This week's suicide bombings in the Moscow subway, echoed by other attacks in southern Russia, have the experts predicting a new rollback of Russian democracy. It's easy to see why. More than once in the past decade, terrorism has helped those who wanted to centralize power, curtail pluralism, and restrict civil liberties. The pattern is so strong, in fact, it seems to leave little doubt about what comes next in Russian politics. If Putin exploited previous crises to strengthen himself---or (as he likes to boast) to "rebuild the state"--won't he do so again?
Probably. Yet this crisis may play out a little differently, and the place to start in understanding how it could unfold is the peculiar role of Putin's protégé--and Russia's current president--Dmitri Medvedev. Everybody knows that Medvedev has made himself an active proponent of reform. He talks constantly about good causes like the rule of law, technological innovation, encouraging small business, fighting corruption, and so on. His causes are so good--and, in the Russian context, often so unrealistic--that many dismiss him as a high-minded but ineffectual idealist.