, who lost their Soviet nationality and were thrust back into being solely Russian, went through a decadelong identity crisis. The newly minted Russian Federation stretched from Europe and the Middle East through Central Asia and to the Far East, covering 12 time zones and 83 regional divisions. It was home to 160 different ethnic groups, with non-Slavs making up nearly 20 percent of the population.
A bedrock of the Soviet Union was having a single character that transcended race, creed or language. Moscow adopted the Soviet label to unify not only Russian territory but also the diverse territories along its borderlands. The Russian label, on the other hand, inclined toward white, Slavic and traditionally Orthodox identities. But even the latter of these distinctions — religion — was not yet resurgent in post-Soviet Russia after its suppression during decades of state-promoted atheism.
The initial constitution created in 1993 starts with, "We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation." But the Kremlin, then under the command of President Boris Yeltsin, could not devise a strategy to implement the concept of Russian diversity without a unifying spirit among the people. Naturally, Russia began tearing itself apart. Secessionist sentiments grew more pronounced as regions such as Kaliningrad, the Russian North Caucasus, Tatarstan and the Far East began to grumble. But it was the Chechen Republic that first declared independence and, in doing so, started a war with the Russian government. By the time the First Chechen War officially ended in mid-1996, the Russian military had been humiliated, and the Russian people were weary of battle. But the entire federation knew the struggle was far from over.
Resentment in Russia grew in the 1990s as the country tottered toward collapse. Organized crime ran rampant. The oligarchy plundered and hoarded the country's wealth. Financial schemes defrauded millions. Foreign groups plucked up strategic Russian assets. And NATO encroached on Russia's borders. Yeltsin's leadership eroded as he struggled with his own alcoholism, the various political parties in the legislature and his family's feuds with political parties, security services and oligarchs. Russia's political and security systems were intentionally weakened so that no uniting force could challenge Yeltsin and his administration (a stark contrast to traditional Soviet practices).
In 1998, a dangerous financial crisis sent the country into a nosedive. Inflation reached 84 percent. The government could not pay pensions and defaulted on foreign debt. The currency was repeatedly devalued. Transportation, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway, was interrupted. Mass strikes erupted across the country. Most Russian regional governments refused to pay taxes, and some even started threatening secession once again. Even the $5 billion relief package doled out by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund never made it into the system — it was stolen upon arrival. The political and security system Yeltsin had built could not coalesce behind any coherent strategy to combat the crises. The country appeared to be on the brink of disaster.
In July 1998, Yeltsin brought in an unlikely politician from St. Petersburg to crack down on these issues via the Federal Security Service (the FSB, the KGB's successor) and Security Council: Vladimir Putin. At the time, Yeltsin was not intimidated by Putin or his St. Petersburg cronies, most of whom were also former KGB. The St. Petersburg clan lingered outside the Moscow-oriented system. The group's political weight was minor compared with that of Yeltsin's family and its rival Communists. And the Russian people were largely unfamiliar with Putin. But Putin inserted his group into the capital through sweeping — and mostly harsh — reforms. The security chief cracked down on protesters, oligarchs and regional leaders. His achievements began to sway loyalists in Moscow and in other regions. He became the man of law and order.
While his heavy hand worked to gain power in the Kremlin, Putin had yet to unify the Russian people behind him and his plans for the country.
Putin's strategy of consolidation, singular integration and unification under a common identity was a familiar one. He flirted with the Soviet model: Moscow makes the rules — no questions asked. While his heavy hand worked to gain power in the Kremlin, Putin had yet to unify the Russian people behind him and his plans for the country. He needed a single cause, not one of multiplicity and chaos, but of discipline and structure, which would eventually translate into stability and power. The Russian people were starving for security and some semblance of the state's past power, and Putin pledged to give it to them.
As the 20th century drew to a close, Chechnya prepared to invade neighboring Dagestan, and Putin became the prime minister. The Russian people were understandably apprehensive about another war in the Caucasus. Government funds were running low as the financial crisis lingered, and doubts about whether the once-robust Russian military could combat the uncivilized Caucasus guerrilla movements remained.
A Seismic Shift
The first two weeks of September 1999 changed Russia. A series of bombings hit four apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk over the course of 12 days, killing 293 people and injuring more than 1,000. Initially, Chechen militant commanders claimed the attacks, and the Russian people rallied behind the start of a Second Chechen War — and behind Putin. Within three months, Yeltsin had resigned early, Putin became acting president, and his new Unity party surged into parliament on a campaign of war.
Russia scholars debate whether Putin would have come to power had the apartment bombings not occurred. Naturally, conspiracy theories that Putin and the FSB were responsible for the attacks continue to swirl. Theories aside, to the Russian people, Putin was who they needed to guide them past the chaos of Yeltsin and counter the villainy of the Chechen militants.
Putin's sudden popularity gave him an opening to start the painful reforms needed to revive the system. But the Russian leader met with mass resistance from the remnants of the old Yeltsin (and even Communist) systems, and the war in Chechnya dragged on. By 2004, Putin's popularity was in sharp decline. He needed a completely free hand to restructure the entire Russian system, instead of just plugging the leaks.
An unprecedented reign of terror across Russia transformed Putin from salvager to savior. On Aug. 24, terrorists simultaneously blew up two Russian aircraft in mid-flight. Six days later, a suicide bomber killed 10 people in a Moscow subway. And in what is seen as Russia's most savage terrorist attack, Caucasus militants took hostages at a primary school in the city of Beslan at the start of September, resulting in 385 deaths, 186 of them children.
Putin rushed to the survivors' sides at the hospital. In a speech televised nationwide, Putin paraphrased Josef Stalin: "We showed ourselves as weak. And the weak get beaten." It became a rallying cry, an ultimatum to the Russian people. (Unlike in 1999, notably, there was absolutely no doubt that Chechens were responsible for the 2004 carnage.)
Putin Tightens His Grip
After the Beslan siege, Putin pushed through a series of draconian laws, restricting the media and nongovernmental organizations, broadening the definition of terrorism and empowering the security services. Among the laws was also a complete restructuring of the electoral system, giving Putin the power to appoint regional leaders, and slanted voting procedures for the state Duma. The government, and its control over most aspects of the country, was vertically aligned under Putin.
With its new power, the state crushed most of the oligarchs, incorporated some of them and centralized ownership of strategic enterprises. The government stabilized the financial sector by propping up the currency and restructuring the banks. The quality of life for the average Russian skyrocketed, and political unrest subsided; most parties were weeded out of the government and legislature. Putin politically consolidated the country under one party, United Russia, which took 64 percent of the Duma in the 2007 elections. Putin's cronies and loyalists seeped into every aspect of societal, business and foreign policies, creating a fairly coherent Russian strategy to restore the country's strength and stability. And by 2009, the large-scale military fighting in Chechnya had ceased, and the larger organized militant threat had fractured. Russia had also returned to the world stage, pushing back against the West in its borderlands. Bolstering Putin's capabilities were oil prices, which hit triple digits by 2008, filling Kremlin coffers and financing the sweeping reforms and operations.
An unprecedented reign of terror across Russia transformed Putin from salvager to savior.
So within the first decade of Putin's rule, Russians saw their country stagger back from the brink of collapse and ascend to its former glory. Putin initially rose on the strength of his promises to fight terrorism. In the face of another terrorist campaign, he cemented his position behind the results he achieved. And his support among the Russian people soared to heights not seen in a century. Putin emerged as the common thread of unity among the Russian people. The cult of Putin was sparked, and the era of Putinism began.
But today, the system that Putin fought so hard to create is dissolving. The economy is once again in a deep recession. The ruling political party is in decline. Russian businesses are falling behind. The Russian military is faced with threats on all borders. And even Putin's loyal St. Petersburg cadre is dissenting. The system that Putin put in place to unite a country behind his name is now isolating him internationally and within the Kremlin. The Russian leader still commands the adoration of most Russians. But he is riding on a wave of nationalism brought by a new worry — the idea that the world wants Russia to collapse once again. Putin is holding the pieces of his system together, even though they no longer really fit. But the question now hinges on what he will do to make sure those pieces do not fall through his fingers — and, if the era of Putinism ends, what will happen to Russia's sense of country.