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The Ends-Justifies-the-Means Logic Led Russia to War and Repression

Maxim Trudolyubov
Protestors demanding action to free Russian political prisoners hold up a sign of Alexei Navalny
NEW YORK: April 21, 2023 - Activists rally on Times Square in New York demanding action to free political prisoners in Russia

“Do you hate the judge? Do you hate Putin even more now than before, they keep asking me now, after my new sentence,” Russia’s central opposition figure Alexei Navalny writes in his new letter from prison. He calls this letter a “confession,” but it can be viewed as his political manifesto just as well.

A week ago in a secretive court session, which took place inside prison walls, Navalny was sentenced to nineteen additional years in prison, ostensibly for “extremism” but in reality, his followers and human rights advocates say, for his political activity and anti-corruption activism. Navalny is already serving a nine-year term on other charges.

Yes, Navalny says, I do have grudges against the cynical judges, the thievish police, the arrogant FSB agents. But I save my real and deep loathing for “those who sold, guzzled away, and wasted the historical chance that our country had in the early nineties.”

“I hate the people we used to call reformers and who were in fact swindlers interested only in lining their own pockets, Navalny writes. “Which other country has so many ministers of the ‘government of reforms’ who are now millionaires and billionaires?” Navalny goes on. “I hate the authors of the blatantly authoritarian 1993 constitution, which they sold to us idiots as democratic, giving the president the powers of a full-fledged czar.”

“Yes, the very court system that is now dishing out to the innocent sentences ranging from eight years to fifteen to twenty years was built long before Putin. It is clear as day now: no one in the Kremlin and the government of the nineties wanted an independent court. They did not want it because it would have been a hindrance to corruption, election fraud, and the transformation of governors and mayors into entrenched local lords.”

“I hate the entire leadership of Russia, which had absolute power in 1991 in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, a leadership that did not even try to launch obvious democratic reforms. Those kinds of reforms did work in the Czech Republic, in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and other former communist countries of Central Europe. There definitely were some good people in those post-Soviet Russian governments, but they were a tiny minority. They were an exception that only highlighted the massive corruption of the then power elite.”

What Navalny is saying here summarizes a what-went-wrong and who-lost-Russia debate, taking place inside and outside Russia, about the mistakes made during the Yeltsin (1991–1999) and early Putin (1999–2004) period of Russia’s recent history.

It is striking and important that Navalny’s “confession” does not even mention the popular adage about the West being insensitive to the struggling new democracy, which needed a “Marshall plan” of sorts to help it out of the Soviet rubble and push it to a full membership of the free world.

Navalny does not mention NATO expansion, security threats, debilitating influences of Western culture, or any other external issues that the Kremlin uses to explain Russia’s plight and the Kremlin’s aggressive response to challenges.

All causes for where Russia is today, Navalny effectively says, have been domestic. Moreover, Navalny does not blame the current state of affairs on security forces, the KGB successor FSB, or even Putin himself.

This is where the word “confession” is fully explained. Navalny places responsibility for Russia’s current aggression and corruption squarely on the very forces that were seen as the most progressive during Russia’s benign post-Soviet years.

Psychologists call this the “locus of control.” You can always find some external forces that are driving the events in your life. You can always blame your failings on fate, god, or Putin—in that case, your locus of control would be external. Russia could not influence the West’s decision to expand NATO or Ukraine’s decision to drift westward rather than stay in Moscow’s orbit. That’s why Russia went rogue, the logic of external locus of control goes.

But you can also adopt a belief that you control your own destiny. In that case your locus of control would be internal. External factors do not go away, of course, but you make a voluntary decision to see your own steps as reasons for where you are now. Russian society had a chance to take an intolerant view of corruption. It could have resisted election fraud, it could have elected leaders of competence and integrity, the logic of internal locus of control goes.

In his letter from prison, Navalny is following this latter logic and does not exclude himself from the domestic decision-makers he blames for the current moral catastrophe.

“I hate the ‘independent media’ and the ‘democratic community’ [of the nineties] that provided full support for one of the most dramatic turning points in our recent history—the rigging of the 1996 presidential election. Again, I was an active supporter of all this at the time. Not election fraud, of course—I would not have liked it even then—but I did my best to ignore it, and the general unfairness of the election did not embarrass me one bit. Now we are paying for the fact that in 1996 we thought that election fraud was not always a bad thing. The ends justify the means.”

One of the architects of Russia’s post-Soviet political system, a top official turned banker whom many saw as liberal, Igor Shuvalov, formulated the idea of subordinating the legislative power to the tasks of the executive in his dissertation "The Government of the Russian Federation in the Lawmaking Process" (2004). He argued back then that the best legislator is the government. “The majority of federal laws should come from the government. Practice is often ahead of legislation.” To summarize, the role of society and its deputies sitting in parliament is not to prevent experts from working.

This was a pervasive argument back then. The 1996 presidential elections were not free and fair. Yeltsin “won” despite being deeply unpopular, but the reason for rigging the electoral process was noble: Russia’s weak democracy needed time to stabilize and defend itself from backsliding into authoritarianism. True experts needed freedom from pesky supervision to roll up their sleeves and build a functioning state. The ends justify the means.

Laws, media, business, and civil society should be the tools of those who know what needs to be done and how. The creators and operators of Russia’s post-Soviet political system never saw it as an autocracy or as “Putin's dictatorship” but as a system operated by experts, knowledgeable people, masters, that is, as a technocracy. A technocracy that is unsupervised by the unwashed masses, but the masses needed to be educated first to be able to make responsible decisions at the voting booth. Until the education is complete, the voting booth will be unavailable. But only temporarily, until all the expert work is done.

Today’s Russia is a living example of where this logic leads. The “experts” in power for the most part are still the same people who were building a functioning state in the early 2000s in the best interests of the people.

Now these same people are persecuting “foreign agents,” “extremists,” and “falsifiers” of the successes of the Russian armed forces—because of course they still need freedom from pesky supervision to do the job properly. Except that the job they are doing now is war and repression.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more