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The talk of a thaw in Russia’s domestic politics started last year when the Kremlin proposed softening the country’s “anti-extremism” legislation. President Vladimir Putin himself spoke about police excesses and made a point of personally introducing extenuatory amendments, and in a matter of months, the number of “extremism” cases (mostly brought against people being punished for saying things online, see the Kennan Institute’s survey of the controversy) dropped.

Putin signed his amendments to Criminal Code Article 282, which bans incitement to ethnic, religious, or other forms of hatred, into law in December 2018. A number of other events that, as many in Russia think, fit the thaw pattern have taken place since then.

Last month in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, thousands protested against a plan to build a church in a public park. Unusually, the Kremlin did not come to the rescue of the local authorities. In fact, the opposite happened: Putin himself weighed in on the controversy and suggested that the people’s opinion be respected.

The governor of Yekaterinburg suspended construction. Just a few days ago the Russian Orthodox Church’s Yekaterinburg bishop said he would not push for the church’s “right” to build a cathedral on the disputed site.

The story of Ivan Golunov’s release about a week ago was so huge it sealed the current received wisdom that a new thaw is in process. Golunov, an investigative reporter with the news site Meduza, has exposed corrupt schemes in the Moscow city government and received threats related to his investigation of the city’s funeral industry. On June 6, Golunov was detained on apparently trumped-up charges of attempted dealing in illegal drugs. Few independent journalists doubted Golunov’s denials of any involvement in drug dealing, but almost everyone was sure the journalist would be jailed and convicted.

And yet, something went wrong for the police this time. This writer, for one, cannot remember Moscow journalists from all walks of political life showing up in droves with such determination. Golunov was detained at the end of a work week, and by Sunday it was clear that the protest would only pick up.

The long-time editor-in-chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow Alexei Venediktov and the chairman of the board of directors of Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov took on the role of informal negotiators on behalf of Russia’s journalistic community. They went to the Moscow mayor’s office, invited the head of the Moscow police force for a conversation, and managed to persuade the authorities to slow the pace and at least not jail Golunov at that time. The head of the Presidential Administration Anton Vaino was involved, as was Vladimir Putin himself, Muratov later told the news site The Bell.

In fact, in a different interview Muratov made clear that Putin himself wanted to make sure that the fact that negotiations were taking place and the president’s role in them were not kept secret. It was not announced on national television, but essentially, Putin signaled to those who were interested that he was personally involved in making the decision to drop the charges and release Golunov.

One more episode in our series is the case of the American investor Michael Calvey, whose presence was almost palpable at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, though Calvey himself, now under house arrest in Moscow on charges of fraud, was not there. Calvey applied to participate and wanted to attend but was not allowed to. Yet Putin, through his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did send conciliatory signals and said some nice words about Calvey. The latter’s arrest is widely seen in Russia as a typical case of well-connected businessmen using security agencies as weapons in commercial disputes.

Putin’s direct involvement in the (quite moderate) softening of the notorious Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, his benevolent decision to listen to the residents of Yekaterinburg, his praise of Calvey, and the crucial part he played in averting a major standoff between the Kremlin and Russia’s entire media community do not look like a chain of random occurrences. His role was not advertised to the masses, but he clearly wanted Russia’s elites, the country’s security agencies, the police, journalists, and all sorts of independent-minded communities normally critical of the Kremlin to see him doing all those things. 

Does this chain of events qualify as a thaw? Freezes and thaws are well-known monikers for political change in Russia, but we often use the terms without giving them much thought. Freeze-thaw cycles do seem to be real, but their coming and going is not science, and good definitions of both states of political matters are yet to be developed.

As a crude approximation, all the major thaws in Russia’s political history involved a new leader reassessing the legacy of his predecessor. Alexander II, the reformist czar of the second half of the nineteenth century, was dealing with the consequences of Nicholas I’s unwillingness to embark on long-overdue changes. Modernizing the army, freeing the serfs, and creating a modern judiciary were some of Alexander’s reforms.

Nikita Khrushchev, whose term at the helm of the Communist Party (or rather the early part of his term, in the late 1950s) contemporaries saw as a “thaw,” had to assert himself as a new ruler against the heavy shadow of the recently departed Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev had to prove to his close competitors in the Politburo and to Soviet society at large that he was both able and different. A thaw – a term apparently adopted from Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw, a novel in which factory managers and party bosses realize that ordinary people’s needs matter – in the form of a partial dismantling of the repressive structures in which Khrushchev himself once faithfully participated, was his strategy not just to give the Soviet people some justice but to avoid being consumed by those structures and to hold on to power.

Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev’s thaw during the second half of the 1980s was a response to the eighteen-year rule of Leonid Brezhnev. Gorbachev too had to fend off potential attacks from the entrenched elites. He too had to prove that he was both a capable leader and a visionary politician brave enough to deliver change.

Provided that our understanding of a thaw is right, the current events do not constitute one: Putin is not even in position to initiate a thaw. If we ever see one, it would be under his successor. Both the fact that Michael Calvey’s fund has just lost control of an asset at the center of the commercial dispute and Putin’s statement on Thursday that no reform of the anti-drug legislation was necessary simply support the no-thaw argument.

That does not diminish the significance of the events, though. Something important is happening, and Russian society is playing a major role in it. Interpretations of what exactly Putin is doing may vary: he is showing that he, not the protesting “mob,” is in control; he is curtailing the ambitions of his security generals; he is providing an escape valve for public expression of discontent over falling incomes. All these interpretations may be correct, and all those moves sound like rational decisions for a political leader to make who is fighting to preserve the status quo, not to usher in change.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

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

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. 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 expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more