03/14/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

'The Empire Strikes Back' Won't Be Russia's Final Act

Reading Julia Ioffe's latest excellent piece in The New Republic, it's easy to be depressed and downright bitter about Vladimir Putin's Stalin-esque steamrollering of historical truth and his further obliteration of any remaining space for the free exchange of ideas. But I know a few other things that mitigate my sense of despair.

In 1992, when Moscow's Soviet-era culture and institutions were still dramatically evolving in a mostly positive direction, I got to spend many hours driving around Moscow with any of the six translators on our team. Some afternoon, I asked one of them, Lena, if she had believed the Communist propaganda machine which masqueraded as objective news reporting. And how could she know now that Western and newly free Russian media were giving a more accurate perspective? How could she ever know what is true?

Lena replied that, while the Soviet news was considered "true", she and many Russians had always carried around two truths -- the official truth and the real truth. It wasn't necessary to expose the official narrative as a lie, in order to believe a version closer to what we know in our hearts.

When the late Andrei Sakharov forfeited his elite status decades ago in order to stand for his principles, he joined countless thousands who had given up everything for a cause with seemingly no logical or practical chance of success. Halfway through history, that cause was delivered, but would it be any less worthy had it ultimately failed? This question becomes important again now, as Putin's ideology-free mythos promises to immunize him from being proven wrong, as happened 25 years ago to Leninism.

It's also worth remembering that Western pressure hastened and facilitated the Soviet downfall, even though that rapid tempo also helped derail many of the reforms and pave the way for the Putin counter-counter-revolution.

In Ukraine, Russians will now always have cousins who are impervious to the intellectual and spiritual submission demanded by Putin and his minions. Whatever further suffering and sacrifice they endure, by their own choice, they send a message of will over force. And the closer Putin's bear hug of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the more easily this message will feed the stubborn embers of Russia's own nascent democracy.

Ukrainians are not Chechens or Azeris, or even Estonians -- they are akin to ethnic Russians. Their struggle can one day become the struggle of ordinary Russians, and no media takeover or schoolroom revisionism will be able to eradicate that root. Putin must know and fear this potential, and so he's making a "good faith" effort to crush it.

The fact that, as Ioffe notes, Putin's decision-making circle in all this is confined to a few old-time KGB colleagues, suggests that his overreach may lead to an internal coup -- not in Kyiv, as he claims -- but within his own Kremlin.

The oligarchs whose billions are now threatened by sanctions and asset freezes, and those security institutions tasked with safeguarding Russia's long-term national interest, may finally conspire to clean house as a last resort. This probably won't bring democracy anytime soon, but at least it will leave some room for expanding rather than constraining Western engagement. If and when this happens, Russia's own heroes of democracy and the rule of law will again find a way to show the way forward, to their own compatriots and to the rest of us.