Duma-ing it Down

Russia’s parliamentary elections were on Sunday, and though you might be thinking, “Why do I give a shit about parliamentary elections in Russia?” they actually speak loudly to a number of issues in Russia, including corruption and current political climate, as well as Russia’s place in the world (i.e. with respect to you).  I don’t want to exaggerate, but what happened in Russia on Sunday changes everything, and that includes you.

Before we get into what happened on Sunday, a little background on politics in Russia at this point (I’ll try to be brief).  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the economy was terrible.  Soul-crushingly, suicide-inducingly terrible.  Boris Yeltsin was not effective in turning things around, and this is when Vladimir Putin entered the scene.

Before we get into Putin, a little background on the history of politics in Russia (seriously, I will be brief).  Russia has a long history of great-and-terrible leaders, revered and reviled and revered and reviled in a confusing love-hate cycle.  The Tsar Ivan IV is known as Ivan the Terrible in English, which is a direct sort-of translation from his Russian nickname, Ivan Grozny, which certainly means terrible but in a “formidable, awe-inspiring” sort of way.  He did amazing things for Russia, politically, geographically, and socially, establishing Russia as a world power.  He also oversaw the killing of perhaps 60,000 inhabitants of Novgorod and accidentally on purpose but accidentally murdered his son.

Pictured: Ivan accidentally on-purpose accidentally murdering his son. Ivan the Terrible And His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581 by Ilya Repin, 1885 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)


Wikipedia puts it quite well when it says that “historians developed different theories to better understand his reign, but independent of the perspective through which one chooses to approach this, it cannot be denied that Ivan the Terrible changed Russian history and continues to live on in popular imagination.”  He was terrible, and great, and this model proved to be quite popular in Russia.  As a matter of fact, you can take that sentence and change “Ivan the Terrible” for any number of tsars, comrades, and presidents, and it remains true.

One more example of the great-and-terrible figure: Joseph Stalin.  If you don’t know anything about Stalin, let me tell you unequivocally: he was terrible.  Really, really monumentally terrible.  When he spoke, his standing ovations were long and enthusiastic, because nobody wanted to be the first to sit down.  He purged (read: murdered) the vast majority of those near to him so as to maintain power.  He orchestrated famines in Ukraine where  somewhere between 3 million and 10 million people starved to death in a year.  At the same time, his 5-year-plans rocketed the country forward economically, and it was under Stalin that the USSR was transformed once again into a world power.

Do you see a pattern emerging?

Putin became president in 2000, and his effect on the economy was staggering.  Some of his achievements: the GDP increased by 600%, real incomes doubled, and he increased the size of the middle class from 8 million people to 55 million.

There’s more, but I think the best way to illustrate this is the following chart:

Pictured: Seriously. Look at the fucking chart. (From)


He has done some really awful things, as well.  His human rights record is abysmal, and journalists who are anti-Putin keep dying mysteriously.  Amnesty International’s current report of Russia says:

Human rights defenders and independent journalists continued to face threats, harassment and attacks, and investigations yielded few concrete results. Freedom of assembly and expression continued to come under attack, including through the banning of demonstrations, their violent dispersal and the prosecution of individuals under anti-extremism legislation. The security situation in the North Caucasus remained volatile. Attacks by armed groups and persistent human rights violations, including killings, enforced disappearances and torture, continued to affect the region. Across Russia, there were frequent reports of torture and other ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.

Not good.  Terrible, even.

And his popularity hovers around 80%.

Putin was president from 2000-2008.  The Russian constitution forbids anybody being president for more than two terms in a row, so he pointed to Dmitri Medvedev as his successor, and has recently announced (to the shock of nobody) that he will be running again now that Medvedev’s term is almost up.  There will be an “election,” and he will “win.”  Actually, there will be an election, and he will win.  People are willing to let a lot of things slip if a leader so explosively turns around the economy.  Especially Russian people, for whom this Dr. Chuck Norris/Mr. Joseph Stalin routine is almost a cliché.

So what does any of this have to do with Sunday’s elections?

On Sunday, the Duma (the parliament) was elected.  It was A Big Deal.  Not the Big Deal that the presidential election next spring will be, but A Big Deal nonetheless.  Putin’s party, United Russia, was polling at about 41%, according to non-partisan polls.  It was supposed to win 64%, in order to maintain its power.  United Russia actually won about 50% of the vote.  

This is mind-blowingly shocking.

It is shocking because it is such a huge loss for United Russia. With only 50% of the seats, they can’t just change the constitution willy-nilly.

It is shocking because that number is almost certainly inflated.  Reports abound: ballot stuffing, observers being blocked from entering polling stations, an attack on the independent election monitoring group’s website, people voting more than once, etc. etc. etc. Nobody expected the election to be clean.

It is shocking because there are credible reports that employers and schools were pressuring employees and students to vote for United Russia.  Even if every ballot was counted correctly and nobody cheated, the pressure to vote a certain way probably resulted in more actual votes for United Russia.

It is shocking because conventional wisdom says that Putin is king, and what he says goes.  He said that his party should win, and instead, it lost a significant number of seats.  Despite almost certainly using dirty tactics.

So what does this mean to you?  Putin as the leader of Russia is a symbol of macho strength, a man who will wrestle a tiger with his bare hands, shirtless, while wearing sunglasses and maintaining the cool of an ex-KGB officer.  He is a symbol of a country that will play by its own rules, disregarding the wishes of outsiders, acting in its own self-interest and always, always, always strong.

And Putin will still almost certainly win in the 2012 presidential election.  But the fact that his party has lost so much ground in this election, and probably should have lost even more, is hugely significant.  The people of Russia are looking at the figure of a great and terrible leader, and they aren’t sure that’s who they want in charge anymore.  The Russia of Saturday afternoon is an entirely different place than the Russia of Monday morning.  One-eighth of the world’s inhabitable land has gone through a huge change.  This means that you have, too, even if you didn’t notice it.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

7 replies on “Duma-ing it Down”

I really think this election demonstrates a malaise more than a crisis. The Levada polls show some serious voter fatigue (use Chrome and translate) There is no serious liberal opposition in Russia. Yabloko is a joke. The far right nationalist parties have a cadre of very dedicated, very scary devotees, but the historical Russian identity is actually much more expansive than one might guess. The skinheads will never capture more Duma seats than you can count on your fingers.

It is also important to remember the primacy of current domestic politics in the minds of voters. This historical context is great for the American reader, but Russians are not thinking of Repin* portraits when they go to the polls. They’re also not thinking about foreign policy.They are thinking of the chart you pictured. As a BRIC country and new WTO member the growth of the Russian economy could realistically outpace the Western world for a few more years, but 2003-2007 growth will not be seen again. Given that, it is not surprising that enthusiasm for Putin will dampen.

This is kind of a personal pet peeve, but why do all articles about Russia have to include shaming them for their not free enough press, and then later in the article reference citizen reporting done in Russia? Usually through mobile technology? Like all the reports/videos of manipulations at the polls? Don’t get me wrong, I would love a less controlled Russian media, especially TV, but Russians aren’t dumb and the internet exists (Russians are major internet users!) so why is this the number one OMG Russia is Terrible thing instead of the erosion of the social safety net or homelessness or drug use or environmental degradation or the terrible health care? Probably because the US has all those same problems and a(n allegedly!) free press.

*Imma let you finish (actually I won’t) but Repin is the greatest painter of ALL TIME.


I’m confused by the link you posted – I might be missing it, but where is it talking about malaise?

And the historical Russian identity IS expansive.  The “Russian Soul,” which is touted by many as key to their Russianness, was created to encourage the people of a huge and incredibly diverse country to believe that they all belonged together.  The thing is, though, it (whatever “it” is) is a wildly popular idea, even though the Russian Soul means different things to different people.  I guess what I’m saying is that the identity is expansive, but for many Russians, their Russianness is primary to their identity, and their shared history is tied up with that.

And I disagree that Russians are not thinking historically.  Putin has basically re-written history to show Stalin as a strict leader who did great things instead of the horrible, horrible, horrible man that he was.  This is my opinion, but I believe that Russians have a stronger sense of history than Americans do.

And yes – people are thinking about the economy.  When Putin was last in charge, the economy was growing wildly.  And while everybody believes that Medvedev is nothing but a figurehead, he still has been at the helm, and for a lot of people, Putin coming back into power symbolizes a return to that growth.  It will, of course, wane, but many are eager for Putin to jump back in charge.

Which is why I think this is more of a big deal than it seems: Putin is popular, as a leader and as a person.  His party did employ dirty tactics in this election, including pressure for legitimate votes and ballot-stuffing, and yet they lost a significant number of seats.  Malaise would have shown itself with people buckling to pressure and voting for Putin’s party – that is certainly the path of least resistance.  But even with the inflated numbers, he still suffered a huge lost.  That says a lot about what is going on in people’s minds.  In my opinion.

As to your pet peeve – I guess journalists are highlighted because they are pretty illustrative of what is happening.  I tried to highlight other aspects of the situation using Amnesty International’s report as well, and as far as citizen journalists go, one of my friends was an international observer for the elections, which is why I find the reports to be believable personally.  Not to mention having witnessed (informally) several elections myself and being familiar with the tactics employed.  Russian citizens aren’t dumb, and they do use the internet, absolutely.  But as I was putting together a presentation once about the shady goings-on in the Russian media, a Russian friend of mine urged me not to do it, even though it was a presentation for 30 people in the midwest.  There are repercussions for being too outspoken, and the citizen journalists are taking risks.  How this will change with the rise of social media and, more importantly, easily accessible networks on which to spread information remains to be seen.

And you don’t even need to let me finish, because seriously.  Repin.

Maybe malaise isn’t the right word? Maybe resign-ed-ness? I think the polls I liked to show a distinct level of disinterest. Russians don’t know how the feel about the tandem (41% “hard to say”) and they are not jazzed about any other candidate. Some Russians might be eager for Putin to jump back in control, but was there ever really a feeling he had totally turned over the reigns? His image isn’t as sterling as it once was.

There also isn’t any kind of rally-round-the-flag outside pressure so the domestic situation rules. Which is fine, and United Russia’s victory is routine by now, plus people are becoming increasingly concerned/aware of corruption. Russians are voting reluctantly for United Russia or they’re just not voting – that is the real path of least resistance, not buckling down. At least that is my read of the situation/poll numbers and why I wasn’t as surprised by the results of the recent elections.

Even though Putin’s poll numbers are high, he is still mortal. The country has changed so much since he first came on the scene, and though I guess some would say that is exactly why Russians should keep voting for him, they are not all going to buy it. Especially young voters who never knew the true hardship of the 1990s (aside – did you see the voting is sexy “let’s do it together” ads?!) Putin and his party will have to be at least a little different, and they will certainly have to keep the economic growth going. If that can happen then I think his stratospheric approval will return. Adapt or die.

My real question is: where is the legitimate opposition? Will we ever see sustained multiparty discourse? My gut is yes – in about 30 years. Mostly due to some of the historical/ free discourse things we have already discussed. But who knows! That is why I keep following Russian politics!

Repin + more Russian soul imagery = Sadko. I die. He is the best.

Aha – I see where our differences lie (I think) – you see the election results as a sort of standard victory for United Russia – they got 50% of the vote, people either voted for them or not at all, the path of least resistance is to not vote.

Which I agree with – the path of least resistance being not voting.  But that is not how I read the numbers, not at ALL.  I see this as a resounding, shocking defeat for United Russia.  They should have taken 64% of the house.  They should have.  If they weren’t going to legitimately, there should have been enough cheating and corruption to ensure it.

Instead, even WITH underhanded tactics, even WITH pressure from places that shouldn’t be able to pressure you, even WITH Putin’s popularity in general, they lost 14% of the parliament.  That should not have been allowed.  I can’t imagine a world in which Putin et. al. would allow it.  What this says to me is that the actual numbers, the actual votes from the people, were WAY below what was expected.  Either Putin has decided to play fair (I cannot believe this), or the people did turn out to vote, and voted against him, and the legitimate opposition you dream of is actually in the air.  It won’t turn into something tangible right away, but to me, this is the canary in the coal mine for Putin.

Which just blows my mind.  This reads to me like the 1905 revolution in Russia – the prelude to the big show.

Thanks, a lot, for your comments.  I was thinking about it all the way home, and it is interesting to see your perspective.

Also: if you like Russian politics, might I suggest Ukrainian politics?  They’re like Russian politics’ meth-addicted little brother.

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