In their book The Light That Failed, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes tell a story that they attribute to Gleb Pavlovsky. He is a Russian “political technologist” who aided both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in achieving and holding on to political power. Pavlovsky recounts interviewing voters in the period leading up to the 1996 elections in Russia. One woman told him that she supported Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate, but she was going to vote for Yeltsin. When Pavlovsky asked why, she replied, “When Zyuganov is president, I will vote for him.”
Krastev and Holmes conclude from this that, in Russia, “popularity” of the kind Vladimir Putin enjoys “is a consequence, not a cause, of the power one wields,” and that elections there, “instead of representing people’s interests,” simply “register the willingness of voters to submit to incumbents.” Of course, it could be argued that this tendency is not unique to Russia. Incumbents in many countries start with an advantage. But the advantages of being in power and demonstrating that one is exercising power are especially great in Russia because of the country’s recent history. Until the collapse of its empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, followed two years later by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself and its division into some 15 countries, it was one of the world’s two superpowers. Today, Russia ranks far behind China as a power in every respect except in the quantity of nuclear weapons that it possesses. Its economy is only a little larger than that of Spain and is smaller than that of Italy. Yet Vladimir Putin has put up a very good show of exercising power.
He has intervened militarily in such countries as Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, in the latter case with decisive and disastrous effect. He has also intervened in the electoral affairs of a number of countries, including the United States. Whether he was actually able to influence the outcome of any of these elections remains an open question. For many Russians, however, who were dismayed during Yeltsin’s tenure by their country’s loss of territory, population, status, and power, and by their president’s sometimes-clownish behavior, Vladimir Putin has seemed a savior. He may not have significantly improved the lives of large numbers of them. But he has restored their sense of being citizens of a powerful country that plays a major part in world affairs. Many welcome his bare-chested macho exploits, which contribute to the impression that he has restored the country’s standing.
Russia’s political development since the end of the Cold War is central to Krastev and Holmes’s insightful and important book, which examines the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of liberal democracy. Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, and Holmes, a professor of law at New York University, recall the widespread hope and expectation three decades ago that the fall of communism would lead to the global spread of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. At that moment, the outlook for Russia, Hungary, and Poland seemed particularly promising. Yet today, they observe, those countries are leaders in the global rise of populist nationalism, largely eliminating the independence of the judiciary and undermining freedom of the press. What went wrong?