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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Russia: Back to no future

By Sean L Hanley, on 18 June 2013

Moscow Russia anti-Putin Graffiti R-EVOLUTION-2

Photo: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons

With his regime running out of steam, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the rhetoric of the past and traditional values. Marie Mendras sees little future in it. 

The moment of truth for a non-democratic leader is when he needs to revive his fading authority and legitimacy. A snatched electoral victory over a year ago brought Vladimir Putin no new popularity, indeed quite the opposite.

Since his return to the Kremlin, his words and actions have reflected entirely negative emotions, such as fear of his own people, distrust of the elites around him, and a desire to avenge himself on those who have dared oppose him. Much of his energy goes on proving himself right and his critics wrong: he even accuses these of working for foreign powers and endangering national security. Putin has not recovered from the humiliation and scare of last year’s political contest, and is now facing tough economic and social challenges. The choice he has made is to try to restore his authority with a combination of targeted repression, doctrinaire ideology and an increase in control over institutions and companies. This is an unlikely recipe for success.

Weakened legitimacy

Vladimir Putin was re-elected on a controversial vote in March 2012. He could have won his new mandate more honestly, had he accepted the possibility of a second round runoff, but he was determined to win an absolute majority in the first round. He wanted to humiliate the other ‘authorised’ candidates by raising himself high above them, proving that he was the one and only – and a loyal Central Electoral Commission conferred on him a generous 63% of the vote. A year on, all the voters’ associations and NGOs that investigated election fraud are being harassed and some, like the Golos association, might have to close down. Key figures in the movement for free elections are also being prosecuted.

Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004, and Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2008, were ‘managed’ ballots as well. This time, however, things turned out less manageable than usual. The widespread and vocal public protest of the winter of 2011-12, news of which flew around the country in a few keystrokes, exposed all of the regime’s rottenness and trickery. And the anger of a revitalized civil society was directed at the leader in person, under the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Putin, ukhodi!’ [Putin – out!]. His party fared badly in the parliamentary elections of December 2011, and in Moscow itself its performance was a complete disaster.

Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin built his power and legitimacy on order, rising living standards and Russia’s growing global status. However, he will have more difficulty delivering in all three of these areas in the months and years to come, and he will be held to account for it. (more…)

Remembering the war: 70 years on in the Hero-City of Novorossiisk

By Sarah J Young, on 9 May 2013

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

Local war commemoration in Russia persists through the invention of tradition, finds postgraduate student Vicky Davis.

Over the last decade, remembrance of World War II in Russia has become increasingly visible in a state-sponsored revival of the war cult of the Brezhnev era. On significant anniversaries, notably Victory Day, 9th May, Russians celebrate in a series of special events, the most well known of which is the massive military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Honoured veterans don their uniforms and are showered with gifts and privileges, proof of their special status in society. Most people wear the popular symbol of memory introduced in 2005, the George ribbon, and even those staying at home cannot escape the programme of war films and music around that date. The President makes speeches and takes tea with veterans, confident that memory of the war is the one theme that cannot fail to unify the country. It seems that, in Russia, memory of the war has been re‑appropriated as a political tool, just as living witnesses are rapidly disappearing, rendering it increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

It is not surprising that on 2nd February this year President Putin and the world’s press were gathered in the Russian city of Volgograd. Formerly known as Stalingrad, the city was celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat and final surrender of the enemy in 1943 after months of bitter struggle, marking the pivotal point of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Stalingrad was one of the first of the thirteen towns honoured as Hero-Cities of the Soviet Union for their significant role in the war.

On the day following the Stalingrad ceremonies, commemorations were also held in Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea, made a Hero-City of the Soviet Union in 1973, long after the end of the war, thanks to the involvement in its liberation of Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader. In turn, Novorossiisk was remembering the seventieth anniversary of the landings onto occupied territory by Soviet troops, who went on to hold the small beach‑head, known as ‘Malaia zemlia’, for seven months prior to the liberation of the town in September 1943. The heroes of this localised campaign are commemorated through an amalgam of memoir, monuments and ritual, rendered particularly paradoxical by the discrepancy between the relative insignificance of the actual campaign as it unfolded at the time and the importance attributed to it retrospectively thanks to Brezhnev’s inflated war memoirs.

As the war in Novorossiisk, and indeed in Russia as a whole, is on the cusp of the transition from living memory to history, my research project analyses the relationship and interaction between different forms of memorialization in the construction and propagation of present‑day inter‑generational remembrance in Novorossiisk. I had planned this year’s trip to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Malaia zemlia landings on the night of 3rd to 4th February, which are commemorated annually in a ceremony unique to the town, ‘Beskozyrka’. In 1968, at the beginning of the Brezhnev era, this ritual was invented to mark the 25th anniversary of the landings by a group of young people in search of romantic adventure and forming the ‘crew’ of an imaginary yacht, the ‘Shkhuna rovesnikov’ (the Schooner of fellows). (more…)