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Source: Navalny, political protest and opposition in Russia | Postsocialism

Dr. Morris has written a companion piece: Putin and property – a ‘boss’ but not an owner

Navalny, political protest and opposition in Russia

By Dr. Jeremy Morris

28 January 2021

Sign: ‘Going out onto the ice is dangerous’. In snow-footprints: ‘couldn’t give a f*ck’.

We know from media coverage of the Bolotnaia protests nearly ten years ago that media representations of protest in Russia are often far from the reality. Researchers have shown that painting those protests as a ‘middle-class’ revolt was wide of the mark – in reality a broad age-range and social mix of Muscovites came out  ‘For Fair Elections’. Kalk writes of the creation of the myth of a dignified ‘creative class’ by the Russian media. I have written at length on the flipside of this discourse (and here for a more general audience)– an inability to even consider the class agency of those who are not educated metropolitans.   Bikbov shows that people’s reasons for coming out on the streets are very difficult to measure and are sometimes not even articulable by participants themselves. Misha Gabowitsch is also skeptical: “Expressions such as ‘middle class’, ‘generation’ or ‘pensioner’ suggest actually existing collective actors, but they only appear when their supposed members understand themselves as such and when there are institutions that maintain such constructs. […] In today’s Russia this is seldom the case.”

Nonetheless ‘indignation’ and shame that then translate into a burning desire to express publicly one’s anger and frustration are powerful motivators. Being part of a bigger movement acting for themselves in a country where public acts are usually orchestrated by cynical political considerations should also be considered. The feeling of participating in something bigger than one’s self is like a little spark of electricity, according to many who do not see themselves as ‘activists’. But then what has this to do with Navalny? I think another mistake of analysis of protests – last Saturday included – is to focus too much on the man. As I said in yesterday’s post – it’s more useful to think of him as channelling currents and forces that exist independent of his particular political profile, campaign even. As Bikbov wrote of the 2011-12 protests – we shouldn’t discount the importance of ‘individual self-construction’ (bourgeois self-building) as a motivation. And this is not about ‘dignity’ in a social solidarity sense (as it may be in other contexts), but about the individual. In those [senses] it does have a classed element, but not a class-consciousness one.

To avoid this turning into a mega post again, I will just summarise some observations based on talking to a genuinely wide range of Russians.

Socio-economic profile of protesters – a red herring. Moscow is diverse, so are its protests, but Moscow is not Russia and of course is magnitudes ‘better off’ than anywhere else. Were there many ‘new’ protesters? – maybe. Is that significant – probably not really. In reality these are quite small numbers (c. 20-40,000 in Moscow, and perhaps 150,000 across the country in 101 different cities) and anyone with personal experience of activism will know that cause-fatigue and turnover is high. Some interesting interpretation on how numbers of arrests have a ceiling irrespective of protester numbers which indicates limited capacity even of expanded Rosgvardiia – Putin’s loyal paramilitary (although others say that RG was held back intentionally).

Violence – very little of it – but nonetheless people standing their ground when clearly provoked by police. Police and participants clearly ‘learned’ from Belarus and from their own prior experience/knowledge. Tempting to draw class conclusions too from this – that a largely middle-class crowd. But, another reason not to rely too much on media of any stripe, which will always highlight the newsworthy violence.

Navalny’s arrest as focal point of the ‘miting’ (demonstration). It’s remarkable and no doubt a credit to Navalny as a genuinely charismatic and sincere opponent of the elite that so many (but again relative numbers is everything) came out for HIM. Nonetheless he is not the head of a party, and not the head of a movement. He is, like Putin, a mediated political figure, not a ‘politician’, even in an age where all politicians seek to mediatise themselves to stand out. The personalisation of politics can be a mobiliser, but in the longer term makes it harder to translate into a movement – indeed, quite a few protesters talked about their motivations being ‘more than just about helping a person’. Note that Navalny ended his video on Putin by returning to his campaign for smart voting, but this is not a viable strategy long-term.  

Other channelling that Navalny’s cause serves: ‘overcoming one’s personal fears in the dark days of my country’. This echoes what I mentioned above about how there can be very idiosyncratic, yet shared reasons for protest that are not really about the man or his message, but wider and longer-term currents in Russian society. I also heard about some very spontaneous acts of defiance from passersby who attempted, as in Belarus, to verbally or physically challenge law enforcement nonviolently – the video of the police kicking a woman in her 50s who was peacefully interceding was clearly not an isolated incident. Indeed – more telling than the kicking was the bragging reaction of one of the policemen that provoked widespread condemnation and a panic reaction from bosses.  ‘возмущение’ – indignation – it certainly does have a place here.

On the more pessimistic side, I have to reiterate the message of an old post on opposition politics I wrote here. Grumbling, resentment, even hatred of the elite does not mean people will support or even acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opposition figure. If anything, Navalny’s more recent ‘smart voting’, while effective (to a limited extent), just reflects what people were trying in a disorganised way to do before. Similarly, his more recent focus on economic inequality also is ‘behind the curve’ of the needs and values of the majority of ordinary people in my research, who started to turn away from United Russia ten years ago. They were already ‘smart voting’ in their own way before for ‘anyone but United Russia’.

For me personally, this is where he reveals his narrow (classed) cosmopolitan appeal that does not translate into leadership of a genuine opposition front. Because it’s not as accessible or interesting to the Western press, people tend to forget that the far right and the conservative left (as far as these ersatz labels make sense) both have populist messaging that does cut through into electoral success in Russia (as far as they can in such a skewed system, and acknowledging that they often not considered a real opposition). Again, we don’t hear so much about this because it’s not in Moscow and it doesn’t fit the narrative (coverage of Khabarovsk’s LDPR governor was an exception proving the rule). Indeed, the fact that only now the Communists and the LDPR (Zhirinovsky being the original populist politician and that party’s leader) are whining like little girls (sorry about that) about Navalny, is another measure of how late to the party he is.

So what has changed since I wrote in 2016 about ‘smart voting from below’? Well, in the mid 2010s Navalny was starting to cut through to ordinary people in terms of name recognition, especially with his ‘On vam ne Dimon’ video about Medvedev from 2017.  However there remain formidable structural barriers – he’s still perceived as ‘one of them’ – a metropolitan elite. He’s correspondingly vulnerable to being painted as a stooge of the West, as a foreign agent – as part of the ‘fifth column’. And this is why he clearly calculated he had to come home from Germany.

The problem that his supporters and pretty much all my liberal Russian friends don’t like to admit is that the regime is just as capable of learning from its mistakes and changing its tune as Navalny – its current campaign of intensifying disinformation: that Navalny is funded by foreign powers and is corrupting Russia’s youth, is largely successful. Just because the state controlled TV can no longer ignore him completely doesn’t mean a victory for him.  Thus, for every person who went out to support him on Saturday there is a spouse, or more likely an older relative, or a sibling (likely a state worker), who more or less buys the idea that Navalny is a front of some kind – a ‘feik’ or a ‘frik’ (fake or freak). Sure, the elite are corrupt as hell, but he’s just too slick – he must be a CIA product! One of the most intelligent and wise of my research interlocutors sincerely believes that the Moscow protests are a result of western embassies paying disaffected youth and criminals, and where they can’t pay them, getting them drunk. And this is a person who uses the internet – and while there’s no ‘great firewall’ as in China, targeted oppositional political ads are pretty much banned from mainstream social media in Russia. The whole ‘brainwashing youth’ slander has really cut through – just as much as we should acknowledge that Navalny’s anti-corruption message cut through.

Then there is general demobilization due to the deteriorating economic situation – which pre-dates, but which is exacerbated by Covid. Unlike in 2011-12, one interlocutor reflects that the ‘middle-class’ is подавлен – depressed. We shouldn’t discount the psychological effect of the economic burden on people – they aren’t jobless, but they are struggling with high levels of consumer debt and insecure conditions, and this is not a situation where ‘someone feels they owe something political to people, that they are able to participate in protest and maybe lose their job’. Add to this the more effective post-truth campaign by the authorities aimed at demobilization and you get a toxic mix that can be effective in putting people off coming out. As I said, yesterday – even critical ‘thinking’ people are willing to be satisfied by the word of Putin and then are liable to turn on those close to them who would like to protest – ‘what do you owe that guy [Navalny]? Think about your family. You think you can make a difference?’ On this basis can Navalny’s supporters hope for more than the making of a martyr (another important vector of myth-making in Russia)? A dissident in the noble (?) intellectual tradition of USSR? It strikes me that dissidence is not a position he’d be willing to occupy, nor one that is really tenable in today’s Russia. But I will end on a more optimistic note – Navalny is not the only brave activist, there are opposition politicians, labour activists, and ‘organic’ intellectuals all over Russia making small contributions to change every day. They aren’t the focus of media interest in Russia, but they are probably just as important in the long term as Alexei Navalny. Right now I’m writing about labour organising among food couriers, and will soon write a post about that topic.