That perception has changed hugely in recent years. Russian-style "corporate raids" in which corrupt officials seize companies and loot them have become a pressing menace for honest businesses. Russian entrepreneurs first sent their children abroad to study. Then they sent their spouses there for safety, and increasingly have moved their assets too. Russian elections give people little chance to vote meaningfully with their ballot papers. But capital flight and emigration show that they are voting with their wallets and their feet.
A third buried contradiction has been about history. Is Russia a post-Communist country, a modified revival of the pre-1917 state, or one still in the grip of Bolshevik nostalgia? Putin restored the Soviet-era national anthem, and Lenin remains embalmed in his macabre mausoleum on Red Square. But inside the Kremlin the ex-KGB elite drank toasts with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. And a chapel opened inside the nearby Lubyanka — headquarters of the KGB's successor organisation, the FSB. That contradiction is the farthest from resolution. Protestors in Moscow include those who regard the Soviet past with revulsion, nostalgia or apathy. But the distinctive black, yellow and white flags of the ultra-nationalists are there in force too. The people carrying them are closer to the "old whites" of the early 1990s. They may not wish to restore the Romanovs, but they have messianic ideas about Russia's national destiny and little time for the interests of its neighbours. The argument between these camps is yet to come.
The revulsion against the Putin regime is now palpable. The principal cause is the overpowering stench of corruption, all the more noticeable because so little has been achieved during a decade when Russia's leaders had almost unlimited financial and political resources. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise the country has been squandered. Russia still has dreadful roads, clapped-out railways, a grossly inadequate power grid, abominable healthcare and failing public institutions of every kind.
Russians have known this for years. Opinion polls have long shown dissatisfaction with every public service, from education to the criminal justice system. But the dissatisfaction was tempered with personal support for Putin, whose opinion ratings rarely fell below 70 per cent. Now that has changed, and events that would have once aroused only a shrug prompt a collective snarl of outrage. The big trigger for discontent has been election-rigging. The elections in December to the Russian parliament's lower house, the Duma, were almost comically unfair. Not only were opposition parties hugely disadvantaged by skewed rules and arbitrary decision-making, as well as media coverage that grotesquely favoured Putin's United Russia party, but the vote itself was a sham. Millions of phoney ballot papers were cast on one side; millions of votes for opposition parties simply discarded or ignored.
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