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Why Russian Elites Are Silent

Maxim Trudolyubov
Russia duma session
Moscow, Russia - Nov. 22, 2022: President of the Republic of Cuba Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez addressed members of the State Duma.

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates say up to a million) left Russia. Not all of them could speak out loud, but Russian musicians, writers, journalists, social activists, artists, and generally anyone with an audience spoke for them. 


But most citizens have remained in Russia, including the vast majority of those who work in government or businesses or serve as religious clergy. Do those who have left speak for them as well? Or do the authorities and propagandists speak for them? This question must remain unanswered because the majority can neither exit nor raise their voices. Russian society has been divided into a minority seeking a voice and a majority deprived of a voice, or who have given up striving for it. 


There are very few cases of major businessmen, prominent leaders, officials, or clergymen leaving. Cases of publicly speaking out are even fewer. Of the millions of civil servants, almost no one has left or spoken out. Those who do leave, do so in secret. As an example, of the approximately 10,000 employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two to three dozen quit after the invasion, and only one spoke out.


Of the more than 40,000 Eastern Orthodox clergy, fewer than 300 have tried to disagree with their church’s official support for the war. These priests signed an anti-war letter in March 2022. A few dozen clerics have since taken some action, such as leaving the jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill, who supported the war. Fewer than a dozen have spoken out openly and clearly. 


Fear as Silencer


Fear is probably the most understandable reason for the public silence of Russia's top elite. All of my interlocutors in Russia say that even in the company of colleagues and friends, they do not discuss their views on what is happening—either on the war, or on Russia's political situation as a whole, or on their own future plans. It is impossible to foresee how dangerous these discussions could turn out to be in any environment, even the friendliest. 


But some did agree to talk to this writer, on condition of anonymity. Many of them say that those who left Russia, let alone foreigners, do not understand how fear works. “There is a lot more fear now. People who left two years ago don’t understand it. Fear is swirling around here, that you perceive through the news, through messaging apps feeds. This is why they don't have to arrest as many people as Stalin did. The horror of being unprotected is created by far fewer examples,” a former high-ranking official who remains in Russia tells me. 


He believes that one can leave Russian civil service only “amicably,” that is, by mutual consent of the parties, which takes time and a lot of informal agreements. This official began preparing an exit strategy several years before 2022 and believes that had he not left the service before the invasion began, he would not now be able to leave. 


“To you, an anti-war stance may look moral and justified,” an official explains to me, “but to the leadership, it is disagreement with their policies. It’s a different logic here: you can leave in order to make a lot of money, but you cannot leave because you disagree with a political decision when it has already been made.” 


The decision made is an important circumstance. Discussion of decisions before they are made, outside the public eye, is quite possible, but discussion after they are made, particularly in public, is not accepted. Whatever move an official makes, it should never look like a political statement of disagreement. “Otherwise, you will be destroyed,” my interlocutor concludes. 


If leaving “amicably” is severely hampered, leaving on bad terms or fleeing is dangerous. “All people at this level are afraid of at least a criminal case. If you leave the wrong way, you can go to jail for ten years on fabricated [charges of] fraud, less often for abuse of power or embezzlement.” Worse outcomes are never ruled out by members of the Russian elite. Many perceive as highly suspicious the deaths of Russian top managers, none of which have been officially recognized as murders. Over the two years of the war, the deaths of at least ten top managers of large, state-affiliated corporations, including Gazprom and Novatek, have been reported. 


It is also technically difficult to leave. During the second year of the war, the upper stratum of the officialdom became travel-restricted. Before the invasion, a significant part of Russia's 4.5 million security and military professionals had travel restrictions. Some of them could only vacation in countries on a special list that included several former Soviet Union and “neutral” states. In late 2022 and early 2023, similar rules were extended to almost all top officials. They were asked to surrender their passports to the FSB. 


Unwritten Rules, Invisible Contracts


Do we have to recognize the Russian elite as taken hostage? Maybe even pity them? The best of them know their job and are willing to work “for the people,” not for the regime. Many of them say that, as highly qualified professionals in their fields, they are loath to leave their posts: it is a shame to waste years of invested effort. In their thinking, they strive to save what can still be saved in the institutional structure of Russia that has been formed over the past decades.


None of my interlocutors think they are serving evil. They have never signed a pact with the devil. There is no need for them to agree to serve some extremist force that has seized power—as czarist officials and military officers who defected to the Bolsheviks did, as German bureaucrats who agreed to work with the Nazis who seized power did. In Russia, no one seized power; it changed from within. So it was enough for everyone to just stay in his own place, at his own desk—but one of the hundreds of papers on that desk was a contract with the devil. It was easy to sign it without noticing it. It was enough to just do the same things as always.


Putin set a trap for them. He started the war without consulting any of them. But they had no opportunity to disagree with his decision because when they entered the service, they agreed to its internal unwritten rules. Including the rule that discussing a political decision, particularly in public, is not accepted.

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 US 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