By Jonathan Murden
In the West, critiques of Putin’s Russia are commonplace. Of these many critiques – authoritarianism, aggression, homophobia – one you do not hear so often is corruption. And yet it is precisely this that has sparked widespread protests across the nation this weekend.
In the largest demonstrations since 2013, thousands took to the streets in outrage, protesting against Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has accused Medvedev of taking bribes through fake non-profits, and amassing vast amounts of personal property. According to the Moscow Times, over eight thousand people gathered in the capital, at least one thousand of whom were detained by the police, including Navalny himself.
Authoritarianism in the Soviet era allowed officials to abuse their positions, and this was only worsened by the chaos during communism’s collapse. Just last month Romania was shaken by the biggest protests since the fall of communism, over an emergency government bill that would have allowed corrupt politicians to escape punishment. However, the authoritarianism that makes corruption such a problem in places like Russia, is also a catalyst for anti-establishment movements.
At present, many Russians have so little connection to politics that the idea of election rigging, for instance, can seem fairly abstract. Much more concrete is the claim that Medvedev uses proxies to buy Nike trainers or duck houses with national funds. So concrete are these claims that many protesters can be seen brandishing their own rubber ducks or trainers, with Navalny himself sporting a pair around his neck as the police took him away.
This irreverence is indicative of a notable demographic shift from previous protests. Most of Sunday’s participants were young, between sixteen and twenty-five, many of them too young to remember a time when Putin wasn’t in power. For comparison, the protests back in 2013 were largely filled with middle class professionals in their twenties and thirties. This movement was largely stamped out in the clampdown that followed, and effective resistance to the Kremlin appeared to have died out entirely amidst the triumphal imperialism that has characterised public discourse since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Younger Russians now ignore the state media and have instead turned to the internet, to YouTube and to blogs, for their news and commentary. Despite the pervasiveness of the official ideology in Russian society, this has fed a growing desire among the youth for a change of regime after seventeen years almost unchallenged.
Sunday’s protests were themselves sparked by a film produced by Navalny. A long-time favourite among observers in the West, Navalny has been involved in a number of liberal, pro-Western organisations in the past, and many Western commentators are cautiously optimistic about the events of this past week. Since he does not have access to the official media, he released the film on YouTube, where it has subsequently received over fourteen million views. Western optimism is perhaps related to the direct link many wish to draw between Putin and Donald Trump; in the popular imagination, these represent two poles of a newly emerging global fascism, a resurgence of a reactionary despotism.
But there is good reason to believe that Alexei Navalny is not the liberal saviour many might want him to be. Calling himself a ‘nationalist democrat,’ Navalny has appeared alongside neo-Nazis and, referring to non-white militants from the Caucasus, said that whilst cockroaches might be killed with a slipper, in the case of humans, “I recommend a pistol.”
Yet activists from these regions are not concerned by Navalny. His adoption of the nationalist slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’ mirrors the rhetoric of Tartar and Bashkir activists, for example, who seek greater regional democracy amid the rather confused ethnic policy of the Russian Federation. It may well be that he is simply attempting to build a broad, non-partisan opposition, but even if that were so, it is unlikely these forces would recede into insignificance once they had helped him to oust the current regime. The idealisation of Navalny is the result of a politics that emphasises the role of ‘great men of history,’ individuals in whom the answers to crisis reside. The problem with such saviour figures is that they are usually found wanting, with dire consquences.
In any case, Navalny is unlikely to win next year’s election. Even if the Kremlin were to allow a fair election he will be too liberal for the nationalists, and too nationalist for the liberals. But this is by no means to say that Sunday’s demonstrations were ineffectual; the authorities were not prepared for such a great show of force, especially unprovoked by any recent government action, and they still seem uncertain of how to respond.
In an age where the internet has opened up spaces for political discourse outside the official version of events, new means of resistance to state control become possible. The future of this resistance in Russia all depends on whether the widespread dissatisfaction can be transformed into a mass movement.
Photograph: Cea via Flickr.