In the past two or three months, the Kremlin has suppressed all organized opposition and outlawed most political speech. Apparently terrified that the regime’s growing unpopularity would translate into a humiliating defeat at the Duma election in September 2021, Putin’s team has passed laws effectively barring all of the Kremlin’s active critics from running for elected office. The Kremlin has also intimidated opposition activists by persecuting them, along with randomly chosen malcontents, through the puppet judiciary.
But all things must end, and so one day will Putin’s rule. In 2014, one of Putin’s lieutenants proclaimed, “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” In all likelihood, he only sought to reiterate his unconditional allegiance to the boss, but the literal meaning of his claim refuses to melt away into the air. In 2015, Stratfor forecast that Russia would not survive as a unified state to 2025:
There will not be an uprising against Moscow, but Moscow’s withering ability to support and control the Russian Federation will leave a vacuum. What will exist in this vacuum will be the individual fragments of the Russian Federation.
If this sounds too grim or unrealistic, I would offer a different angle. This regime is going to leave a vacuum in its wake in more areas than power politics. An irreversible depreciation of human and social capital is how I would put the problem in semi-learned language. Once Putinism has run its course, the Russians – on average – will emerge out of its shadow not only poorer and older but also worse educated, less healthy and barely capable of forming horizontal connections with each other. A propagandist would probably put it more bluntly: “stupid, sick, suspicious of your own family and a sucker for charlatans.”
“On average,” I say: the gap between the educated and healthy – on the one hand – and the rest may grow so wide and deep as to make meaningful dialogue impossible. Russia may never recover from this dictatorship and accordingly find itself unable to maintain its status even as a regional power. The timing of this diminution is still unclear, and merely contemplating Russia’s path to smallness could paralyze the mind with horror. But even timid souls would agree that political regimes that persist by cannibalizing their countries’ future are essentially bubbles, and all bubbles deflate or burst in the end.