Crimea's non-Russian minorities aren't the only ones whose rights may be trampled as Russian President Vladimir Putin moves to annex the Ukrainian peninsula. His critics in Russia, too, face a frightening future.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and until recently the country's best-known political prisoner, assured Ukrainians in Kiev last weekend that not all Russians agree with Putin's de facto invasion of Ukrainian territory. He extolled the actions of anti-war protesters detained in Moscow, saying they represent "a totally different Russia," people "for whom friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian nations is more important than their own liberty." His words were greeted with a chorus of "Russia, arise."
Brave as they were, though, the Russian protesters numbered only in the hundreds -- a drop in the bucket for a country of 140 million. Most Russians appear to support Putin's moves: Polls by different organizations, from pro-Kremlin Standoff in Ukraine to the liberal-leaning VTsIOM, suggest that the president's popularity is at its highest since his re-election in 2012. "The nation will be united, and an overwhelming majority will share the leader's ideology and enrich this ideology with its unity," Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov told the Russia 1 television channel, calling the dissenters "professional critics" and a "nano-fifth column."
Already, a team of pro-Putin activists has created a Levada Center that carries a list of "traitors" -- journalists, TV personalities, celebrities, opposition politicians -- who have condemned the Crimean campaign. "We believe Russian citizens who insult our soldiers and doubt the need to fight neo-Nazis are traitors, no matter how talented they are as journalists, authors and directors," the site's anonymous creators wrote. A lawyer named Anton Sorvachev maintains his own website on LiveJournal, warning media that supporting Ukraine is tantamount to high treason. University lecturer Arkady Minakov "blacklist"on Putin to "neutralize" the pro-Western fifth column. On social networks, hundreds of commentators have vented their anger at "traitors."
The hate-mongering is not directly backed or recognized by the Kremlin, but then neither are the unmarked troops who now control the Crimea. Just as Putin wages his strange war of intimidation in Ukraine, his propaganda machine is creating a climate of intolerance for dissent. "The nation is consolidated," columnist Ivan Davydov called on Colta.ru. "The opponents of war (that is, excuse me, Russia's upcoming great geopolitical triumph) are a tiny minority. The discussions are over. What could jubilant patriots discuss with traitors to the nation? Now we have insults in place of arguments."
The shift in Russian society could be deep and long-lasting. Once the Crimea's annexation is a fait accompli, Putin will be motivated to control dissent at home as much of the outside world condemns Russia's actions and possibly hits it with sanctions. People who disagree with Putin's policies will be intellectually isolated, forced to adapt to the new environment.
"This will be a completely different society," the political scientist Alexander Morozov, who predicted the Crimean invasion, wrote on Russ.ru. "Life will continue under this new Berlin wall. For some people, Putin's pseudo-Iran will provide great new opportunities. Other will emigrate. Others yet will fall silent, and still others will look for new forms of loyalty."
I can see this "different society" -- Morozov's, not Khodorkovsky's -- congealing around me. Many people I talk to, from colleagues to guys at the gym, believe Russia is right to claim the Crimea. Even if they did not back Putin before, they do now, perhaps tactically and temporarily, but heatedly. In their minds, they are just being patriotic. Whether dissenters will face reprisals or not, they are increasingly marginalized and irrelevant to the new Russia that Putin carried for years in his mind and has just revealed to the world.
"Putin doesn't intend to have a conversation with anyone, but even if he did, there would be nobody for him to talk to," Gleb Pavlovsky, once a close adviser to Putin and now his opponent, wrote Colta.ru. This "total collapse of the Russian intelligent class," he said, "is a more serious catastrophe than the Crimea."
It may also be a bigger victory for Putin than the annexation. The war he is winning is not in Ukraine, where a whole nation will now see Russians as natural enemies, and not in the West, where Russia will be even more deeply mistrusted. It is a domestic war against people who want a different image and a different future for their country. Only two years ago, tens of thousands of people marched against Putin in Moscow and were seen as a serious enough challenge that the Kremlin even made some concessions, bringing back gubernatorial elections and cutting back on vote-counting fraud. Now, Putin's opponents are a demoralized handful expecting to be kicked around and spat at as traitors.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at told.)
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