Until the protest movement burst onto Russia’s streets at the end of 2011, Putin had presided over (as both President and Prime Minister) 11 years of relatively unchallenged rule.
The basis of the relative political hegemony was not simply his authoritarian style; it was the economic revival that he oversaw upon taking power.
Russia’s economy was in near total ruin after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first blow came from the loss of Soviet states and colonies; the second from the conversion to a fully functioning free market. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund spearheaded a program of wholesale privatisations.
The result of these changes was not merely short-term unemployment and poverty, but all that flows from this, including an astounding drop in male life expectancy to 57.6 in 1994.
A number of the old Communist Party bureaucrats used their positions to buy up state-owned industries. They formed a layer of “new oligarchs” that amassed huge wealth and power.
Upon taking control of Russia, charged with restoring health to a battered economy and rebuilding the authority of the state, Putin had one key tactic—regaining state control of oil and gas reserves. Using the enormous revenues from the process, Putin was able to improve living standards and oversee record growth in the economy.
In exchange for these improvements Russia saw a growing divide between rich and poor and political freedoms were limited. So when oil prices plummeted in 2008, and the bottom went out of Putin’s profits, there was less money for social services. Suddenly, those mechanisms by which Putin had maintained support were no longer available.
Initially, Putin was fairly successful at channelling any disagreement to these austerity measures into nationalist causes, focusing on rebuilding Russia’s profile on the world stage. This anti-Western sentiment has culminated in a number of tense diplomatic standoffs in the modern period: over Russian expansion in Georgia; over gas supplies to the Ukraine and over global conflicts such as the ongoing dispute in Syria. Of course, the West’s objections to Putin’s rule are hypocritical. In reality, Russian expansion and muscle flexing is of a piece with that the US, and a number of other imperial stylists in the West.
Despite this hypocrisy, criticism of Putin’s rule is no less apt. Between 2008 and 2011, there was little in the way of the way of public protest. The opposition movements had been effectively marginalised, divided and isolated by years of authoritarian rule. However, as the economic crisis continues to bite in Russia, Putin faces a much tougher start to his second decade at the head of the Russian state.