How Vladimir Putin’s desperate hold on power is fuelling the next revolution

by Michael Petrou

Illustration by Adrian Lee

In late April, the forests surrounding Pikalyovo, an industrial city 250 km east of St. Petersburg, are still blanketed with melting snow. Elderly men and women stomp through them looking for pussy willows to decorate their homes or sell at weekend markets to supplement their pensions.

Closer to town, wooden houses sink unevenly into the thawing earth, most retaining only a few flecks of coloured paint. The city’s skyline emerges, low and drab. It is partially obscured by drizzling spring mists and smoke billowing from towering red and white smokestacks that look like dirty candy canes.

The smokestacks belong to a massive factory complex that is the primary employer in this town of 25,000. Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire oligarch and one of the richest men in Russia, owns the biggest of the three factories that produce cement and brick. Like most Russian tycoons, he got rich in the turbulent 1990s, when government control of business collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and a few ambitious and often politically connected men made gobs of money picking up what the state had dropped.

Deripaska, 45 years old with a wife and two children, frequently sports stylish stubble and a relaxed wardrobe—fleece and open-necked shirts. He has the physique for it. Deripaska’s slick personal website, written in English and Russian, shows off his business and philanthropic accomplishments. He says he wants to help Russia improve as a nation, but unlike some of his oligarch colleagues, Deripaska has always known not to challenge Vladimir Putin directly. He made his money and steered clear of politics.

But the two worlds collided here in 2009. There were widespread layoffs that year, and even employed workers were not receiving cheques. The town’s main utility company, also owned by Deripaska, shut off heat and hot water to residents because of unpaid bills. Factory workers and residents demonstrated and eventually shut down the highway to St. Petersburg, causing a traffic jam 400 km long.

This prompted a visit from Putin, who was then prime minister. He summoned Deripaska, along with town officials and other factory owners, to a meeting where he scolded them like naughty schoolchildren. Television cameras recorded everything—more theatrics from a politician who understood the medium’s potential better than any of his predecessors.

“You made thousands of people hostage to your ambitions, to your unprofessionalism and, maybe, simply to your greed,” he told them. Putin then made the factory owners pledge in writing to rehire laid-off workers and pay missing wages.

What followed must have been watched on television by half the city.

“Did everybody sign this agreement,” Putin demanded. “Deripaska, have you signed? I can’t see your signature?.?.?.?Come here!”

Deripaska did as he was told, trying to quickly read the pages while Putin sat and waited with undisguised contempt. Deripaska likely realized he didn’t have much time, and wouldn’t be able to amend any of the clauses anyway. He signed; Putin growled: “And now give me my pen back.”

That moment says much about why Putin is still the undisputed leader of Russia—the only power that matters. Dmitry Medvedev, then serving as a placeholder president, had reportedly ordered the local governor to fix the problem in March. Nothing happened. But after Putin’s intervention, workers received text messages informing them their wages had been paid.

Moscow might have its liberal street marchers and balaclava-clad feminist punk bands cursing Putin. But here, in the real Russia, in a city whose industries once fed the war effort against Nazism, Putin showed himself to be the country’s guarantor of stability and wealth. He stood against the oligarchs who grew rich during Russia’s ill-conceived rush to democratize in the 1990s, while ordinary Russians suffered. In one afternoon, he delivered wages and jobs—and social peace.

And yet Pikalyovo also says much about why Vladimir Putin is vulnerable. Putin has effectively made himself the state. The national Duma, or parliament, is a subservient puppet show dominated by his United Russia party and hosting others that are oppositional only in name. Regional governors depend on the Kremlin and act accordingly. Most media parrot its positions. Dissent is criminalized. There are few truly independent institutions.

This might not be a threat to Putin if the state functioned well. But it doesn’t. It is wasteful, reliant on ever-rising oil prices, and crippled by corruption. Opposition leaders have largely failed to spark street protests outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, but their message, that Putin’s United Russia is a party of “swindlers and thieves,” resonates because Russians can see state incompetence and thievery all around them—from pitted roads to the bribes necessary to secure a child’s position at a decent school. All of this sticks to Putin.

Even Pikalyovo, on second glance, shouldn’t be considered a Putin victory. Things never would have gotten so bad, notes Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, if Russia had a functioning local legislature or independent courts that might have mediated or forced factory owners to pay workers missing wages. Putin needed to intervene because state institutions that should have made his visit unnecessary were broken.

“What Pikalyovo demonstrates is that there is no vertical of power. There is only Putin,” says Judah.

In Pikalyovo today there is grudging gratitude toward Putin, mixed with sarcasm. “Our saviour,” one factory worker quips.

He stands near a grey apartment block that sprouts sagging balconies beneath its windows. A large United Russia banner is affixed to one of the walls. Only local authorities would have the means to erect the banner where it is. These sorts of partisan promotions are common in the regions.

There is a new modern swimming complex on the edge of the city. But Pikalyovo’s downtown doesn’t appear to have changed much since Soviet times. A large statue of Vladimir Lenin stands opposite a colonnaded town hall-like building painted in chipped yellow and topped with a Communist hammer and sickle. Few pedestrians stroll the sidewalks. On a Saturday morning it is near impossible to find even a hot cup of tea, and the only restaurant open is a trailer shawarma joint parked near some dreary apartment buildings and run by a couple of men from the Caucasus.

Boris Cherkunov, 54, walks slowly from the square through a light drizzle. He has blue watery eyes, wears a leather cap and nylon jacket, and smells of booze.

“Before Putin came, I hadn’t been paid in three months and was about to be laid off,” he says.

He’s working now, but when asked about Putin, Cherkunov shrugs. He voted for the Communist candidate in last year’s presidential election. “During the Soviet Union, there was stagnation, but at least we could live.”

Like many of the workers Maclean’s meets, Cherkunov says the protest that brought Putin to Pikalyovo could never happen again. Some workers claim strikes are now banned. Putin himself condemned the road blockage in 2009, called it illegal, and said nothing similar would be tolerated in the future.

But Pikalyovo’s workers are not expected to be politically neutral. Vladimir, who preferred not to give his last name, is employed at a mine supplying ore for the factories. He says that prior to the presidential election last year, one of the factory’s top bosses came to town and gathered staff for a meeting.

“He urged us to vote for Putin,” Vladimir recalls. “He said things were stable now, but without Putin that could change, and hard times could return.”

That is the pitch Putin has been making to Russians for more than a dozen years: Russia, once a world power, teetered on the edge of an abyss before I came to lead it. It is still assailed by enemies on the outside and from within. Only I am strong and determined and patriotic enough to keep them at bay, to restore Russia’s pride, and to personally guide it back to its rightful place as a great and respected nation. We have accomplished so much already, but without me all this could vanish like blown dust, as Russia’s glory nearly vanished before. I am the indispensable leader.

For a long while, Russians bought it. The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were not free and fair. But no one seriously doubts that Putin won them. Where many in the West saw autocracy, Russians saw strength and a bulwark against instability. Constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive presidential term, Putin served one term as prime minster from 2008 to 2012.

He returned to the presidency last year and may now run the country until 2024, when he will be 71 and millions of Russians won’t be able to recall when their country was governed by anyone else. For the rest of the world, it looks very much like the same old Putin at play—intransigent on Syria and at odds with the rest of the G8, using punk bands as political punching bags, and mischievous in dealing with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

But Russia is a different place than it was when Putin first came to power. Memories of the 1990s are fading. A new generation of Russians expects more from its politicians than regular pension cheques. Thousands of them are willing to march against Putin, risking arrest and long jail terms in defence of democratic freedoms long assumed to be alien to the Russian psyche. And even Russians who feel little affinity with street protesters in Moscow question why their country remains so corrupt and poorly run. This is the nation that Putin seeks to lead for another decade.

Maclean’s travelled 1,000 km through western Russia—a trip that encompasses a fragment of Russia’s enormous mass—and spoke to workers, soldiers, retirees, politicians, Kremlin insiders, and those hoping to drive Putin from power, in an effort to understand how Putin has changed Russia, why he’s been able to hold on to power for so long, and whether he’ll be able to keep it.

What emerges is a portrait of an increasingly defiant strongman, a population that once embraced him and the stability that he promised, and a nation that may now be slowly but irrevocably slipping from his grasp.

1969, St. Petersburg, Russia: A young Vladimir Putin dances with a girl named Elena while in 9th grade at a secondary school. — Image by AC epa/Corbis

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in a swamp that became a grand city that was barely saved from being utterly razed and returned to swamp.

St. Petersburg was the capital of the czarist Russian Empire for more than 200 years. Peter the Great wanted it to be Russia’s gateway to Europe, a rival to the great cities to the west. After the Russian Revolution, the capital was returned to Moscow, and St. Petersburg (briefly known as Petrograd) was renamed Leningrad. Germans besieged the city for almost 900 days during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, survivors in some cases reduced to cannibalism. Adolf Hitler would have refused surrender were it offered. He wanted the city destroyed.

It survived, battered and damaged, like its residents. After the war, on broad avenues such as Nevsky Prospekt, stately multi-storey apartments that had once housed the czarist bourgeoisie were overstuffed with new arrivals from the countryside. Dingy bars medicated war veterans. Street urchins, orphaned by war, ran everywhere.

The war left its mark on Putin. Born in 1952, his slight frame and small stature are common to children of women malnourished during the siege. His mother, Maria, almost starved then. At least one of her sons had died shortly after birth a decade earlier; another fell to diphtheria during the siege. When Putin was born, Maria was over 40 years old and he was her only child. She indulged him. His former teacher, Vera Gurevich, told Judah that Putin’s mother breastfed him for two years.

Putin’s grandfather was a cook who, after the First World War, worked in one of Stalin’s dachas (cottages). His father, Vladimir, was a factory foreman. During the Second World War he fought in an NKVD secret service unit that engaged in perilous sabotage missions behind German lines and was badly wounded. It seems he was emotionally distant toward his son. “My parents never told me anything about themselves,” Putin later recalled. “Especially my father. He was a silent man.”

Gurevich told Judah that she would often check on Putin. She was concerned that he didn’t do his homework and ran around with older boys who liked to smoke, spit and drink. She once grabbed him in the courtyard of the apartment block where he lived. “How dare you?” he protested. “Not even my father beats me.”

Gurevich remembers the apartment building where Putin was raised as a horrendous, freezing place, full of rats, with no hot water, dangerous gaps in the stairs, and a filthy shared toilet on one of the landings.

It still stands today, painted in a dull yellow pastel that is peeling and chipped here and there. A satellite dish protrudes from one of the walls. A short walk away is the restored grandeur of Nevsky Prospekt, but Baskov Lane is dull and quiet. Next door to Putin’s old home is an office belonging to Transneft, the fraud-ridden, state-owned oil pipeline company. There is a café on the corner and an antiques shop down the block. On the entranceway wall to the courtyard where Putin’s teacher once grabbed him, someone has spray-painted “All cops are bastards” in misspelled Russian. There is no commemorative plaque.

Putin has said his fascination with the KGB began with the ubiquitous espionage novels of his youth. He also consumed popular Cold War-era movies depicting the daring acts of spies. A favourite was The Sword and the Shield about a Soviet secret agent in Nazi Germany. “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education,” he said. This led him to volunteer for the secret service when he was in the ninth grade. He was turned away with a suggestion to study law.

Eventually, though, Putin did make it into the KGB. His instructors decided he had limited potential. He was closed off and unsocial—good enough to send abroad, but not anywhere really exciting like London or Washington. Instead, Putin was posted to Dresden, East Germany—not even outside the Soviet orbit. He was assigned to intelligence gathering and tried to draft future undercover agents, with little success.

The Dresden post became less dull in 1989. The Berlin Wall was breached, and an angry German mob surrounded the KGB offices, which were near those of the Stasi East German secret police. Putin, though likely not the most senior officer present, confronted the crowd outside. He told them the building belonged to the Soviets and armed men would defend it. He was bluffing. Putin called a local military unit and was told: “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow, and Moscow is silent.”

“I got the feeling that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared,” Putin later recalled. “It was clear that the Union was ailing. And that it had a terminal disease without a cure—a paralysis of power.” Germany reunited. Other countries of the Warsaw Pact broke free. Soon the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and Putin’s world fell apart.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Putin once called the end of the Soviet Union the greatest disaster of the 20th century. It is a widely repeated quote, but probably misunderstood. Putin did not miss Stalin, terror, the prospect of nuclear war, or even outright dictatorship. He no doubt lamented the loss of Russian power on the world stage, and would work to restore it. But the Soviet collapse also affected Putin, and millions like him, on a deeply personal level.

Putin had gone to Germany as one of those glorified characters he once read about in spy novels. His posting in Dresden was a minor one. But he was still a protector and builder of the Soviet state—as were countless other spooks, police, soldiers, and those working in the state’s military-industrial complex. He returned, aged 37, to a country where people openly scorned what he had dedicated his life to doing. It was an embittering experience. The repercussions are visible today in Putin’s brittle pride, and in the hostility he shows toward his liberal opponents. But the experience also helped build one of the pillars of Putin’s support today.

Putin, as president, has rehabilitated the foot soldiers of the U.S.S.R. He doesn’t celebrate the Soviet system. He once told a German interviewer that Russians believe anyone who doesn’t regret the Soviet collapse has no heart, while anyone who does has no brain. Putin has a brain. But he also knows many Russians want to feel pride rather than shame about their country’s history and their contributions to it.

“The key to Putin’s propaganda was promising people that even though the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore, the sense of esteem they had in the U.S.S.R.—that could exist again,” says Judah, the biographer.

“What he was saying was that even though the Soviet Union was stupid, it was cruel, and we suffered and we died from it, Soviet heroes are still Soviet heroes, the achievements of the U.S.S.R. are still the achievements of the U.S.S.R., and your role and your life and your understanding of what it was and who you were is key.”

Putin has only been able to exploit nostalgia for the order and purpose of the Soviet era because what followed for Russians in the 1990s was such a disaster. The decade saw steep economic and political decline. Russia was no longer feared. Its citizens lost their life savings. State businesses collapsed and oligarchs got rich on the remains. Crime soared. Heroin use exploded. The once mighty Russian army got slapped around and sent home by a bunch of Muslim bandits in Chechnya. And overseeing all this was Russia’s first president, the bumbling and buffoonish alcoholic, Boris Yeltsin. It was embarrassing.

“Nothing good happened in the 1990s,” says Evgeni, a retired railway worker living in Okulovka, a small town between Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Everything was falling apart. I didn’t get paid for months. Then I was laid off. We lived off our land. We grew everything ourselves—potatoes, mostly. We kept some pigs. People don’t need to do that anymore. Now we can just buy food in stores.”

Other formerly Communist countries of the Soviet bloc suffered economic hardship during the 1990s, but Russians had to deal with an additional psychological trauma, says Maria Lipman, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s society and regions program. The Poles were newly free of a foreign occupier. They had a sense of unity and purpose. Russians didn’t. They had failed themselves.

Putin moved back to Leningrad. Czarist Russia’s imperial showpiece was now a gangster capital.

Murder rates shot up. An oil executive was killed with a rocket-propelled grenade. Mafioso sat on city council. The rest of Russia was much the same. Everyone paid protection money to someone.

Putin, who still worked for the KGB, took a job at Leningrad State University as assistant chancellor for foreign relations. He was there less than three months and then, in the spring of 1990, left to join the staff of Anatoly Sobchak, an already well-known and avowedly democratic politician on city council.

How he began working with Sobchak is disputed. Sobchak claimed he bumped into Putin in the halls of the university. Putin said he went to see Sobchak after a lecture. Russian author Masha Gessen suggests Putin was steered toward Sobchak by the KGB, which wanted someone close to a rising political star.

When and if Putin finally stopped working for the KGB is “not only not a matter of public record but not even the subject of coherent mythmaking,” Gessen writes in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Putin claimed that after much personal anguish, he wrote his resignation letter in 1990, while working for Sobchak, after another city councillor tried to blackmail Putin by exposing him as a KGB officer. This letter was supposedly lost. But Putin claims he didn’t write a second one until August 1991, during the attempted KGB-backed coup by Communist hardliners against Gorbachev, which Putin says he opposed.

The coup failed. Putin continued to work for Sobchak, who became St. Petersburg’s first elected mayor in June 1991. He also moved into politics—briefly heading the St. Petersburg branch of the pro-government “Our Home—Russia” party.

After Sobchak lost the St. Petersburg mayoral election in 1996, Putin moved to Moscow and took a job as deputy head of the presidential property management department.

Gessen says this post sounds a lot like an “active reserve” position for members of the secret service, something with “little public responsibility but lots of access.”

His new job couldn’t have been too demanding. Putin found time to write and defend a dissertation on the economics of natural resources—though much of it was plagiarized, so it’s possible he really was working hard managing property.

Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle included men who had worked with Sobchak and knew and trusted Putin from his St. Petersburg days. These connections opened doors for Putin in the Kremlin. In 1997 he joined Yeltsin’s presidential staff, and the following year Yeltsin appointed him head of the FSB, Russia’s main domestic security agency and a successor of the KGB, which was dissolved in 1991. Even if Putin had never completely cut his ties to Russia’s spy agencies, this must have felt like a homecoming.

Putin’s rise continued. Yeltsin made him prime minister in August 1999. Following an invasion by Chechen militants of the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan, Russia sent troops back into Chechnya. The new prime minster endorsed the war and promised to hunt down the “terrorists” wherever they could be found.

“And if we capture them in the toilet, we will waste them in the outhouse,” he said.

His resolve and earthy prose were popular, especially given a series of deadly apartment bombings in Russian cities that September, blamed on Chechens. When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year’s Eve, making Putin acting president, his public standing was already moving him past rivals manoeuvring to succeed Yeltsin. He won the presidency on the first round of voting three months later.

“I don’t belong to any party, but it’s a fact that things started to change when Putin came to power,” says Andrei Karpushenko, owner of an Okulovka hotel and a municipal politician.

“Before there was a lot of crime, a lot of murders. If someone went to St. Petersburg or Moscow for supplies, they’d be robbed. Businessmen had to hire protection. After Putin, people’s salaries got bigger. Businesses started to grow. Schools and kindergartens got fixed up.”

The expansive bar and dining room in Karpushenko’s hotel is spartan and a bit rundown. Countless holes from smouldering cigarette ash make the tablecloths look like they have been blasted with shotgun pellets. But business is steady. The hotel hosts everything from motocross competitions to touring strip shows. A few dozen patrons fill the dining hall on a Thursday night, drinking beer and vodka for prices that are a fraction of what they would be in Moscow.

Karpushenko takes me on a daytime tour through Okulovka and the surrounding countryside. He is cheerful and upbeat. A sludge pit where runoff from local industry destroyed a swath of woodland is still black and a little smelly, but the forest is reclaiming it. A river that rages through town has potential to bring in whitewater enthusiasts. Scores of brightly coloured kayaks stacked at a riverside park await customers and warmer weather. At least one of the town’s factories is expanding.

The roads, however, are bone-jarringly awful. Karpushenko blames the regional government. Beside one is a deserted construction site. The building was supposed to be a sporting complex, but six years after work on it began the only thing completed is its foundation. “It’s hard to know who stole the budget,” Karpushenko says. He points toward some nearby hills. A local politician built his dacha there, he says, on what used to be communal grazing land.

We finish the tour at Okulovka’s recently built hospital. The old one, where Karpushenko was born, looks like an abandoned country inn—wooden walls and broken panes of glass. The new one is white brick and several storeys high. It is decorated with a banner promoting the political party led by Vladimir Putin: “Together we’re powerful. We’re the future. United Russia.”

When Putin first addressed the nation as acting president in 1999, he praised Yeltsin for being a democratic reformer and promised: “Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media, property rights—these basic principles of civilized society will be safe under the protection of the state.”

It’s difficult to imagine Putin making such a speech today. And yet in the early days of his first presidency there were many who might have believed him. To outside eyes, it helped that he seemed especially keen to bring Russia closer to the West.

“I want Russia to be part of Europe,” he told NATO secretary-general George Robertson in February 2000. The next year he asked Robertson when he was going to invite Russia to join NATO. Putin lost interest when told that Russia would have to apply like any other nation, but Putin continued his push for closer co-operation.

In 2002, Russia secured permanent offices for its generals at NATO headquarters. “Russia is returning to the family of civilized nations,” Putin said at a press conference after the signing ceremony.

Even some of Putin’s Russian opponents think he showed democratic inclinations early on. Gennady Gudkov is today one of Putin’s fiercest political foes. A large man with a walrus moustache, Gudkov was recently kicked out of the Duma, where he was a member of the nominally oppositional A Just Russia party.Officially this was because he allegedly violated parliamentary financial rules; most people believe he was punished for criticizing Putin. Someone yelled “Judas!” at Gudkov moments before the Duma vote to expel him.

Despite his current stance, Gudkov says the Russian president “started as a very democratic leader.” His views are not unique in Russia. It is easy to find Russians today opposed to Putin—including the most liberal street demonstrators in Moscow—who once believed Putin really was a democratic reformer.“In the early 2000s there was public consensus that we needed someone like him,” says Karen Vartapetov, a young credit analyst who used to work in the Ministry of Finance and has recently become politically active—marching against Putin and volunteering as an election observer. It’s something he says he couldn’t have imagined doing only a few years ago.

Despite his current stance, Gudkov says the Russian president “started as a very democratic leader.” His views are not unique in Russia. It is easy to find Russians today opposed to Putin—including the most liberal street demonstrators in Moscow—who once believed Putin really was a democratic reformer.“In the early 2000s there was public consensus that we needed someone like him,” says Karen Vartapetov, a young credit analyst who used to work in the Ministry of Finance and has recently become politically active—marching against Putin and volunteering as an election observer. It’s something he says he couldn’t have imagined doing only a few years ago.

Gleb Pavlovsky is perhaps better positioned than anyone to understand Putin’s political evolution. A freethinking dissident during the Soviet era, Pavlovsky was never an obvious candidate to guide Putin, a consummate conformist, to political power.But Pavlovsky was a Kremlin insider since Yeltsin picked Putin as his successor, and advised Putin for more than a decade, until 2011.

With his short-cropped white hair, square-framed glasses, and a droll, unruffled expression, Pavlovsky looks the part of a backroom political operative. Putin was his project.“He had a high level of intellect, an understanding of the essence of problems, great flexibility, and a willingness to change plans if necessary,” says Pavlovsky. “I saw an almost ideal president. I was very glad that Yeltsin’s choice stopped with him and not anyone else.”

Pavlovsky describes Putin’s system of government, which he helped create, as “managed democracy.”

“In some sense it was a democracy. In some sense it was bound by an informal method of interference. In 2000 we all wanted a more harsh government, a more autocratic method. There was consensus among the left and right. We wanted more harsh methods, more discipline, less freedom for the oligarchs.”

Managed, of course, is a soft euphemism for controlled or restricted. Pavlovsky’s conception of democracy is a flexible one. But he too would eventually split with Putin over his former protege’s anti-democratic drift and determination to retain power. A person who was an ideal president 10 years ago isn’t anymore, he says.

Pavlovsky’s break with Putin came in 2011. But signs that Putin’s commitment to democracy and Russian integration with the West was weak and capricious were evident much earlier, within a few years of his first election.

A series of Western moves fed Putin’s resentment early in his presidency. These included a perceived lack of gratitude and reciprocal goodwill after Russia’s assistance to the United States during the early days of the war in Afghanistan, and the expansion of NATO eastward into Eastern Europe and the Baltic states—a move Russia considered a belligerent encroachment into its own backyard.

But Putin is easily outraged, and maybe even a tepid honeymoon wasn’t sustainable. His hostility toward the West appears to come from a deeper place within him than does a desire for rapprochement with it. Faced with one of his country’s darkest tragedies, the 2004 hostage-taking and massacre of schoolchildren by Islamist radicals in Beslan, North Ossetia, Putin displayed a revealing paranoia.

Appearing on television the day after the siege ended, Putin said Russia’s external borders, “east and west,” were defenceless—this despite the fact that the school’s attackers had come from inside Russia.

“Some would like to tear from us a ‘juicy piece of pie,’ ” he continued. “Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed. Terrorism, of course, is just an instrument to achieve those aims.”

It’s hard to understand what motivates Putin to such conspiratorial accusations—a barely disguised suggestion that the West was willing to see children slaughtered to weaken Russia. Putin’s family and country suffered most at the hands of the Germans, but he shows no particular animosity toward that country and learned to speak German earlier and better than English. His Soviet education taught him to distrust the West, but that feels like an unsatisfactory explanation. He has little affection for much of Russia’s Soviet past, including the Communist party.

Perhaps it was simply easier for Putin to blame outside forces than to focus on Russia’s failure to prevent such an atrocity. In Beslan’s wake, Putin tightened political control within Russia, supposedly to increase “unity.” He cancelled the election of regional governors; Putin would now appoint them himself. He also changed the way Duma deputies were elected. Previously, voters in 225 constituencies directly elected half the deputies, while the rest were elected from party lists. Now all 450 deputies would come from party lists, and the vote percentage a party needed to earn to enter the Duma increased from five to seven per cent.

Neither of these measures could conceivably have prevented the Beslan tragedy. But they did concentrate power in Putin’s hands. Cancelling gubernatorial elections would prevent potential political rivals developing in the regions. Changes to the Duma elections made it difficult for parties the Kremlin couldn’t manage to enter parliament.

Putin had already taken steps to neutralize the Duma—and a potential rival who sought to control it. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the Yukos oil company, had been funding opposition parties that would be contesting the 2003 Duma elections. This violated an unspoken understanding between Putin and Russia’s tycoons that they would be left alone if they stayed out of politics. Worse, during a televised meeting with Putin, Khodorkovsky alleged corruption in state-owned oil companies.

Putin calmly reminded Khodorkovsky that Yukos had tax problems of its own. Privately he told Lord John Browne, former head of British Petroleum, “I’ve eaten more dirt than I need to from that man.”

Khodorkovsky was arrested within a year, charged with fraud, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Yukos’s assets were bought up for a fraction of what they were worth by a state oil company that was soon to be chaired by one of Putin’s cronies. While sitting in a Siberian prison, Khodorkovsky was found guilty of further charges, and his sentence extended.

Khodorkovsky’s prosecution sent a message to Russia’s elite that dissent would not be tolerated. Putin likely didn’t then anticipate a political challenge to his authority coming from regular people. This would quickly change with events, not in Russia but Ukraine.

Workers attach a pre-election poster featuring Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

“You don’t understand, George,” Putin once told American president George W. Bush, “that Ukraine is not even a state.”

It was worrying enough, from Putin’s perspective, when street protesters forced a change of government in Georgia in late 2003. But Georgia, though once part of the Soviet Union, is manifestly a non-Russian country, and a pipsqueak one besides. Ukraine is different. Some 17 per cent of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians, and many among Russia’s political and business elite trace their roots to Ukraine.

And now, in late 2004, Putin watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the centre of Kyiv to protest the results of a presidential election they believed had been rigged in favour of the establishment candidate, prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, firmly backed by Russia. “The tone here was hysterical,” says Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin wasn’t spooked simply because it seemed that Ukraine might slip out of Russia’s sphere of influence should the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, prevail. He also feared such a clear demonstration of people power and the possibility that it might spread.

Exactly how far the Kremlin went to ensure the results it wanted in Ukraine is still contested. Yushchenko was poisoned during the campaign. His face became jaundiced and horribly pockmarked, which gave him a macabre yet saintly appearance when addressing crowds in Kyiv. Who might have been responsible has never been established.

Putin sent his close adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, to Kyiv to work with the Yanukovych campaign and liaise between it and Moscow. Russian efforts to manage Ukrainian politics failed. A recall vote was forced. Yushchenko won. Pavlovsky found himself stranded in hostile territory, staying at a hotel in the centre of town surrounded by a sea of revolutionaries cloaked in the orange colour they had adopted as their own.

“My face was known,” he says. And so the Kremlin operative bought an orange scarf from a shop in his hotel lobby, wrapped it around his face, and slipped away.

Today, Pavlovsky smiles at the memory as he sits in a sunlit office full of knick-knacks and a handmade knitted doll that looks just like him—a gift from his Kremlin days. He says he felt like Alexander Kerensky, prime minister of the short-lived Russian provisional government of 1917, who once fled from the Bolsheviks disguised as a nurse.

Putin was not amused by events in Ukraine, and he took steps to ensure nothing of the sort would happen in Moscow. Kremlin strategists established a pro-Putin youth movement of their own called Nashi, which translates to the vaguely fascistic “Our own people.”

Members attended patriotic youth camps, staged pro-Putin rallies, and picketed foreign embassies they considered hostile to Russia. But the movement’s main purpose was to guard against a popular uprising in Moscow. One of its founders told Angus Roxburgh, a Putin biographer who worked as a Kremlin media consultant between 2006 and 2009, that members had to live within a 10-hour drive of Moscow, so they could take a night bus to the capital and occupy Red Square in the morning.

Challenging the Kremlin became increasingly dangerous. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of the Russian military in Chechnya, who had accused Russian security services of involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings blamed on Chechens, was murdered in 2006. No one has been convicted of the crime. Other journalists were beaten or murdered, with subsequent investigations typically lax and fruitless.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Russian FSB secret service, who also alleged Russia’s security services coordinated false-flag terrorist attacks on Russian soil, was poisoned in London. Russia has refused Britain’s request for the extradition of Andrey Lugovoy, a retired Russian spy and current Duma member whom Britain accuses of Litvinenko’s murder. The case generated international outrage, but not in Russia. Putin seemed secure.

His second presidential term expired in 2008. Maria Lipman says he could have amended the constitution to run for a third consecutive term and few would have objected. “His power was unchallenged and uncontested anywhere,” she says.

Instead, Putin stepped down as required by law and threw his support for the presidency behind Medvedev, then his first deputy prime minister and a former colleague from St. Petersburg. Medvedev won handily, and appointed Putin his prime minister.

The new president cast himself as a modernizer. While Putin liked to be photographed riding horseback or posing with a tranquilized tiger, Medvedev toured Silicon Valley and tried to create a similar high-tech hub in Russia. Western media made much of his affection for British rock bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. But it was Putin, not Medvedev, who remained the ultimate authority in Russia, and who still controlled Russia’s unofficial pillars of power in business and among the security services.

The nature of the Russian state didn’t change during Medvedev’s presidency. It remained corrupt, poorly run, and cruelly intolerant of criticism or exposure.

The fate of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered a multi-million-dollar tax fraud allegedly carried out by Russian officials, is emblematic. He was arrested on charges of colluding in tax evasion, abused, denied medical treatment, and left to die in prison. Russia then tried him posthumously. He was convicted of tax evasion this month, more than three years after his death.

There are countries, outright dictatorships, where rulers don’t need to care what the public thinks of them, and for the most part don’t. Russia isn’t like that. It may not be fully democratic, but its citizens are not powerless. Putin knows this. His power depends on retaining a sizable chunk of the public’s affection. One also gets the impression he wants it. He puts a lot of effort into cultivating his image.

Putin’s November 2011 visit to a mixed martial arts competition fit the pattern of other Kremlin public relations stunts. The event oozed virility and strength. Those watching were presumably Putin’s kind of people—strong, proud and patriotic. Even better, the Russian competitor, sporting a large crucifix, beat his American opponent.

But when Putin took the microphone to congratulate him, something unprecedented happened. Moscow’s Olimpisky stadium filled with jeers and boos. Putin looked stiff. Someone shouted: “Leave!”

The event was carried live on Russian television. Subsequent Russian news footage edited out the sound of booing. But the damage to Putin was done. Amateur video went viral on the Internet. When compliant newspapers later claimed the crowd was booing the American fighter, Jeff Monson, Russians flooded his Facebook page with messages of support.

The crowd’s reaction was like a surface ripple that hints at deeper changes below. It followed an announcement by Medvedev weeks earlier that Putin would run for president in the upcoming election and, if elected, would make Medvedev prime minster. Putin said the deal had been agreed to years earlier—basically confirming that Medvedev’s presidency was a sham, and suggesting the two of them could swap roles at will. How Russians felt about all this, it was implied, didn’t really matter.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when general discontent and cynicism in Russia began to focus itself into political opposition to Putin, but this announcement was at the very least an accelerant. Everywhere Maclean’s travelled, people were angry because of it. They call the switch “castling”—a chess manoeuvre designed to protect the king.

“The most dangerous thing fate can give a politician is an opportunity to finish his mission. At that point he doesn’t know what to do,” says Gleb Pavlovsky.

Putin’s former adviser believes Putin’s mission was over in 2008. If Putin had left politics then, Pavlovsky says, his time in office would be remembered as a bright spot in history. “But he destroyed it with his own hands when he decided to run for a third term.”

Pavlovsky publicly said Medvedev should have been allowed to contest the 2012 presidential election. Putin fired him.

Russian voters had their first chance to judge Putin’s impending return in parliamentary elections in December 2011. Even official results showed Putin’s United Russia party fell below 50 per cent of the vote, down 15 percentage points from 2007.

That month the largest street demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union hit Russia. Tens of thousands of anti-Putin protesters marched in Moscow, with smaller demonstrations in other cities. Seven years after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s “worst fears” had come true, says Lipman. “There were young people on the streets chanting: ‘Russia without Putin!’ ”

Protests continued throughout that winter and spring, culminating with a May rally in and near Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. Police arrested hundreds. One man who took part was recently sentenced to 4? years in prison. Others have been jailed for more than a year waiting for trials that just got under way this spring. Laws were passed that set boundaries on public demonstrations and imposed harsh penalties for violations. The Kremlin also staged counter-rallies, with thousands of Putin supporters bused to Moscow to show their love and patriotism.

In the midst of these duelling demonstrations, the presidential election was held. Putin won easily. That night he took the stage outside Red Square and spoke to a crowd of supporters—among them many young strong-looking men waving pro-Putin banners distributed by the supposedly apolitical civil service.

“We have won,” Putin said, with tears welling in his eyes.

“But this was not only an election of Russia’s president. This was a very important test for all of us, for all our people. We have shown that nobody can impose anything on us—no one and nothing!”

Political protests, or “provocations,” he said, had only one goal: “To destroy Russia’s statehood and to seize power.”

Putin stabbed the air above him with his finger. “We have won!” he repeated. “Glory to Russia!”

It was an illuminating speech that said much about how Putin would govern Russia and what he believed he must do to keep power. His victory was Russia’s victory, and his defeat would be the country’s also. Those opposed to him were traitors, stooges, or paid pawns of the West.

Putin had once believed he could gather all of Russia behind him—or at least his rhetoric claimed as much. By the time he ran for his third presidential term, his strategy had changed. Those who didn’t support him, or questioned his policies and actions, would not be courted, but sneered at and slandered as anti-Russian, or worse. Putin had turned politics into a culture war.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP/CP

Andrei Postnikov and his friend Gregor sit at a casual restaurant table in Zhukovsky, a small city about 40 km southeast of Moscow. There is a wooden tray holding six beers in front of them, along with a small carafe of vodka and a large plate of shrimp.

Anti-government protesters marched in Zhukovsky in 2009, two years before the big demonstrations in Moscow, and United Russia did poorly here in the 2011 Duma elections. But Postnikov and Gregor, both engineers, outgoing and friendly, are firm backers of Putin.

“Everyone is saying Putin is a tyrant, like Stalin, but he wouldn’t exist without people’s support,” says Gregor.

Those protesting Putin, he adds, are funded by the United States, and some get rich doing it. Others, he suggests, are simply dandies. Protesting is something to do when you are young and live in Moscow. In the provinces, he says, people are too busy working to march.

Both support a law signed by Putin requiring NGOs receiving international funding to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines. In June a Russian film festival that screens gay, lesbian, and transgender themed films, and holds discussions on similar matters, was fined more than $15,000 because it had not registered as a foreign agent. The festival denies it receives foreign funding.

Passage of the foreign-agent law preceded a general crackdown on foreign organizations that in recent months has seen raids conducted against charities, non-Orthodox churches, and a French language school. Russian officials, including tax inspectors and prosecutors, have conducted unannounced “checks” on at least 80 foreign NGOs this year—including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The legislation and the raids are part of Putin’s attempt to show that sinister foreign forces are trying to sow dissent and undermine the Russian state, just like in Ukraine. Government officials who visited Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office in March arrived with a camera crew from a state-run television channel that has previously produced films claiming America controls Russian opposition activists.

Pavlovsky, Putin’s former adviser, calls that narrative a “fairy tale.” But Postnikov and Gregor say Putin is right to guard against foreign attempts to meddle in Russian affairs.

“If somebody is involved in politics in my country and receives money from abroad, they should be carefully watched,” says Gregor.

They order more vodka and another tray of beer, sharing it with a reporter from Maclean’s. Postnikov’s face grows red and he starts to sweat. He says that two years ago the boss of his factory gathered employees together and told them to sign up for a pro-Putin organization. “I don’t know which one,” he says, wiping his brow with a napkin. “We just filled out the forms. We all voted for Putin anyways. Why not?”

The Kremlin’s obsession with alleged foreign subversion extends to Russian media as well.

Last year Vladimir Pozner, a television journalist on Channel One who has Russian, American and French citizenship, criticized the Duma, which he called the “state dura,” meaning “state fool.” Pozner immediately said it was a slip. But representatives of all four parties in the Duma responded by threatening a bill that would ban foreign nationals who “discredit Russia and state officials” from working for state-owned media.

“And you, Mr. Pozner, if you do not respect our country, will have time to find a job with your American or French colleagues,” they wrote in a letter to Pozner. He apologized. The threatened bill was never tabled.

Maclean’s met with Duma deputy Mikhail Starshinov, who signed the letter on behalf of United Russia, across the street from the Duma, in a Starbucks where the clientele is young and the music playlist features a lot of harmonicas. Starshinov has a trim build, sandy hair, and a default expression that is impassive, verging on cold.

“It’s very inappropriate to call what this man did a joke,” he says, speaking of Pozner. “A joke should have a punchline. What’s funny about it?

“I don’t agree that journalists should have the freedom to make such jokes. What this journalist said is a direct insult to the organs of authority, and this is completely unacceptable.”

Asked why protests have broken out against Putin, Starshinov says Russia is a democratic country, and the right to demonstrate against the government is protected. “But in my opinion, it’s not constructive,” he adds.

It’s put to him that protesters and their supporters would say their right to demonstrate is hardly safe—and the multiple arrests and harsh treatment of those who have publicly opposed Putin are proof of this.

“They broke the law. There’s no place where you can do anything you want,” says Starshinov.

Of course, members of Nashi and others attending pro-Putin rallies are somehow able to demonstrate without getting arrested and sentenced to years in prison.

“Maybe it’s because they don’t fight with police. Here you need a reason to arrest somebody,” Starshinov deadpans. “Maybe it’s different in Canada.”

Starshinov is a tough man to read. He begins gruff and evasive, shrugging and dispensing clipped and meaningless answers. What does he like about Putin? “Everything.” What does he hope Putin will accomplish in his third term? “His program is clear.”

And yet Starshinov stays and talks for an hour—an unusually long time for a politician who would rather be somewhere else. And as time goes by, his manners soften and he frequently breaks out in laughter, as if the whole discussion is a bit of a shared joke.

Some members of United Russia are simply careerists who recognize that their lives will be easier inside Putin’s tent than out. Starshinov may fit this description. But he does seem genuinely offended when it is suggested that Putin, in the eyes of many Westerners, is an autocratic thug.

“Putin is the president of the Russian Federation. He was elected by the people of the Russian Federation, and he answers to the Russian people,” he says.

“Russia is a totally separate civilization. You can’t measure Russia with your labels. It’s never been that way, and it’s never going to be.”

Vladimir Burmatov, another Duma member for United Russia, shares Starshinov’s loyalty to his boss—though it seems his admiration is sincere. Wearing a suit, he looks morose and bored as he fiddles with a business card and a heavy rain pounds on the clear plastic roof of a casual but trendy Moscow restaurant.

A couple of years ago, Burmatov tried to generate enthusiasm for Putin by creating a Twitter hashtag that translates to “Thank Putin for that.” His tweets thanked Putin because “Our rockets are stronger than their missile defence” and “The liberals have no chance.” Predictably, Burmatov’s hashtag was used by Putin’s opponents to thank him for all manner of misfortune, from a lack of food to political stagnation.

Burmatov says dissent is welcome in Russia. “There are always people who are not satisfied. We’ve done everything we can so that they can express their dissatisfaction without feeling they are being punished.”

He says the protesters arrested after the Bolotnaya Square demonstration threw chunks of pavement that injured police and civilians. “Because of their provocations many people have suffered. They deserve to be punished for their crimes.”

Burmatov rejects the notion that critical journalists are repressed in Russia. That so many journalists have been injured and killed here, and that the perpetrators of these crimes are rarely punished, is regrettable, he says. But he claims things are worse in the United States, where police attacked journalists covering the Occupy movement.

Burmatov, like Starshinov, says little substantial about Putin. According to Burmatov, Putin is motivated by a desire to improve people’s lives and to confront all the threats Russia faces. “You can tell Canadians that Vladimir Putin is one of the most successful and effective politicians ever, and you can tell them they should be jealous of us,” he says.

Russian journalists don’t think they are as protected as Starshinov and Burmatov say they are. Many learn that a critical stance may cost them their livelihood or worse.

In 2010, Oleg Kashin, a reporter who wrote about plans to push a highway through a forest near Moscow over the objections of local residents, was savagely beaten outside his home, losing a finger as he attempted to shield his head. No one has been convicted of the assault.

Kashin recently attended the funeral of Mikhail Beketov, another journalist who covered the proposed forest highway. Attacked in 2008, he succumbed to his injuries, including brain damage, in April. Few people attended his funeral.

“He was killed for writing the truth, and nobody came,” says Kashin. “It was demoralizing.”

Kashin now struggles to find work. “The worst thing,” he says, “is they’re waiting for us with open arms and huge salaries in the state media.”

There are still scattered independent voices—among them the radio station Echo of Moscow, and its deputy editor, Sergei Buntman. Moustached and wearing a rumpled blue corduroy jacket, Buntman apologizes for his near flawless English before switching to equally precise French. His cluttered desk includes a book about the 1972 Canada-U.S.S.R. hockey series. Russia could never ice such a team today, he says. The Soviet Union produced team-oriented hockey players, he says. Today’s players think first of themselves.

Buntman worries that Putin’s crackdown on peaceful opponents of the regime will radicalize them. “He doesn’t understand that when he’s arresting young people, he’s destroying a normal opposition, a normal movement of the young and clever and intellectual boys and girls,” says Buntman. “But he’s creating, like in czarist Russia, the tough fighters. It’s not the opposition that is creating a new revolution. It’s power.”

It’s a concern that Gennady Gudkov, the recently expelled Duma member, shares. Like Putin, Gudkov is a veteran of the KGB. And, also like Putin, he was traumatized by the breakup of the Soviet Union. “I lost my country,” he says.

Gudkov now worries that the Kremlin’s disdain for normal democratic checks and balances will radicalize Russians, pushing them toward violence and even civil war. He fears Russia itself may break up.

“Everything is forbidden,” he says. “We don’t have free elections. We don’t have parliamentary democracy.”

In theory, the Duma should function as a forum for legitimate opposition. But the Kremlin has co-opted it. Only three Duma members voted against the bill requiring NGOs that get foreign funding to register as foreign agents. Gudkov was one of them.

His former party, A Just Russia, is supposedly oppositional. But Gudkov says it has reached an agreement with the Kremlin in which its members will be allowed some minor regional posts, providing the party doesn’t back those on the streets calling for Putin to go. “It’s impossible to have parliamentary democracy when you don’t have any possibility of even expressing your opinion,” he says.

For Gudkov, street protests are Russia’s last chance to push Putin to negotiate and avoid a more serious crisis. He wants the dissolution of the Duma, reformed electoral legislation, and new elections based on those rules. The justice system should be overhauled, he says, as should the government’s ability to control so much of Russia’s media landscape.

“The task is to make this movement massive,” he says. “If we organize masses on the streets, we have the possibility to change power in a peaceful way. If not, civil conflict is inevitable.”

If there is a modern Russian equivalent of the Winter Palace, once home to czars and sacked by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917, it may not be the Moscow Kremlin, but the opulent suburb of Rublevka, west of the city.

Putin has a dacha here. And this is where many of Russia’s political and industrial elites live. They are a diverse mix—oligarchs who had the good sense not to cross Putin; smalltime officials from Putin’s St. Petersburg days who came with him to Moscow; and siloviki, veterans of the security services who now enjoy lucrative second careers in government and business.

Connecting Rublevka to the city is a forest road that is frequently shut down so government officials can commute unimpeded by traffic. But Rublevka also has the necessary amenities to ensure its residents don’t have to leave too often: Bentley and Lamborghini dealerships, and a café selling $750 bottles of wine.

A French interior designer, who does not want to give his name, has many clients here. One, a woman with an oligarch husband “very close to power,” got nervous a couple of years ago when street protests in Moscow combined with revolution in the Arab world to make her worry that Putin—and therefore her family—might not be secure. She wanted a second home in Europe. The interior designer arranged for her to check out a promising French chateau by helicopter. She still lives in Rublevka, but the designer says she has furnished her house in a “minimalist” style, just in case she needs to leave quickly.

Most Putin supporters and allies are more dismissive of threats to his rule. They point out that large-scale protests have been limited to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they argue that thousands of demonstrators on the streets in Moscow are fairly inconsequential when the city has a population of 11 million. But judging the opposition—and its potential—by the number of protesters on Bolotnaya Square may be short-sighted.

Last year the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research (CSR) held focus group sessions with Russians in 16 regions across the country. The results reveal the same sort of discontent Maclean’s found in places like Pikalyovo and Okulovka. Russians believe their state is corrupt and inept. Support for Putin decreases monthly. This apparent trend is supported by polling data last year by the Russian Levada Center that showed only seven per cent of Russians believed Putin was “honest, decent, uncorrupted,” while 11 per cent thought he had never abused power.

What the focus groups did not uncover, however, was strong support for street protesters in Moscow. “The celebrity-studded Moscow demonstrations aroused not so much hostility as sheer incomprehension,” write Russia scholar Daniel Treisman and CSR president Mikhail Dmitriev in a recent essay.

This does not mean Russians in the regions are satisfied with the way they are governed. But their anger is rooted more i

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