On Jan. 23, 2020, a week after the poisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny was arrested on his return to Moscow, Russia saw the widest nationwide protest in its recent history. Defying bitter temperatures and various flavors of “internal troops” (the authorities refused to authorize the protest), some 200,000 people across 125 cities and towns, many with no previous history of protesting, took to the streets to demand Navalny’s release. “Let him out,” demonstrators chanted in my hometown of Krasnodar, the capital of Russia’s largest agrarian region and a conservative stronghold. “One for all, and all for one.”
The scene was striking. It is not that Russia ever lacked protests, of course. In a country with deficient institutions, taking to the streets is one of the few ways to establish dialogue with power. The Soviet Union, for example, was birthed in the revolutionary protests of 1905 and 1917 and collapsed following protests against an anti-democratic coup in 1991. In between, the repressive machine, operated by state security services, couldn’t quash everything. Peasants rebelled against forced requisitions of war communism. Workers protested for better living conditions. Dissidents demonstrated against Soviet expansionism and human rights violations. Those eruptions, all violently suppressed and kept secret, formed a long, unbroken chain. Soviet citizens learned about them through hearsay or “enemy voices,” as Radio Liberty and Voice of America were labeled.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, with state security services in retreat and civic engagement reawakened, mass protests became routine. In 1989, a wave of miners’ strikes shook the country. They were triggered by soap shortages that made it impossible for the miners to wash up after their shift and grew to involve half a million people who demanded, through strike committees, better economic and labor conditions, putting more pressure on a faltering planned economy. The largest political protest happened in Moscow in February 1990, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded the cancellation of Article 6 of the constitution, which affirmed the leading role of the Communist Party. And in August 1991, staring into the barrels of tank guns, some 200,000 Moscow residents protested for three days against the usurpation of power by the KGB and military strongmen. The failed putsch was the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin.
During Russia’s painful transition to a market economy, which was marked by severe supply disruptions and hyperinflation, the protests grew exponentially. Builders, trolley drivers, construction workers, nuclear scientists, teachers, and doctors habitually took to the streets. The health care worker strike of 1992, for instance, started in Moscow and quickly spread to 70 regions; the strikers’ main demand was higher salaries. The communists, now in opposition, staged political rallies of their own, demanding the restoration of the Soviet Union. In 1993, thousands of people backed rebellious lawmakers trying to oust then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in a standoff that ended with Yeltsin shelling his own parliament. The miners’ strikes continued, culminating in the “rail war” of 1998, when desperate miners who had not been paid for months blocked the railways, disrupting cargo and passenger transportation across the country. “Put Yeltsin on the rails!” went one of the popular slogans. “Government must resign!”
Just like former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev before him, Yeltsin did not suppress popular protests. Part of perestroika’s promise was to democratize society, returning freedom of assembly and expression—a right formalized in the first post-Soviet constitution. By and large, this right was upheld. For all their economic chaos, the 1990s, may have thus been the freest time in Russia’s history. Given the lack of things to suppress, many KGB workers took private security or government bureaucracy jobs, among them current Russian President Vladimir Putin, who transitioned to St. Petersburg’s administration and then to Moscow, where he quickly rose through the government ranks.
The first decade of the new millennium saw little protest activity. The economic reforms of the 1990s were finally bearing fruit, which, together with skyrocketing oil prices, led to real income growth. After the privations of the Soviet Union, the stores were overflowing and international travel was affordable. People were “tired” of politics. Putin’s early authoritarian moves, such as imprisoning the country’s richest man and potential political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sparked scant protest. But his first major economic reform, a replacement of Soviet-era social benefits with monetary compensation, led to thousands of pensioners blocking major streets in their towns throughout 2004. The legislation had to be reworked and contained concessions significant enough to tamper down the protests—for the time being.
Yet Putin, an alumnus of the organization responsible for fighting dissent, was not willing to tolerate political protest. The 2005 to 2009 Dissenters’ Marches, organized in Moscow and St. Petersburg by a broad coalition of opposition forces in response to growing authoritarianism, were accompanied by arrests and beatings. “Tell your politicians we live in a police state,” Garry Kasparov, then-leader of the United Civil Front, shouted at a group of foreign journalists during his detention at one of the marches in Moscow in April 2007. Eventually, he would have to leave the country.
The extent of the police state became clear during anti-government Bolotnaya Square protests, a series of mass rallies against widespread ballot rigging that in December 2011 had delivered victory in the parliamentary elections to Putin’s United Russia party. “Swindlers and thieves, give us our election back!” went one of the popular slogans, along with “Russia Without Putin,” a response to the leader’s recently announced third presidential bid. Over winter and spring, the streets of Moscow saw a heavy police presence as hundreds of thousands of people continued to protest. On May 6, 2012, the day before Putin’s third inauguration, riot police violently clashed with protesters, leaving dozens of people wounded and hundreds arrested, including then-opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and then-anti-corruption activist Navalny.
Instead of bringing political change, the massive show of discontent during the Bolotnaya Square protests triggered a cycle of reaction. Under newly passed “extremist” laws, administrative arrests for “participating in mass disorders” gave way to criminal prosecution and real prison sentences. Censorship was restored, including persecution for “extremist” retweets and reposts. Continuing for another year, the protests were now accompanied by “preemptive” arrests of opposition leaders and widescale detentions of participants. The last of this cycle’s rallies took place in Moscow in July 2013 against a five-year suspended sentence for Navalny in an embezzlement case that the European Court of Human Rights would later rule politically motivated.
In February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war with Ukraine, arguably to protect the interest of ethnic Russians. The war gave a boost to Putin’s declining approval ratings and quashed protest moods with jingoism; 86 percent of people, some of whom must have participated in the Bolotnaya Square protests, approved of the annexation. That still left 14 percent, or around 20 million people, opposing it. Vesna or “Spring,” a protest march against the annexation, was scheduled in Moscow for March 1, 2015. “The spring won’t come without us,” read the leaflet that Nemtsov, one of the protest organizers, passed around in the Moscow subway station. It turned out to be the last civic action by the perestroika star and politician once believed to be Yeltsin’s successor. The day before the protest march, Nemtsov was shot in the back on the bridge across from the Kremlin.
Nemtsov’s murder may have been the proverbial point of no return after which the regime no longer felt the need to hide its repressive nature. Through a combination of ownership changes, journalist intimidation, and procedural measures, the majority of remaining independent media outlets was brought into the Kremlin fold. In 2016, Putin, who had been steadily expanding Russia’s security services, created the Rosgvardia, a paramilitary force “to protect motherland and constitution” and answer directly to him. Many civil rights and activist organizations found themselves designated as “foreign agents.” Demoralized and disillusioned, Russians emigrated in droves; between 2011 and 2015, the number of those leaving Russia jumped by eight.
It is in that barren soil that Navalny, the leader of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, planted his bid for the 2018 presidential election. As part of his presidential campaign, he launched a dozen regional headquarters staffed by young, social media-savvy volunteers with little political experience but enough zeal to believe “Russia without Putin” was possible. Far from Moscow, Navalny, whose investigative movies exposing government corruption steadily gained viewers, was taking the real political pulse of the people. Few were happy. In a formerly Marxist country that combines an average monthly salary of just over $600 with the fifth largest number of billionaires on Forbes’ list, class discontent simmers not too far beneath the surface.
In March 2017, as part of his presidential bid, Navalny released, via his YouTube channel, an investigation detailing the vast illegal fortune of Putin’s prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev. The next day, Navalny summoned Russians to the streets. The protests were not sanctioned by the authorities and were accompanied by preemptive police harassment of organizers and the general public. In Rostov-on-Don, for instance, college students were forced to sign a paper promising they would not participate in the protest—or else risk being expelled. Still, the marches swept more than a hundred Russian towns, exceeding, by their geographic footprint, any other show of discontent in post-Soviet Russia. Spread across Russia’s 11 time zones, the protests allowed people waking up in St. Petersburg to see the protesters in “earlier” towns like Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, and Tomsk. It made people less afraid.
As the notably young protesters carried slogans like “Sell the dachas and build the roads,” commentators around the world again talked about Russia’s political reawakening. “If high-profile servants like Medvedev steal so openly from their people, imagine what goes on in the provinces,” said one of the participants in Makhachkala. More than 1,000 people were detained in Moscow alone, including Navalny himself; many suffered concussions from police batons. In its official communications, the Kremlin shrugged the protests off and blamed NATO interference. The main target, Medvedev, limited his response to blocking Navalny on Instagram.
Navalny didn’t win the opportunity for a presidential debate with Putin. (He was denied being put on the ballot due to a “criminal record.”) Instead, he got a brilliant green—a Soviet antiseptic embrocation—hurled into his face by unknown attackers, more arrests, and a promise by the head of Rosgvardia to make “mincemeat” out of him. But in May 2018, Navalny roused a nationwide protest against Putin’s fourth inauguration. “He’s Not Our Tsar” brought more violence against protesters, more criminal cases, and more repressive laws. It also positioned Navalny as the undisputed leader of the opposition, a man of passionate convictions who refused to fit into the straitjacket of imitation democracy and whose anti-corruption message resonated beyond the world of Moscow intelligentsia.
Russian police officers detain a participant of an unauthorized opposition rally in the center of St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 12, 2017. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images
Police officers detain a man during an anti-corruption rally in central Moscow on March 26, 2017. ALEXANDER UTKIN/AFP via Getty Images
The rebirth of political protests in 2017 showed Putin’s post-Crimea majority wasn’t as monolithic as it was portrayed and Navalny’s regional headquarters could function as viable organizing points of resistance, both for nationwide and local causes—which kept multiplying given the incompetence of Putin’s United Russia party. A series of “garbage protests” shook the towns outside Moscow when local governors’ decision to accept Moscow’s trash quickly overwhelmed local dumps. Further north, in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, thousands of people protested hikes in electricity fees that enriched local oligarchs.
Socioeconomic grievances quickly turn political because in Putin’s Russia, where the center controls the regions, local governors are the Kremlin’s appointees. In Siberian Kemerovo, where a devastating fire in a deficiently constructed mall claimed 64 lives, a third of the town’s residents took to the streets to demand Aman Tuleyev’s resignation, a member of the United Russia party whose tenure in the region spanned 20 years. “How much have you been paid for your closed eyes?” read a slogan in front of Kemerovo’s city council, carried along with portraits of the victims, 41 of whom were children. “Who’s the real culprit?” demanded another.
Navalny’s answer was straightforward: “the party of thieves and crooks.” Unable to take on the United Russia party in fair elections (Russia’s Ministry of Justice denies the registration of his “Russia of the Future” party just like the Russian Central Electoral Commission denied putting Navalny’s name on the ballot), Navalny focused on “smart voting,” a strategy of rallying support for nearly any candidate or party other than Putin and United Russia. In the 2019 Moscow city council election, preceded by a wave of mass protests against authorities blocking independent candidates, almost half of those elected were politicians backed by Navalny’s “smart voting.”
In 2020, the strategy scored more victories in local elections. Of the 850 candidates it backed, at least 138 were elected to various regional and municipal bodies across Russia. In Tomsk, a Siberian city where Navalny had been working with local activists for a good part of August 2020, United Russia lost its majority in the city parliament. But Navalny wouldn’t know about it for a while. On Aug. 21, 2020, he collapsed on a flight home in what later would be proven an assassination attempt with the nerve agent Novichok. An investigation by the British firm Bellingcat revealed Navalny’s poisoning was the culmination of a years-long “special operation” by Russian security services, whose head reports to Putin. (The Kremlin denies involvement.) Navalny spent 18 days in a coma, having to later relearn basic tasks like walking and speaking. Throughout the ordeal, he maintained he would return to Russia. On Jan. 17, he delivered on that promise.
If Navalny left Russia as an opposition politician, he returned as a global face of resistance against tyranny, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a Russian citizen determined to live in his country come hell or high water. His arrest at passport control at the Sheremetyevo airport, allegedly for failing to check in at a Russian police station during his convalescence in Germany and thus violating the term of his probation, shocked the country long numb to political misfortunes. What followed next—a court martial-style hearing under the portrait of one of Stalin’s executioners and Navalny’s jailing in Matrosskaya Tishina—crossed the line for many.
Navalny’s latest investigative movie, about Putin’s $1.4 billion Black Sea palace built with kickbacks from his oligarch friends, added to the cognitive dissonance Russians were already feeling and delivered more damning evidence about the top man in the Kremlin. Instead of a hard-laboring ruler whose existence has been equated with Russia itself, the country saw an owner of an aqua disco, a casino, and a theater with a stripper pole. “Putin’s Palace” racked up 60 million views in three days. When Navalny’s team announced a nationwide protest on Jan. 23, his audience was ready.
On the streets, they found plazas and squares surrounded by buses and snow removal equipment to block protesters’ access. Police vans detained protesters for hours without food, heating, or water. Squads of paramilitary and riot police dubbed “cosmonauts” for their outlandish round helmets patrolled the streets, an oppressive presence familiar to Moscow residents but still alien to provincial towns. As they chased and pummeled the protesters, it was blatantly clear “law enforcement” was there to protect the authorities, not the people whose taxes paid their salaries. To keep lawyers away from the jailed, police enacted the “fortress” regime, where police stations are considered “in lockdown” due to imminent terrorist threats.
Despite the massive show of discontent, local officials refrained from meeting with their constituents. Though local causes were on the protests’ agenda—the residents of Khabarovsk, for instance, demanded freedom for their jailed governor, just as they had been doing for months—both sides understood Navalny was a “federal issue.”
The second round of nationwide protests on Jan. 31 brought even higher protester numbers in larger cities and even more arrests with police using electrical shock devices. Subway stations in central Moscow went into lockdown, along with the Red Square. On Feb. 2, following a “clearing” of the area around the court building where Navalny had been sentenced to serving two years and eight months in prison, detachments of riot police roamed the snowed-out streets, their black fatigues and batons eerie against Moscow’s famed Christmas decorations. All in all, more than 11,000 people have been taken into custody since the beginning of the protests. The journalist of an independent online publication that covered the protests was arrested and held for 15 days even though he didn’t even personally attend them.
In the ensuing weeks, large gatherings turned to flash mobs with Russians shining flashlights at predetermined times. A little over a month after Navalny’s return, a Moscow appeals court rejected his demand to be released. That same day, a judge found Navalny guilty for the second time, this time of slandering a World War II veteran, whom he had called a “scoundrel” for appearing in an advertisement promoting Putin’s constitutional amendments. The ruling in this case was preceded by two weeks of truly Kafkaesque hearings, selectively televised to demonize Navalny in a country where victory in the war had been turned into a cult.
The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Navalny’s release. But the Kremlin simply shrugged the European court order as “interference” into Russian domestic affairs, just as it did to the protests themselves. Three foreign diplomats were expelled in connection with Navalny’s case just as the European Union’s high representative Josep Borrell arrived in Moscow to “build bridges.” The Russian foreign minister said the country was ready to sever its ties with the EU. As for Navalny, on Feb. 28, the father of two was transferred to Vladimir Region’s Penal Colony No. 2, notorious for its harsh conditions and human rights violations. His dispatches from behind the bars have been inspiring and heart-rending.
Young people shine flashlights from their phones in support of Alexei Navalny near Red Square in Moscow on Feb. 14. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
An opposition supporter holds a copy of the Russian Constitution during a rally in support of Alexei Navalny near the monument to writer Fyodor Dostoevsky at the Russian State Library in Moscow, on April 21. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images
If protests early this year brought certainty to anything, it is that Navalny will be in prison as long as Putin is in power. Putin has preferred to blame discontent on “pandemic fatigue” and continues to refuse to use Navalny’s name, referring to him as the “Berlin clinic patient.”
But downplaying the protests is for external consumption. In reality, the Kremlin has plenty of cause for concern. Putin’s approval rating is currently at 63 percent, similar to where it was during the Bolotnaya Square protests and far from the “Crimea Is Ours” rating. Among young people, his popularity fell to 46 percent, the lowest mark since it was tracked. There’s little potential for growth, with real incomes declining for eight straight years. With prices continuing to rise in December 2020—and in a nod to a Soviet-style command economy—Putin banned sugar and sunflower oil producers from raising prices. There’s talk of rationing. A new social support package is being discussed by the Russian parliament to quell discontent among older Russians who make up the president’s most loyal electorate.
But to the rest of the country, Putin has little to offer. Because corruption is his model of governance—paid-for politicians are more loyal—there is limited economic opportunity for everyone else. The share of small and medium businesses in the country’s GDP is three times lower than the EU average and falling as lucrative projects move through state-affiliated companies. There are so many bureaucratic obstacles that people shy away from entrepreneurship altogether. The courts, as Navalny’s return and imprisonment have again demonstrated, merely serve the interests of the regime, and the ensuing lawlessness trickles down to every sphere of life.
It is not surprising that a staggering 44 percent of Russians between age 15 and age 29 say they would leave the country if given the opportunity. Their general unhappiness will continue to serve as fodder for resistance—with or without Navalny.
Yet, unlike the nations swept by the Arab Spring, Russia is not a young country. With an average age of 40 years, the country has one of the oldest populations in the world. Older Russians get most of their news from state-controlled television. And for them, Putin’s Russia may not seem so bad. Even with the post-2013 economic decline, Russians today are economically better off than at any point in the country’s existence. Few believe in the possibility of change, and the risk of losing what they have by provoking the regime is extremely high.
Inability to address younger Russians’ socioeconomic and political grievances though gives the Kremlin no choice other than to further crack down on dissent while shifting the blame for its failures to “internal enemies.” The Russian State Duma, already nicknamed “mad printer” for passing an overwhelming amount of repressive legislation, is mulling new laws, including one against the “insult of dignity of defenders of the motherland.”
To date, 5,716 administrative and criminal cases have been opened in connection with Moscow’s January and February protests alone. In the best tradition of Soviet “political education,” school administrations across the country are leading “explanatory work” about the dangers of participating in the protests. Russia’s Investigative Committee released a “Happy 14th Birthday” video, informing schoolchildren of criminal responsibility for participating in “mass disorders.” More cases like the one pitching Navalny against a war veteran could and would be opened against anyone found guilty of insulting the country’s “heroes.”
The problem with tightening the screws to fight expressions of discontent is it is impotent against the discontent itself. Sometimes, it isn’t even enough to fight off public display; when outrage spreads across Russia’s vast territory, like it did in January and February, the repressive machine sputters. There’s simply not enough troops to deploy on every street in every town.
A revolutionary situation, former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin teaches us, is when the elite can’t—and the underclass won’t—live the old way. Viewed in those terms, Russia’s revolutionary potential may still be low because the regime is mostly capable of controlling the population. The elites stick with Putin, who acts as the guarantor of their illegally acquired wealth. More aggressive Western sanctions may, over the years, erode their loyalty to him—but only slowly.
This leaves us with the rest. Can Navalny, “in the depths of Siberian mines,” as another famous dissident and poet Alexander Pushkin put it, remain a powerful force of resistance? Or will the state succeed in marginalizing, even vanquishing, him? The odds are frighteningly against him. His health, already damaged by the Novichok attack, has deteriorated in prison; he’s suffering from acute back pain and numbness in his leg. To protest authorities’ refusal to provide adequate medical care, in yet another statement of defiance against the omnipotent Russian state, he has also gone on a hunger strike.
On March 23, Navalny’s team launched a “Free Navalny” campaign on social media. The effort included organizing a new mass protest, the date for which was supposed to be announced once 500,000 Russians registered their intent to participate on an interactive map. The protest, with demands for freedom for all political prisoners and resignation of Putin, had been conceived as the largest rally in Russia’s post-Soviet history. By April 17, the map of “beautiful Russia of the future,” as his supporters refer to their long-suffering country, featured more than 450,000 blue dots. The same day, test results shared by the family of the hunger-striking Navalny’s (outside doctors are not allowed to visit), indicated that he was in critical condition with failing heart and kidney functions. Given the grim news, his supporters called for “the final battle between good and neutrality” for April 21, the same day as Putin’s annual address to the Federal Council.
People who came out that day knew they would face great peril. The previous week, the Russian state prosecutor office moved to designate Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization.” The mood was grim. “People came out of despair,” Moscow opposition activist Ilya Yashin said in a YouTube video. “They could not watch silently how the power, slowly and cynically, is killing Navalny.”
Meanwhile, in his earlier address, Putin had spoken about extra payments to parents of school children, toughness on the West, and his affection for The Jungle Book, without a word about Navalny or the protests. So as not to mar the occasion with negative publicity, arrests in Moscow were minimal, although the police did not hold back elsewhere, seizing members of Navalny’s team across the regions and pummeling protesters with electrical shock devices in St. Petersburg.
Just days later, on Friday the 23, civilian doctors were finally allowed into the hospital where Navalny is still being held. On Instagram, Navalny spoke of his gratitude to his supporters and announced that he was ending his three-week hunger strike. As to the protests’ demand of freedom for him and other political prisoners, they remain unfulfilled. Yet if past Russian revolutionary experiences teach the world anything, it is the arch of history bends long. It took 12 years—from the bloody suppression of a peaceful demonstration in January 1905 by the tsarist regime, known as “Bloody Sunday”—to overthrow the monarchy in February 1917. To survive, an autocratic regime, whether the Romanovs’ or Putin’s, must adapt and change—but by dint of its rigidity, it cannot. As long as Russia remains a place where, in the words of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, “the villains who robbed the people gathered together, recruited soldiers and judges to guard their orgy, and are feasting,” there can be no peace. The best one gets is an impasse.