Russia-And Now What?

The election was held. Putin was elected, or reelected, or re-reelected. “Glory to Russia,” shouted the new president, a tear running down his cheek. But, amidst the officially-stimulated joy, questions quickly rose about the legitimacy of the election. “Fraudulent,” some charged. Predictably, protests erupted, pro- and anti-Putin protests. And now what?

Russia is at another crossroads in its fascinating, turbulent history. For most of the 20th century, Russia lived under a suffocating political system, communism, which did one thing very well, however: it made people literate. The point was to stimulate popular understanding of the communist way of doing things. But a literate people are not a herd of cattle, moving generation after generation in a certain direction. At a certain point, they want a role in shaping the future. That point is now.

Russia is struggling for a new idenitity. This is not a new struggle. Literally, for a hundred years, Russians have looked both east and west for their political and cultural inspiration—sometimes in both directions at the same time. They have been divided into Westerners and Slavophiles, their politics subdivided along these lines: Westerners, marinating themselves in the poetry and politics of Paris and London; Slavophiles, believing that Russians constitute a special species, different from east and west, able to contribute to world civilization in ways distinctly slavic.

Putin, Medvedev, and all their political compatriots—they are victorious once again, in charge of a country that is clearly in search of its soul. What are their next steps? Will Putin allow Russians to develop their own spring? Or will he crack heads and impose his authoritarian style? No one is certain, of course, but Putin seems determined to maintain order, meaning to tame and control the people.

Notable up to this point is the absence of violence, and this may be the key. If Putin can reimpose order without violence, then he may be able to retain his authoritarian grip on power for an indefinite time. But if there is violence, then all bets are off. Russia’s stability, which so many Russians seem to want, may be hanging by a thread. Russian history is filled with big and unexpected surprises. We may all be on the edge of another.