Last month, unidentified Ukrainian patriots attacked the Russian embassy in Kiev and consulates in several Ukrainian cities to protest Russia’s trial of pilot Nadia Savchenko. Cars were vandalized, windows smashed, activists threw paint and eggs. Ukrainian television stations just happened to inform viewers how they could identify a Russian diplomatic license plate.

In response, there were two actions in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow. The first one imitated the Ukrainian protests. Angry youths also threw eggs at the embassy, but the police put up some barricades, so none of them reached their target. A few days later, another, more disciplined rally followed. The protesters holding standard posters were well organized and left the scene without any property being damaged.

The different response by two different governments to the phenomenon of popular protest is reflected across the world. It does not just divide Russia and Ukraine and it has little to do with how democratic a country is. In the Middle East, for example, Iranians follow Ukrainians’ penchant for loud public protest, while in the latest row between the two countries Saudi Arabia merely quietly severed diplomatic relations with Teheran.

The distinction divides all regimes into two categories: static and dynamic. In the former, citizens express their support for the government through quiet obedience. In the latter, the authorities copy and stimulate the behavior of the leaders of popular rebellion. People are silent under static regimes; under dynamic ones, they clamor and take to the street to express their indignation.

A static country is also a hermetic one. In a hermetic regime, the ruling bureaucracy is isolated from the loyal public and prefers to receive passive support in the form of submission and public order. The Soviet Union was a hermetic regime, Mao’s China was definitely not.

In 1968, as the Red Guards were wreaking havoc in China and students were protesting in the West, Russian Communist Party official Lyudmila Shaposhnikova expressed her satisfaction with the Soviet system, saying, “When you read about this mess, you feel happy again about how disciplined and responsible our people are!”

For most of its history, Russia has been a static country. Over the last few years, it moved into dynamic mode. But recently it appears to have had second thoughts and reverted to its previous state.

Russia was static even for most of the decade when Boris Yeltsin was president. No rallies expressing loyalty can break our old habit of yawning in a church service. Russians would rather support the ruling regime through agreement and obedience. The pro-Kremlin Nashi youth organization failed as a street movement not just because of corruption and poor management but also because a genuine outpouring of pro-regime activism is uncharacteristic of Russian political life.

But the authorities were still keen to enjoy enthusiastic popular support in times of crisis. Even before the Ukraine crisis, they mobilized grassroots activism against gays and lesbians and U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul.

Then the war in the Donbas made the Russian regime uncharacteristically dynamic. To fight a hybrid war, the regime needed volunteer non-state actors to recruit, raise money, lobby, and go into combat. The media had to generously cover and praise their activities to solidify the impression that this was a war fought by volunteers.

For one year in 2014–2015, Russia was a country of independent heroes wearing military fatigues. They were more appealing to most ordinary people than bureaucrats in suits, as they said out loud what officials were afraid to say. Military-patriotic and combat history clubs flourished. Bloggers, local internet resources, and unofficial warriors (volunteers, Cossacks, militiamen) sprouted like mushrooms after rain. The glorification of the heroes of Crimea and the Donbas people’s republics also in effect legitimized their autonomy. Separatists don’t report back to the authorities and are autonomous by definition. Suddenly, a more radical and polyphonic world peeked out from behind the conservative elite dictatorship. The tiger reared his head and the man riding it no longer looked so sure of himself.

At the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya also proudly deviated from the static Russian tradition. Chechnya generated one-million-strong rallies in defense of the Prophet from attacks by blasphemous Europe and in defense of Kadyrov’s honor assailed by the liberal media and opposition traitors. The Chechen leader and his supporters threatened federal politicians and journalists. In addition, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the assault on human rights activists in the North Caucasus encroached on the center’s monopoly on violence.

The Russian leadership quickly realized that this kind of support was more of a threat than an advantage. Dynamic politics, with a live exchange of ideas, grassroots initiatives, and the emergence of informal leaders, also engendered political competition to the ruling regime.

So the Donbas war with its motley crew of patriotic volunteers gave way to something more familiar: the campaign in Syria, completely controlled by Ministry of Defense professionals deploying advanced military technology.

In actual fact, Russian liberals pose much less of a threat to Russia’s regime than do radicals of the left and nationalist conservative forces that advocate full sovereignty, a break with the global economy, the persecution of opponents, total control of cultural and private life, and a revision of property rights. These were the slogans that came to life in the heroic atmosphere of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics.

Yet for both foreign and domestic reasons, the volunteer units in the separatist republics were disbanded and the activists brought into line. The new heroes who had enjoyed a meteoric ascent to power suddenly disappeared from Russians’ television screens.

The same warning was delivered to Russian footballer Dmitry Tarasov. In a match in Istanbul, Tarasov, who plays for Lokomotiv Moscow, tore off his team shirt in celebration to reveal another shirt depicting Putin in military uniform. Tarasov was disciplined by the European football body UEFA. But more importantly, his own club, whose recent owner, former railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, was the country’s main patriotic philosopher, did nothing to defend him either. In fact, Tarasov was fined 300,000 euros. The message was: leave our country’s conflict with Turkey to the professional politicians; it is not a job for amateurs.

President Putin’s newly created National Guard has attracted attention for being the president’s own loyal force, just like the Praetorian Guard in Rome. But as Putin himself and other high-ranking officials have remarked a few times, the new force is also intended to control armed individuals. According to the Law on the National Guard, military and patriotic clubs, along with the OMON special police forces and the Internal Troops, will have to report to the new organization.

The new body may be just as busy cracking down on semi-independent patriots as on liberal critics of the regime. And this reassertion of the monopoly of violence is also a message to Ramzan Kadyrov that he must be a regional leader again and not a national champion of patriotic activists.

There is talk of a new potential wave of liberalization in Russia. But it may be more appropriate to talk about a return to a traditional static mode of authoritarianism that reins in unsanctioned expressions of support from below and an overzealous struggle against Russia’s foreign and domestic enemies. This change may exhibit signs of liberalization, but does not necessarily entail any other reforms.

Which type of regime—dynamic or static—is worse for Russia’s future development and which is more conducive to positive change?

The argument can be made that the greater public activism that is characteristic of dynamic regimes prepares people better for political life in the future. After all, many autocratic dynamic regimes such as Iran or Venezuela also contain elements of democracies.

However, regimes like these are also harder to reform and dismantle because their stability relies on the support of ordinary people, not just the ruling bureaucracy. Moreover, this politicization of the loyal section of the public has a corrupting effect as these devotees begin to outflank the authorities and set the political agenda.

Static dictatorships, on the other hand, almost totally eliminate public activism while also creating conditions that allow for their downfall. We can recall how the Franco dictatorship in Spain disappeared practically overnight. Lacking a strong basis of public legitimacy, the Soviet Union also collapsed surprisingly quickly—a turn of events that many thought could only be triggered by World War III.

In the last year, the current Russian leadership has sensed danger and decided against stimulating the Russian political scene and exploiting its base of supporters, who offered enthusiastic loyalty. Yet the impression that Russia has settled again into a swamp of political apathy is also deceptive.

The reversion to old political patterns may have created the conditions for reforms and for a more peaceful resolution of the age-old Russian question of the transition of power. At some point, a static system may allow the transfer of power between powerful individuals and from the bureaucracy to broader segments of the population at large. 

  • Alexander Baunov