Boris Kapustin and Paul Starobin: Putin’s Russia in Crisis

By Fil Lekkas:

On February 21, the Boris Kapustin, professor of Political Science at Yale, and Paul Starobin, veteran Russia correspondent and contributing editor to the National Journal, addressed a packed lecture hall in WLH. Organized by the Yale International Relations Association, their talk discussed the nature and future of the Putin regime in Russia, especially in light of the widespread protests organized in response to widely recognized electoral fraud.

Though intrigued by Russia’s current protests, Starobin emphasizes that liberalism and democracy remain very elusive. Vladimir Putin played a major role in creating the current situation, having “monopolized the assets of the country, eliminated opposition, and defanged the media”. However, a deeply ingrained tradition of “strong-man” autocracy combined with a national ethic defined by Orthodox obscurantism (the restriction of knowledge from the people), creates a public that is more willing than others to tolerate such practices. Furthermore, the disdain Russia’s educated elite and downtrodden poor feel for each other keep these two important parties tragically divided. In the light of all of the above, Starobin considers the likelihood of this “fractious” movement’s success slight. Despite that, he finds this attempt by ordinary Russians to “advance a kind of democratic possibility” (and resist their strongman) encouraging.

Boris Kapustin lectures in Harkness Hall. Kapustin and Paul Starobin split over Russia's splits, but both agreed that Putin remains unsplit. (Lekkas/TYG).

Where Starobin saw the deep forces of tradition combined with elite snobbery, Kapustin identified a deeply antidemocratic “peripheral capitalism” as the prime agent of the failure of liberalism. Unlike Starobin, he sees in Russia a liberal public waiting to break free of a “collusion of dominators” consisting of the “top brass of the police and military” and the oligarchic super-class. Intent of protecting their plunder, Russia’s elite are “foxes that are pretending to be lions”: bourgeois and decadent, but eager to appear imperialist to threaten their neighbors and beguile their people. In his view, Putin—though by no means a puppet—is entrapped by their maneuvering despite being the figurehead of “Kremlin Inc.”. As such, today’s Russia is not an “authoritarian state” run by Putin, but “to quite a large extent, a failed state”. Kapustin has little hope for the protest movement; even if the current protests were to elect a new Prime Minister, that person would be similarly “entangled in the collusion of the elites”.

However one interprets it, the situation in Russia looks grim. Deep structural factors—whether cultural, historical or economic—constitute a significant obstacle for those Russians discontent with their lot.

Fil Lekkas ’14 is an Economics major in Calhoun College. Contact him at