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The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin

He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart

A crowd of protesters outdoors facing slightly left, with some signs in Russian visible in the back.
Opposition protesters attend a rally at the Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow, on May 6, 2013 to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin one year into his new Kremlin term.

On December 19, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.

It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on May 6, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.

Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners—including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot—and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.

Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicized trial.

“I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.

The two bailiffs crooned sympathetically.


“Yucky taste in your mouth?”

Baronova nodded miserably as the two men laughed almost lovingly and commiserated.

As we walked up the stairs to the courtroom, Baronova showed me the text message she had sent to one of the bailiffs from the party at five in the morning, informing him that she was in an “inadequate” state and could he please call and wake her up lest she miss her own amnesty hearing? At ten that morning, he had dutifully obliged. “It’s not Stockholm syndrome,” she explained, “but you come here every day, and you really do get used to them.”

We spent an hour waiting to get into the courtroom, maybe two. Baronova checked her Twitter for news from Putin’s press conference, now in its second hour: Had he said anything about amnesty yet? She signed a book brought over by a trilling woman in yellow who said she felt “only positive energy today! Only positive energy!”

Baronova had a good lawyer, a sharp-witted, young attorney named Sergei Badamshin. But the same couldn’t be said of most of the opposition defendants: The woman with the positive energy, it turned out, was one of their attorneys. They bickered with each other and had bizarre theories of defense. (If a police officer exceeds his authority, for instance, then he ceases being a police officer.) Baronova had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be the prosecutor who would sink the protesters; it would be their own defense team. “When I realized that, that made me really depressed,” she told me. Around then, she started to have dark thoughts. She has a seven-year-old son, whom authorities were constantly threatening to take away from her. In October, Baronova was hospitalized with stress-induced gastric ulcers.

Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state.” One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain.” One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition.

A wave of applause rose through the lobby as the prisoners were paraded into the courtroom and, in modern Russian legal tradition, locked into a giant metal cage. A Rottweiler lay on the floor, legs splayed, and panting loudly. The rest of us piled into the courtroom and listened to the barely audible proceedings.

As Baronova waited to learn whether she had in fact received amnesty, Putin would free the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail as well as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose decade-long imprisonment had transformed him from the country’s chief robber baron to its most famous prisoner of conscience. But the news hadn’t made its way inside the courtroom yet, where many of the Bolotnaya protesters, who were no cause célèbre abroad, wouldn’t be so lucky. During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

Now, because Putin had said he would not amnesty those who had hurt his troops, Lutskevich would stay in the cage.

Sitting in the courtroom just in front of me, a tall brunette sat weeping quietly and looking at the prisoners. She was Stella Anton, Lutskevich’s mother. Every day, she came to the courthouse to see her only child. “I can usually keep it together,” she told me. “But I just imagined him also getting amnesty today and walking out of here, and it was like a wave hit me.”

She wiped her face as if to calm herself and asked what I was writing about.

“Russia ahead of the Olympics,” I said.

She scoffed and mashed a tissue in one manicured hand. “Good,” she almost growled. “They should know what kind of country they’re going to.”

On December 5, 2011, I was working as a reporter in Moscow, when I heard there was going to be a protest demanding fair elections in Chistye Prudy, one of Moscow’s beautiful old boulevards. I wasn’t going to go: I had a story to file, it was raining, and I didn’t think more than a couple hundred glasnost-era activists would show up—that was as much of a protest as you could expect in Putin’s Russia.

But some gut feeling told me I should go, just in case. When I got out of the metro, I was totally unprepared to see some 5,000 people, most of them young, packed into Chistye Prudy. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition leaders were delivering fiery speeches. People lined the sidewalks and clung to the boulevard’s wrought-iron fences, shouting, “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced. Muscovites cared about their political future more than anyone, including themselves, expected.

After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 percent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomized and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernizing the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was—slowly, gingerly—becoming a gentler, more modern country.

And then on September 24, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev—looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying—mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job—he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer—it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond Internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realized they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

The protests came soon after that. On December 10, five days after the protest in Chistye Prudy, 50,000 came out to Bolotnaya Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, most of them educated, middle-class urbanites. They wore white ribbons as a sign of protest and stood around chatting and stamping in the cold, like they were at a giant winter barbecue. Despite fears of police violence, not one shot was fired and no one was arrested. Satellite protests sprung up in dozens of cities.

For days, the Kremlin was silent. When Putin finally spoke, he talked of listening to the dissatisfied but also accused them of shadowy foreign connections. He joked that he mistook the white ribbons for condoms. After that, on December 24, about 100,000 people came out to the next protest in Moscow, and they flew blown-up condoms as balloons.

One day during that chaotic winter, I called up Yuri Kotler, a fairly high-ranking United Russia member. I was writing a column for Foreign Policy, and I asked him how people in the Kremlin felt about the protests. He asked me if I had a pet. I replied that, yes, I had a cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

That winter, people began forming all kinds of social and political groups, online and off. When the presidential election rolled around in March 2012, the opposition may not have run a candidate, but tens of thousands of people who had once thought politics to be a dirty business best left to others volunteered their weekends for the tedious work of election-monitoring. The Kremlin largely ignored the talking cat, but it did toss it a few scraps, loosening up the electoral system and reintroducing gubernatorial and mayoral elections. As several of us foreign correspondents fanned out across the country ahead of the elections, we discovered that Putin was not all that popular anymore. (“He must be the most passively supported leader in the world,” a colleague said, noting that there were no viable alternatives to Putin.) Despite getting nearly two-thirds of the vote nationally, Putin got only 47 percent in Moscow.

On May 6, 2012, the eve of his third inauguration, Putin went to dedicate a shrine that would pray for his health around the clock. In the meantime, some 70,000 protesters marched peacefully down to Bolotnaya again, Maria Baronova and Denis Lutskevich among them. The last time I had walked this route with protesters in February, I had tweeted, “Putin’s fucked, y’all,” and the same thought crossed my mind as I looked at all the happy faces around me.

But this time, the police had all but cut off the entrance to Bolotnaya Square. Protesters tried to push through, and, in the resulting funnel, police truncheons sliced through the air, and helmeted special forces cops—“cosmonauts,” as they came to be called—stormed into the crowd in wedge formation, randomly, brutally plucking people from the crowd and dragging them off into paddy wagons. Bottles and flares flew; tear gas seeped through the air. I caught a chunk of cement to the leg, though some of my Russian journalist friends fared worse. Nearby, a smattering of plainclothes cops and cosmonauts stood calmly pointing their camcorders at the chaos. The state had come prepared.

Putin’s fist came down hard after that. On June 11, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state’s Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment’s balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organizing the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd’s biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.

I met up with the “Kermlins” at a hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant hidden among the clubs and hipster hangouts that now occupy the red-brick carcass of the old Red October chocolate factory. When I’d first interviewed the duo back in December 2010, they had refused to tell me their real names or show me their faces, not even off the record. At that point, they were just beginning to generate excitement with their Twitter account @KermlinRussia, the handle of a Stephen Colbert–like entity called the “Persident of Ruissia,” who savagely mocked the government for its many lies, thefts, and absurdities. “The Russian state doesn’t have to beat you with a stick,” they tweeted once, adopting the tone of a benevolent ruler addressing his subjects. “We can fuck you up with a carrot, too.”

The Kermlins had launched the handle in June 2010, after then-President Medvedev, who was infamous for his simpleton’s love of high-tech gadgets, traveled to the Silicon Valley offices of Twitter and set up an account, @KremlinRussia. By January, the Kermlins’ antic alternative had more than 50,000 followers, and Medvedev was forced to change his handle to @MedvedevRussia to avoid confusion. Over the next three years, the Kermlins’ fan base exploded to more than 700,000 followers. The Kermlins became celebrities among the outspoken ranks of “Internet hamsters,” the denizens of the Web ghetto who then became the core of the protests. Last spring, they finally unmasked themselves in a glamorous spread in Russian GQ.

The Kermlins, whom I had privately gotten to know even before they’d outted themselves, are really a 29-year-old econ nerd named Arseny Bobrovsky and his partner, Katya Romanovskaya, a fiercely intelligent 38-year-old beauty with a black bob. Dispensing with their anonymity has cut two ways for them. Katya, who in her non-hamster life works in corporate p.r., found it to be a boon. Now, when she calls a journalist to place a story, she is Katya Kermlin, and journalists trip over themselves to accommodate her.

For Arseny, it has been a less happy journey. After the GQ story, it emerged that his boutique p.r. firm had worked for some rather unsavory government clients who had been trying to get the Internet under control. Liberal hamster society piled on, expressing their dismay that their hero was tainted. Arseny was disappointed by their naïveté but let his company founder. Rehabilitated, he has become a well-regarded economics columnist for Russian Forbes. That doesn’t pay nearly enough, but, over dinner, Arseny expressed reluctance over finding a day job.

“I have this hang-up that I’m so cool and a huge number of people read my columns,” he said shyly. “And I’m going to work as a media manager at some shitty company—”

“Too good to work,” Katya sliced in, oozing sarcasm.

Arseny looked down at his plate.

It’s a frequent tension in their relationship. Katya spent nine more years in the Soviet Union than Arseny, and she is correspondingly more fearful and pragmatic—and less optimistic. Arseny, who had less time to absorb the fear that had been bred into every Soviet citizen, is more of a revolutionary and idealist. On December 24, 2011, he came out to the protest carrying a multicolored, homemade sign that read, “HAMSTER SHRUGGED.” Katya had helped Arseny make the sign, but she did not go with him. At the time, she blamed it on the cold and on a sprained ankle, but in the year and a half that Moscow was protesting, she did not go to a single one.

At the height of the protests, the Kermlins became close with Navalny. Arseny was initially quite taken with him and began to talk about him as Russia’s savior. Katya liked his unerring political acumen and sharp wit, but she was more circumspect, especially about his nationalism. She once told me of a casual conversation in which Navalny bragged about how he, his wife, and their two children all had blond hair and blue eyes. It surprised Katya, who is ethnically Russian, more than Arseny, who is half-Jewish.

When Navalny was gearing up to run for mayor against Moscow’s Putin-appointed incumbent last summer, Arseny volunteered on Navalny’s campaign as a p.r. consultant. He told Navalny and his campaign manager they were making a mistake by going with the image of a stone-faced Navalny standing in a gray suit in front of giant letters that spelled MOSCOW. He said it made Navalny look exactly like the establishment politicians he was fighting. He needed to show instead that he was new, a breath of fresh air who would shake up the system. Navalny and his campaign manager disagreed.

Arseny left the campaign well before the elections, and all he wanted to talk about at dinner that night in Moscow was his disillusionment. It was a long, often contradictory list of betrayals. Navalny wooed the conservative babushkas so hard that he neglected his liberal hamster base. He wanted to be like one of the hamsters. But he’s not one of us. (“He’s not from the intelligentsia, let’s call things by their real names,” Arseny said knowingly.) As soon as Navalny saw the chance to jump over the wall separating those in power from the people, he leapt with abandon.

“I don’t agree that he wanted to jump to the other side,” Katya finally interrupted. “I just think he was wildly uncertain that his hamster image would work.”

Arseny reluctantly agreed.

“His whole story is that of a guy who doesn’t believe in his base,” he said.

But the base, they both agreed, doesn’t fully believe in Navalny. They worry about his nationalistic streak, about where his money comes from. In short, Navalny is not pure enough. This is a common complaint in Russia. Centuries of autocratic rule have led to the expectation that a single leader can change the course of history, and, yet, almost every possible candidate is eventually dismissed as tainted. “It’s a utopian way of thinking,” says cultural historian Irina Prokhorova, blaming it on “a medieval, clerical mentality.” “If he’s not ideal, then we won’t vote for him.” Katya also sees this Russian obsession with purity as hugely, frustratingly counterproductive.

“Look at what’s happening,” she went on, her irritation growing. “It’s like you’re drowning in a pool of shit, and some guy offers you his hand. You’re not going to ask him whether he’s a good guy, whether he’s saved any kittens recently. It’s your chance. And you give him your vote, not because he’s perfect, but because he can help. If you’re waiting for Jesus Christ, you’re going to drown in that shit.”

The day I went to see Alexei Navalny, he had just published the results of his most recent investigation: the worldly possessions of the poorest member of the Russian parliament (the Duma). Navalny had discovered that the pauper owned a château near Versailles and an apartment near the Eiffel Tower. As I waited in Navalny’s sunny corner office in a hip new office park just outside Moscow’s center, his assistant handed him phones, whispering which radio station or publication was calling. Though the era of street protests was clearly over, it seemed that the impulse for civic activism they had sparked was still alive and well. Many of the protesters had followed Navalny’s lead and formed other political-monitoring and social-welfare organizations. “The protest movement didn’t go anywhere,” says activist-journalist Serguei Parkhomenko. “It just took on lots of different forms.”

When Navalny was done, he put his hands on his hips and admired his new office with me. (Not everyone approves: One former KGB agent–turned–opposition member took one look at all the windows and told Navalny, “You can be shot from any side!”) Navalny’s operation investigating corruption, which started in 2007 as a solo blog, is now 35 paid staffers strong, much of it funded by online donations. They’ve recently been digging into the stratospheric absurdity of the spending for the Sochi Olympics. Navalny recounted how the father of one Duma deputy is building a curling arena for 5,000 people. “After the Olympics, they’re going to turn it into the Palace of Beach Sports. Under a roof.” He made one of his signature faces, an incredulous smirk used to contemplate only the most overwhelming stupidity. “Beach sports,” he repeated. “Under a roof.”

Out where the staffers sit, there is a giant map of the city of Moscow, divided up into numbered sections. “That’s the map of the taking of Moscow,” Navalny joked as he showed me around. “The lines are where we’re going to build the barricades, and the numbers are where the arms depots will be.” The map was actually the team’s approximation of how the district lines would be drawn for the Moscow city Duma elections in September, in which Navalny’s deputy and several of his staff members will run. Many of them, like him, have a right-of-center if not outright libertarian ideology, the product of living in a country where the government controls much of the economy and meddles constantly in the minutiae of daily life.

Navalny still feels proud of the campaign he ran last year, seeing it as a bright spot when Putin was reasserting his authority over the opposition. “It was the first real campaign in contemporary Russia,” he said. “In many ways, we copied American campaign methods.” Navalny ran online ads, held fund-raisers online and off, and raised two and a half times more money than he’d planned to. He populated his campaign with highly motivated volunteers. One of them, a recent college graduate named Anya, did their polling for free. (Her numbers would turn out to be more accurate than those of any other polling outfit in town.) He met with voters around the city in some 90 town halls and soothed himself by looking at the far more crammed schedules of primary candidates in the New York mayoral race—and by watching “House of Cards.” “I thought that, if a U.S. Senator can meet with nine people, I can, too,” he said. Still, he says, “it was the hardest work of my life.” He recalled how, at one point, his vocal chords gave out, and a phoniatrician had to come and pour “disgusting shit” down his throat. “I almost died.”

Complicating his efforts, in July, Navalny was convicted on trumped-up, convoluted charges of embezzling funds while overseeing a local lumber project, or what the hamsters called “stealing a forest.” He received a five-year sentence, which the authorities suspended after he spent a single day in prison, a reversal that remains the subject of much speculation in Moscow. “Why did they let me out of jail?” Navalny said, plopping down on the couch next to his desk. He is a tall, broad man in his late thirties, with a blond buzz cut, dressed, as always, in nice jeans and fashionable sneakers. “For them, it was very important to imitate some kind of legitimacy. Moscow is the city of protests, and they wanted to show, well, we can still win an election and we can win it honestly.” He thinks that a spontaneous protest, 10,000 strong, on the day he was sentenced, probably helped sway the Kremlin to let him run as well.

Despite being prosecuted in the middle of his campaign and running against a popular incumbent with the Kremlin’s resources at his disposal, Navalny scored 27 percent of the vote. (No one but Anya had predicted more than 14 percent.) It was mostly a fair vote, but, according to several Russian and American election observers with whom I spoke to in Moscow, the official numbers were fudged at the very end: Navalny had actually seized enough votes to force the incumbent mayor into a runoff—an untenable outcome for the Kremlin.

Because of his conviction, though, Navalny can never be on the ballot again, nor is he out of the woods just yet. He and his younger brother are defendants in another criminal case involving a family business venture, and they go to trial in March, just after the Olympics. (As always, under Russian law, evidence of wrongdoing can be scraped together, but prosecutions are usually targeted punishments.) The Kremlin, it seems, has yet to decide whether it will send him to jail. “They’re leaving that option on the table,” Navalny said.

The constant pressure of that threat doesn’t seem to be grinding him down, or at least that’s part of his carefully cultivated image. “It’s not pleasant,” he admitted. “But I’ve gotten used to it. It was a lot worse for Khodorkovsky,” who, Navalny thought, was never getting out. “My situation, compared to all the footsoldier activists sitting in jail, is a lot better. I’m in a privileged position: I’m a famous guy, people go out in the streets for me, foreign journalists will write about me on the fourteenth page of The New York Times if I’m executed.” He looked around his corner office. “It’s a sin for me to complain,” he said.

But people do complain about him, mostly the hamster liberals like Arseny Bobrovsky: He’s a nationalist, he’s just like Putin, he’s building a cult of personality. Navalny himself agrees with that last point.

“Everywhere you look, it’s Navalny,” he said wearily. Recently, an online Russian publication polled their readers on the country’s most important public intellectual. Navalny won. “I’m the most important public intellectual; I win every poll,” he said, flopping his arms down in defeat and nearly laughing at the ridiculousness of it. “Because there’s no one else! But it’s not my fault!”

And in this, he really is like Putin: He has no competitors. “I’m glad Khodorkovsky is out, because I’ve become an opposition candidate without an alternative, and, more likely than not, that’s not a good thing,” he said, growing agitated. “I need to compete with someone, to strike deals with someone. There has to be some kind of rivalry. Of course it’s annoying: Navalny has been our savior for three years already. And there’s no competition in sight.”

He leaned forward and spread out his arms. “Let everyone come out and compete with me!” he exclaimed. “Somebody! Anybody!”

Ksenia Sobchak swept into a Dozhd colleague’s birthday party, wearing a sky-blue dress she could barely walk in. The chest and back were flesh-colored mesh and caked in a dense crust of plastic jewels, like a figure skater’s costume. She had just flown in from Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, run home, changed, curled her hair, rushed off to emcee a corporate Christmas party—one of her main revenue streams—then shown up here. Holding up her long blue skirt and tossing off her fur, she wished her colleague a happy birthday. Then she swished over to where I was standing with Mikhail Zygar, Dozhd’s young editor-in-chief and her boss, to tell him about her interview in Krasnoyarsk with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two newly released members of Pussy Riot, known almost affectionately as Nadia and Masha.

Her conclusion: Why is everyone so obsessed with these stupid girls?

“They say they’re inspired by contemporary art, by feminism, by punk,” she expounded as a small crowd of men—and Baronova—gathered to listen. “That’s all bullshit. Their performance was, essentially, them shitting on a rug. And now everyone is seriously discussing this: Why did they shit in the center of the rug? Why didn’t they shit on the corner of the rug?”

Hans-Juergen Burkard/Eyevine/ReduxKsenia Sobchak, Russia’s Paris Hilton, gave star power to the opposition. But recently some have questioned her commitment.

Sobchak’s characterization of Pussy Riot’s bizarre rain dance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, asking for the Virgin to “chase Putin away,” as “shitting on a rug” is a popular one among the group’s critics. But Sobchak was always an unlikely member of the opposition. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg. He was also Putin’s law professor and political mentor. She grew up among Russia’s new elite, and, though Sobchak denies it, rumor has it that she is Putin’s goddaughter. She spent the gilded 2000s, when people cared more about luxury than about politics, hosting various ludicrous shows on state-owned television. There was even a sex tape with the country’s biggest rapper. The press crowned her Russia’s Paris Hilton.

Then, in December 2011, to everyone’s surprise, she went over to the other side of the barricades. She delivered stirring speeches about political change at the protests. She stopped dating the Moscow mayor’s hip culture deputy and took up with a scrappy young opposition activist. She was summarily kicked off all the federal channels. Even commercials in which she was featured were banned. In June 2012, shortly after the violent protest on Bolotnaya, her home was searched and investigators seized her passport and nearly $2 million from her apartment. Putin’s press secretary was said to have barked at a journalist who mentioned Sobchak to him never to utter that name again. Dozhd, smelling potential, quickly snapped her up and gave her an interview show, “Sobchak Live.” Using her connections, she is able to get the kinds of guests that Dozhd’s producers can only dream of booking, and her show is consistently one of their top rated.

True to form, Sobchak’s Pussy Riot interview became a minor scandal. Here she was, sitting with two heroines of the opposition, fresh out of the gulag, and her first question for them was: “How much is your brand worth?” She was not interested in jail conditions or about their plans to start an NGO to help Russian prisoners. Instead, she asked them about their infighting, their hunger for fame, and about their third member, Katya Samutsevich, who was released a year ago, effectively splintering the group. She encouraged them to go and do something inflammatory at the Olympics. She asked Masha if she resented not being as beautiful as Nadia.

When it aired, Sobchak’s interview caused a firestorm among Moscow hamsters, who saw it as her latest betrayal. She had already left the opposition activist and married a trendy actor. The investigators had returned her money and passport, and she appeared to have been taken off the blacklist on state TV channels. She was back to hosting corporate events and vacationing in Miami and the Maldives. Here it was, the hamsters said, her true, gaudy, Kremlinophilic self coming out.

But as callow and opportunistic as Sobchak is, her interview with Pussy Riot hit on a similar immaturity and loss of focus among her subjects: During my trip, I met up with Katya. She told me she had spent the last year in court, not fighting the government but her old lawyers, who she claimed were “entering lies into the historical record” and “distorting the ideology of the group.” She says she’s still close with Nadia and Masha, but since their release, they have yet to be seen together. She says she’s also no longer talking to Pyotr Verzilov, Nadia’s husband and the group’s manager. “He’s not a feminist,” Katya said. “He wants the group to be sexy, to gladden the men of the opposition.” Nadia and Masha, for their parts, have also raised a few eyebrows. The first thing Masha did on being released from prison in Nizhny Novgorod, for instance, was not to go see her six-year-old son; instead, she flew to Krasnoyarsk, to see Nadia. Their subsequent junket to Singapore also struck many as cravenness of a Sobchakian caliber.

Now that the Pussy Rioters were no longer prisoners of conscience, Sobchak seemed eager to voice a view common even among the opposition that, while she condemned the government’s response, neither did she support the women’s action at the cathedral. “Yes, the cathedral is in many ways a symbol of the intertwining of the Kremlin and the Church,” Sobchak said when I called her after her return from Miami. She had spent the afternoon howling on Twitter about how she had been strip-searched at the airport, forcing the TSA to issue a denial. “But I allow for the fact that there are lots of people who come from all over the country to visit the church and light a candle, and why should you offend these people just because you don’t share their beliefs?”

The Pussy Riot trial, which so inflamed the West, was ridiculous to her, she now says. “The coverage was like it was [Joseph] Brodsky’s trial,” she sneered, knowingly referring to the 1964 show trial of the famous poet as if she’d been in the front row. “Equating them with Brodsky is not right. In Soviet times, there were real persecutions of hugely talented people. I’m not against performance art or contemporary art, but I think the girls have a long way to go to becoming great. There just isn’t enough evidence to call them the geniuses of our generation.”

I asked her if there was someone in her generation on whom she could bestow that title.

“Navalny,” she said without hesitation.

First of all, they defeated themselves,” said Robert Shlegel sitting in a white upholstered chair in the all-white and nearly empty Café Chekhov on the bottom floor of the theater that the playwright informally co-founded. Shlegel liked the area because it was right near the Duma, where he worked: “Look, we had elections recently. Navalny mobilized everyone, he did a good job, but his good job only got him twenty-something percent.”

He frowned at his Greek salad. “Too many leaves,” he mumbled, before adding, “Putin defeated everyone.”

At 29, Shlegel seems too boyish and blond to be a Duma deputy, and so he makes up for this by being deadly, deadly serious. When he was elected at 23, he was the youngest person there. Before that, he was the press secretary and a commissar of Nashi, the infamous pro-Kremlin youth group formed in response to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Now, Shlegel sits on committees that deal with the Internet and with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. He is loyal to a system that transformed him from a hungry Russian-German boy fleeing post-Soviet Turkmenistan into a well-to-do parliamentarian. He voted for the anti-gay laws. He voted for the law banning Americans from adopting Russian children.

“The issues that you in the West think are of primary importance are not important here at all,” he said when I asked him about the anti-gay laws. This, in Shlegel’s view, includes the imprisonment of the Bolotnaya prisoners and Pussy Riot, and it got him worked up: “I think that this problem is a lot more complex, and it has something to do with the way Russia is perceived. That is, LGBT problems in China don’t really interest European society. Or, let’s say, in Turkey. There is a certain selectiveness here.” In a mocking, nasal voice, he rattled off an invented headline about such-and-such leader not attending the Olympics in Sochi because of Russia’s human rights abuses. “Guys, and when you went to China, everything was fine?” he said. “Everything with human rights was terrific? Or how about all the goods that surround you that are made by people who are essentially slaves? Nothing? That’s all cool?” He went back to his calm baritone. “I see this more as politics than really caring about the fates of these people,” he said.

Russia has problems much bigger than the gays, Shlegel told me, much bigger than the opposition. “The most important question now is: Which way do we swim?” he said as the waiter brought two small skewers of grilled salmon, artfully arranged. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, mostly because of the economy.” Relations with the post-Soviet states were of particular concern. “If we can build this customs union, we will be less dependent on the world economically,” he said, referring to the economic union Putin has been trying to cobble together out of post-Soviet states using the ruble as the universal currency. (This was partly why Moscow pressured Kiev not to sign the agreement with the European Union.) “It was always a unified space that was destroyed artificially,” Shlegel said of the Soviet Union. “What we’re trying to create is something like the EU.”

I tried to ask him about the opposition. Navalny is a nationalist, he said, and Khodorkovsky has stolen his thunder. “Khodorkovsky is at a higher level,” he elaborated, sliding a coral cube of salmon off the stick. “He is a lot more serious than these people tearing off their underwear and screaming, ‘Russia without Putin!’ ”

“Dissidents aren’t interesting to anyone,” he said, moving on to a French press of tea to wash down the meal. “The Soviet Union didn’t fall because of a small slice of the Moscow intelligentsia, but because it ran out of food.”

On the morning I went to see Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, the anti-corruption NGO, some extraordinary news had just broken. The banker Sergei Pugachev, a friend of Putin’s from his hometown of St. Petersburg, had been declared wanted by a Moscow court. Apparently, during the 2008 financial crisis, he had taken the $1.2 billion government emergency loan meant for his troubled bank and funneled it out to Luxembourg, leaving the government and his other creditors in the lurch. It had taken a few years for the government to catch on, but Panfilova was very excited. It was all a sign. “Putin has discovered himself to be way up shit’s creek,” she warbled happily.

Panfilova, whose round, girlish face belies her 46 years, has been battling corruption in Russia for almost 15 years. From her basement office in a part of old Moscow untouched by the garishness of post-Soviet modernism, she has helped government companies, like the state atomic concern Rosatom, clean up their acts. It is her property databases that Navalny relies on to sniff out the true “poverty” of civil servants. Panfilova was a frequent presence at the protests, as were her two then-teenage sons, which worried her. “I don’t want to be taking packages to Lefortovo,” she said, referring to the notorious Moscow prison. “No, no, no, no, no.”

While Panfilova admitted that Putin crushed the street protest movement, she explained that he hadn’t gotten off scot-free, either. Terrified by Bolotnaya, Putin had made populist promises to his base to ensure his popularity, from hiking up pensions to giving fans free flights to the Euro 2012 football tournament. Some estimates put the cost of these promises at more than $160 billion. At the same time, though oil prices are high, they’re not rising, which they need to do for the Russian economy to grow. In the last year, the Russian economic ministry revised its prognosis downward an unprecedented four times. In December, the economic minister even used the dreaded s-word, an especially loaded one given the way the Soviet Union ended. “All in all, stagnation will continue,” he said. Then there’s the question of the rising number of pensioners and the shrinking number of workers because of the demographic sag right after the Soviet collapse and the fact that the pension fund has already been plundered. “2014 is going to be a tough year,” Panfilova said. “There’s going to be less money but the level of corruption will stay the same.”

To deal with this problem, Putin recently took aim at a sacred Russian tradition: the company Christmas party. In early December, he made a public statement that, when he was in the KGB, he and the guys chipped in for their holiday celebrations. Responding to the dog whistle, government corporations immediately started announcing that they were canceling their lavish Christmas parties, some of which had budgets of nearly $2 million. (Rosneft, the state oil concern formed from what was taken from Khodorkovsky and now run by one of Putin’s scariest chums, had their Christmas party anyway, with famous, expensive Russian pop stars performing as planned. They got around the unofficial fatwa by calling it a “charity event.”)

The other way “to return some money to the coffers,” Panfilova continued, “is to shake it out of the guys who were too brazen in stealing it.” So Putin started going after people like Pugachev—an ex-con turned billionaire—to make an example of him.

Moreover, Panfilova went on, a lot of these people have children who, miraculously, are high achievers in business and government, too. But therein lies a minefield for Putin. This younger generation, “with teeth like crocodiles’ ” and “MBAs from London business schools” can only rise so high in Russia’s crony-filled management structure. “Their heads have butted up against the butts of those who sit above them and aren’t planning on going anywhere,” Panfilova said. “And here, all of a sudden, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin tells them from on high: ‘That’s it. No more stealing.’ ” Panfilova’s face showed the surprise, the indignation these thwarted managers must feel. “So we can’t grow, and we can’t steal?!”

“And this is exactly where we are right now,” she says. “Who is going to win? Who is stronger? I don’t know.”

In the meantime, Panfilova has endured a year and a half of simultaneous government harassment and encouragement. Last summer, under the aegis of the prime minister’s Cabinet, she was invited to participate in a committee on government transparency. But, one morning, as she was preparing her report for it, a woman from the state prosecutor’s office appeared. She had come to investigate Panfilova’s organization under a law the Duma had passed in July 2012 mandating that all NGOs that take donations from abroad and influence Russian politics have to declare themselves foreign agents. Now that Panfilova had become part of a government committee, she was influencing Russian politics and therefore potentially a foreign agent. The prosecutor took so long examining Panfilova’s files that she made Panfilova late to deliver her report at the meeting of the government committee.

This bipolar approach to cleaning up corruption combined with an economy bound to crumble as oil prices stagnate spells serious trouble ahead. “There’s an inexorable logic of the historical process, an inexorable logic of the political process,” she sighed. “There’s no Putin in the world who can withstand it.” All of these things, Panfilova says, she’s been writing about since at least 1999.

“I’m starting to feel like a damn Cassandra,” she said cheerfully.

Toward the end of my trip, I was invited to appear on a Dozhd show hosted by Pavel Lobkov. Lobkov is a former biologist and another refugee from the state-owned channels. For his last show before the New Year’s break, he had planned a segment, reported by his science correspondent, Baronova, about scientists fleeing Russia. But Baronova had come to the conclusion that all the scientists were long gone, and Lobkov decided to dedicate the show just to emigration. He began with an image of the famous giant Louis Vuitton suitcase that had been set up in Red Square this fall. “The suitcase emblazoned with the monogram of Prince Orlov invited, promised, provoked: It’s time to get outta here,” Lobkov said.

It’s a familiar response to the violent upheavals of Russian history. “In the last hundred years, our countrymen fled en masse five times,” said a disembodied female voice in a prepared segment. The first wave came in the first years after the Revolution. From 1917 through 1920, nearly 1.5 million Russians left for the United States and Europe. They were reluctant immigrants who stuck together and lived out of their suitcases, assuming the Bolshevik tempest would soon pass. Among them were Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. Then came the post–World War II immigration, another 1.5 million Russians gone, many displaced by the war and unwilling to return to Stalin’s Russia. Then the third, Jewish and anti-Soviet wave, when, from 1970 through 1990, some 600,000 Jews left the Soviet Union, and dissidents like Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were parachuted out. Then, the fourth, post-Soviet so-called “sausage wave” of economic emigration, which saw, according to the segment, 800,000 Russians leave their country.

“Now, sociologists and demographers are discussing a new, fifth wave of emigration from Russia,” the narrator explained. “Exact numbers just don’t exist because the Federal Migration Service only counts those that rescind their citizenship. In the last eight years, those people number around two hundred fifty thousand.” Many of these people have left for overtly political reasons. “Either they are pursued by the authorities or they know that their critical view of the state will not allow them to find good work.”

During the nearly hour-long show, Lobkov asked me about my experience emigrating at age seven at the end of the Soviet era, and he beamed in activists who had fled Russia in the summer as another round of the Bolotnaya dragnet was making its way through Moscow. One of them, Alexei Sakhnin, said he feared arrest if he returned to Russia from Sweden, where he has applied for political asylum. But he missed home. “I don’t like emigration,” he said.

Who could blame him? During the two weeks I spent in Moscow, I was again struck by the thrill of the city’s free-for-all, preposterous rendition of the West. There’s a Shake Shack, a Nathan’s, a Saxon + Parole. The architects who built the High Line in New York just won a bid to build a park on the site where the old Rossiya Hotel used to be. Ilya Krasilshchik, one of the journalists who helped organize the 2011 protests from his perch at Afisha, the New York magazine of Moscow, confirmed my impressions. “The energy is amazing,” he told me when we met at the bar at Strelka, the chic architectural outpost designed by Rem Koolhaas. “Every day, there are one or two restaurants opening in the city. Sometimes, they’re a blind copy of New York.”

And yet, the energy is so vibrant, the fun so intense, Krasilshchik said, because, more than ever, no one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. The “apocalyptic conversations,” Krasilshchik said, are becoming more frequent. His wife recently got Israeli citizenship, just in case. “The psychological state of people isn’t great,” he said. “I keep hearing people saying that, by 2020, there won’t be a Russia.”

These apocalyptic overtones are nothing new. Back in 2004, I spent the summer in Moscow doing thesis research when Russia was just beginning its boisterous, oil-fueled upswing. A close family friend, a successful businessman, told me then that life in Moscow was like living on the slope of an active volcano. “On one hand, the soil is fertile because it’s volcanic, and you harvest incredible bounties four, five times a year,” he said. “On the other, it’s a volcano, and you never know when it’ll wipe everything out.”

This cataclysm seems closer than ever now. The increasingly real threat of economic turmoil is already chipping away at Putin’s power with more effectiveness than any protest movement. There is bound to be a vacuum when the forces of economics prevail. But a movement that is pulled in myriad different directions, that cannot decide on an identity, and yet lacks variety in its leaders cannot fill the void. By crushing the opposition, Putin has all but ensured that, once again, Russia’s history will repeat itself, and only the wrong people will be there to step in—the ultra-nationalists, childlike faddists, and dangerous purists. And Putin’s own story may not end as happily as he imagined.

On this most recent trip to Moscow, I asked one government official what the culmination of Putin’s reign would look like. “We don’t have this tradition of, OK, you served two terms and you leave,” he said. “We have no other tradition but to hold out to the end and leave feet first.” He meant in a coffin.

The uncertainty that permeated Moscow seemed concentrated that day in the court as I stood to hear whether Maria Baronova would receive amnesty. The judge read her decision in an unintelligible mumble, her mouth jerking to the right as if someone were pulling her bottom lip on a string. I managed to make out only something about Baronova’s “criminal intent” and that whatever the judge was intoning sounded a lot like a verdict. Trying to peer over people’s heads, I looked for Baronova up by the bench, but I couldn’t see her. The judge droned on.

Then all of a sudden, it was over. Baronova and three others had been amnestied, just like that. I saw her teeter over to the cage to bid farewell to Denis Lutskevich and her other co-defendants. Stella was looking at her son and weeping. Aleksandra Dukhanina, a 20-year-old under house arrest who had also not been amnestied today, ran over to hug Stella and someone else’s grandfather. She too was crying. The grandfather was crying. Everyone was crying. They were just happy, they all said, for those among them going home.

Baronova and I spent another hour sitting in the courthouse’s linoleum hallways, waiting for the official papers that said she was a free woman. Baronova gathered up her knees, and buried her head in her long, folded arms. She seemed sadder than I’d ever seen her. “I’m too hungover to feel any happiness,” she mumbled. But it wasn’t just the previous night’s Christmas party. There would be a long recovery ahead. Her ulcers were still healing. She would have to go back to the old apartment that had been raided by the Investigative Committee; she had grown up there and had not been back since the incident on the balcony with the electric saw. She had to learn to think of more than just making it to court on time, in terms longer than a two-year prison sentence. She had gotten back something that shouldn’t have been taken from her in the first place and wasted a year and a half of her youth besides. Where was the joy in that?

I tried to cheer her up. “Let’s go to Ikea,” I joked. After her indictment, the state had confined Baronova to a tight circle inside Moscow. The travel restrictions had meant she couldn’t even go outside Moscow’s beltway to get a Malm nightstand. She shook her head. “I just want to go to sleep,” she groaned.

After Baronova got her amnesty papers, her lawyer, Sergei Badamshin, drove us to the metro in his Land Rover. He was in a good mood. He joked and laughed, and told me he was applying for a green card. His phone rang. It was someone calling for comment.

“We’re lucky because, from what the judge said, that was clearly the text of a guilty verdict,” he answered. “And they kept the best people locked up.” He sighed sonorously and added, “Yup. That’s our little shitnesty.”

Julia Ioffe was a senior editor at The New Republic.

This article appeared in the February 17, 2014 print edition with the headline “My So-Called Revolution.”