Surkov’s claims to Russian superiority did not pass a test that Russian leaders at that time still held to be relevant: resemblance to, approval from, and rapprochement with Europe. In 2004, three former republics of the Soviet Union—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—joined the European Union, along with several other east European states that had been Soviet satellites. In order to join the European Union, these countries had to demonstrate their sovereignty in specific ways that Russia had not: by creating a market that could bear competition, an administration that could implement EU law, and a democracy that held free and fair elections.
States that joined the European Union had operative principles of succession. Russia did not. Surkov transformed this failure into a claim of superiority by speaking of “sovereign democracy.” In so doing, he conjured away Russia’s problem—that without actual democracy, or at least some succession principle, there was no reason to expect that Russia would endure as a sovereign state. Surkov suggested that “sovereign democracy” was a temporary measure that would allow Russia to find its own way to a certain kind of Western political society. Yet his term was celebrated by extreme nationalists, such as the fascist Alexander Dugin, who understood sovereign democracy as a permanent state of affairs, a politics of eternity. Any attempt to make of Russia an actual democracy could now be prevented, thought Dugin, by reference to sovereignty.
Democracy is a procedure to change rulers. To qualify democracy with an adjective—“people’s democracy” during communism, “sovereign democracy” thereafter—means eliminating that procedure. At first, Surkov gamely tried to have it both ways, claiming to have preserved the institution of democracy by bringing the right person to power: “I would say that in our political culture the personality is the institution.” Ilyin had performed the same trick: he called his redeemer a “democratic dictator” since he supposedly represented the people. Surkov’s pillars of Russian statehood were “centralization, personification, and idealization”: the state must be unified, its authority granted to an individual, and that individual glorified. Citing Ilyin, Surkov concluded that the Russian people should have as much freedom as they were ready to have. Of course, what Ilyin meant by “freedom” was the freedom of the individual to submerge himself in a collectivity that subjugates itself to a leader.
Surkov’s juggling act was possible in the prosperous first decade of the twenty-first century. Between 2000 and 2008, during Putin’s first two terms as president, the Russian economy grew at an average rate of almost 7% per annum. Putin won his war in Chechnya. The government exploited high world market prices of natural gas and oil to distribute some export profits throughout the Russian population. The instability of the Yeltsin order had passed, and many Russians were understandably pleased and grateful. Russia also enjoyed a stable position in foreign affairs. Putin offered NATO Russia’s support after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2002, he spoke favorably of “European culture” and avoided portraying NATO as an adversary. In 2004, Putin spoke in favor of European Union membership for Ukraine, saying that such an outcome would be in Russia’s economic interest. He spoke of the enlargement of the European Union as extending a zone of peace and prosperity to Russia’s borders. In 2008, he attended a NATO summit.
In 2004, Putin was accorded the absolute majority necessary to win the office of president and began a second four-year term. Fraudulent or not, regular elections at least assured Russians that there was a time limit for presidential power. Surely, Russians could imagine, in 2008 some new figure would emerge, as Putin had emerged in 2000. According to the Russian constitution, Putin could not legally run for a third term in 2008, and so instead chose his own successor, the unknown Dmitry Medvedev. Once Medvedev was accorded the office of president, he named Putin prime minister. Under Medvedev, the Russian constitution was changed so that the term of president was extended to six years. Putin would be permitted to run again in 2012 and again in 2018. This was clearly his intention: victory of his party, United Russia, in the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and in all elections thereafter; victory in the presidential elections of March 2012 and then again in March 2018—a total of twenty years in office at least, the establishment of political eternity.
Yet the only mechanism for returning to the office of president in 2012 was the (apparently) democratic election. Putin would have to cheat, as before; but this time, when caught cheating, he would admit the deed. This was Surkov’s identification of the personality with the institution, or Ilyin’s proposition of ritual elections. Because Putin had weakened the mechanism of succession, he would have to insist that Russia did not need one. Killing the political future forced the political present to be eternal; making an eternity of the present required endless crisis and permanent threats.
On December 4, 2011, Russians were asked to grant United Russia a majority in the lower house of the Russian parliament. This was a special moment, since Medvedev, then president, and Putin, then prime minister, had already announced that they intended to switch jobs. Once their party won the parliamentary elections and once Putin won the presidential elections of the coming March, Medvedev would serve Putin as prime minister.
Many Russians found the prospect of eternal Putin unappealing. After the global financial collapse of 2008, Russian growth had slowed. Neither Putin nor Medvedev offered a program that would alter Russia’s dependence upon commodity exports or offer the prospect of social mobility. Thus many Russians saw these elections as the last chance to prevent stagnation, and voted accordingly.
By the reckonings of independent Russian electoral observers, United Russia won about 26% of the vote in the December 4 elections. The party was nevertheless accorded enough votes to control a majority in parliament. Russian and international observers criticized unbalanced media coverage, and physical and digital manipulation of the vote. (Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party and a Holocaust denier, was present as a regime-friendly “observer.” He declared the Russian elections “much fairer than Britain’s.”) On December 5, the protests began. On December 10, some fifty thousand people gathered in Moscow; on December 24, the figure grew to eighty thousand. Russians gathered in ninety-nine cities over the course of the month, in the largest protests in the history of the Russian Federation. The main slogan was “For Free Elections!”
The fakery was repeated during the March 4, 2012, presidential elections. Putin was accorded the majority that he needed to be named president after one round of balloting. This time most of the electoral manipulation was digital rather than manual. Tens of millions of cybervotes were added, diluting the votes cast by human beings, and giving Putin a fictional majority. In some districts, Putin was accorded votes in round numbers, suggesting that targets set by central authorities had been understood literally by local officials. In Chechnya, Putin was accorded 99.8% of the ballots: the figure likely reflected the total control exercised by his Chechen ally Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin received similar tallies in mental hospitals and in other places subject to state control. In Novosibirsk, protestors complained that vote counts totaled 146% of the population. Once again, independent Russian and international observers noted the irregularities. And once again, regime-friendly foreigners from the far Right endorsed the results.