In an anecdote from the Brezhnev era, the KGB trailed a well-known dissident along the streets of Moscow as he glued posters onto lamp posts. At the tenth lamp post, they grabbed him and demanded an explanation of this anti-Soviet agitation. ‘Look at the poster,’ said the dissident. It was a blank sheet of paper. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ asked the KGB. ‘Don’t you see?’ replied the dissident, ‘everyone knows what’s wrong with this country, so there’s no need to write it down.’
This notion of a blank poster comes to mind as one tours what is loosely known as the ‘political class’ in Moscow today. In every conversation across the spectrum of opinion, whether with politicians, pundits, businessmen or academics, the diagnosis of what is wrong in Russia and the prescription for what should be done to set it on a better course – starting with institutional reform and restructuring, and then running through a long list of remedies – are repeated almost word for word.
As Vladimir Putin enters his fifteenth year in power, he and his close associates appear to be firmly locked in to the course they chose a decade ago. It is one based not on reforming the country, but on controlling the levers of state and economic power. By definition, any structural reform which led to the rebirth of independent institutions and the dissemination of power would undermine their control and therefore represent an existential threat to the ruling constellation of forces.
Those in Moscow who fill in the blanks on the poster are not predicting an imminent crisis. Quite the reverse: their analogy is with the Soviet Union’s long, slow decline in the Brezhnev years.