Updated at 6:05 a.m. ET on June 16, 2021.
I grew up in a hidden city. Not a forgotten city, or a faraway city—a hidden city. My hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, lies east of Moscow along the Volga River. It was a center of international trade before the Russian Revolution but was bombed by the Nazis during World War II; to preserve crucial industries housed there, the Soviet authorities effectively closed it off from the world after the war. It didn’t exist on many Soviet maps, and foreigners were not allowed to visit. Cruise ships passed by only at night so tourists would not know about the ancient city on the banks.
Despite the heavy restrictions, many well-known intellectuals worked in Nizhny Novgorod, at anonymous-looking Soviet facilities known as “mailboxes.” The nuclear physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was among them. Only at the local foreign-language institute did I first meet a foreigner, an American lady who taught English. Mary Sebastian—or Mary Petrovna Alferova, according to her Soviet passport—came to Nizhny Novgorod in the 1930s as a teenager with her father, an engineer helping to build an automobile plant. She fell in love, got married, and decided to stay.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nizhny Novgorod’s first democratic governor was a charismatic scientist, Boris Nemtsov. He reopened our city, then called Gorky, symbolically restoring its original name. In those euphoric early years, locals welcomed liberal reforms, as well as foreign delegations and tourists. Today, Nizhny Novgorod has great street art, coffee shops and bars with English names, and an international airport. It welcomed thousands of American and European soccer fans during the 2018 World Cup.
This year marks 800 years since Nizhny Novgorod’s founding, and as if to mark the occasion, local Communists broke ground on a new monument to Joseph Stalin. The gesture is symbolic, but shocking: They are not simply honoring a dictator; they are honoring the dictator whose regime put Nizhny Novgorod into enforced solitude. And yet, what was once shocking in Russia has become normal—Nemtsov, the former governor, was assassinated outside the Kremlin in 2015 after becoming a critic of Vladimir Putin.
In the more than two decades since Putin rose to power, Kremlinologists, journalists, and historians have desperately tried to decode the Russian leader’s belief system. Many ultimately have defined it as a continual contest, with Putin having to balance two major factions within Russia: the siloviki, or “men of power,” an autocratic group backed by the security agencies, and the technocrats, a group of competent and (by Russian standards) liberal managers who largely have seemed to hold sway on questions of economics.
The common misconception about Russia is that Putin controls all, sees all, knows all. He doesn’t. His has been a regime reliant on the buy-in of interest groups, oligarchs, and powerful clans within law-enforcement agencies. Behind the scenes, decision makers from among the siloviki and the technocrats have battled it out as analysts have sought to guess who has been on top and how deeply tensions have run. Putin is no liberal, but he himself has described his government as divided between “Westernizers” and “people of the soil.”
Not any longer. The people of the soil have won. They monopolize nearly every aspect of Putin’s government and are enforcing their will—his will—on Russian society in a way that was previously unimaginable.
The clearest example of this trend has been the force with which the chief Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, and his movement have been circumscribed. Navalny is in jail until 2024, though many predict that this sentence (like Putin’s rule) will almost certainly be lengthened. His supporters have been legally declared “extremist”—the first time such a designation has been used against a political group in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union—ensuring that any pro-Navalny partisan anywhere in Russia faces up to eight years in prison if they continue any form of activism.
This internal political shift has been rapid and pronounced, and has implications beyond Russia. More than anything, it illustrates how little Putin has to offer Joe Biden, and how unlikely it appears that Russia and the United States will achieve any form of long-term accommodation after the years of bizarre bonhomie during Donald Trump’s presidency. Putin no longer believes that he must placate a Westernizing band in his government; the siloviki now have unfettered rule.
At the same time, Biden retains little leverage. If Putin has no internal pro-Western lobby, then any support from the American president is unlikely to result in meaningful change, only punishment for those ostensibly getting the help.
As a result, Russian civil society is paralyzed, Mikhail Zygar, the author of All the Kremlin’s Men, a book about Putin and his government, told me. Independent political voices either shut up or risk being labeled “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations.” Even officials and politicians who were openly liberal have now changed tack. People behave, Zygar said, “as if they were hostages.” Yet the West, by extension, cannot free them. “They can only provide food and water for those who choose to stay and help the other hostages.”
It is a sentiment echoed on both sides of the divide.
Biden “should focus on solving security and nuclear issues, preventing violence, discussing the battlefield as if there were no jailed dissidents in Russia,” Alexander Cherkasov, a senior member of Memorial, a human rights group, told me. An American president negotiating to free dissidents would only align their movement with a country officially labeled unfriendly, an enemy of Moscow’s.
Among the victors, there is triumphalism. “We will succeed because we Stalinists, the people of the soil, swallow up the liberals and kick out the Westerners, or turn them ideologically,” Yuriy Krupnov, a conservative politician, told me.
In some respects, that Putin took this long to end his balancing act is surprising: From afar, his power appears assured. In 2019, he told the Financial Times that liberalism had “outlived its purpose.” Krupnov even admitted to me that he thought Putin would have moved sooner to empower conservative forces. “I hate liberalism,” he said, “but the trouble is that most of Russia’s elite are ‘Westerners.’”
Those elites have persistently struggled to win, and maintain, power in Russia. Each time they try, tragedy befalls them: Tsar Nicholas I executed the Decemberists, a 19th-century group calling for constitutional monarchy; Stalin filled the Gulag prison camps with dissidents and reformers. Anti-autocratic revolutions in 1917 and 1990 both eventually resulted in illiberal leaders coming to power.
Today, the Kremlin is pushing intellectuals to make a choice—pledge fealty or lose their career. Some are opting for the former; Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning director, has called for Russians who support Western sanctions to be deprived of their citizenship.
As with much of Russian politics, episodes such as these echo the past. The historian Mikhail Milchik recounted to me how he and Jacob Gordin, the editor in chief of Russia’s oldest literary magazine, Zvezda, attended the show trial of their close friend Joseph Brodsky, the dissident poet and future Nobel prize winner, in 1964. Milchik said that the day was the most traumatic of his youth: Brodsky had been detained by the KGB, interrogated, and accused of “having a worldview damaging of the state.” Brodsky’s father brought his military boots to the trial; Joseph put them on and walked to the Gulag. Decades later, Milchik and Gordin see parallels with modern Russia.
In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian Daniil Kotsyubinsky had hoped to see Russian democracy flourish. That dream has been extinguished. Now, he told me, he asks only that the West relax sanctions and accept the Russian government for what it is. “The new Cold War only strengthens the legitimacy of authoritarian power,” he said. In his view, the sanctions have empowered Putin, leaving the wealthy and the powerful with no option but to embrace the Russian leader.
That leaves Biden with few options when confronting Putin over his revanchism and military adventurism. Yet Kotsyubinsky illuminated a potential pathway for the American president, one that dovetails with the White House’s own priorities. Biden has spoken repeatedly of how the world has devolved into a contest between two camps—democracies led by the United States and autocracies led by China and Russia—and has argued that Washington must show that democracy can work.
Kotsyubinsky said America could, over time, help Russian liberals without overtly seeking to empower them by strengthening the cause of democracy in the West itself. Every time liberalism in the West has been shaken, he told me, “Russian conservatives grew more powerful.”