A history of 2020: the biggest year since 1991

Contemporaries usually exaggerate or completely miss the long-term significance of the events they live through. But the impact of the global pandemic is obvious to anyone. Whether you’re a Covid-sceptic or a lockdown-enthusiast, you can probably see that 2020 has been an historic year. History was unmistakably made in 2020. For so many of us, 2020 was an historically bad year.

Russia was perhaps the third-worst affected country across the world. Revised calculations based on excess deaths indicate as many as 186,000 victims by the end of the year. For this reason alone, 2020 has been an historic year for Russia. It might be that more lives have changed more deeply, and the country’s course has altered more significantly, than in any other single year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But of course it’s far too soon to tell.

Covid was not in itself the only change-maker. Coronavirus made possible government-mandated changes in Russian life, under the pretext of emergency and in the absent gaze of a population struck by a public health disaster. Change was facilitated too by the electoral victory and forced exile of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opponent of Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994 and still in office. Her triumph seemed to unsettle and then harden Russia’s governing elites, who supported Lukashenko.

History women of 2020: Belarus opposition leaders Maria Kolesnikova, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronikia Tsepkalo

And so 2020 was the year in which Russia’s political arena narrowed. New avenues for corruption opened. Surveillance was magnified. The position of Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party was enforced. New legislation extended Putin’s terms limits, so that he could run again in 2024 and 2030. Other laws granted immunity from prosecution to former presidents, and reduced the scope for legal popular protest. In fact, dozens of new laws were introduced in the last weeks of the year. For instance, the application of the confusing term ‘foreign agent’ in the regulation of NGOs was extended. The Duma voted almost unanimously in favour of all these measures. In August, the attempted assassination by poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, the country’s leading opposition figure in the Fund for Combating Corruption (FBK), led to his treatment in a Berlin hospital; at the end of 2020, his return to Russia was put in doubt when the state promised new criminal proceedings against him. His leading colleague, the equally plausible political candidate Luibov Sobol, was also charged in late December in connection with the FBK’s own investigation of Navalny’s poisoning (there was no other investigation).

Meanwhile, deaths from the virus became ever greater.

2020 was also the year in which the political and social imagination of Russians broadened. Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, saw huge, peaceful protests every weekend in the summer and autumn. Throughout the year, Aleksei Navalny campaigned for ‘intelligent voting’ in the local elections in September. The aim was to encourage people to vote tactically for the candidate in the best position to defeat the representative of United Russia, even if he or she was far from their first choice. The poisoning of Navalny with a chemical from the Novichok group did not lead to popular protests, but it might have created irreversible cynicism in Russians’ view of their political order. When the pandemic escalated in the late autumn and early winter, public services and economic life could continue thanks to the work of the kind of ordinary people who were marching in Khabarovsk: low-paid staff, entrepreneurs, volunteers, neighbours. Small business people talked about the paucity of government assistance. Sometimes local mayors stepped in. A growing social imagination in Russia might have developed inside the widening gap between local people and central power. This could have all kinds of consequences, many of them impossible to imagine.

But can we really separate 2020 from all the other post-Soviet years, and look at it historically, even though the year has not quite finished? Perhaps we can, for two reasons.

One reason is that the Soviet Union itself, and the circumstances of its demise, suddenly seemed an impossibly long time ago. As happens in history, it was if a society had crossed through a time-lock. Across the post-Soviet space, there had been a changing of the guard. A new generation had emerged. In the other post-Soviet republics, this generation took independence and statehood for granted. As the political scientist Arkady Durgan argued in December, the process was more complicated in Russia itself, where membership of the elite seemed to require possession of a recently confected neo-imperial worldview, at least in theory. But across Russia, the generation that was still at school when Yeltsin came to power — anyone under 45 — had little interest in neo-imperialism. In 2020, when the state did so little to protect them against the mortal health and economic threats of coronavirus, this generation might also have given up the last remnants of a Soviet-style faith in the help of the state. Meanwhile, the range of civil society’s conversations online, not least in YouTube, had become more varied than ever. The relationship between this society, in its broadest sense, and its Soviet past seemed to have become very distant.

Another reason is that 2020 is not only an historic year, a maker of history. It’s also instantly historical, immediately amenable to investigation by historians. Viewed in the most simple way, historians have long debated whether all the big changes in the many centuries of the Russian past were driven by deep structures or contingent events and personalities. Although many commentators have long predicted the political changes of 2020, others have not. We can perhaps historicize 2020 if we see within it the chaos and chance of so many other significant moments in Russian history. Circumstances were astonishingly unpredictable: Covid-led, Minsk-mirrored, Khabarovsk-prompted, Navalny-driven. Responses by politicians, and the way that government projected itself, were not straightforward, but seemed inflected by worry and arrogance, and deliberately detached from a clear ideological position. Whatever happens next, this was a chaos moment, separating past and future. As ever in Russian history, predictions are pointless.

Today, on the online Dozhd TV channel, the air was full of a sense that living through history means that you have no idea what will happen next. Journalists reviewed their year and nodded towards the chaos of historical time. One option is pessimsim; another is optimism. The exiled Belarusian politician Pavel Latushko came on and talked of 2020 as the year of ‘Belarus’s renaissance’ and 2021 as the year of change for his country.

Here’s to the end of 2020. Fingers crossed for a better 2021. After all, the past does not control the future. Happy New Year.