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Putin Is Perfecting His Authoritarian Model

The Russian president is planning a lifetime tenure—and acting as a beacon for budding autocrats, from Turkmenistan to the Trump White House.

Dmitry Lovetsky/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Façades are everything in Russia. Vladimir Putin learned that the hard way in 2011, when he let his own façade slip at a party convention and publicly admitted to an end run around the country’s constitutional term limit on presidents. His hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, announced that he would step aside to allow Putin to run again for his old office; Putin then capped this with an arrogant announcement that he and Medvedev had settled “several years ago” on arrangements for the former intelligence officer to return to the Kremlin after his loyal caretaker’s single term.

Although Putin’s move surprised few Russians, his open admission that it had been engineered was an insult to even the most apolitical citizens. The mass protests that followed prompted a shaken Kremlin to respond with a new wave of repression that continues to this day.

Consequently, Putin is taking no chances on the appearances of his latest ploy to extend his rule over Russia. In a speech to the nation’s Duma last week, he took pains to sound reluctant in backing a constitutional amendment to reset his term limits, introduced in the legislature by former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova—the first woman to journey into space, a hero of the Soviet Union, and now a loyal member of Putin’s party.

“The very existence of an opportunity for the current president [to be reelected], given his major gravitas, would be a stabilizing factor for our society,” Tereshkova, the former high-ranking Communist official, said. (“The first woman who boldly went into space darkness and cold, and then brought the whole country there,” one Russian quipped about Tereshkova on Twitter.) In his speech, Putin echoed the ex-cosmonaut’s reasoning: If more of him was what the nation needed, then so be it. “The president is the guarantor of security of our state, its internal stability and evolutionary development,” he said. “We’ve had enough revolutions.” Parliament passed the legislation hours later; three days after that, Russia’s highest court decreed the amendment constitutional.

Now the path is all but clear for the 67-year-old former KGB officer to rule until 2036, when he will be 83. That would give him a tenure of 36 years, one more than Josef Stalin’s. In a subsequent tweet, opposition leader Alexei Navalny captured the paradoxical façade of electoral democracy behind which Putin now chooses to cloak his rule-for-life: “Putin has been in power for 20 years, and yet he is going to run for the first time.”

The biggest remaining question is whether the spread of the coronavirus will force the Kremlin to postpone plans for a national referendum next month, when Russians will be expected to bestow their approval on the Putin scheme. They are set to vote on a whole package of populist measures that would also give Russian law primacy over international law; ensure that state pensions rise with inflation; enshrine religious faith in the constitution; and define marriage as a union between men and women.

The last two represent a fresh dose of culture war aimed at rallying Putin’s politically conservative base—which, along with the parliamentary theatrics, the Kremlin deems necessary because only about a quarter of Russians in polls wish to see Putin remain president after his current constitutional term ends in 2024—statistically the same as the share of Russians who say Putin should become a private citizen. His approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level—35 percent—since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted a surge in his popularity. “The increase in fatigue among people is visible,” one pollster said.

Yet deeply rooted social priorities, including an aversion to risk, have so far trumped the democratic hopes of the country’s few remaining opposition leaders, even as more Russians struggle under a stagnant economy, massive corruption, domestic repression, and international pariah status.

Russians live in the world’s largest country by territory, much of it uninhabitable, and winter’s ferocity is legendary. The Russian winter is “not a season of the year like other seasons, not merely a longer, darker, crueler span of time than that which annually slows the countries of northern Europe and America,” my father, George Feifer—a journalist who spent decades chronicling Soviet society—wrote in the 1980s. “As a prime cause and a symbol of Russia’s fate, it molds a state of mind, an attitude toward life.”

Such adverse conditions have shaped a national character with a distinctive understanding of itself and the world. It incorporates a belief that individuals are weak and individualism a threat to the survival of the group—family, peasant commune, or empire. Putin’s autocratic rhetoric directly taps into such beliefs, especially those formulated by the country’s nineteenth-century Slavophile philosophers who derived their national identity in opposition to the West, following an old pattern of lashing out against dangerous foreign rationalism and individualism.

The seeming inevitability of many more years of Putin is no excuse for throwing up hands over Russia. His ethnonationalist paternalism is now the avant-garde model for right-wing fellow travelers such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Donald Trump. The threat he poses to Western liberal democracy is immediate and continuous. But the next U.S. administration’s Russia policies would benefit from understanding what has really motivated Russians to go along with their president: Maintaining his façade as the sole guarantor of security and stability may encourage them to overlook his repression and corruption during next month’s vote.

In his speech to parliament last week, Putin pointed to the current crises shaking the world and its economies: the coronavirus and oil market turbulence, as well as threats from Russia’s supposed enemies. “They are waiting for us to make a mistake or to slip up, losing our bearings or, worse still, getting bogged down in internal dissent, which is sometimes fanned, fueled, and even financed from abroad,” warned the man whom U.S. intelligence says ordered Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”

Russia’s greatest threat, however, is Putinism. The president has failed to diversify the petro-economy; oil and gas exports still generate a third of the gross domestic product. Desperately needed infrastructure investment has been woefully inadequate; many educated Russians have left the country in an ongoing brain drain; and Putin’s international aggressions—undermining Western democracies, invading Ukraine, and assassinating critics at home and abroad—have left Moscow with few allies, besides those other states run by murderous autocrats.

Sooner or later Russians will be forced to realize that keeping Putin around actually threatens the country’s long-term stability and prosperity—and will eventually lead to the kind of crisis that has prompted fundamental westernizing reform in the past.