The Putin Myth

Issue Date April 2023
Volume 34
Issue 2
Page Numbers 5–18
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Over the past decade, the narrative of competence that Putin established during his first two presidential terms was steadily undermined as the quality of governance worsened. Since 2012, the regime has gradually been relying less on persuasion and more on generating fear in its population—a trend that has accelerated in the face of Russian military failures in Ukraine. That ill-fated war now risks the complete annihilation of the myth of autocratic competence. The Russian example demonstrates the importance of identifying and analyzing changes in the quality of autocracies, and calls for a better understanding of why autocracies become more reliant on violent repression than on spinning an informational narrative of legitimacy and competence.

If Ukraine has become the beachhead for global democracy, then Russia is the vanguard of modern autocracy. During Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power, Russia’s system of government has devolved from open, even fractious politics under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin (1991–99), to a highly repressive, personalistic autocracy that threatens not just its immediate neighbors but increasingly its own citizens. Russia’s war on Ukraine should, of course, be understood first and foremost as an assault on Ukrainians. But it has also decisively ended the liberalization of politics within Russia itself—a process that began under Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–91) before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The authoritarianism that at first developed gradually under Putin and deepened over time has intensified dramatically since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports that Russia suffered “the biggest democratic decline of any country in the world” in 2022, tumbling 22 places to the rank of 146th (just ahead of Venezuela) out of 167 countries on the EIU’s Global Democracy Index.1 What led to the deepening of authoritarianism in Russia, and why has the war in Ukraine dramatically accelerated this trajectory?

Until recently, modern autocracies such as Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, or Xi Jinping’s China were thought to exercise control over their people at least in part by manipulating their beliefs and perceptions about the world: “In place of harsh repressions, the new dictators manipulate information. Like spin doctors in a democracy, they spin the news to engineer support.”2 For a long period in Russia, this practice relieved Putin’s regime from over-reliance on state-sponsored repression (which can be messy, expensive, and less effective) to instill fear and promote passivity in the population.

About the Author

Kathryn Stoner is senior fellow and the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute, professor of political science at Stanford University (by courtesy), and senior fellow (by courtesy) at the Hoover Institution. Her most recent book is Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (2021).

View all work by Kathryn Stoner

The assumption here is that the actual quality of autocratic governance is less important in maintaining the regime than is the manipulation of society’s perceptions of its quality. If the regime can use its control over information to maintain the myth of authoritarian competence (and until about 2008, Putin’s government could back it up with actual increases in Gross Domestic Product [GDP], real incomes, and living standards) and manufacture popular support or at least passivity, then there should be no need to beat its citizens into submission. But the Russian case under Putin shows that persuasion and censorship only go so far when the myth of authoritarian competence runs into the reality of declining competence. Ultimately, an autocrat resorts to re-mixing the balance of spin and fear, in favor of fear, to survive.

Since 2012, as the quality of governance in Russia has declined, the regime has gradually (but steadily) been relying less on persuasion and more on generating fear in its population—a trend that has accelerated in the face of Russian military failures in the last year in Ukraine. Because it is imperative that the Russian people not discover how badly the campaign is going, the Kremlin now requires full censorship of the news. Should word of Russian losses in Ukraine spread and stir popular anger, however, the regime has introduced draconian penalties to deter people from doing anything about it. Activities that were legal a year ago are today punishable with steep fines, jail time, or worse.

The Evolution of Russian Autocracy

A parade of terminology to capture the spirit of “Putinism” has evolved in parallel with changes in the nature of Putin’s regime—from “managed democracy” early in his second presidential term (2004–2008), to “competitive authoritarianism” with a “kleptocratic” political economy, to “personalistic, autocratic, conservative, populism” or simply “dictatorship” after 2012.3 Russia’s political system under Putin clearly did not start out in 2000 as a full-blown repressive autocracy; rather, it hardened over time, and has now solidified into an especially repressive form of authoritarianism as the military’s failures in Ukraine undermine the myth of the regime’s governing competence. The trajectory of Russia’s descent into ever-hardening authoritarianism under Putin was at first stealthy and accomplished through incremental erosion beginning not long after his rise to the presidency in 2000. Measures included increasing the numbers of appointed political offices rather than freely elected ones, gradual curtailment of media freedoms, and replacement of what was already a fragile system of rule of law with a clear rule by law—wielded against wayward oligarchs in the early 2000s and then opposition figures with increased brutality over time.

Political and economic liberalization programs rebounded somewhat after 2008, when Putin traded the presidency for the prime minister’s office with the loyal (and now maniacally nationalist) Dmitri Medvedev. But after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, civil liberties, tolerance of opposition politics in all but the narrowest of terms, restrictions on independent media, and strict oversight of courts all resumed with greater intensity. The assault on the liberal opposition accelerated dramatically in January 2021 with the jailing of Alexei Navalny, subsequent crackdowns on public antiregime demonstrations, and ultimately, by December of that year, the closure of Russia’s oldest human-rights group, Memorial, founded in 1987 during Gorbachev’s perestroika campaign.4 In the weeks and months that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, virtually all independent Russian media sources closed or moved into exile when their leaderships faced certain arrest. The state levied heavy fines and then jailed anyone who criticized the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Russian civil society was largely crushed, with fourteen-thousand protesters rumored to have been arrested in the weeks after the invasion began. In short, the modernizing and liberalizing experiment that was seeded by Gorbachev, and that sprouted under Yeltsin, withered, and has now died under Putin. Who or what is to blame?

Historians tell us that we should not be surprised that Russia has reverted to a repressive autocracy, and that it is not the result of poor governance but of the poor soil in which the seeds of democracy had been sown. Given Russia’s inexperience with liberalism, plus its late industrialization and seven decades of communism, we should ask not why its transition toward more liberalized politics failed but why we ever expected it to succeed in the first place. Statistically, as Barbara Geddes and her coauthors have noted, most autocracies transition to different forms of autocracy rather than to representative, accountable government.5

Yet there have been exceptions (South Korea and Taiwan, for example). And Russia after the Soviet collapse had many of the ingredients thought to be important for economic and political development, which theoretically should have given it reasonable odds of success. In 1992, as the reform era dawned under Yeltsin, elite politics were competitive and politicians seemed committed to the processes and institutions of representative government, especially following the 1993 reformulation of the political system in a new constitution.

In terms of social readiness for change, Russia has long had a comparatively well-educated populace and a mobilized citizenry, which over the years has taken to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest government policies. In 1997, Russia’s GDP rose for the first time since 1991, and by 2008, the country was above the threshold generally thought necessary for a transition to open government. Moreover, just as Seymour Martin Lipset’s modernization theory would have predicted, it was Russia’s new middle class that demonstrated en masse in 2011 and 2012 against Putin’s return to the presidency. And it has been the middle class that has returned to the streets time and again to speak out against corruption, the removal of elected public officials without due process, and policy changes such as a proposed increase in the pension age and reductions in social benefits.

Indeed, it was still possible to protest in fairly high numbers as recently as January 2021, when tens of thousands of Russians demonstrated against Navalny’s imprisonment, and even later in late February and early March 2022 when people poured into the streets to denounce the invasion of Ukraine. In response, Putin ramped up repression against both elite and social opposition rather than retreating or softening his policies—contrary to the expectations of some analysts that he would be constrained from attempting radical policy changes (such as a full-scale invasion of Ukraine), perhaps indicating that Putin is not such a “weak” strongman after all.6

Another common explanation offered by political scientists is Russia’s reliance on its oil-fueled economy. Indeed Russia’s abundant natural resources increased in value dramatically in the early-to-mid 2000s, and the country’s economy grew rapidly. Yet we cannot blame deepening autocratization under Putin on the resource curse.7 While Russia’s economic bottom line clearly benefited from oil and gas booms, the economic windfall from the sale of these natural-resource endowments did not (on its own at least) curse its political trajectory. Avoiding some of the traditional pathologies of the resource curse (high debt relative to GDP, for example), Russia’s oil and gas revenues were directed into a national wealth fund to smooth the inevitable boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas prices on international markets. Similarly, because Russia inherited a real manufacturing base from the Soviet period—one that was privatized, largely reformed, and even profitable in many sectors—the country avoided a bad case of “Dutch disease” (when growth in natural resources causes decline in other sectors).

Although Russia did not produce high-quality consumer goods, it did make things such as high-tech weapons, heavy industrial machinery, and aluminum, for example. The country also did not suffer from massive unemployment and had a reformed and productive agricultural sector (in contrast to Soviet-era agriculture). By 2017, Russia had become the world’s leading wheat exporter and a leading producer of fertilizer—crucial to global agricultural output. Even under harsh sanctions in 2014, high levels of grand corruption, and robust crony capitalism, the Russian economy continued to limp forward, although never matching the high growth rates of 2003 to 2008, despite rising oil prices. But even if Russia escaped the resource curse, political development requires more than just economic growth and an educated and mobilized society. Although those variables can certainly help, they are unfortunately no guarantee of political liberalization or a transition to democracy.

Beyond domestic socioeconomic variables, perhaps external factors have contributed to Russia’s descent into ever-deepening autocracy. Was Russia under Putin a leader or a follower in the global transition toward authoritarianism that began around 2006?8 Certainly, it was not immune to the international factors which helped to reverse the “third wave” of democratization that began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and swept eastward after the collapse of communism. Factors including the 2008 global economic crisis, the ill-fated U.S. war in Iraq, and the growing political polarization and embrace of the far right in the United States and Europe have damaged the attractiveness of Western models of democratic, tolerant, and pluralist societies. Nevertheless, by the time Donald Trump entered the Oval Office in 2016, Russia under Vladimir Putin had already turned decisively away from the path of political liberalization.

Some analysts might point instead to a lack of international support for Russia’s transition from communism in the 1990s. There was, after all, no corollary to the Marshall Plan (which had aided German and West European recovery after World War II) for Russia and the other former communist states at the end of the Cold War. But the parallels between Russia in the 1990s and the reconstruction of Germany after the defeat of Hitler are rough at best. Post–Cold War Russia arose out of the embers of communism—a system of government and economics that had fundamentally failed.

Communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the fifteen states of the former Soviet Union (including Russia) were not pounded into submission and postwar occupation; they were replaced in many cases by their own citizens through open elections and elite coups. The political and economic systems of these states were not reconfigured under harsh treaty terms imposed by the victors of a world war. Nor was Russia stripped of its military power as Weimar Germany (another popular comparison) had been after the First World War. Russia was not burdened with a heavy debt load imposed by the Cold War victors—indeed some of its debts were forgiven and most were paid off by the early 2010s, if not before, because its economy was booming. In the five years preceding the 2008 global economic crash, Russia’s GDP had grown at an annual rate of about 7 percent—not exactly the scenario of either interwar or postwar Germany.

Finally, some analysts will point to Putin’s time in the KGB to argue that Russia’s descent into autocracy was inevitable under a leader with a professional pedigree in Cold War espionage.9 This perspective overlooks Putin’s early years as president, however. He did not always identify the liberal West as the enemy or use it to justify repression at home. Indeed, Putin was among the first international leaders to call then–U.S. president George W. Bush on 9/11 and express his condolences.10 Putin also pledged to work with the United States on global terrorism. And there were periods of close cooperation between Russia, the United States, and the European Union throughout the 2000s. Later, under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, while Putin was serving as prime minister and therefore aware and presumably approving of the policy, Russia allowed the United States to get troops and supplies into Afghanistan through Russian territory via the Northern Distribution Network. In addition, Russia and the United States signed the New START nuclear-arms–control agreement in 2010 (and extended it in 2021), and Germany, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program in 2015.

This is far from an exhaustive list of areas in which the United States and Russia had been collaborating up through the early years of Putin’s third presidential term. It is, however, sufficient to demonstrate that Putin’s approach to the West was not always adversarial and that he evidently did not always believe—despite his KGB background—that liberal democracy and cooperation with the West was bad for Russia. Again, the descent into highly repressive, illiberal, and anti-Western autocracy was not immediate or linear—it happened in stages and then rapidly accelerated in 2021, plunging off a precipice in 2022 after the invasion of Ukraine.

The Myth of Authoritarian Competence

If none of these oft-repeated arguments satisfactorily explains Russia’s deepening autocracy, what does? Vladimir Putin entered the presidency in 2000 promising to restore social, political, and economic order after the difficult decade of reform that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Promising a “dictatorship of law,” Putin’s initial emphasis was on rebuilding Russian state capacity and governing competence. According to Adam Przeworski, this was to some degree a response to popular demand and acceptance for a time—“any order is better than disorder.”11 Aleksandar Matovski has convincingly argued that a majority of Russians have consistently expressed clear preferences for order and stability.12 But is that what Putin’s regime provided, and does the war in Ukraine further undermine public faith in its basic competence?

To understand why many Russians in the early 2000s might have been willing to tolerate a competent (although still relatively soft) autocracy, it is useful to recall that immediately following the Soviet collapse, the government of Boris Yeltsin faced an extraordinarily full policy agenda. The hangover from seventy years of communism and five years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s halting reform efforts left the new government to deal with a budget deficit that was conservatively estimated at a fifth of Gross National Product, the threat of hyperinflation, the deepest man-made recession outside of wartime, chronic shortages throughout the economy, virtually no foreign reserves, and growing international loan commitments. The new Russian state faced the realistic threat of famine and bankruptcy.13

At the same time, Yeltsin had to build the institutional framework of a market economy—including undertaking a massive privatization of property and enterprises; creating stock, insurance, and real estate markets; a convertible ruble; and a regulatory framework that would protect consumers, property rights, and transactions in the new market environment. Yeltsin lacked a cooperative set of political partners in Russia’s Supreme Soviet, which he disbanded with tanks in 1993. His government wrote a new constitution under extreme duress, and even then the “loyal opposition” that he would face in the newly created Duma was dominated by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation—hardly willing collaborators in his efforts to establish a more open political and economic system. The social tumult that ensued was predictable perhaps, but not inevitable.

In the decade that followed, however, Russia traveled a long way down the road of economic and social modernization. Despite Putin’s growing propensity to use public assets for his own personal gain and that of his cronies, Russia’s economy improved. With good macroeconomic policy, a smart and surprisingly independent central bank chairwoman, and the aid of high global prices for its exports, by the time of the 2022 invasion Russia had paid off its inherited debts, built up sizeable foreign reserves, and for the most part maintained a budget surplus.

Yet the picture had been getting darker in the years leading up to the invasion. Real wages were dropping, inequality was rising, and foreign investment had fallen to levels not seen since 2003. To be sure, the covid-19 pandemic played some part in this, but so had years of kleptocratic, cronyistic governance.14 Still, Russians were living far longer and far better than they had at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, even if not as well as people in most other postcommunist countries.15 At purchasing power parity, Russian GDP per capita peaked in 2019 at US$29,967, just below Poland and Portugal, but in the face of the sanctions imposed by the United States and European allies following the Crimean annexation in 2014, Russia’s annualized economic growth was an unimpressive 2.1 percent.16 The growth bubble that had buoyed Putin’s public approval ratings in his early years in power, and engendered the myth of competence, had long since popped.

Changing the Narrative

Over time, the narrative of competence that Putin had established during his first two presidential terms was steadily undermined as the quality of governance worsened. While Russian elites (including, of course, Putin himself) became wealthier through using public assets for private gain, most hard-working Russians did not. Despite some deft macroeconomic policymaking in 2009 that prevented the 2008–2009 global recession from hitting the economy even harder, no longer would Russians enjoy the doubling or tripling of real incomes that they had experienced earlier. Indeed, real incomes in Russia steadily shrank between 2009 and 2022.

Without strong economic performance to support the myth of autocratic competence, the Kremlin launched a new phase of increased social repression soon after Putin’s third presidential term began in 2012. As his public approval ratings fell, the Kremlin introduced more mechanisms of repression. These included amendments to laws regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), requiring those accepting money from abroad and deemed to be involved in political activities to re-register with the Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents”—a politically charged term from the Soviet era associated in Russia with espionage. Since there were few alternative funding sources for many Russian NGOs, especially those focused on protecting human rights and freedoms from abuse by the state, this would effectively mean closure.

Second, the rule of law came down hard on protesters who had lawfully demonstrated in May 2012 to oppose Putin’s reelection. Accused of inciting violence, many young people who had themselves been victims of police brutality, were given long jail sentences. To make organizing harder, authorities frequently jailed the leaders of Russia’s relatively small liberal opposition, even when they were legally demonstrating against the regime’s policies.

Third, and important for understanding the acceleration and deepening of Putin’s autocracy, after 2012 the regime sought to demobilize liberal-leaning elements of Russian society. In addition to increased social control and open repression, the regime’s power would be bolstered by a new legitimacy story—one that would lean on the historical mythology of a great Russia that, as in centuries past, was once again under siege by a powerful enemy bent on destroying the Russian nation: “the West.” Married to this national narrative was an appeal to Orthodox nationalist sentiments to protect Russian society from an overly socially permissive, hetero-hostile, liberal “other.” Although there is little evidence that Putin is much of a believer himself, as M. Steven Fish has noted, Putin “welcome[s] the opportunity to champion traditional morality, backed by religious leaders, whom [he] de facto appoints, bankrolls, and tasks with bolstering his moral legitimacy as well as his claim of embodying the national spirit.”17

The new regime-legitimacy story cast the anti-Putin street demonstrations of 2011–12 as the result of malign foreign influences rather than true expressions of discontent from “real” Russians. Liberal ideas and demands for free and fair elections, the story went, were not indigenous to the Russian nation but rather evil imports from “the West.” In addition to identifying “foreign agents” within Russian institutions themselves, U.S. and European organizations that were engaged in economic or political development in Russia (including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Open Society Foundation) were now deemed “undesirable” and prohibited from operating in Russia.

The 2011–12 protests spurred another change in the regime’s strategy: a move to actively marshal and cajole segments of Russian society in favor of Putin’s rule while demobilizing those against it. Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson demonstrate that Putin’s strategists aimed to grind down support for any elements of opposition through the exploitation and activation of existing social “wedge” issues in Russian society—namely, religion and gay rights. The so-called Pussy Riot affair exemplifies this strategy.18 In February 2012, the then unknown female punk trio Pussy Riot performed an anti-Putin “prayer” (lasting about thirty seconds) on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow. The women were quickly convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison camps. The real consequence of the incident, however, was the startling amount of national press coverage that it received—especially on state-owned television networks, the preferred news source of most Russians. Public opinion quickly consolidated around the view that the performance was blasphemous and insulting to the Russian Orthodox Church. Media coverage of the trial was unrelenting as “the goal was to ensure that as many Russians as possible felt personally offended by what Pussy Riot had done.”19

Soon, the Duma passed a law “on the protection of feelings of religious believers.” Popular support for this law as well as one that prohibited showing children positive images of the “gay lifestyle,” which the Duma passed not long after, would serve to separate anti-Putin segments of society from a base of loyalists with more traditional values. According to a 2013 Pew Research Survey, 74 percent of Russians thought that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Thus, in adopting laws that denigrated homosexuality, the regime was using the issue to erode support for pluralism more generally. Greene and Robertson argue that the use of religion and sexuality “as wedge issues did exactly what it was designed to do: it widened the ideological divide between the pro-Putin majority and the oppositional minority in the country.”20

Putin, a divorced man with children by as many as three different women, emerged as the champion of traditional family values within Russia, and then globally. He presented Russian national identity as distinctively illiberal, socially conservative, and non–“Anglo-Saxon,” in conscious contrast to the United States and the United Kingdom. Beginning in 2012, the government used the imaginary attack on Russian culture by the liberal West to justify assaulting civil liberties and opposition forces in order to root out foreign influence and all forms of support for representative democracy. Russia made the same claim as part of its rationale for seizing Crimea in 2014—that hostile foreign forces were taking over Ukraine as it ousted Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych. Elections became so controlled that in the autumn of 2021, even the Communists—for twenty years a loyal opposition to Putin—complained of widespread fraud. And the media became more circumscribed, tasked mainly with supporting the narrative of the enemy at the gates of Russia and within.

Putin’s ill-fated war in Ukraine risks the complete annihilation of the myth of autocratic competence. Rather than quickly taking Kyiv and installing a puppet regime, the Russian military has been mired in a fierce conflict for more than a year. Russian forces are estimated to have suffered as many as 200,000 killed, missing, and wounded combined so far (more than all U.S. casualties during its twenty years in Afghanistan), with one estimate suggesting that 65,000 Russian fighters have been killed since February 2022. If accurate, this would exceed the combined the number of losses (both dead and missing) from the Soviet Union’s ill-fated Afghan War (1979–89), Russia’s Chechen wars (1994–96 and 1999–2009), and the eight years of Russian military action in the Donbas from 2014 to February 2022.21

Russia’s economy is in recession, and after twelve months of war its budget deficit in January 2023 was fourteen times higher than it had been the previous year. The Finance Ministry reported 2022 budget revenues to be 35 percent lower than in 2021. And in January 2023, oil and gas revenues were down 46 percent from a year earlier.22 Russia is experiencing shortages of consumer goods as imports were estimated to have fallen 16 percent by the end of 2022; vehicle sales were 63.1 percent lower in January 2023 than in January 2022; and annualized inflation for 2022 was 13.7 percent, more than double than in 2021.23

Russians have become international pariahs in much of the West. The entire generation of those under thirty—who never experienced communism and were never prohibited from traveling anywhere at any time—is now essentially imprisoned behind a glass wall, looking out at a world where they no longer are welcome. A lucky few (perhaps as many as one million) have fled to Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and elsewhere to avoid being sent to prison for dissent or avoiding forced conscription into a corrupt Russian military, where poor training and insufficient supplies await.

With his former myth of competence so seriously undermined, Putin has now had to resort to an increased use of fear and force to ensure the compliance of Russian society. The country’s new ideology, now enshrined into Russian law, is “traditional values.” This seems to mean illiberalism and repression of anyone who might disagree.24 Should that fail to keep the Russian masses in line, then rough justice awaits. In the last twelve months, the Russian government has imposed severe penalties for protests as benign as holding up a blank poster on a street in Moscow or Smolensk. Those who dare to articulate any sort of opposition to the “special military operation” in Ukraine (it is still forbidden to call it a war) risk losing their jobs, getting expelled from school or university, and steep fines. Leading members of Russia’s already marginalized liberal opposition, including Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, have already been sentenced to almost a decade in prison camps for openly opposing the war on social media. In July 2022, Moscow city councilor Alexei Gronov was sentenced to seven years in prison for merely criticizing the invasion. In January 2023, the Duma passed more, even harsher laws limiting dissent and opposition.25 These are not signs of a strong and capable autocracy confident that it can convince its people with “spin” alone that everything is fine.

Why Don’t Russians Rebel?

What does all this tell us about the vulnerability of Putin’s regime? While popular approval ratings appear to indicate that he maintains broad social support, it is hard to interpret polls in an autocracy that increasingly governs not by using the media to extol its competence but through fear. In such a context, we might expect preference falsification—saying anything rather than what you really think—to stay out of trouble. Nonetheless, survey data show a rather significant generation gap in support for Putin and for the war.26 We also see some Russians rebelling—protesting openly until the regime’s violent crackdown and voting with their feet by leaving the country.

There is some evidence that Russians are expressing discontent with the regime’s performance in other ways, too. For example, the share of survey respondents who perceived the Russian military to be doing well in Ukraine steadily declined during 2022: In April, 68 percent indicated that the military was successful or very successful. By November 2022, only 54 percent shared that opinion, while 32 percent (the highest proportion published) believed that Russia’s military was rather or very unsuccessful in Ukraine, and 16 percent were unsure (“can’t say”).27 Moreover, the share of survey respondents who favor negotiations with Ukraine dwarfs that of those who favor continued military action (53 percent versus 31 percent in November 2022). Other indicators of popular sentiment, such as people’s general mood, have shifted dramatically in the last twelve months. In September 2022, the Levada Center reported that the share of people professing positive feelings was only slightly higher than those claiming negative feelings (52 percent versus 47 percent)—the lowest since 2000.28 Together, these are all signs of general discontent with how things are going. These changes in attitudes may provide a better sense of the reliability or depth of regime support should things in Ukraine get worse for Russia, and the likely regime response will be to tighten the screws on dissent even further.

The Russian example demonstrates the importance of identifying and analyzing changes in the quality of autocracies. It calls for a better understanding of why autocracies become more reliant on violent repression than on spinning an informational narrative of legitimacy and competence. During Putin’s long tenure, poor governance has become pervasive, and the Russian autocracy has deepened. Now, Russia’s flailing effort to take over Ukraine, which Putin has described as an “imaginary country,” is laying bare the myth of autocratic competence. In its absence, the regime has grown more desperate and repressive.


1. “The World’s Most, and Least, Democratic Countries in 2022,” 1 February 2023,

2. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022), 4.

3. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); M. Steven Fish, “What Has Russia Become?” Comparative Politics 50 (April 2018): 327–46; Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2014); Samuel A. Greene and Graeme B. Robertson, Putin v. The People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019); Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016); Andrei P. Tsygankov, “The Managed Democracy” ch. 10 in The Strong State in Russia: Development and Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Brian D. Taylor, The Code of Putinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

4. Gorbachev himself publicly appealed to the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General to withdraw the lawsuit that would liquidate Memorial on 18 November 2021, see shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on documenting human-rights abuses in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Gorbachev himself was awarded the prize in 1990.

5. Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, “Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (June 2014): 313–31.

6. Timothy Frye, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

7. See Thane Gustafson, Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

8. Larry Diamond, “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession,” Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015): 141–55.

9. See, for example, Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2020).

10. Angela Stent, Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest (New York: Twelve, 2019).

11. Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 86.

12. Aleksandar Matovski, Popular Dictatorships: Crises, Mass Opinion and the Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

13. See David Lipton and Jeffrey D. Sachs, “Russia’s Prospects for Economic Reforms,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity,  2 (1992), 220; and Anders Åslund, Russia’s Capitalist Revolution: Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2007), 91.

14. These data are from the World Bank,

15.  See refer to the United Nations Human Development Index for relative development values for 189 countries in the world in 2020, available at In 2020, Russia’s HDI ranked below those of the Czech Republic, Croatia, Montenegro, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Kazakhstan. With an HDI value of 0.824 in 2020, it was just ranked 52nd overall, just above Belarus at 53 and Bulgaria at 56.

16. See average annual oil prices for brent crude oil from 1976–2022.

17. Fish, “What Has Russia Become?” 329–30.

18. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, “The Pussy Riot Affair and Putin’s Démarche from Sovereign Democracy to Sovereign Morality,” Nationalities Papers 42 (July 2014): 615–21.

19. Greene and Robertson, Putin v. The People, See also Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva, “Looking Beyond the Economy: Pussy Riot and the Kremlin’s Voting Coalition,” Post-Soviet Affairs 30, no. 4 (2014): 257–75.

20. Greene and Robertson, Putin v. The People, See also Katie Riley, “Russia’s Anti-Gay Law in Line with Public’s Views of Homosexuality,” Pew Research Center, 5 August 2013,; and Valerie Sperling, Sex, Politics and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

21. “How Many Russians Have Been Killed in Ukraine?” Economist,8 March 2023, that the numbers cited by the Economist are from a report by Seth Jones, Rile McCabe, and Alexander Palmer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, dated 27 February 2023:

22. See “Russia’s January Budget Deficit Estimated at 1.76 Trillion Rubles, 60 Percent of Plan—Finance Ministry,” Interfax, 6 February 2023,

23. The Russian State Statistical Agency stopped publishing much of its trade data in 2022, but the Institute of International Finance, among others, have provided estimates based on Russian Central Bank reports. This import statistic comes from “Macro Notes—China Steps in to Supply Russia,” 1 February 2023. On the Russian car industry collapse, see Association of European Businesses, press release, 6 February 2023, For Russia’s monthly and historical inflation rates, see International Monetary Fund,

24. Izvestiia,9 November 2022.

25. “Russia: War’s Supersized Repression,” Human Rights Watch, 12 January 2023, available at

26. See Levada Center data for December 2022, which indicate Putin’s approval rating was 81 percent:;and on the conflict with Ukraine, see November 2022 data (most recent published at the time of this writing):




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