[…] Putin, and Putin’s henchmen, did not believe these protests came about spontaneously, because the FSB does not believe that anything comes about spontaneously. Nor does the FSB believe that independent civic groups are really independent, that nongovernmental organizations are unconnected to foreign governments, and that “democrats” really believe in democracy. “Unfortunately,” he declared back in 2007, “there are still those people in our country who act like jackals at foreign embassies…who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not the support of their own people.” This was a direct warning to Russia’s tiny community of human rights and trade union activists, and it was perceived as such at the time.
On the night of his third and most recent reelection on March 4, Putin repeated this charge, this time describing the protesters—the men and women of Gessen’s generation—in stark and one might even say hysterical terms. “We showed that no one can impose anything on us,” he declared with great passion, tears welling up in his eyes:
We showed that our people can distinguish between the desire for renewal and a political provocation that has only one goal: to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power.
Putin doesn’t merely dislike his would-be opponents, in other words, he believes that they are sinister agents of foreign powers. He doesn’t just object to the liberal political system they support, he believes they are plotting to “usurp power” and hand the country over to rapacious outsiders. In order to keep them well away from the levers of power, he allowed only officially sanctioned candidates onto the most recent ballot—all tired, familiar faces who have lost to Putin many times before, or who stood no realistic chance of victory. Thus does Russia’s president protect his countrymen from those who would “destroy Russian statehood.”
There is no reason not to take Putin at his word here, or to doubt that he means what he says. As work in Soviet archives in recent years has shown, Soviet secret policemen also usually meant what they said. They really did believe that their internal critics were “enemies,” that the forces of imperialist-capitalist bourgeois reaction were seeking to undermine the regime, and that only the fearless Chekists stood in the way of chaos and defeat. As Gessen demonstrates, Putin has proudly inherited those beliefs, and he runs Russia in accordance with them.