The New Face of Russian Resistance

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Protesters in downtown Moscow, June 12, 2017

The new face of Russian protest is barely pubescent. Reports from the June 12 demonstrations, which brought hundreds and sometimes thousands of people into the streets of just about every Russian city, feature teenagers: a boy in shorts being tackled by police in riot gear, a girl charging a police line, and a paddy wagon full of adolescents. One Russian Facebook user posted a photograph of the teenagers in the paddy wagon with the caption, “Russia has a future.” He posited that “every mass arrest of young people strengthens youth protest,” which, in turn, is sure to bring about the end of the regime.

There is a feverish tone to Russian blog posts in the aftermath of Monday’s protests, a sense of hope struggling to defy fear. Without a doubt, Monday’s protests—often in open defiance of Russian authorities, who in many cities refused to give permits to hold them—were the most geographically widespread in all of Russian history: eight people, including five minors, were detained in the sleepy southern resort town of Yeysk (population 88,000), and nine people were detained five thousand miles across the country, in Blagoveshchensk, on the border with China. In all, more than 1,700 people were thrown in jail—nearly half of them in Moscow—the single largest wave of arrests in many decades. In Moscow, some of the detainees had to spend the night on benches in a police courtyard because there was no room for them inside the precinct. On the other hand, this means that enough people took to the streets on Monday to make that many arrests possible. Most of the detainees were released within hours; many were sentenced to fines and between five and thirty days behind bars; a few will certainly face several years in a prison colony. This is how post-totalitarian terror works—by punishing a randomly chosen few to frighten the many. What is giving some Russians hope is that a new generation of people who are not yet frightened seems to have burst onto the scene.

To appreciate the “Russia has a future” Facebook post, however, you need to know who wrote it and when. The author is sixty-nine-year-old political scientist Georgy Satarov. In a past life, he was a mathematician, but in 1990, he quit math to study politics. On June 12 of that year Russia declared itself a sovereign state. No one knew what this meant: Russia was the largest and most powerful constituent republic of the USSR and the seat of imperial power, so it was unclear how it could secede from the empire. But exactly one year later, on June 12, 1991, Russians elected Boris Yeltsin, a Communist Party functionary gone rogue, to be their president. A couple of months after that, the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia became, indeed, a sovereign state, and June 12 became its new national holiday. Satarov, meanwhile, became one of Yeltsin’s closest advisers.

There were months, perhaps even a couple of years, of great optimism. The wisdom to which Satarov, among others, subscribed was that people shaped by the Soviet regime—those conditioned to live in fear—would fade away and a new nation would be born, brave and democratic. By the mid-1990s, however, that vision had faded. Democracy turned out to be messy, Yeltsin resorted to violence against a rebellious parliament and then a rebellious region—Chechnya—and Soviet nostalgia was beginning to creep in. Yeltsin formed a commission to come up with a new national idea: something less mobilizing than an ideology but still sufficient to create a sense of unity and purpose. He put Satarov in charge of it. The commission toiled for months but never produced a national idea.

Then along came Vladimir Putin, with the idea of making Russia great again. He quickly dismantled all of Russia’s democratic accomplishments, taking over the media, canceling most elections and fixing the rest, and reversing judicial reform. He also dethroned the oligarchs and installed his own clan, instituting the regime of a mafia state. After a dozen years of this, a critical number of Russians seemed to grow fed up with the daily experience of corruption and the routine mockery of the remaining rituals of democracy. In December 2011, following rigged parliamentary elections, the country erupted in protest. Hundreds of thousands came out in nearly a hundred cities across the country. People of all ages and socioeconomic classes took part in the demonstrations, but the public face of those protests were white-collar workers in their twenties. Perhaps they were the generation Russia had been waiting for.

In response, the government cracked down. As soon as Putin was inaugurated for his third term as president, he introduced a series of bills aimed at raising the risks of protest: now anyone, including a casual participant, could face charges in connection with a protest the authorities deemed to be illegal—and the penalties could be harsh. The bills were pushed through in advance of June 12, 2012, when protesters planned to come out again. Arrests began a few days before the scheduled protest. Thousands of people still braved the streets, but the wave of popular resistance was effectively stemmed.

Over the past five years, several dozen rank-and-file protest participants across the country have received sentences of three or four years in prison colonies. People have also gone to jail for writing blog posts deemed “extremist,” or even “sharing” and “liking” such posts. The government has cracked down on NGOs, accusing them of being “foreign agents.” All but a couple of tiny independent media outlets have been forced to shut down. And the organizers and leaders of the 2011-2012 protests are either in exile (like former chess champion Garry Kasparov), in jail (like radical organizer Sergei Udaltsov), or dead (like politician Boris Nemtsov).

The one exception is Alexei Navalny, a forty-one-year-old lawyer who has turned a blog about government corruption into a popular movement. Like other visible anti-Putin activists, Navalny has been pressured to leave the country and has repeatedly been brought to trial on trumped-up charges. In 2013 a court sentenced him to four and a half years in a prison colony for supposed fraud, and thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow; Navalny was released the next day, his sentence suspended. The state has jailed his brother, Oleg Navalny—taking him hostage—but Alexei Navalny has continued to investigate powerful Russians.

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Alexei Navalny during an anti-corruption protest, Moscow, March 26, 2017

This is what ignited the recent protests. On March 2, Navalny released his most recent and explosive report, exposing in damning detail prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s expansive estates and extravagant sneaker collection. The video version of the report has now been viewed more than 22 million times. In late March, Navalny was able to bring thousands of people into the streets in anti-corruption protests. And then he called for even larger protests on the June 12 anniversary.

Navalny has been attacked physically for his activism. Last month, he lost most of the vision in one eye after an assailant threw acid in his face. This occurred soon after Navalny announced an audacious plan to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election.

Still, Navalny seems to have found the key both to staying alive and out of prison and to getting people into the streets. Indeed, it is his ability to mobilize protesters that has kept him out of prison: the regime fears mass protest. Navalny’s single-minded focus on corruption allows him to avoid more controversial issues such as the war in Ukraine, and to appeal to a maximum number of Russians directly: corruption affects everyone, all the time. It was Navalny who called for the protests on June 12. In Moscow, he got a boost from the city administration, which is pursuing a giant urban-renewal project that will cost tens of thousands of Muscovites their homes. This, too, is corruption: Muscovites are convinced that the mayor and his circle will personally benefit from turning city lands over to developers.

The people who came out this week still represent only a tiny fraction of the population; in the absence of independent media and with civil society in shambles, they are unlikely to turn themselves into a durable political movement. Many of those who joined the protests five years ago are no longer in the streets. Some of them have surely been scared away by the threat of arrest. Others have simply given up. Still others are conformists who will always join a crowd—it’s just that the giant crowds five years ago, when as many as 100,000 people took to the streets in Moscow at once, were crowds of protesters. Finally, some of those who protested in 2011-2012 are coming out again. But they too see very young people as representing the current wave of resistance. Or perhaps they are simply placing their hopes in the teenagers because they no longer trust themselves to create change.

They know what the teenagers are only beginning to learn: in Putin’s Russia, protest leads to crackdown. The Kremlin will likely institute even tougher laws against protests, and law enforcement will sweep up dozens or hundreds more ordinary people to send a message to millions. Nor is protest a potential instrument of change in a country that has no politicians or political parties, judiciary, or media that act independently of the Kremlin. But as long as some Russians, including some very young ones, are willing to brave streets filled with riot police, they keep an unreasonable hope alive, and they increase the chances that Alexei Navalny will survive and stay out of prison. That’s not nothing.