Tens of thousands of Russian protestors took to the streets on Saturday. What next for the movement?

Anon 25 January 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

‘See you next week… I hope’, says my Moscow-based friend, moments before disconnecting our weekly Zoom call on Friday night. In the morning he would be leaving his flat for Pushkin Square, setting out with a great amount of courage and excitement, but significantly less certainty over when he would be allowed to return.

If the doubtful ‘see you next week’ comment sounds overly dramatic, rest assured: it was not. The run-up to Saturday’s protests may have passed many by – over on this side of the world, eyes and news coverage were, understandably, turned elsewhere – but no one in Russia was underestimating Putin’s very real intent to forcibly and, if needed, violently detain those daring to defy him.

At the time of writing, 3,000 people have been arrested, with hundreds more injured in over sixty cities throughout Russia. Calls for protest were sparked on Monday when Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny was detained on returning from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal nerve agent attack.[1] Behind hastily-constructed bars, the long-standing critic called for mass protests on Saturday. What followed was the biggest anti-Putin rally the country has seen in years.

Police were arresting people at Moscow’s main square before the protest had even begun.

The scenes coming out of Russia this weekend were shocking, inspiring, and at times outright terrifying. Police were arresting people at Moscow’s main square before the protest had even begun. Two hours later there were thousands of people stretching a mile in each direction, holding placards with the words ‘poisoners to prison’, ‘step down!’ and ‘we are not afraid’. Outpourings of support for Navalny reached small towns and Eastern provinces as far as nine time zones away from the capital, and in Yakutsk, protestors braved temperatures of -50 degrees. The reds and blues of Russian flags were barely visible through swirling blasts of snow. Just as familiar to Russians as the harsh weather, though no less brutal, protestors also had to contend with the riot police as they beat, kicked and dragged away bleeding protestors in vain attempts to disperse the crowds.

That sort of violence against peaceful protestors is illegal, surely? Well, no. According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, citizens have the right to gather peacefully (as many did yesterday, save for the odd snowball lobbed over police barricades), with federal law guaranteeing ‘the right to free expression of opinions or political demands.’[2] But for a protest to be deemed legal in the eyes of Russian law, organisers must first gain the approval of the authorities, ‘even if these are the same authorities against which you are protesting…’[3] And since yesterday’s protests were (shock) not authorised, Putin was within his full constitutional right to disband them. As he made abundantly clear he would.[4]

In the days leading up to Saturday’s protests, Russian authorities warned citizens not to take part, asserting that any unauthorised demonstrations and provocations would be immediately suppressed. Calls to take to the street were deemed ‘illegal’, posts were scrubbed from social media, and police turned up to several organisers’ homes threatening arrest. By Friday the majority of even unofficial opposition media had stopped posting news about Navalny.

In the midst of this battle for control of news outlets, the Internet and, ultimately, the streets, I spoke to a Russian friend about how Saturday’s protests might play out. ‘To be honest’, he tells me, ‘I do not think Saturday’s protest will change anything.’

So, what is the point? I ask. Why are people bothering?

‘They have other hopes. A lot of people love Navalny and support him, (but) the protest tomorrow is not about Navalny. It’s not about us hating Putin because he steals money.’ (Last Tuesday Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation released a 2-hour video on YouTube exposing the billion-dollar Black Sea palace allegedly belonging to Putin.[5]) ‘The main thing that is happening, and it is the same for Putin as for Lukashenko[6] – these leaders want to stop time. They want us to be the same as we were under the Soviet Union. For young people to live as they did thirty years ago. But that’s not possible. A new generation has come up, with completely different outlooks, completely different hopes and desires.’

They want us to be the same as we were under the Soviet Union. For young people to live as they did thirty years ago. But that’s not possible. A new generation has come up, with completely different outlooks, completely different hopes and desires.

This new generation of young Russians is at the heart of the country’s internal struggle. On the one hand, authorities use minors as a convenient pretext to introduce seemingly illogical laws – on LGBT rights, gay ‘propaganda’ and social media posts ‘inciting minors’ to attend unauthorised rallies. On the other, it is this very generation of ‘impressionable young Russians’ who are doing the shaping and influencing. In one of countless TikTok videos filmed from inside Russian classrooms last week, a schoolteacher can be heard indignantly defending Putin’s palace: ‘And the American queen? She doesn’t shit in the ground! Why should ours live in poverty?’ A student responds: ‘But Miss, there’s a difference between living in poverty and a $1.4 billion palace.’[7] And it was the students who were brought in for ‘educational’ chats with the police last week.[8]

Russia’s divisions are not simply generational, my friend continues. ‘Many people do not feel affected by these actions. These are people who only follow state-run media, who do not work abroad and have no plans, no ambition to do so. For these people, nothing has changed.’

Russia is well-known for its city/province divide but surely, I venture, the involvement on Saturday of many sleepy provincial towns – which almost never see unauthorised political activity – shows just how much the anti-government feeling has grown since 2011?[9] Navalny must be able to take some credit…?  ‘Of course, Navalny plays an important role, but the role has been written before. Putin is saying “I will silence all”, and the opposition are saying “we will struggle and show our struggle to the West”. All these roles have been written before.’

True, Navalny is not the first Kremlin opponent to be threatened, poisoned or imprisoned on trumped-up charges. And while many had thought large protests this weekend might determine whether Navalny was freed or given a longer prison sentence,[10] it seems for now the Kremlin is holding out. More protests have been planned for next weekend, and Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has made it clear the police will not hesitate to use violence again: ‘Order will be maintained and it cannot be any other way,’ adding, ‘there are more than enough examples in our country’s history.’ [11]

 

I anxiously texted my Moscow-based friend after the protests on Saturday night: ‘I am fine,’ he reassured me. ‘Next week we go again.’ Could we be seeing a repeat of Belarus, I wonder, which has seen back-to-back protests almost every weekend since last August? A three-word response from my friend: ‘Anything is possible.’

Anything is possible, yes, but one thing remains clear: Navalny’s supporters have the eyes of the world on them, and they will not be going away quietly. The roles may have been written before, but the ending has not.

[1] He was found guilty of violating parole conditions. He says it is a trumped-up case designed to silence him.
[2] https://meduza.io/cards/mozhno-li-v-rossii-protestovat-protiv-vlasti
[3] https://meduza.io/cards/mozhno-li-v-rossii-protestovat-protiv-vlasti
[4] International Human Rights Law is another story
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI
[6] Lukashenko has been the President of Belarus since 1994; his re-election in 2020 sparked mass protests throughout the country
[7] Twitter account @kulakovakate (posted 23/01/20)
[8] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/01/22/social-media-platforms-delete-russian-posts-promoting-navalny-protests-state-censor-a72701
[9] 2011-13 saw Russia’s ‘March of the Millons’ https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/13/russia-march-millions
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/18/alexei-navalny-calls-grow-for-release-of-arrested-russia-opposition-figure
[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-russia-politics-protests/putin-ally-warns-opposition-protesters-we-wont-allow-anarchy-idUKKCN1UP1VF?edition-redirect=uk