After the party comes the hangover: for many Russians, this is a familiar concept. And so it is for Moscow, which has for the last five months been the scene of massive anti-Putin demonstrations, marches, and Occupy-style opposition camps. It has been the biggest display of public anger since the fall of the Soviet Union. But after all the baton-wielding police and the repeated arrests of hundreds of activists, an awful calm has now settled on the capital, and with it, a bitter realization: there was no Russian Spring. Vladimir Putin is back in the Kremlin, and he’s back to stay.
Putin doesn’t intend to give a single nanometer to the opposition—a message he made even clearer last week. His first government appointment was a 42-year-old tank-factory worker from the Urals whose single qualification for office was that he offered to bring friends to Moscow and beat up some of those pesky liberals. “If the police can’t handle it, then me and the boys are ready to come out and defend stability,” Igor Kholmanskikh told a beaming Putin on national television in December. Igor the Tank Engineer quickly became the Kremlin’s Joe the Plumber: the straight-talking, conservative Everyman whose contempt for liberals supposedly reflected the nation’s silent moral majority. Now Kholmanskikh is Putin’s envoy to the Urals, one of Russia’s eight super-governors in charge of an area the size of Spain, France, and Germany combined.
As for the protests in Moscow and more than 100 cities across Russia? Listen to the table talk of Putin’s courtiers to feel the contempt: “Weekend rebels” was what one longtime Putin confidant called the opposition at a recent private dinner. “They march against Putin’s bloody regime, then go to an expensive restaurant and congratulate each other.” For sure, the first major protests may have spooked then–president Dmitry Medvedev into announcing some hurried reforms. But as the winter wore on, the Kremlin sized up its enemies: urban, educated—but electorally insignificant. Crucially the Kremlin’s apparatchiks realized that they were way more committed to hanging on to power than the “weekend rebels” were to challenging it.
Hence Putin’s class war. This winter, with his vote rigging, lying, and brutality, he finally lost the urban middle classes. But Putin doesn’t really care. He has thrown in his lot with the working class, the real heartland of Russia. That’s understandable, of course, because Putin himself is just one generation away from the village. He’s always been socially and professionally suspicious of Western-looking, Internet-using liberals. But now, after Moscow’s winter of discontent, the battle lines are pretty clearly defined along class lines.
Russia has been here before. Historically, it has been possible to rule Russia without the urban elites on your side. But it’s not a recipe for regime longevity. Putin has the luxury of massive oil and gas incomes to buy off swaths of the population and paper over the deep fissures in the real Russian economy. But even this isn’t working as well as Putin seems to believe. A new survey by the Levada Center in Moscow that asks people to rate President Putin on his supposed qualities shows him sliding badly among all social groups. Now only 39 percent of Russians say they consider Putin “businesslike,” down from 62 percent in 2008.
On the day of his inauguration on May 7, Putin drove into a silent Moscow through streets completely emptied of people. Hordes of riot police violently cleared citizens from an exclusion zone hundreds of yards around the new president’s route. Putin may imagine himself loved by the “real” Russian people, but the final act of his reign opened to the sound of no hands clapping.