Do Not Congratulate


That was the explicit, all-caps advice Donald Trump received from his national security advisers in 2018, following Russia’s last mock election. The exhortation was a plea to a president with an unapologetic affinity for the Kremlin and strongmen more generally: Whatever you do, don’t legitimize the naked sham that is the electoral process in Putin’s Russia. At the time, Sergei Skripal and his daughter were still gravely ill after being poisoned by Russian operatives in Salisbury.

Trump famously ignored the warning. He congratulated Putin anyway during what he (Trump) described as a “very good phone call.” That was 16 months before Trump’s “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky and two years before the Kremlin held a referendum on constitutional amendments, paving the way for Putin to rule Russia at least until 2036.

I’ve read good accounts of this week’s vote in Russia and a few not-so-good ones. It goes without saying that elections under Putin aren’t actually elections if by elections you mean more than one outcome is theoretically possible. This time around, though, the exercise didn’t even have the trappings of a democratic process. As far as I can tell, Putin’s dropped almost every pretense.

Rather than a choreographed ceremony, the vote felt more like a registration process, whereby citizens indicated conditional acquiescence to a modified version of a familiar social contract wherein the Kremlin lets the populace go about their lives mostly unbothered in exchange for passive fealty. Now, that compact encompasses support for — or more accurately, a willingness to abide — the war, in exchange for an implicit promise that a majority of Russians won’t be asked to make meaningful sacrifices. As a sweetener, Putin’s war-time economy has arguably improved many Russians’ economic circumstances, with an asterisk to account for uncomfortably high inflation.

At the same time, some Russians seem willing to suspend disbelief in lieu of the fatalistic despondency harbored by their fellow countrymen and women. It’s clear now that the remainder of Putin’s life will be spent pursuing a multi-front war with the West, where that could mean bullets or bullet points. It’s not out of the question that Putin will chance military interventions in other local breakaway regions. That’s the bullets. At the same time, he’s renounced any tolerance for progressivism in Russia in favor of fashioning the country as a proudly conservative, deliberately regressive counterbalance to what he describes as a wayward, licentious, apostate West. That’s the bullet points. There’s a shooting war (one for now) and there’s a war of ideals.

Some Russians buy Putin’s culture clash narrative, fewer his historiographical justification for the revanchist project in Ukraine. But all Russians understand the long odds of an alternative. In that way, he has indeed robbed Russians of their future as Yulia Navalnaya lamented, following the death of her husband last month: No one sees an alternative to Putinism which, as a quick but crucial aside, isn’t a fixed ideology. Putin embodies four distinct phases of Russian history: The Soviet era, post-Soviet smash-and-grab capitalism, the cynical, disingenuous “normalization” years and the new imperialism.

In short, Putin is Russia. Or that’s what he’d have Russians believe, and it’s anyway impossible for Russians to picture a future state where Putin’s simultaneously alive and not in power. In the meantime (i.e., between now and his preordained demise at the ultimately unsparing hand of Father Time), there’s nothing to gain and everything to lose from opposing Putin.

As long as fealty and deference are enough, as long as government encroachments into people’s everyday lives aren’t entirely capricious and as long as the economy delivers something that vaguely resembles what Westerners would describe as a lower-middle-class existence for a meaningfully large share of the public, the risk-reward for aspiring to something greater (or even to something else) is hopelessly asymmetric for most Russians.

It certainly isn’t lost on everyday people in Russia that their country’s an oligarchical kleptocracy presided over by a mobster. But c’est la vie. That’s life. And if your expectations are calibrated accordingly, maybe life’s not so bad. To have a future means to embrace ambiguity. Change can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying, particularly if you’re conditioned not to expect it. For some, being deprived of a future may not be such a bad thing. And Putin’s the quintessential example of the kind of suffocating continuity (grim stability) typical of deeply entrenched autocratic regimes.

Would Putin win a fair election in Russia? Yes. Almost surely. And likely by a resounding margin. But given everything said above about the nature of Putin’s reign, such a result wouldn’t allow the world to establish anything about whether, or to what extent, his ideology, decisions and decrees are or aren’t indicative of a collective Russian free will. Because the whole point of holding an election is to establish just that, the word “election” in the context of Putin’s Russia will always be a misnomer, and a tragic one at that.


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4 thoughts on “Do Not Congratulate

  1. This reminds me of the situation in Hungary: once you control the media, the government (and in Russia’s case the oil) revenue, the military… is there any other result for a popular election?

    1. Controlling the courts and education is also useful usually ) though less than the army and police, I’ll grant you… 🙂

  2. “It certainly isn’t lost on everyday people in Russia that their country’s an oligarchical kleptocracy presided over by a mobster.” I always wonder how people keep putting up with that.

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