Stuck in the ‘90s: How Russia’s opposition can shape its political future by reconciling with its past

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After receiving an additional 19 year sentence in August, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny wrote a manifesto built on hatred – hatred for Russia’s 1990s. He hates those who “sold Russia’s historical chance… Yeltsin, Chubais, and the whole corrupt family that put Putin in power,” he continues, listing “swindlers we called reformers,” “authors of the most foolish constitution,” “independent media and democratic society,” and himself for having loved all of them.

Attitudes towards the 1990s have polarised Russian society throughout President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Some remember the 1990s as a time of the fall of the Iron Curtain, liberalisation, and changes for the better, including material ones. The other (and larger) part remember it as a time of poverty, state violence, disenfranchisement, and instability. To maintain his mythology, Putin must construct his rule as a continuation of Russia’s greatness – not one birthed in its downfall. In order to sever Russia from Putin and its past, Russia’s opposition must first unite the country on its uncomfortable recent history.

And because Russia’s historical consciousness underpins its geopolitics – the invasion of Ukraine was premised on Putin’s false conception of history – reconciling with Russia’s past is not only necessary for the country’s future but for Europe’s future. European observers will be able to do relatively little, as key Russian political voices must resolve the meaning of this pivotal decade for themselves. But Europeans should understand its significance.

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In June this year in St Petersburg, Putin observed a ceremony of three giant flags raised on 180-meter flagpoles: the yellow-black-white flag of the Russian Empire, the Soviet flag of the hammer and sickle, and the modern Russian tricolour. For him, all three states are equally alive and coexist in the great myth that he controls. These are flags of the countries that constitute his Russia – and two-thirds of it is made up of the past.

From the beginning of his presidency, Putin has legitimised his power through the concept of historical succession: Holy Rus, the Romanov Empire, the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia – this is one great state whose history has unfolded from victory to victory. The first symbolic gesture Putin made when coming to power was the reintroduction of the music of the Soviet anthem. Then he exerted diplomatic efforts to reunite two churches – the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia (the monarchical church of Russian emigrants who fled Soviet rule) and the Russian Orthodox Church established by Josef Stalin in 1943. Putinist Russia emerged from the synthesis of imperial and Soviet legacies. From the Soviet Union it adopted the image of a great country that everyone fears, anti-Americanism, cold war stylistics, and the omnipotence of the security service. From monarchism – the idea of the sacrality of power and a paternalistic ruler uniquely blessed by God. In doing so, Putin is endlessly rewriting history, capitalising on the historical memory of these times to legitimise his own rule.

Putin does not like to remember the revolution and civil war, just as he does not like to remember the 1990s – they don’t fit neatly into his narrative of victories. He has repeatedly referred to the 1990s as a period of “decline,” where the country had “almost lost its sovereignty”. He has recalled having to work as a taxi driver which he finds “unpleasant to talk about”. He claims to represent those who did not have enough money for food, he understands the pain and is doing everything he can to make sure it never happens again. For Putin, his role is to save the country from falling into the abyss and return it to imperial greatness – and that’s partly why for him, it was logical to orchestrate a war.

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But for Russians, their experiences of the 1990s are not truthfully addressed. The media and the Kremlin’s division of this era into political cleavages – good for liberals, bad for patriots – does not reflect the complexity and trauma of Russians’ memories. Instead, it stokes a resentment that Putin can exploit. To heal, they must first process their pain – only then can Russia’s opposition starve the flame of Putin’s mythology.

Navalny does exactly this. He exposes Putin’s legacy, reminding Russians that Putin is not the heir of the great empires and a saviour-tsar, but a mid-level KGB officer who was brought to power through his connections with Yeltsin’s acolytes in the ‘wild 90s’, not by God. Here, Navalny deconstructs two myths at once – one of Putin as Russia’s successor, and the other of the 1990s as a time when liberals and the current opposition were in power. Instead, Navalny tells how those who made their careers in the 1990s are now not opposing the dictatorship, but occupying high positions that sanction war and repression, facilitated by the moral bankruptcy of that era.

In doing so, Navalny breaks the stereotypes of a liberal politician who should love the 1990s – instead, he hates them. He roots Putin in the 1990s and leaves him there. And he is the only major opposition figure to do so, paving a new path for a post-Putin Russia. As such, Navalny wrote his “confession” for an election campaign of the future. His hatred is not directed towards Putin: competing with him would be irrelevant, as it’s clear they will never participate in the same pre-election race. But Navalny needs to convince Putin’s electorate. And one of the strongest pillars of the president’s propaganda is playing on resentment of the 1990s.

Navalny needs to convince Putin’s electorate, and one of the strongest pillars of Putin’s propaganda is playing on resentment of the 1990s.

Navalny has taken the first step towards national reconciliation and overcoming Russians’ polarised historical consciousness, but many more steps must follow. For Russia’s opposition, there is a chance to unite society by listening to those for whom the 1990s were a tragedy and giving them a voice – or by becoming the voice of their trauma. The liberals and intellectuals who facilitated those years should acknowledge some responsibility for the mistakes that led to their moral bankruptcy, without claiming any historical succession. This could become the result of discussions about the “uncomfortable past” that Russian society has not yet been able to overcome. Then, Russia’s future politicians will not face the dilemma of choosing which part of the population they represent based on their stance towards a certain historical period. They will not need to decide whether they are victors, entitled to violence, or losers whose resentment can be lucratively exploited. As Putin’s rule has shown, to nullify and displace painful events is dangerous. Finally, they could free themselves from the grip of the past, and take a step towards an unpredictable future.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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