AFTER WINNING THE ELECTION, Yeltsin again began casting about for a successor. The task was now less symbolic and more urgent. The 1993 constitution dictated that his second term would be his last. Though he could easily have made the legal argument that he had first run for office in a different country, this would have gone against his own principles. And in the autumn of 1996 Yeltsin had multiple-bypass heart surgery, which, combined with the enormous battle he had had to wage to remain in office, must have made him aware of his own vulnerability. At the same time, the 1996 presidential election—the first to have been conducted in post-Soviet Russia—did not convey the sense that the country would now be governed by men chosen on their merits by the public. It had the opposite effect, that of showing that the battle for power in Russia was waged between clans, a war in which victory depended on the effectiveness of mobilization on either side.
Gudkov spent much of his time trying to make sense of this effect, and also of the fact that this description could certainly be applied to the functioning of some Western democracies, most notably the United States. The difference lay in the historical contexts. The Russian clans were direct descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura system. In the five years that had passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no new institutions for producing leaders, public politicians, or even government bureaucrats had emerged. If anything, the opposite had happened: younger people, like Gaidar and the members of his cabinet, who had come to government from structures adjacent or tangential to the Party, had been pushed out of government and had mostly gone into private business.1 Old government, Party, and KGB hands had filled the many voids at all levels of the bureaucracy and had resumed their ascent up the power ladder, as though the end of the Soviet Union had caused just a temporary layoff. Among these old faces, there were just a handful of exceptions—a few elected governors and a couple of prominent generals who had gone into politics—and it so happened that Yeltsin disliked most of them.
That left Boris Nemtsov. His designated-successor status had been suspended after his protest against the war in Chechnya, but now that the war had ended, Nemtsov could be restored to favor. Yeltsin’s attitude toward the younger Boris had always been paternal—caring and condescending at the same time—and this made it easier to return Nemtsov to favor. The thirty-seven-year-old Nemtsov was appointed one of two first vice-premiers—the number-three position in the cabinet—and brought to Moscow, with all the media reporting that the appointment was an anointment.
To Zhanna, the move was yet another step in her father’s love affair with himself in politics. After he became governor, he had developed a taste for watching himself on television. When he was on the news—as he often was, being an active and supremely popular governor—the whole family had to watch. He teased Zhanna for loving a soap opera called Santa Barbara: he joked that he could be dying and if Santa Barbara was on she would not notice. This made him sound jealous of a television show, but Zhanna was, even more absurdly, jealous of her father’s infatuation with his own televised likeness. At the end of the year, the local station usually prepared a two-hour year-in-review special that effectively starred Boris Nemtsov, and he would be glued to the set for the entire two hours. To Zhanna, this was what politics now meant: her father’s insatiable taste for himself on the screen. Now this drive was taking the family from the dacha Zhanna loved, from the forest and her bike, to Moscow.
Boris promised that in Moscow they would also live at a dacha in the woods. This was not a lie, but it also was not true. There was a dacha, in an old nomenklatura village, outfitted with dusty, impersonal furniture. Zhanna’s school was in the very center of Moscow, and the drive there, even with a cabinet member’s traffic privileges, felt interminable. The school, which had once been reserved for the Soviet elite, was now inhabited by the children of the new rich, drawn by the school’s reputation for good English-language instruction. The students were the daughters of an aluminum king, a game-show host, a media magnate. Zhanna was thirteen, awkward, and provincial. Her clothes were ordinary, and she knew nothing about luxury brands. She also did not know anything about expensive cars. She did not vacation abroad and had given no thought to a future at some fancy Western school. She did not belong.
After one quarter at the school, Zhanna declared that she was returning to Nizhny Novgorod. Her parents knew better than to argue. Her teacher said, “You are making the biggest mistake of your life.” Whatever glorious future she might be forfeiting, as her teacher implied, Zhanna wanted no part of it. She returned to Nizhny Novgorod, took up residence with her grandmother, and resumed studies at her old school.
Back in Moscow, her father was experiencing frustrations and humiliations similar to her own. Around the time of his arrival in Moscow, Nemtsov published a book he had written over the preceding year. The slim volume was called The Provincial, but if the title promised some ironic distance, the book delivered none. It exposed an overconfident young man who was dazzled by his own standing in the world. The book’s meaty middle was a series of capsule descriptions of all the famous men—and one woman, Margaret Thatcher—whom Nemtsov had been lucky enough to meet, from Boris Yeltsin to Richard Gere. These included miniature profiles of some of the men with whom Nemtsov would now be working in Moscow, and an unflattering description of their progress so far:
We are living in shapeless times. What reforms are there to talk about? There have been no real reforms! So consumer prices have been deregulated. Freedom for all has been declared. What kind of reforms are those? Reforms involve a leash that is being let out gradually, with constant control exercised over the level of tension. You have to be able to tell the difference between freedom and total lack of oversight!2
Not only was the government neglecting its oversight function, wrote Nemtsov, but it was letting itself be manipulated by the newly moneyed class. He compared their influence to that exerted by the mystic Grigory Rasputin over Russia’s last czar in the 1910s.
Russia has always had its official authorities, who had the job titles and the status, and its unofficial ones. There was, for example, Grishka Rasputin. Now we have a sort of group Rasputin. There are many of them, but they are nobodies. Grishka was an extraordinary man who had his talents. You can’t really say that about the people who surround the czar we have today.3
Nemtsov coined two terms: “oligarchs” and “robber-baron capitalism”; the usages stuck.4 He conjured a plan for getting the rich in line once he arrived in Moscow. After five years of wielding power effectively in Nizhny Novgorod, he was sure that in his new post getting the federal government’s house in order would be a simple matter of will.5 He wrote a memo to Yeltsin outlining his program for what he called “nationalizing the Kremlin.” The memo explained that the Kremlin—by which Nemtsov and the rest of Russia meant “political authority in the country”—had been privatized in much the same way as shops and oil companies had been, and now had to be reclaimed by its rightful, elected occupants. Nemtsov’s “nationalization” involved measures big and small. The oligarchs’ Kremlin-issued identification cards, which allowed unrestricted entrance to the fortress, must be taken away, along with their Kremlin-issued license plates and flashing blue lights, which made them exempt from traffic rules. Privatization, going forward, should be transparent, creating a level playing field for all potential investors. The practice of loans-for-shares auctions must be discontinued. These auctions allowed investors to take possession of large companies by granting them credit guaranteed by a majority of the shares, knowing that the companies would be unable to repay; the auctions themselves were generally organized by the prospective lender.
Yeltsin liked the plan—Nemtsov later wrote that the part about the oligarchs’ access privileges must have been particularly appealing to the president because it reminded him of the old Party system of apportioning and regulating perks, a system Yeltsin had once railed against. But as soon as the government tried to implement plans for leveling the privatization playing field, the oligarchs went to war. Nemtsov had misjudged the situation badly: he thought that he could use against the ascendant oligarchs the tools he had honed at home, dealing with old Soviet-style bosses whose power had waned. He had also banked on his authority as a government official, not realizing that in Moscow power was never fixed but always contingent on one’s proximity to Yeltsin, and on his favor. The president continued to support Nemtsov’s plan in theory, but he grew irritated with the public battles and Nemtsov’s lack of skill in handling them.6
Nemtsov had insulted the oligarchs by calling into question their legitimacy and their talents, and now he wanted to take away their political influence and their prospective wealth. They owned the media. They often used it to fight one another, but now they united against him. Moscow journalists ridiculed him for the same reasons the rich girls at her school bullied Zhanna: his cluelessness about clothes and cars. He had worn white trousers to the airport on a hot summer day to greet the president of Azerbaijan, who had arrived for a state visit. This disgraceful breach of protocol was shown on television over and over.7 As for cars, Nemtsov was lobbying to require that the government use only Russian-made cars to chauffeur its bureaucrats around. By this time, the officials in Moscow were used to Mercedes-Benz S-Class cars, and Nemtsov was portrayed as not only ignorant about cars but also possibly corrupt, because the Volga, for which he was lobbying, was made in Nizhny Novgorod. One of the country’s most popular television anchors, Sergei Dorenko, reported that Nemtsov had taken part in a sex party with strippers hired for the occasion—and failed to pay them.8 Nemtsov later wrote that after a few years Dorenko told him that he himself had hired the sex workers to defame Nemtsov on camera.9
Nemtsov’s nationwide popularity rating, which had been around 50 percent when he arrived in Moscow, dropped to an undetectable level.10 He was no longer the president’s heir apparent.
IN 1995, Masha’s mother quit the retail business. She stopped shuttling back and forth and importing the hideous Korean handbags. With the money she had made, she bought a dacha on the Istra River, northwest of Moscow, and went back to college. She wanted to use her mind again, but physics was clearly never going to bring her any money. Someone had told Tatiana about a new field called “actuarial science”—it was new for Russia, that is: the market was ushering it into existence, but very few people were qualified to work in this area. Tatiana figured that with her background in statistical physics, she could succeed, fast. Then, through her studies, she met a man from the Military Insurance Company, and he gave her a job.
Like so many new businesses, the Military Insurance Company was born out of a combination of a new need and old resources and access. Tatiana’s new bosses were retired military brass, and they created a company from expertise and connections: much of their business early on exploited legal loopholes to allow clients to use what appeared to be payments on insurance policies to avoid paying taxes. Some of their business was actual insurance, though, and Tatiana’s newly acquired actuarial skills proved invaluable. The retired colonels liked her. It was as alien an environment as any she had ever encountered, but they were kind to her and to Masha, who spent some time around the office that Tatiana never seemed to leave.
Tatiana had not exactly changed her view on the subject of a future in Russia—she had simply adjusted her expectations by one generation. She herself would never make a life elsewhere, but her daughter would. To that end, she not only secured a decent and stable income but spent most of her money on tutors for Masha, whose job it now was to gain admission to Moscow State University and later parlay that degree into a ticket to graduate school abroad.
Then, one day in August 1998, Tatiana’s bank card stopped working. All the money they had in the world was in that account. The word was “default.” Russia had stopped paying its bills, and this meant that the ruble tumbled, prices skyrocketed, panic set in, people ran to the banks to get their money, and the banks cut off clients’ access to their own accounts. In several cases, this still could not keep the banks from collapsing.
Masha’s tutoring had to be suspended, as did the sending out of the wash. But what really frightened Masha was the prospect of having to go without sanitary pads. She had recently started menstruating, and Tatiana had told her that back in the USSR, they had had to use cotton during their periods (she omitted the fact that even cotton was not reliably available). What if Masha’s next period came before Tatiana could get cash, and Masha had to resort to cotton? What if “default” meant that sanitary pads would disappear from the stores altogether? The thoughts were too much to bear. Someone they knew, who worked for Procter & Gamble, had just been paid in products—toothpaste and pads—and Masha convinced her mother to barter something, anything, for an industrial-size box of maxipads.
This panic did not last. Within a couple of months, Tatiana was getting paid regularly and they were sending out the wash again. They owed their family’s speedy recovery to the improved fortunes of the Military Insurance Company, which had just secured a lavish new contract with the Federal Security Service, the FSB, where Yeltsin had just appointed a new boss. He was a colonel from St. Petersburg, by the name of Vladimir Putin.
FOR A TEACHER living in Solikamsk, recovery took much longer. Lyosha’s mother, like other teachers she knew, worked for no pay for the entire 1998–1999 school year. Her husband was still drawing a salary at the mine, but it was Lyosha’s mother’s potato garden that kept them going. When they were not eating potatoes, it was pasta with sugar—a stomach-fooling dish from Galina’s childhood. They forgot about meat for months.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1998, Zhanna agreed to return to Moscow, on one condition: she would go to a regular-people school. Secondary School Number 312 was so regular that students who did not drink and smoke stood out, uncomfortably. But even before school began in September, there came a day Zhanna would always remember.
They were living on the Garden Ring, the wide circular avenue that circumscribed central Moscow. Yeltsin had granted Nemtsov his own apartment there—it was very much the done thing at all levels of government now: a judge would get an apartment from the mayor, a regional legislator from the governor, and a member of the cabinet, like Nemtsov, from the president himself. The difference between this reward system and the old Soviet one of assigning privilege was that the new approach was more personalized and less systematized—each apartment was gifted on its own terms, at the discretion of the boss. Also, unlike the Soviet apartments, which nominally belonged to the state, these new ones became the property of the recipient, whether he stayed in his post for many years or for a few months.
An apartment on the Garden Ring was a mark of privilege and prestige. It was also a very convenient and very uncomfortable place to live: you could get anywhere in the city fast from there, but the Garden Ring itself was so heavy with traffic at all times that one could not even open the front-facing windows, so much noise and filth would burst in. They kept the windows shut, and watched an ever thicker layer of black film coat them on the outside.
But that day in August, Zhanna went up to the window and saw nothing. Where a solid flow of cars should have been, only a few could be seen—they looked like stragglers from some great escape. Something terrible must have happened. Her father had for months been talking about a looming economic crisis. This must be what that looked like.
Nemtsov had been sounding the alarm about the Russian state’s mounting debt. The government’s misleading laissez-faire attitude, which masqueraded as freedom, was, Nemtsov believed, simply failure to accept responsibility for an economy headed for implosion. Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, looking at the issue through the prism of his own experience as a member of the Soviet leadership, saw the triumph of the group he had found most intractable during the perestroika era. These were the heads of Soviet industry, who, in the central-planning system, held the posts of government ministers, but whom Alexander Nikolaevich called simply the Mafia.11 He believed that they had once again contrived to receive—and loot—giant sums of money. Clifford Gaddy, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., made the radical claim that all of Russia’s reforms of the early 1990s had failed to budge the behemoths of the command economy, which continued, in all their illogical and profoundly unprofitable ways, to dominate the Russian economy. All the trappings of the new economy—the supposed market-based prices, the competitive salaries, and the taxes—were, according to Gaddy, nothing but illusions. He called it the “virtual economy,” coining the term long before the word “virtual” took on a different and more appealing meaning. He meant that the country pretended to have entered a new economic age but in reality traded through barter and never fully met any of its monetary obligations. He, too, placed the blame on the unreformed, and politically powerful, core of the command economy: the enormous inefficient companies run by the very Mafia that worried Alexander Nikolaevich. The “robber barons” who concerned Nemtsov were kings of the “virtual economy.”12
Whether one focused on debt, on the remaining influence of the Soviet economic lobby, or on the imaginary nature of the new Russian economy, these critics—who included a number-three member of the cabinet—agreed that the situation was untenable and the government was in denial. Nemtsov had been proposing monetary reform, which would have included dropping the value of the ruble—thereby perhaps making the entire monetary system a little less “virtual”—but these proposals were rejected. Instead, Russia borrowed more and more heavily, to prop up the currency. The debt became a pyramid, which collapsed in August 1998. This was “default”—a word Boris Nemtsov read on the newswires and Zhanna heard on the radio. Russia stopped servicing its debt, the people went into a panic, the banks stopped giving out cash, and cars stopped running up and down the Garden Ring.
Nemtsov wanted to resign from the cabinet but Raisa said, “You were not the one who defaulted, and you shouldn’t be the one who resigns.” Yeltsin said something essentially similar: he fired much of the rest of the cabinet, but kept Nemtsov. But, weakened politically by the crash, Yeltsin could not hope to push a premier of his own choosing through parliament. A seventy-year-old veteran of the foreign intelligence service who embodied the crumpled-gray-suit ethos of the Soviet bureaucrat, Yevgeniy Primakov, was finally confirmed to run the government. Nemtsov resigned: there was nothing he was going to be able to do in a Primakov cabinet.
Time slowed instantly. After New Year’s, the family flew to America. They stayed at Harvard for a month. Nemtsov lectured on the Russian economy, arguing that it was in need of a profound restructuring and a deep cleansing.13 The family was given a room in a university residence hall. It had cracking plaster on the ceiling, creaky bunk beds, and, as it turned out, bedbugs. Boris complained, and a professor set them up in his own apartment, which he was not using. Zhanna was allowed to attend classes at a nearby private school in Cambridge. She was happy. Things were better than they had been in years. After Harvard they went to New York, where the slow, intimate life of temporary exiles continued.
BACK IN RUSSIA, politics was speeding up. On March 24, 1999, NATO forces began bombing Serbia in response to the Yugoslav army’s actions in Kosovo. Prime Minister Primakov happened to be on his way to the United States when the bombing began. The insult and the injury were on display. Russians had long considered the Orthodox Serbs to be their existential allies. Kosovo was, legally, a part of Serbia—a secessionist, Muslim part—and the parallels to Chechnya were obvious. Primakov was mere hours from arriving in the United States, where President Bill Clinton might at least have paid lip service to consulting him, and not doing so was an affront. Primakov turned his plane around and returned to Russia.
The following day, Masha’s class had a field trip to the Lev Tolstoy Library on Lev Tolstoy Street. They had recently read Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, at the end of which Anna’s love, the endlessly desirable Vronsky, volunteers to fight on the side of the Serbs against the Ottoman Empire. As they walked down Lev Tolstoy Street, the tenth-graders discussed the NATO bombings of Serbia. It was an outrage, they agreed, a betrayal, and practically an American attack on Russia. For Masha, this was a moment when the two most authoritative and passionate voices in her head—the one of the militarized sailing club and the one of her cinephile mother—finally came together in a single fervor. The Americans were bombing Masha’s Serbian brethren in the land of the great director Emir Kusturica.
In a survey conducted by Gudkov’s colleagues, a majority of the respondents—52 percent—said they felt “outrage” at the bombing, and 92 percent said they believed the bombing campaign was illegal. Twenty-six percent said they felt “anxiety,” and 13 percent confessed to feeling “fear.”14Gudkov sensed that all three emotions—outrage, anxiety, and fear—were stand-ins for “humiliation,” the sense that Russia’s loss of status in the world had just been shoved in the country’s face. Primakov’s dramatic sulk over the Atlantic had reinforced this sentiment.
On May 9—a month and a half after the start of the bombing campaign—Red Square saw its first Victory Day military parade in a decade. There was no heavy equipment—no tanks and rockets, like in days past, only a march of men in uniform—and they moved through the square in the opposite direction to that taken in Soviet times, before the chapel at the entrance to the square had been restored. But the four men goose-stepping in front of the procession—one leader and three young officers behind him—carried a red flag with a hammer and sickle, like the one that had been placed on the Reichstag in 1945. Yeltsin did not take the Soviet secretary-general’s conventional place atop the Lenin Mausoleum, but he assumed the traditional role of overseeing the parade, from a podium set up just in front of the granite building, where the Bolshevik leader’s body was still on display after seventy-five years. It was the fifty-fourth anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, but the television voice-over pronounced that figure as though it had particular symbolism and went on to stress, “Whoever might be trying today to diminish the significance of our victory, for the people it will forever remain great.”15 There was no need to spell out that it was NATO, with its bombing campaign, that was attempting retroactively to “diminish the significance of our victory.”
Yeltsin, thought Gudkov, was finally playing the card he had resisted using for so long: staking his own legitimacy on the mythology of the Great Patriotic War.
THREE DAYS after the Victory Day parade, Yeltsin set in motion a parade of successors. Primakov, whom he distrusted and plainly disliked, was out. He appointed a new prime minister, forty-seven-year-old Sergei Stepashin, who had been serving as minister of the interior. A career law-enforcement officer, Stepashin had been in and out of the government for a decade, so his was a familiar face—even if he lacked the force of personality to elicit any particular emotional response. Now, by dint of being appointed prime minister, he was Yeltsin’s new heir apparent.
The NATO bombing of Serbia ended in May, with a negotiated agreement that turned Kosovo into a de facto protectorate of the Western powers. Peacekeeping troops began moving into position in the area, for what would clearly be a long stay. On June 12—which happened to be Russian Independence Day—British peacekeepers were slated to secure the airport in Pristina, the capital city. But the night before, two hundred Russian peacekeepers stationed in Bosnia suddenly marched across the border to Pristina and seized the airport. The operation seemed to have no strategic objective, or even a plan—the Russian troops had not made arrangements for supplies, and were ultimately fed by NATO troops who took pity on them. Back in Russia, the demonstration of pointless and unopposed military power played well. Masha and her friends cheered the siege of the airport in much the same way as they cheered a Russian soccer victory over Holland. After a week, Russia agreed to send about 3,600 troops to Kosovo to work alongside Western peacekeepers, effectively renewing its relationship with NATO—which had been severed when the bombing began—without accepting NATO command.16
In less than three months, Yeltsin once again changed his mind regarding his successor, fired Stepashin, and appointed another gray, unremarkable man. This time, however, the heir apparent was a virtual unknown, the colonel Yeltsin had recently chosen to run the secret police, Vladimir Putin.
That summer, before Masha’s last year of high school, she went to Crimea with a friend and the friend’s mother. They rented a single room in Alushta. They went to the beach and watched television. Masha read romantic poetry by Anna Akhmatova and Maximilian Voloshin. They met teenagers from Ukrainian cities—Dnepropetrovsk and Kiev—who told them that they spoke with a Moscow accent. Masha objected that she did not have an accent: they did. They laughed. They drank together, a lot. After the friend’s mother left, trading places with Tatiana, they had even more freedom. They had no curfew. They drank on the piers at night. One night, a freak wave covered all of them and pulled them off the pier, but they got out and laughed.
“I’m sick of Crimea,” Masha said at one point. “I want to go back to Russia. You know, birch trees, mosquitoes, the nostalgia.”
Tatiana thought this was funny—who gets sick of the sea? Masha thought it was funny too. But they went to the dacha for the rest of the summer. It was early August.
“So he’ll be our prime minister now?” asked Tatiana. “Weird.” She had negotiated insurance contracts with this man, and she was unimpressed.
Masha was impressed, though. He was an intelligence officer. Soviet intelligence officers were a special breed. Masha had binge-watched films about them when she was sick one time, at her grandmother’s apartment. There was the miniseries TASS Is Authorized to Declare, in which a flawless and brilliant KGB officer exposes an American spy in Moscow. The spy’s handler, an American called John Glabb, is pure evil: not only does he organize pro-American military coups in small African countries, but he also traffics in heroin, which he packs into the bodies of infants purchased from impoverished families and killed for this purpose. He is also married to the scion of a Nazi fortune.17 Another film was Dead Season, in which a Soviet intelligence officer working deep undercover captures a former Nazi doctor now working for one of the Western powers. The doctor has developed a potion that turns off individual will.18
Masha had also read a lot of books of the sort on which these films were based. Her grandmother had an endless supply of them. The glossy jackets had all been lost, so the books were plain brown or gray. The aesthetic uniformity of the outside matched the contents, which reliably delivered a light thrill followed by a sense that all was right with the world. Around eighth grade Masha graduated from the gray and brown books to black hardcovers with red letters, the complete translations of Arthur Conan Doyle in eight volumes. Here the thrill was greater but the moral-satisfaction quotient lower. Masha missed that feeling.
“I hope he is our next president,” she said of Putin.
LIKE MOST PEOPLE HE KNEW, Gudkov assumed that Putin would be a temporary figure, a placeholder picked by a leader who was feeling disoriented. Unlike most people he knew, though, Gudkov was painfully aware of the expectations most Russians were placing on the country’s next president: they wanted a savior, a leader who would be not merely decisive but dominating. Putin hardly seemed suited for that role: he had no history and no presence.
What happened over the next few months looked unbelievable. From August to November 1999 the number of those who answered “Yes” to the question “Do you think that Vladimir Putin is, on the whole, doing a good job?” shot up from 31 to 80 percent, and the number of those who answered “No” dropped from 33 to 12. On a graph, it looked like two vertical lines, a blue one going up and a red one shooting down.19 It looked like nothing Gudkov had ever seen.
Deeper questioning revealed a process akin to magic. Russia had been in a state that Gudkov could only describe as depression—more a psychological than an economic one. The financial crisis of 1998, coming as it did just when life was starting to seem normal again and when hope had seemed warranted, had plunged people into the darkest darkness—precisely because it crushed the very fragile fresh sprouts of hope. Economically, people regained their footing relatively fast, but emotions did not follow—until Putin came along and eight out of ten Russians miraculously regained hope just by looking at him.
Politically, on the face of it, things looked anything but hopeful. In August and September the country was shocked by a series of apartment-building explosions that killed 293 people and injured more than a thousand. The government used the bombings as a pretext to launch a new offensive in Chechnya, reigniting the war that had once nearly cost Yeltsin the presidency. This time, though, Gudkov observed that while Russians’ hearts ached for the young men being sent to fight the war, virtually no one seemed to feel sympathy for the civilians in Chechnya, their ostensible countrymen who were once again being bombed. Another thing made this war different from the first Chechen one: this time the Russian offensive was seen as spearheaded by a leader. If Yeltsin came across as desperate and flailing when he began his war in 1994, then his own prime minister, restarting the war five years later, came across as brave, and as a defender of ordinary Russians. This impression was based primarily on a single utterance Putin made in response to the apartment-building bombings: “We will pursue terrorists wherever they are. At the airport, if they are at the airport. And that means, I apologize, that if we catch them going to the bathroom, then we will rub them out in the outhouse, if it comes to that. That’s it, the issue is closed.”
A majority saw courage and determination in Putin’s phrasing, and this distinguished him from Yeltsin. Some were charmed by his hint at modesty and reason—“I apologize” and “if it comes to that” played to this audience. On the whole, he came off as being one of the people, and yet ready to lead the people.
Who were “the people”? Levada’s team had conducted its third Homo Sovieticus survey, and the results were devastating. Ten years after the original study, the hypothesis had been fully invalidated. Homo Sovieticus was not, as Levada had suggested, dying off. He was not only surviving but reproducing—and this meant that he was reclaiming his dominant position in the population.
According to the results of the 1999 survey, Russians were ever more nostalgic. “Would you prefer that things return to the way they were before 1985?”—before perestroika—drew a clear majority of respondents who agreed: 58 percent, up from 44 in 1994. The proportion of people who viewed the changes of the early 1990s as positive continued to shrink, while the percentage of those who said they could not cope with the changes grew noticeably. The more distant past became ever more appealing: now 26 percent believed that Stalin’s rule had been good for the country, up from 18 percent in 1994. Those who held a negative view of the Soviet dictator were now in the minority. Russians continued to think of themselves mostly as “open” and “patient”—the percentage of people who cited these qualities had grown. At the same time, respondents seemed to become more open-minded with regard to “deviants”: only 15 percent now wanted to “liquidate” homosexuals, down from 22 percent in 1994. But the number of those who would “leave them to their own devices” dropped too, from 29 to 18 percent. Russians now overwhelmingly wanted to “help” their homosexuals—an option that implied a sort of medieval model of helping the afflicted. Viewed in the context of epidemic nostalgia for the Soviet past, these results made sense: they represented yet another way of returning to the paternalistic state.20
In December 1999, Russia held its third post-Soviet parliamentary election. This seemed like one of the new era’s few indisputable accomplishments: a number of different parties competed in what could reasonably be called a fair and open process. They split the popular vote in ways that pointed to the existence of large distinct groups that favored particular parties. There were features, however, that made this election very different from one you might observe in a functioning democracy. The leading parties had been formed just weeks or months before the election. This had been the case in the first two post-Soviet elections as well, but that had seemed understandable in the early stages of Russia’s self-reinvention. Now, though, Gudkov found himself trying to understand what caused political parties to be discarded between elections.
The other troublesome feature in this election was a change in public etiquette. Local and federal government officials made an effort to appear on television more often than during the off-season—this was normal. But this time they did not appear solicitous of their voters: they consistently expressed certainty in their victory, making the election sound like a ritual rather than a contest. Their tone reminded Gudkov of the bureaucratic entitlement of the Soviet period.
Looking at the data, Gudkov and his coauthor, Boris Dubin, concluded that these two traits of the parliamentary election were symptoms of a single problem: the election had all the trappings of a political contest but lacked the substance of one. Democratic procedure, which had seemed a revolution in itself, was now the political equivalent of the “virtual economy” described by Gaddy—a mask pulled over a structure that refused to change.
Russia’s current nominal multiparty system had grown out of the collapse of the Party state. The process was not unlike what Alexander Nikolaevich had proposed more than a decade earlier when he suggested to Gorbachev that the Communist Party should be split into two, in order to launch political competition. The suggestion might have looked naive but well-intentioned back then: Alexander Nikolaevich was trying to bridge the gap between a totalitarian system and a democratic one. Now it appeared that the gap had been unbridgeable: the old system’s institutions had reconstituted themselves in a new guise. Gudkov and Dubin found that Russians—both the candidates and the voters—believed that political power rightly belonged to bureaucrats, whose chief qualification was experience in the bureaucracy. If a party advanced an agenda that diverged widely from existing policy, this party was viewed a priori as marginal. Elections became a popularity contest in a very small political field, where the leading candidates, by definition, agreed with one another. Of course, to some extent this could be said of many, possibly any, Western democracy. But Western democracies did not inherit their narrow political field from a seventy-year period of totalitarianism, and their future did not depend on their ability to advance fundamental social change.
It was now clear that even back in 1996, when the contest between Yeltsin and his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, was filled with desperate rancor, the two candidates’ political platforms were interchangeable: both contained vague promises of building a market economy with a human face. Now, in a country united by two waves of strong emotions in one year—first in response to the NATO bombing of Serbia and then, more profoundly, in reaction to the apartment-building explosions and the war in Chechnya—there was no room at all for difference. Two new political parties appeared just before the election. One, Yedinstvo (“Unity”), was formed by the Kremlin for the express purpose of supporting Putin’s ascendancy to the throne. The other, the Union of Right Forces, was its nominal liberal opponent, but it too supported Putin and the war in Chechnya. They differed mostly in style, with the Union of Right Forces—which included Nemtsov among its five leaders—appealing to a younger, more educated audience, the same people who had most vocally opposed the first war in Chechnya. In Solikamsk, fourteen-year-old Lyosha was observing this neat nondivision division clearly: his aunts, who had supported the Communists as long as he could remember, were now in favor of Unity, while his mother’s more sophisticated friends donned T-shirts brought to town by the Union of Right Forces; they were emblazoned with the phrase “You Are Right.” There was no disagreement among his mother’s friends and her family, though, because all of them were positively in thrall to Putin.
Gudkov started thinking that “political party” and “election” were just two more Western terms that could not be used in Russian—except to mislead. A more precise term could be borrowed from Max Weber, whom Levada had had Gudkov study all those years ago. The term was “acclamation,” a process by which the governed affirm a choice already made for them.21
But Russians were acclaiming not only the candidates chosen for them by the bureaucracy—Putin chief among them—but also themselves, reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of being with the majority that had been lost with the Soviet Union. What was felt as a void in the early 1990s had gradually been transformed into nostalgia, and now it could be focused on one person. It was precisely Putin’s lack of distinction, which had made Gudkov think that he was a temporary figure, that in fact made him the perfect embodiment of the Soviet leadership style. In his person, charisma met bureaucracy.
Gudkov and Dubin included these observations in their article about the December 1999 parliamentary election, which they titled “The Time of the ‘Gray People.’” They meant that the distinction between supposedly competing parties was as minor as the difference between gray and black—specifically that the so-called reformers had diluted their agenda to such an extent that they could stand out only against the pitch-black background of total Soviet nostalgia. The headline also contained a literary reference, to a novel called Hard to Be a God, a piece of science fiction by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which the Soviet intelligentsia of the 1980s read and quoted like the Bible. The novel described a future academic-history experiment involving an artificially assembled civilization from the human Middle Ages. “The Gray Ones” in the novel are the shock troops of a man who appears to be an interim ruler, someone dispatched by stronger—and darker—forces to clear the land. The Gray Ones wage war on what they see as dangerous liberal ideas and on enlightenment as such. The Gray Ones, and their gray cardinal of a leader, appear inept, and come off as saboteurs rather than statesmen, yet they turn out to have infinite staying power.22 Gudkov and Dubin were thinking of no such scenario, though: when they chose the title for their article, they had in mind only the image of gray against black.23