Why liberalization is inevitable in Russia after Putin’s departure
March 15, 2023
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrei Kolesnikov believes that in post-Putin Russia, a softening of the regime is more likely than even worse, fascist-like figures coming to power. He thinks there is no need to fear the future when Russia is hurtling into the past before our eyes.
The death of Stalin is a classic story in which concentrated, raw human emotions play out, with comrades too afraid to approach the tyrant lying in his own urine. Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s chief hangman, curator of the infamous Soviet state security, cursing the “master” with final words, only to rush to kiss his hand when his eyes open. That hand, at the last moment before the villain’s death, suddenly rises menacingly, pointing somewhere. This gesture – which has remained undeciphered – strikes terror into his heirs.

Post-Stalin reformers

The subsequent struggle for power sees the same concentration of emotions. Everything in it is human, very human, like the instinct to survive. Meanwhile, archetypes of political behavior emerge, and not only in the context of a struggle for power. We have no other historical evidence from the Soviet period about what happens after the disappearance of the leading figure who had concentrated such enormous power in his hands (even if one was withered).

It turns out that whoever fights for power after the dictator is gone begins to compete with other contenders to liberalize the regime. The name of the dictator is mentioned less and less. Lydia Timashuk, whose allegations served as the basis for the “doctors’ plot” – when doctors treating the highest state officials were accused of murdering Stalin’s ally Andrei Zhdanov – had her Order of Lenin taken back in due course. The “killer doctors” who had not already died in prison were released, and so-called “public opinion,” which had so recently worshipped Stalin, had cursed the “enemies of the people” and was ready to tear the Jews to pieces, quickly turned the other way.

As the eminent Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote: “Radical policy reforms were quickly introduced and followed each other in dizzying succession. On Beria’s initiative, prosecutions in the ‘doctors’ plot’ were stopped, the doctors released and their freedom announced in the press. Next on the list, also a Beria initiative, was a mass amnesty in Gulag, starting with a million ‘non-political’ prisoners, but soon moving on, albeit more gradually, to the political ones. Stalin’s name, hitherto ubiquitous, suddenly disappeared from the newspapers; publication of his collected works was abruptly halted.”

Brezhnevism went out the door roughly in the same way, though it took some time given the so-called “hearse race,” when three Soviet general secretaries died within two years. Nonetheless, when the last gerontocrat truly close to Leonid Brezhnev died, everything again began to move toward liberalization, with the pivot enthusiastically received by the very “public opinion” that until just recently had shown no signs of life and sat through one party and trade union meeting after another.

Khrushchev’s removal stands apart somewhat as a case of a “palace coup” prepared in advance. It has little to do with our situation: after Khrushchev’s experiments, rejected as a manifestation of unacceptable “voluntarism,” a desire for stability arose within the country’s leadership. The then-elites, by no means paralyzed by fear, as they are now, managed to agree on the need for personnel changes and to find an institutional platform for the rotation of power – the Central Committee Plenum. There is no such platform in Russia’s political system today.

Despite the creeping re-Stalinization that began in 1965, the new post-Khrushchev government tried to liberalize the economy (discussion of economic reforms began under Khrushchev, but systematic implementation started on the initiative and under the control of the new head of government Alexei Kosygin).

Is a similar pattern likely after Putin’s departure?

The Soviet historical precedents show that after the departure of autocrats – first Stalin and later the “sequence of state funerals” featuring Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko – liberalization began in the country. Intra-elite struggle did take place but subsided rather quickly.

After Putin’s departure, events could develop on a similar pattern too. The struggle for power should not lead to chaos or moreover the collapse of Russia, owing to the heavy dependence of the regions on the federal budget. Anyone who in the Putin era seemed to be a loyal ally will immediately take steps toward opening Russia back up, liberalizing the economy and gradually democratizing politics. The reason is the serious resource depletion that is taking place before our eyes. By resources I mean not only what is material and monetizable, but also the moral and psychological fatigue of society.
"To replenish resources, the country will have to open 'a window to Europe' again. Like Peter the Great, so revered by Putin, who was under the strongest foreign influence and thus might be now considered a 'foreign agent'."
Radical policy reforms followed each other in rapid succession after Joseph Stalin’s death. In the photo: Georgy Malenkov, one of Stalin’s closest allies, proposed reforms in agriculture. Source: Wiki Commons
It might be hard to imagine this. But could one imagine that Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s closest ally, would propose reforms in agriculture, and that Khrushchev would jealously take over those initiatives? That Beria would say the GDR should be left alone and private property there protected? The current inner circle, constantly half bent over in a sign of obedience before the supreme commander in chief – especially the ones with business interests to protect – will have to atone for their sins before the West with redoubled energy and pose as modernizers, as did, for example, Francoists who remained in power during transition to democracy in Spain.

We should not expect quick steps from that part of the political elite toward liberalizing internal affairs: that would mean opening the door for counter-elites, whose leaders – Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Alexei Kara-Murza – are now in prison, and their associates exiled. After everything that has happened in recent years, they will be completely against compromise with Putinists who all of a sudden had a change of mind. However, rapid changes are possible in foreign policy: ex-Putinists will again seek to “discover America”. And they will have to do this all the quicker as the risks for maintaining power mount in the situation where the counter-elites are likely to neither forgive nor forget – the annulling of presidential terms, ratcheting up repression and, of course, the “special operation.”

Why is the above more likely than even worse leaders, of the fascist variety, coming to power? Because there is a feeling that the worst has already happened and is continuing before our eyes. How many years have we been frightened by the likes of Mikhail Gershenzon, who wrote in his famous collection of essays Vekhi published in 1909: “What we are, we not only cannot dream of merging with the people, we must fear it more than all the executions of power and bless this power, which is alone with its bayonets and prisons more.”

No need to fear the future

If truly free elections were allowed, systemic liberals argued 20 and 10 years ago, the people would  chose  fascist instead of a pragmatist like Putin. And what did we get? Putin is a “romantic” obsessed with an imperial mission. We got a Russia searching for answers in the past, isolated, repressive and playing on totalitarian instincts.

There was no need for the fear of free elections in 1996 and 2000. There was no need to try to artificially change the course of history. What Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister who seemed to many in the 1990s to be too conservative, whom Boris Yeltsin replaced in 1998 with the young liberal Sergei Kiriyenko (who now is one of the main ideologues of the war), would have gone into Ukraine? Yevgeny Primakov, who as prime minister seemed ready to drag the economy back to communist times, would have launched the “special operation?” Never in their lives. At certain points, either of them could have staked a claim to be Yeltsin’s successor, but his inner circle preferred the former KGB officer, who seemed more reliable to them. Yet it turned out that there are worse things than moderate conservatives with a Soviet background, which at least meant one key thing – a fundamental rejection of war and a fundamental desire to live in peace with the West and the East.
"Now, Russia will have to dig itself out of a hole much deeper than the one in which it found itself in the last years of the USSR. Meanwhile, it is no longer possible to argue that without Putin it will only get worse. It certainly will not get better under him."
Are Alexander Voloshin and Valentin Yumashev, the heads of the Kremlin administration who lobbied for Putin to succeed Yeltsin, to blame? What were all the other possible clans doing all this time? Or at least in 2003, when following the Khodorkovsky arrest and the defeat of the democratic parties in the parliamentary elections, the writing was already on the wall about Putin, though something still could have been changed? Where now are these elites, the imaginary “divisions” between whom we hear so much about? Why, even though they supposedly hate Putin, do they only remain cowardly silent and, as the catastrophe deepens, share more and more responsibility for what is going on with him?

There is no need to fear the future when Russia is hurtling into the past before our eyes.
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