Putin Rules Russia Like an Asylum

“Since the 16th century,” wrote the dissident Russian journalist Valeria Novodvorskaya, “we have existed according to the laws of manic depressive psychosis.”

Published two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ms. Novodvorskaya’s article captured a particularly chaotic, deranged period of Russian history. But it also makes a long-term argument about Russian society. Since the time of Ivan the Terrible, Ms. Novodvorskaya argued, Russia has suffered from manic depressive psychosis — “flaying” the weak government and “kissing the whip” of the fierce autocrat. The result was a country “hanging between fascism and communism,” and citizens unable to live like normal people.

The use of psychiatric metaphors was no idle choice. In 1969, Ms. Novodvorskaya, then a 19-year-old student, was detained for distributing anti-Soviet leaflets and sentenced to two years in a psychiatric hospital. She knew firsthand the horrors of the K.G.B.’s system of punitive psychiatry for dissidents. For her, it distilled the logic of Russia’s rulers, tsarist or Soviet. The aim was to produce a lobotomized mass, alternating between passion and passivity — and never in danger of threatening the system.

Over the past two decades, Vladimir Putin has revived the system of punitive psychiatry, both literally and figuratively. Like the chief doctor of a Soviet penal psychiatric institution, Mr. Putin uses any means at his disposal to retain control and stamp out dissent. In his ward is a mostly poor, depressed society of 144 million people, divided by 11 time zones and four climate zones. In a state of anesthetized apathy and drugged-up distemper, the bulk of Russian society has quietly acceded to Mr. Putin’s rule — and to his brutal war in Ukraine.

For Mr. Putin, the people in his ward are his property: He can do whatever he wants with them. From time to time, he feeds them — never generously — to ensure his approval ratings remain high. He has a habit of offering handouts, especially in the run-up to elections. One-off targeted financial gifts and benefit payments are a favorite tactic. The aim, of course, is not the material betterment of Russians. It’s to shore up support for the regime and ensure that turnout, in Russia’s strange pseudo-elections, remains tolerably high.

Many of the people in Mr. Putin’s ward do not live; they survive. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, an independent economist, Natalia Zubarevich, estimated that in 2019, 15 percent of Russians were living in poverty, while another 49 percent were close to dropping into that category. Two years of the pandemic have only made things worse. Last summer, 40 percent of Russians, according to the independent Levada Center, were unable to feed themselves adequately while 52 percent couldn’t afford the necessary clothes and shoes.

In this dire condition, people understandably tend to think first and foremost about their stomachs. For many of them, politics is like the weather, an unchangeable and often incomprehensible fact of life. All opportunities for them to comprehend why they live this way have been completely blocked by state propaganda — and the politicians who could help them understand are either dead or in prison. Independent information, available online from a dwindling number of sources, is impossible to find without an unaffordable outlay of time, energy and know-how.

Much of Russia’s middle class is in the same ward. A vulnerable minority are from the private sector, but a majority is dependent on the state — they are doctors, teachers, civil servants, police officers, state company workers. Because they live a little better than the lower classes, they thank Mr. Putin for their somewhat better situation. They don’t want change and they don’t know why they would need change: Few of them have been abroad and seen how other people live. On state television, they’re told that Europe is rotten and that its people are on the bread line. Nowhere is better than Russia.

These are the unfortunate people in Mr. Putin’s asylum. Their unspoken motto is: “Keep your head down, or else things will get worse.” They largely do not worry that Russia is waging war with Ukraine on their behalf and that the Russian army has been killing civilians in a neighboring country every day for almost three months. As far as they’re concerned, there is a special operation going on somewhere far away, conducted by a state on which they critically depend. There’s no need to look any closer, and little opportunity to do so.

A psychiatric institution isn’t just full of patients. There are attendants, too. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, these roles are performed by government, defense and law enforcement officials, propaganda workers and wealthy businesspeople, all carefully controlled by security officials. Members of this cohort, sifted and filtered by the Kremlin, consider themselves the masters of the country and the country itself as their property. They have no ideology other than the servile worship of their superiors for their own gain.

Mr. Putin orders them to keep people in fear, to incite hatred, to stifle freedom of thought — and each of them contributes to that mission. Thanks to them, the state penetrates every corner. Across society, they build imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime — in local government, the charity sector, even volunteer associations — just to prevent anyone from starting something not subservient to the state. Mr. Putin forgives these people corruption, torture, you name it, as long as they successfully guard the ward. They all work in different ways, but together they sap citizens’ willpower and strengthen their obedience. As they say in Russia, half the country is in jail and half the country are the guards.

Of course, life is more complicated than any metaphor, especially in Russia’s atomized society. There are many people in Russia who are neither the patients nor the attendants in Mr. Putin’s penal asylum — as shown by the wide cross-section of society that immediately opposed the war. Scientists, students, charity workers, architects and even famous entertainers took to the streets and signed petitions. When this show of resistance was met with repression, many of the independent-minded left Russia altogether.

But the metaphor captures a fundamental truth about Russia today: Mr. Putin wields power not through consent but by coercion. Genuine enthusiasm for the president’s war, for example, seems to be missing. Otherwise he would not have called it a “special operation,” closed down the few remaining independent media outlets immediately after the war began, blocked social networks, introduced new draconian laws and persecuted people for the most trivial of antiwar gestures.

Mr. Putin also surely knows that he’s been sitting in the Kremlin too long and is losing some of his hold on the country. In February 2021, for example, 41 percent of respondents to a poll said they wanted the president to leave office after 2024 — an impressive result given the danger of speaking out. But Mr. Putin is not going to leave. He knows that no matter how great a historical figure he may have painted himself as, after his departure he will have to pay for his sins.

In just two years he will face another decorative election, for which he rewrote the Constitution. In Ukraine, he wanted a quick victory so that no one would even think of replacing him with someone else. His plan was to redirect the accumulated public frustration and aggression away from himself and toward his “enemies” — Ukraine and the West. That way he could validate his right to remain on the throne as a great leader who had changed the world order. But thanks to Ukraine’s stiff opposition, his bloodthirsty plan did not work.

It’s clear Mr. Putin plans to prolong his murderous war, in the hope of outlasting his opponents. The future is impossible to predict. But what can be said unequivocally is that Russian society, after so many years of Mr. Putin’s punitive psychiatry, will need a very long rehabilitation.

Farida Rustamova (@faridaily_) is an independent journalist who worked for BBC News Russian, Meduza and TV Rain. Her newsletter is available on Substack.

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