Putin’s Russia vs. Free Russia: a view from the distance

We asked several compatriots of different professions about their reasons for moving from Russia to the U.S. What was the final straw that caused it? What in their opinion is the current state of Russian society? Here are some of their responses:

What was the final straw that caused you to leave Russia? What other factors led to your decision?

Sergey Aleksashenko, economist:

The last straw was my «nomination» to the Fifth Column list. Then I recognized that I passed the red line and can’t be sure of my personal freedom and my family’s safety. Though it was the last straw the decision itself originated from other reasons. First, in summer 2012 I started to realize that I faced a permanent job ban — all old agreements were terminated while no new one lasted for more that 3-4 weeks. None of those jobs were related to politics — advisory, consulting, research. An interesting job is an essential part of my life that I used to have. The second reason is a private one: I have a 5-year-old son and I carry responsibility for his future. He will go to school soon. It means he will start to incorporate himself in the life of the country, in the life of the society. Looking at him I suddenly understood that I couldn’t help him to incorporate himself into a modern Russian life. How can I do this if I cannot incorporate myself? I do not accept gang rules (ponyatiya) that are used in our country instead of laws. I do not accept the TV-based brain washing machine that makes people mentally ill. I do not accept the life where the government runs wars against its much weaker neighbors and grabs neighbors’ territory.

Ilya Ponomarev, Member of Russian Parliament:

The decision was not mine, but federal bailiffs’ who «suddenly» decided to use their power. The Russian state created a ridiculous and unfair «Skolkovo-gate,” froze my assets, grabbed my property, suspended accounts and blocked me from crossing the border. Usually it is done when a person is inside the country. In my case they waited until I was on a business trip abroad and took their measures to prevent me from returning home. It was pretty tough. I woke up one day with just a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket. That was a real «reset» for me. Still, I was free, and my motivation to make them feel sorry for their deeds only increased.

Vasily Gatov, media expert:

There was no particular reason to leave rather than a reason not to return. In late 2013 I decided to work on my book and be with my family that already lived in the U.S. due to some practical reasons. But liquidation of both RIA Novosti, my employer, and Novosti Media Lab that I headed at the same time, had closed the door for my return. I would say this was more existential than political, but later in 2014 the «reasons» had a persistent inflow: like Russian policy toward Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, further strengthening of the government censorship in mass media and, finally, in February of this year — Boris Nemtsov’s assassination. All of that summed up and made my decision sort of inevitable.

Ksenia Strelets, film director:

My first introduction to America was a long time ago. I’ve been here for several occasions. I knew where I was going and I had a clear goal set ahead of me. In Russia I just simply couldn’t imagine doing what I’ve always wanted: to create, to freely express my mind, to aim for the top and know that I can achieve it one day, and not to worry about being strangled by corruption, the unlawful system that would kill all my attempts to become someone one day. It is very unfortunate that with the existing regime it is almost impossible for young professionals to reach success. Mostly because it’s the law of power, enforcement if you will, that is dominant rather than the legal law. This system affected my family as well. My father, PhD in Engineering Science, high-tech business owner, was prosecuted, and his business and property were taken away. It took 7 years to restore justice for my father. Events like this undoubtedly leave a mark on a person’s future. My family story is not the only case. In fact, a countless number of people was tangled in situations like this and were caught in the middle of property redistribution by the new government, which only emphasizes absence of any legal protection of not only economic property, but an intellectual property as well. It was one of the main reasons why I decided to leave. Russia hasn’t embittered me. It just made me realize that it can’t offer me what I want. Not now anyways.


How could you describe the state of Russian society right now?

Maria Snegovaya, political analyst:

I am writing this after Boris Nemtsov, who I knew personally, was brutally and arrogantly killed in the center of Moscow, a few meters away from the Kremlin. The dynamic of the regime trajectory was quite clear back in 2010, when I was applying to a PhD program. It was a consolidating autocracy, which was slowly but surely eliminating the dissent. When the protests of 2011-12 began, I was happy that my country had so many like-minded compatriots, but I didn’t think that would alternate the system altogether. The system had its own logic, its main constituency was state bureaucracy, and the liberal reforms the protestors demanded would have undermined the wellbeing of main Kremlin’s supporters and would have threatened the grip on power of the ruling group.

Today’s polarization of Russia’s society into pro- and anti-Putin clans took its roots in at least 2003 when by prosecuting Khodorkovsky the system chose the officials as its core support group. In 2012, Putin made the only available option for the system to survive – prosecution of the liberal dissent. The autocracy became completely consolidated. The Kremlin also imposed some kind of an ideology as a substitute for previous system’s legitimization through free elections. This is when the idea of “The Russkyi Mir” (the Russian World), which existed before but wasn’t that popular started to be actively promoted. The Ukrainian events accelerated that trend.

Why do Russians tolerate that trajectory? (Although the numbers reported by the polls are inflated.) That’s because a society that was highly atomized during the Soviet period and disoriented after the collapse of the Communist ideology throughout the 90s, is desperate to rediscover the feeling of belonging to a dome imaginary community, to a strong “Great Nation.” Surveys show that the “Great Nation” is what Russians are most nostalgic about. The Kremlin knows that and plays into this sentiment through its actions in Ukraine and promotion of the “Russkyi Mir” ideology. Hence, a consensus between a society with a post-imperial syndrome and the authorities, which play along that social need, has evolved. This consensus is not long lasting, and such mix is explosive as we currently observe in Ukraine.

The parallels of today’s Russia with the Weimar Republic are striking. It has almost become a cliché to point that out. But Nemtsov’s assassination potentially opens up a door for political terror, as the last obstacles to repressions have been eliminated; the last limits have been broken. And as Dostoevsky said, everything is now permitted.

Sergey Aleksashenko, economist:

Famous Russian historian, Lev Gumilev, explained many historic developments using the term «passionate» for nations. Those fast growing nations were drivers for changes playing bigger and bigger role in the international playfield. As an opposite, Gumilev used the term «obscuration» that describes the nation in its declining phase, when it has no internal energy for the progress, when it is going from one collapse to another. It seems to me today’s Russian society is an obscure one. It keeps itself in the 17-18th centuries’ patrimonial paradigm, intentionally isolates itself from the rest of the world, and fights against progress, human rights and human values. Russian society is like an old man who has neither strength nor desire to change his life and adjust himself to anything happening around him.

Ilya Ponomarev, Member of Russian Parliament:

Russian society of today is totally disoriented. The Kremlin is radical in its actions, so that for the sake of psychological comfort people have to believe in the government propaganda or either leave or rebel. 85% stand on the former position, 10-15% leave Russia, and 1% rebel. It is very similar to the situation in Russia of 1914 or Nazi Germany. I am very afraid that the consequence will be the same: war, devastation, and collapse of the country. And I take it as a global rather than a local issue, because an imminent chaos in my homeland will turn into disaster not only for our immediate neighbors, but also for the whole system of global security. We need to do everything to prevent it, by supporting those other 15% of pro-democracy Russians.

Vasily Gatov, media expert:

 Russian society lives in a state of cognitive dissonance. It has neurotic reactions and inadequate perception of the country’s place in the world, both politically and economically. This all happens as a result of the destructive, contagious use of the state controlled mass media that had replaced the objective agenda with a constructed one, where nothing is true and everything is a conspiracy. This kind of manipulation is poisonous and results in a collective schizophrenia. Meanwhile, outside of this mental box Russians live a normal life of a developing nation, where people try to make things happen, develop their business, art, science and education the same way as other nations do. This ordinary, meaningful life is disturbed with a propaganda machine invasion, resulting in an ambiguous social behavior, and a higher level of internal tension and conflict. This dissonance levels many achievements of 2000s making Russians less happier and more aggressive than the current period implies.

Ilya Osipov, entrepreneur:

The society is frightened and confused. All the layers. I really hope that the Russian Federation will cease to exist in the form it is functioning now. I believe it’s an unnatural and artificial entity, which for internal reasons can’t evolve without going through pupation and rebirth.


 Many smart, talented, well-educated, and successful people have left Russia recently, as they are not satisfied with the vector of the country’s development or rather its degradation. Putin’s Russia consistently rejects democratic values, and many pro-democracy Russians forced to leave their homeland for freer societies.

We asked all our respondents one more question: What positive changes in Russia would make them consider returning? It was more complicated for them to answer this question than the other two. Obviously, the vision of Russia is still vague. Of course, all our experts would like to see Russia democratic and successful. They hope for “political reforms that will target honest elections, demolition of the vertical of power and the rule of law” (S.Aleksashenko), “liberalization of its political system and cease of prosecuting the dissenters” (M.Snegovaya) and “exemption from bureaucratic chaos when superiority of law will be expected and respected and when the state will work for the good of its people” (K.Strelets).

We at Free Russia Foundation share our respondents’ views, ideals and hopes of a better and brighter future for our homeland. We know such change can’t begin from Russia’s authoritarian leadership in its present form. New leaders must emerge and new ideas will come from those who have had a taste of a functioning, democratic society. We thank our experts for their deep and honest thoughts and hope they will be part of the catalyst for our designing the strategic vision of a Free Russia.

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