Address investigates rising authoritarianism in Putin's Russia
Professor Konstantin Sonin

In his Aims of Public Policy address on September 19th at the David Rubenstein Forum, Konstantin Sonin, the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, spoke forcefully about the authoritarian resurgence in Russia.

“For years, I have been writing columns arguing that democracy helps countries to develop and prosper,” Sonin told the incoming class of Harris graduate students in his keynote address. “Over the same years, the country that I lived in and was writing about has moved from an imperfect democracy to a full-fledged personalistic dictatorship — perhaps the worst kind of modern authoritarianism.”

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

It is exactly this kind of dictatorship, Sonin argued, that enabled Russian president Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine in February—an act of aggression that flew in the face of Sonin’s persistent advice for Russia to allow Ukraine to chart its own course without interference. “When Ukraine moved closer to Europe and opened new trade routes, it was good for us Russians as well,” Sonin said. “Waging an imperial war in Ukraine is the direct opposite of the foreign policy I would have liked to see.”

The Aims of Public Policy address is the annual kickoff to Welcome Week, where new Harris students, fresh off of math and coding camps, prepare themselves for rigors of The Core, Harris’ core curriculum.

Sonin brings a unique perspective to the Aims of Public Policy address. During his 20 years of work as an economist in Russia, Sonin was notoriously outspoken on political issues, penning more than 600 opinion pieces on Russian policy ranging from corruption and electoral fraud to recommendations about how the vast country could best use its vast reserves of natural resources. In public appearances on Russian radio and TV, he has been critical of Putin, contributing an independent, research-based outlook particularly valuable in a country that doesn’t always value the merits of a free press.

Sonin described to Harris students the methodical way Putin has demolished free media and the political system in Russia: first by firing journalists and editors with whom he did not agree early in his presidency, then by jailing or exiling any serious political opponents. By 2021, any mention of the president’s corruption or opinions that represented opposition to his regime were off-limits. As Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, all independent media was shut down, and any opinion that diverged even slightly from Putin’s line became criminalized.

Alexei Navalny

An extreme (and well-publicized) example of the crackdown, Sonin says, is the case of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who was poisoned in 2020 and remains in prison under flimsy charges.

“I first met him when I wrote a column about him in 2005, back when he was a blogger,” Sonin says of Navalny. “Now he is world famous, and everyone who cares about Russia watches his fate with fear.”

In 2012, Sonin co-wrote an academic paper that documented the consequences of Navalny’s blog posts on corruption in large, state-controlled companies. His paper found that the negative impact on stock returns of these companies led to an increase in corporate accountability.

“The policy advice based on this paper was straightforward: protect whistleblowers and do not jail bloggers who disclose corruption,” says Sonin. “They were saving the taxpayers an enormous amount of what was otherwise stolen by corrupt officials. By now, you probably have the idea how well this advice was followed.”

It’s these restrictions of Russian freedom that make a unilateral invasion possible. “The decision to invade Ukraine, which is already bringing a catastrophe for Russia, was the kind of fateful decision made by dictators stuck in their information bubble, insulated from accountability, and not constrained by any government institutions,” he says. “The decision to launch a war was also a strategic blunder of the giant magnitude, made possible by the system dictators build around themselves—as our models show and as my opinion pieces were trying to explain all these years.”

Professor Konstantin Sonin delivering his 2022 Aims of Public Policy Address

Sonin and his colleagues also collaborated on multiple research papers that seemed to show a direct correlation between oil prices and media suppression. “When oil prices are high, the resource-rich autocracies crack down on media,” Sonin said. “When oil prices are low, dictators do less censorship. The point was to let the Russian public be aware of this mechanism: If oil prices go up, do not let Putin close down free media. Once you understand some mechanism, you can try to change how it works.” Though he and his colleagues proved through empirical research the advantages of having free media, it did little to change the country’s course.

Sonin lamented that while he argued against large-scale nationalization and heavy state involvement in markets, Russia has undergone “perhaps the largest peaceful nationalization in human history,” resulting in a stagnating economy for more than a decade. With the recent developments in Ukraine, the stagnation, Sonin says, has devolved into a full-fledged, self-inflicted “economic catastrophe.”

Sonin also touched on the rare moments when his influence had wide-ranging positive consequences, such as a 2007 blog post about election returns in Moscow voting precincts that served as a starting point of emerging electoral-fraud awareness. More recently, in March 2020, Sonin wrote a column advising the Russian government to make one-time unconditional transfers to citizens to support them during the pandemic. This led to a large group of Russian economists, many of them coming from universities abroad, writing an open letter advising Russia to implement lockdowns—a letter that all major Russian national media covered. “The Russian government, caught asleep by the pandemic, woke up and did implement a lockdown,” Sonin recalls. “In the capital, the hospitals were overwhelmed for three days in May. Lockdowns did help to flatten the curve.” The government eventually made a large transfer to support vulnerable families, just as Sonin had advised.

Professor Sonin with James A. Leitzel, Senior Lecturer and Executive Director, Undergraduate Program, and Dean Katherine Baicker

More often, he lamented, the government was too busy fixing elections and nationalizing the oil industry to listen to reason. In 2011, Sonin led a study that harnessed independent observers from hundreds polling stations in Moscow to estimate the effect of electoral fraud on the outcome of the Russian parliamentary elections. The conclusion was predictable. “The effect was quite large,” Sonin says. “The actual share of votes for the Putin’s party was at least 11 percentage points lower than the official count: 36 percent instead of 47 percent.” Since then, Sonin reports, Putin’s government has moved on to other methods of electoral fraud beyond ballot stuffing; namely, removing opposition candidates from the ballot or jailing or exiling them. “By 2021, the government started to simply fake the results of the voting,” says Sonin. “Still, our research and public statements have been pushing against the electoral fraud for a decade.”

Earlier this year, while on sabbatical in Russia, Sonin continued with his usual provocative opinion pieces, lectures, and media appearances. But two weeks after the war started, he left the country. “By this time, the authorities closed all the media outlets that would let me on air, criminalized anti-war blog posts retroactively, and blocked access to social media,” says Sonin. “Of course, my dominant feeling was the guilt that the country that I was born in and deeply cared for started a criminal war against its neighbor. Also, the shame that despite all of my best efforts I was not able, as an academic, to stop this madness.”

Despite his inability to stop Russia’s march to authoritarianism, Sonin said he has no regrets. Citing the last line from English poet Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses, Sonin urged the the assembled group of more than 400 aspiring policy leaders “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Often, Sonin reminded the students, it is not yielding that makes all the difference.

Previous Aims of Public Policy Addresses