A similar case was made by perhaps Russia's finest political philosopher and political sociologist, Igor Klyamkin, in an interview to Ogoniok magazine this past July. "Rossiya v tupike," he declared -- Russia is at a dead end. From top to bottom, Russian society suspects that the current economic and political model is unsustainable, said Klyamkin, yet no alternative is possible within the current political framework.
If Klyamkin is to be believed (and he is usually right), Russia may be approaching a watershed in its 1,000-year history. Rule by force -- whether this force was "legitimized" by religion, as before 1917, or by ideology, as during the Soviet period -- has been the essence of Russian political regimes. Ideologies have changed like draperies on the windows, but the fundamental nature has remained the same, according to Klyamkin: "The law guarded the force, not the rights of citizens." Today, Klyamkin continued, "arbitrary, lawless force has lost its effectiveness: Neither the elites nor the population are ready to accept it any longer."
Force cannot get rid of corruption; it is even less capable of the modernization that the Kremlin has repeatedly declared its goal. Putin is neither Stalin nor Peter the Great. Yet how to modernize by other means the regime "does not know -- the system cannot accommodate alternative ways of development." That is why, Klyamkin declared, the present stage is "unprecedented" in Russia's history; it "looks like a historical dead end." To find the way out, the Russian state "not only must change but become such that it has never been before." He was talking about nothing less than a new political culture.
Where will such a culture come from? It looks increasingly like a lasting progressive change will have to come from below and from outside the political class. It will have to be generated by a mature, self-aware civil society capable and willing to control the executive -- a civil society that is not only equal to but above it. In all revolutions, an activist minority is enough to finish off the old regime and install a new political or economic order (and, in the Russian case some 20 years ago, both). But maintaining these institutions in accordance with new political, economic, and social moralities requires a diffusion of these values to many more -- perhaps orders of magnitude more -- people. It will take "masses" willing and able to supervise these state institutions to make sure that they faithfully reflect these new values.
The few are the vanguard, but without the many we end up with Putin's sovereign democracy, the post-Orange Revolution authoritarian retrenchment in Ukraine, and restoration of the military dictatorship in today's Egypt. But are there bright enough lights in Russia today to inspire the masses to safeguard the changes that will surely come?
To answer this and many other questions, I hit the road, talking to the leaders of this new political vanguard. Among the many often startling themes that emerged, perhaps the most fascinating was that a lasting, progressive change would not be a political revolution in the conventional sense. Nor would it be brought "from above" by a good tsar or a better hero than Putin. Instead, Russia's hope must be predicated on a deeply moral transformation "from within."
Amid a sea of cynicism, callousness, mistrust, thievery, and incompetence, these civil society leaders are forging islands -- perhaps soon archipelagos -- of self-reliance, camaraderie, selflessness, self-governance, and personal responsibility for themselves, their fellow citizens, and their country. Day after day, calmly but with unbending determination, they are writing what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called the "software of democracy." And they are not going away. If there is a leitmotif in their remarkably thoughtful and self-aware answers to my questions, it is the moral imperative of their cause: a quest for dignity in liberty and citizenship that gives meaning to their lives.