It’s hard to write about the Russian Presidential election, not because it is particularly difficult to understand but because the normal language of such things can’t describe it. There are candidates, but their names can appear on the ballot only if the Kremlin allows it. There is a campaign, but candidates are allowed to appear on television only if the Kremlin O.K.s it. There are, usually, debates, but Vladimir Putin, who has been in power in Russia for eighteen years and is running for another six-year term, doesn’t deign to take part in them. There are opinion polls, but their results are adjusted to fit the probable result of the vote. And then there is the vote, but its outcome is preordained. In other words, the event scheduled for March 18, 2018, is not an election, but it is called one.
Russians face the choice between “voting” in the “election” and boycotting it. The decision is harder than it may seem. The boycott argument is clear: taking part in an obvious travesty serves only to legitimize its architects. Proponents of participation, on the other hand, argue that an election, even a sham one, puts stress on the regime, thereby creating a chance for change. The Kremlin goes to great lengths to ensure that the spectacle is empty—why make their job easier? Put more simply, every person who boycotts the election increases the number of percentage points by which Putin stands to win; this argument is suspect, however, since the relationship between official election results and actual votes cast is uncertain.
All the same arguments have been made before. It’s not the first or even the second or third time that Russia is holding a sham election. Six long years ago, when Putin last had himself “elected,” two of his most prominent opponents—the chess champion turned politician Garry Kasparov and the longtime politician Boris Nemtsov—called for a boycott. But the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny opposed this call. “There is no mobilizing message in the call to a boycott,” he argued. “It just says, ‘Stay home, watch TV, be outraged.’ But we spend all day watching TV and being outraged as it is.” Nor, he argued, would a boycott succeed in significantly lowering voter turnout.