Instead, Garrels’s subjects follow the time-tested Russian strategies of adaptation and circumvention. On the eve of recent elections, for example, students at Chelyabinsk State University were informed that, to express their gratitude for government-issued scholarships, they should support United Russia, Putin’s party. To verify that support, officials required students to use their cell phones to photograph their ballot as they voted. Some students complied with a twist: they placed a thread in the shape of a check mark next to “United Russia,” photographed the ballot, and then removed the thread and voted as they pleased.
According to Authoritarian Russia, by the political scientist Vladimir Gel’man, it is precisely such microstrategies of coping that help perpetuate Russia’s authoritarian politics. Like most politicians, Russia’s leaders are simply “rational power maximizers.” The difference is that they operate in a country almost entirely devoid of institutional and political constraints on elite behavior. Gel’man thus shows little interest in Putin’s worldview, or the views of those around him; in fact, he writes, “ideology as such has probably been the least meaningful factor in Russian politics since the Soviet collapse.”