Illustration by Chris Tilbury; images © Michał Siergiejevicz, The Presidential Press and Information Office, Weroarnau, Sergey Korneev, Wikimedia Commons

After Alexei Navalny the opposition to Vladimir Putin has no single leader

While there might be no single figure to rally around, opponents of the Russian President are growing in number
July 2, 2021

Vladimir Putin, who famously complained that the destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991 was “the greatest political disaster of the 20th century” has, in the fourth term of his Presidency of Russia, significantly reversed that tragedy, as if rewinding a film. The grip of the state, the power of the Kremlin and the suppression of civil society all increase, it seems almost daily. And much of the society is pliant: half or more of the population say they miss the Soviet times, even if many hardly knew them.

Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada polling organisation (designated as a “Foreign Agent,” but still working) told a Russian interviewer that the country was “still moving” towards totalitarianism, and that “the space of freedom, culture, enlightenment, religion, morality, science is shrinking, not to mention the complete disappearance of politics as an institutional realm...the masses continue to live by the idea of state greatness.”

Expressions of hatred of the west are part of this reversion—ironic, thinks Gudkov, since “Russian society perceives the west as a utopia, the embodiment of ideas and values.” This is doublethink: the cultural historian Irina Prokhorova told the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung that “you meet someone on the street and they talk about the ‘damned West’: then they spend their last savings on sending their child abroad for an education.” 

The return of Soviet values has seen the return of the most necessary: public hypocrisy. This is what the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz called ‘ketman” (a term borrowed from the 19th century French writer Arthur de Gobineau), meaning a state of being in which public embrace of a prevailing ideology was shadowed by private revulsion and hidden dissidence.

In a landmark essay for the Medusa website—now based in one of the Baltic states like much of Russian contemporary dissidence—Maxim Trudolyubov, finest of the oppositionist commentators, writes that the Kremlin leaders must cultivate a constant state of crisis caused by “the threat of war, natural disasters, or the activities of saboteurs and other domestic enemies. The nation must be in peril, and its leaders must act in accordance with the logic of ‘national salvation.’ It’s no coincidence that Russian political rhetoric is riddled with talk of threats.”

Moscow’s political analysts echo Lev Gudkov’s pessimism. Tatyana Stanova, head of the consulting firm R Politik, says that “it seems that today the political advantage in the fight with the opposition is now completely on the side of the ruling power.” Epithets like “Foreign Agents,” “Undesirable Organisations,” “Extremists” “an NGO infringing the privacy and rights of a citizen” are used, says Stanova, to suppress both individuals and civil society institutions, rendering them unable to take part in politics at any level. This would include the Duma, the national legislature, which goes to the polls on or before 19th September this year.

The Kremlin has succeeded in one large task: it has largely silenced Alexei Navalny. Having failed to poison its most prominent political opponent last August, it took advantage of his extraordinary courage in returning to Russia, after recovering in Germany, by sentencing him to two and a half years in Pokrov, one of its most severe prison camps, and by closing down his national network of offices. He is, says Andrei Kolesnikov, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre (one of the very few western institutes still open) now receding from public view.

In the first of a series of essays published earlier this year on contemporary Russian politics, Kolesnikov writes that Navalny’s return and imprisonment appears to have “increased the Russian public’s distrust and disapproval of him”. Why? “Couldn’t be more banal. It’s a case of shooting the messenger… the passive majority would prefer to block out unfavourable and compromising information about their country.”

Navalny’s call for Russia-wide demonstrations, his tireless revelations of corruption (including drone videos of a vast, newly-built palace on the Black Sea, presumed to have been ordered by Putin), his endless skewering of Putin’s United Russia party (the majority in the present Duma) have been abruptly terminated. But protest, Kolesnikov tells me, is not excised. “We must see what is happening in the regions. Navalny concentrates on central power: reasonably, since historically all change has taken place in the Kremlin. But in the regions, people care about their local rights.”

“Even if most Russians prefer to shoot the rebel messenger than acquaint themselves with his message, protest now has a larger ground on which to spread itself than in Soviet days”

Last year, in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, the arrest of a popular governor got thousands out in the streets—with, at first, little resistance from the police. In the province of Bashkortostan, ecological protests also attracted crowds of supporters: as had, in 2019, thousands protesting the building of a church in the middle of a much-walked park in Yekaterinburg (church attendance in Russia, quite free, indeed encouraged, is low. Though the beauty of Russian Orthodox services, their hymns and chants, remains, the church hierarchy is in an embrace with political power which recalls the days of Tsarism). 

The crackdown on dissent, new rules which creep closer to defining thought crime and the flight from Moscow of the regime’s opponents, are all sharply increasing. Dmitri Gudkov (no relation to Lev Gudkov), a prominent opposition member of the Duma, left Russia in June, saying he had been warned of arrest on trumped up charges if he stayed.

Andrei Soldatov, who with his partner Irina Borogan, has written penetrating books on Russian security—the latest of which is The Compatriots, on the lethal foreign travels of secret police assassins since the 1917 revolution—says that the regime strives to bring the younger generations, most likely to rebel, into the shelter of the state. Propaganda in education has intensified, loyalists placed in leadership positions: Lev Gudkov notes that 92 of the heads of the top 100 universities are associated with United Russia. The army has sponsored the “Army of Youth” in schools.

“Everyone can get swept up, even the apolitical people get taken in,“ says Soldatov, whose own father, a scientist and a pioneer of the Internet in Russia, was briefly arrested. “The pact between Putin and the middle class is broken, the government is so oppressive. People distrust everyone. People don’t trust the Covid vaccine: in the regions, people just refuse it. The figures for vaccinations are greatly exaggerated.”

In his last essay, Kolesnikov quotes Levada polling evidence which shows that where 59 per cent of the over 55s wish Putin to remain President after 2024—when he should face re-election—57 per cent of the 18-24-year olds want him to go. More than a third of the young believe the poisoning of Navalny was an attempt to rid the state of this turbulent rebel, while only 9 per cent of the 55+ cohorts do. Far more of the former have watched the video of “Putin’s Palace,” and generally believe it to be the president’s folly.

Arkady Ostrovsky, born into the Soviet intelligentsia, now Russia Editor of The Economist, believes Navalny, whatever his fate in the notoriously violent Pokrov penal colony 60 miles east of Moscow, has forced the regime into its hard line stance, “because he’s made it hard to say you’re neutral. His message was simple: let’s live for ourselves in a free state.”

He will be in the camp for more than two years: a Reuters report based on the testimonies of former prisoners pointed to severe, prolonged abuse, mainly at the hands of other prisoners, and to withdrawal into silence on the part of many after only a year, with long physical and psychological effects after release. A hunger strike, now over, has weakened Navalny: the last images were of a gaunt figure. However he bears it, the state murder attempt and the two and a half year sentence (for violating bail conditions while he was recovering) have deprived the regime of what remnants of justice and morality it possessed.

Protest and dissidence now have no single leader. But even if most Russians prefer to shoot the rebel messenger than acquaint themselves with his message, protest now has a larger ground on which to spread itself than in Soviet days. That may be because, as Ostrovsky believes, Navalny has seeded that ground over the past decade. It is visibly the case that young Russians will be the tinder for any future blaze: even Gudkov, wary of optimism, says that “the youth of today is markedly different from previous generations …(with) new communications practices, new behavioural models, a more pronounced orientation towards the west, a more noticeable intolerance of violence.” The shuttering of Navalny is not the end of dissent: it may indeed encourage a broader base of protest, an intolerance not just of violence, but of an entire society bound together only by its threat.

Yet however tempting is the parallel with Brezhnev’s USSR (1964-1982), Russia is no longer Soviet. Travel, relatively free speech, a so-far unsuppressed web are now past being novelties: they are seen as birth rights by the 18-25s. Confining them, the country’s future, would, in the absence of the gulag and nightly executions in the bowels of the Lubyanka, hurry the destabilisation of the state itself.

Despair co-exists with a stubborn sense that this authoritarianism, too, will pass. Kolesnikov rejects an easy likening of Russia with China: “it was a democracy.” Soldatov points to young pupils in school using their smart phones to record abusive teachers, and sees a rising generation with a different, much less constrained mentality than those who had years of Soviet schooling. Just as Winston Smith, in 1984, believed that “If there is hope it lies in the proles,” so those who seek change in Russia see hope as lying in the youth.  

Trudolyubov writes “Of course, arrests, prison sentences, fines, and being labeled ‘agents’ are thoroughly real, and it would be both impossible and wrong to dismiss this as a mere hassle. The authorities can take things far, but they will never go all the way. There are too many interactions and processes in Russian society today to make total control possible. Achieving a complete administrative ‘singularity’ is impossible simply because the state would need to manage everything all at once… The ‘theological’ logic of power relies on the public’s willingness to accept it on faith, but society isn’t a congregation and the authorities aren’t the only ones active in Russia’s complex, highly organized public life. The passivity needed for managed administrative utopia just isn’t there.”