The Russian Empire Must Die
A better future requires Putin’s defeat—and the end to imperial aspirations.
During the quarter century of its formal existence, the Moscow School of Civic Education did not have a campus, a syllabus, or professors. The school instead ran seminars for politicians and journalists, led by other politicians and journalists, from Russia and around the world. It operated out of the Moscow apartment of its founders, Lena Nemirovskaya and Yuri Senokosov. They had met in the 1970s while working on a Soviet philosophy journal, and shared a hatred of the violent, arbitrary politics that had shaped most of their lives. Nemirovskaya’s father was a Gulag prisoner. Senokosov once told me he could not eat Russian black bread, because the taste reminded him of the poverty and tragedy of his Soviet childhood.
Both also believed that Russia could change. Maybe not change very much, maybe not very dramatically, but change nevertheless. Nemirovskaya once told me that her great ambition was just to make Russia “a little bit more civilized” through the exposure of people to new ideas. Their school, an extension of conversations held in their kitchen, was designed to achieve that single, nonrevolutionary goal.
For a long time it flourished. From 1992 to 2021, Nemirovskaya reckons, more than 30,000 people—parliamentarians, city-council members, businesspeople, journalists—attended their seminars around the country on law, elections, and media. British editors, Polish ministers, and American governors came to speak; they got financial support from an equally wide range of European, American, and Russian foundations and philanthropists. I attended perhaps a dozen seminars, mostly to speak about journalism.
But the school remained a Russian organization, built by Russians, for Russians. The topics were chosen because they interested Russians and later because they interested the Georgians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who attended some seminars too. I remember a particularly boring (to me) seminar on federalism in Scandinavia that the participants found fascinating because they hadn’t ever pondered, in their highly centralized societies, the various relationships between regional and national governments that could theoretically exist.
At the time, this project did not feel naive, idealistic, or radical, let alone seditious. Even during the first decade of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, democratic politics were restricted but legal in Russia; opposition views were tolerated, as long as they didn’t attract too much popular support; and there were many endeavors to organize discussions, training sessions, and lectures on democracy and the rule of law. Nemirovskaya told me that it never occurred to her that she was creating a “dissident” organization. On the contrary, her efforts were meant to support exactly the kind of transformation that people in power in Russia in the ’90s said they wanted. But slowly, those people were pushed out, or changed their mind. Officers of the FSB, the Russian secret police, began showing up at the seminars and asking questions. Negative articles about the school appeared in the Russian press. Finally, the state designated the school as a “foreign agent” and decreed that it had to advertise itself as such.
In 2021, the school was closed. Nemirovskaya and Senokosov sold their apartment and moved to Riga, Latvia, where they still run seminars, only now for exiles. Many of their friends, colleagues, and former students trickled out of the country too. In the spring of 2022, following the invasion of Ukraine, that trickle became a wave. Tens of thousands of Russian journalists, activists, lawyers, and artists left the country, bringing with them whatever remained of independent media, publishing, culture, and the arts. Among them were many people who might have once attended a seminar on local government at the Moscow School of Civic Education.
That moment felt, to many inside and outside Russia, like the end of the story. But it wasn’t—because stories like this one never end.
Ideas move across time and space, sometimes in unexpected ways. The notion that a country should be different—differently ruled, differently organized—can come from old books, from foreign travel, or just from its citizens’ imaginations. At the height of the Russian empire, in the 19th century, under the rule of some of the most ponderous autocrats of their time, a plethora of reform movements flowered: social democrats, peasant reformers, advocates of constitutions and parliaments. Even some of the people born into the Russian imperial elite came to think differently from others in their social class. Leo Tolstoy evolved into a world-famous advocate of pacifism. The father of the writer Vladimir Nabokov made fiery public speeches in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, edited a liberal newspaper, and spent time in prison. His son later remembered how, on the evenings when his father was holding his political meetings, “the hall would house an accumulation of greatcoats and overshoes,” and guests would talk well into the night.
The state pushed back against people who thought differently, even then. Mikhail Zygar, a Russian author and the founding editor of an independent television station called TV Rain, has written a book, The Empire Must Die, that, among other things, tells the story of the independent thinkers forced out of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, some of whom came back to reshape it during the revolution. This was a moment when “the number of Russian political émigrés becomes so great that there is talk of the emergence of an alternative Russian civil society,” he writes. “The Russian diaspora is no longer a branch of Russia; it is no longer clear which is the branch and which the trunk.”
Most suffered from one major blind spot: Neither then nor later did most Russian liberals understand that the imperial project itself was the source of Russian autocracy. The White Russian armies lost to the Bolsheviks in part because they would not join forces in 1918–20 with newly independent Poland or would-be independent Ukraine. Democratic ideas did not triumph in either the branch or the trunk in the years that followed the Russian Revolution, partly because the state needed to use so much violence to keep Ukraine, Georgia, and the other republics inside the Soviet Union.
Still, even the decades of fear and poverty that followed the Russian Revolution did not eliminate the belief that another kind of state was possible. New generations of thinkers kept emerging out of the Soviet gloom. Some of them would help start the modern human-rights movement. Others, like the founders and students of the Moscow School of Civic Education, would try to create an alternative Russia in the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
They lost, of course, to yet another dictator who is using an imperial war to eliminate his enemies and spread fear across Russia. Yet even now, even as the majority of Russians remain silent, even as they are cowed by propaganda or swayed by nationalist slogans, more than 17,000 Russians inside the country have protested against both the regime and their apathetic countrymen, have opposed Russian imperialism, and have been detained or imprisoned as a result. A few are well-known politicians who could have left long ago, among them Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin. The opposition politician Alexei Navalny was imprisoned in January 2021; he has been kept in isolation, but at a court hearing on September 21 nevertheless denounced the “criminal” war and accused Putin of wanting to “smear hundreds of thousands of people in this blood.” On September 30 he published an essay, smuggled out of his cell, that imagined a post-Putin Russia and called for the replacement of Russia’s current presidential system, which has now collapsed into full autocracy, with a parliamentary republic. Instead of posing as a new savior for the empire, he is calling for a different kind of Russia altogether.
Outside the country, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians are beginning to understand how closely the empire and the autocracy are linked. Some of the new exiles have given up on politics altogether, and many are just dodging the draft. But a large cohort oppose the war from abroad, through Russian-language websites that report on the war and try to get information to Russians in Russia. TV Rain, shut down by the government in March, is up and running again, online, based in Riga. Navalny’s team, the remnants of his large national organization, is making videos that have millions of viewers on YouTube, which can still be accessed in Russia.
A panoply of groups and people wants to keep a different idea of Russia alive, to create an “alternative civil society” outside Russia, not unlike the early-20th-century version described by Zygar, who is now in exile himself. Garry Kasparov—the former world chess champion who turned to democratic politics, helped organize street demonstrations in Moscow in the 2000s, and is now persona non grata in the country where he was once a hero—recently told me that he hopes to build a kind of “virtual South Korea,” an opposition-in-exile that stands in contrast to a Russia that more and more resembles North Korea. One of Kasparov’s projects, the Free Russia Forum, regularly brings together the various, sometimes squabbling branches of the Russian community outside Russia.
In at least one respect, all of these 21st-century exiles are unlike their 20th-century predecessors: They remain abroad, or in jail, because of a terrible war of imperial conquest. Many therefore oppose not just the regime, but the empire; for the first time, some argue that it is not just the regime that should change, but the definition of the nation. Kasparov is one of many who argue that only military defeat can bring political change. He now believes that democracy will be possible only “when Crimea is liberated and the Ukrainian flag is flying over Sevastopol.”
That idea—that there could be a different Russia, a Russia that is a nation-state and not an empire—does not carry much weight in Ukraine right now. On the contrary, many Ukrainians consider the Russian democratic opposition just as culpable, just as imperialist, and just as responsible for the war as non-dissidents. Certainly it is true that not all of the people who have been called “Russian liberals” in the past were against the empire or opposed to Putin. Some are technocrats who argued for a Pinochet-style dictatorship, or socialites whose “liberalism” was conveyed through photographs of European vacation spots posted on Instagram. The Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk recently argued on Twitter that “even Russian ‘liberals’ repeatedly expressed imperialistic ideas re foreign policy and Ukraine. There is tolerance to war and aversion to democracy.” Many ask, Where are the mass protests of Russians in London or Tbilisi? Why aren’t the thousands of exiles, not just the few who write for websites, making their voices heard?
The argument that there are no “good Russians” does have a deep emotional logic, and a political logic too, and not only for Ukrainians. After all, Russian liberals have failed before. They failed in the 1900s, they failed in the 2000s, and they are failing now. They failed to stop Putin, failed to prevent this catastrophe from unfolding. Some of them failed, at least until recently, to understand how Russian imperialism has fed and nurtured Russian autocracy—to understand why, as the title of Zygar’s book proclaimed, the empire must die. You can hear the anger at this failure in the changed tone of the speeches of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. On the eve of the war, Zelensky addressed Russians, in Russian, calling on them to prevent what was about to happen: “Do Russians want the war?” he asked rhetorically. “The answer depends only on you, citizens of the Russian Federation.” But because they did not stop anything, Zelensky more recently joined others to advocate a ban on visas for Russians to Europe, on the grounds that Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy.” After Putin announced his mobilization drive in September, Zelensky was even more explicit. Russians should not leave their country to escape the draft, but should “fight on your streets for your freedom,” he told them. The Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko has also argued that the Russians who left Russia most recently are not fleeing war, just the draft: “If only these hundreds of thousands [of ] people who flee mobilization stood up against the war inside Russia, the war would be over. Cowards.”
There isn’t really any way to oppose this logic. Of course Russians should have fought, and should fight. But it’s important to remember, again, that a few of them have, and a few of them always will. Maybe this group needs a new name—they are not “Russian liberals,” but “anti-empire Russians” or “pro-democracy Russians” or “pro-freedom Russians.” Some have come to this conclusion through careful analysis, some instinctively. In recent conversations, Russians have mentioned to me an aunt who was a Soviet dissident, or a close friend in Ukraine, to explain why they hope that their country experiences a decisive military defeat.
These connections are the product of chance and accident. But chance and accident explain why Lena Nemirovskaya’s modest goal—to make Russia a little bit more civilized—was not entirely naive. Because there is nothing inevitable, nothing genetic, nothing predetermined about any nation or its government. Only dictators believe that there are laws of history that have to be obeyed. Democrats, by contrast, know that the state will eventually adjust to society, not vice versa—and society, by definition, is always changing.
The cultural weight of the past is heavy, and the habits of autocracy—especially the habit of living in fear—persist. The attraction of power is also strong. The people who have it will not want to lose it, and the next government of Russia might well be even more repressive than the one that runs Russia now. But accidents happen; unexpected events occur. Countries evolve, sometimes creating better governments and sometimes worse ones. Empires fall: The Russian empire fell, the Soviet empire fell, and sooner or later Putin’s new Russian empire will fall too. From his prison cell, Kara-Murza has pointed out that the more than 17,000 detained anti-war protesters far outnumber the seven people who were arrested in Moscow’s Red Square when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to stop that country from changing. Nemirovskaya, from her exile in Riga, recently told me that her efforts were not in vain. She still believes that the three post-Soviet decades left their mark: Whatever happens next, “we will never again live the way we did then.” Leonid Volkov, the leader of Navalny’s organization in exile, told me last year that he believes the most important thing he and his colleagues can do is simply be prepared for change, whenever it comes.
I have argued before that there is no guarantee that American democracy can survive, that what happens to America tomorrow depends on the actions of Americans today. But the same is true of Russia. The country’s future will be shaped not by mystical laws of history but by how its leaders and citizens absorb and interpret the tragedy of this shocking, brutal, unnecessary war. The best way that outsiders can help Russia change is to ensure that Ukraine takes back Ukrainian territory and defeats the empire. We can also keep supporting those Russians, however small their number, who understand why defeat is the only path to modernity; why military failure is necessary for the creation of a more prosperous, open society; and why, once again, the empire must die. We don’t need to search for idealized “good Russians”—no savior will emerge to fix the country, not now and not ever. But Russians who believe the future can be different will keep trying to change their country, and someday they will succeed. In the meantime, no one should ever concede to Putin the right to define what it means to be Russian. He doesn’t have that power.
This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “Putin Must Lose.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.