On January 23rd 2021, protests broke out across Russia, triggered by Alexei Navalny’s arrest, and the release of the anti-corruption documentary, History of World’s Largest Bribe, which claims Putin’s new palace on the Black Sea coast was financed by Putin’s inner circle 1. Central Moscow and St. Petersburg were completely shut down as a result of the protests, with armoured blockades and metro closures being initiated 2. As the protests continued, arrests rocketed to 5,700 by January 31st, with 4,000 people being detained on January 23rd alone 2. Despite these protests, Navalny was sentenced on the 2nd of February to two and a half years. It was a jumped-up charge of failing to check-in with Russian authorities in Germany, where he was recovering from Novichok poisoning 2. Will this lead to the movement petering out? Many believe so, as protestors soon become more conscious of their job security and the threat from the Kremlin.
Navalny deserves enormous credit for engaging a new and receptive audience, with almost half of the protestors (interviewed by social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova at the January protests) participating for the first time 3. However, these protests transcend one man, even if he is the figurehead of the movement.
In classic social movement fashion, students, workers, and white-collar professionals united together – despite their different motivations – in solidarity to oppose the incumbent president, Vladimir Putin 4. The lack of social prospects in Russia, combined with a declining economy, and poor handling of the pandemic, has meant that the people are becoming increasingly discontented.2. Unemployment is now the highest since 2012, and the 2020 economy has taken its sharpest contraction since 2009 1. Navalny offers the opportunity for the protestors to rally around him and target their collective opposition towards the Kremlin.
It is questionable if the anti-corruption movement has ever been about Navalny himself. As a party politician, Navalny found himself on either side of the political aisle. After being a member of the Liberal Party for seven years, he was expelled after demanding the chairman of the Party should resign. He then moved to the opposition, taking up a seat with the nationalist agenda, and participating in the annual Russian March 2. Eventually moving to establish his own political party called Russia of the Future, Navalny can be described as a populist who seeks to expand his movement in any way. He avoids dividing agendas, focussing on the pursuit of the anti-corruption campaign 2. With a lack of commitment to a set of political beliefs, Navalny appears to be a man of little political conviction, except to oppose Putin’s presidency. Although succeeding right now, he fails to gain the trust of his followers. The Levada Center, an independent, non-governmental polling service, published a poll which found that only 5% of those surveyed trusted Navalny, whereas 30% trusted Putin still 5. Could these figures hinder him from trying to claim the presidential seat?
As this movement exists both dependently and independently from Navalny, it is interesting to see its developments without him. Vladimir Ashrikov, Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, expresses little concern over the solidarity of the group. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he noted how this is not the first time that Navalny has been out of the picture 6. In 2014, Navalny spent a year or so under house arrest, yet the movement continued to grow in his absence: the Anti-Corruption and Anti-Putin movement are deeper than him 6. This movement has over 200 employees, and multiple branches of people who are involved in political work, and gaining numbers through social media 6. Ashrikov is focused upon increase in recognition, gathering supporters, conducting effective campaigns, and continuing anti-corruption investigations and videos, ultimately waiting for the opportunity to capitalise on the Kremlin’s weaknesses 6.
Students, workers and white-collar professionals are all emerging at the forefront of the movement. As a collective unit, they are a force that Putin is worried about, shown with the Kremlin’s firm shutdown of the protests. Collective or not, students hold an especially threatening place in Russian society for Putin. Historically, students on post-Soviet grounds have led revolutions and uprisings across the old Soviet bloc, and he will be aware of the momentum this group can develop. In 1956, the Hungarian Revolution was led by students in the capital, Budapest 7. In 1989, Student’s Day in Czechoslovakia transformed into an anti-communism rally resulting in the Velvet Revolution 8. In 2001, student-led protestors in Georgia mobilised and demanded the resignation of the Shvardnadze, the Georgian Communist Party leader, who was appointed by the Soviet government, which resulted in two new opposition parties forming (The National Movement and United Democrats) 9.
Now, in 2021, students remain the one group in society that the Kremlin struggles to control. Their social media usage instead of Russian state media channels means they are less susceptible to Kremlin messaging. According to Levada-Center, 50% of those who receive news from social networks have a negative assessment of the Russian government 10&5. Students are being mobilised by the anti-corruption movement: they are taking to the streets, many for the first time, and they are more likely to be free from Kremlin propaganda. This is a recipe for a very charged and motivated opposition force.
Regardless of the protests and street politics, Putin is very unlikely to be shaken by this arrest. This incumbent president has maintained control and power throughout protests and disunity before. In 2012, the Kremlin maintained order when thousands took to the street in Moscow, protesting for political reform, and again in 2017, when thousands protested in around 90 cities across the state over corruption claims 1. It is clear that numbers do not frighten the Kremlin, which is why the movement seeks to approach new tactics in the upcoming 2021 Legislative Election. The hope is to drive United Russia (Putin’s political party) out of local parliaments, and to do this by ‘smart voting’ 2. This encourages all votes mobilised by Navalny to be cast for the second most popular candidate, which would produce a victory over the United Russia candidate 2. Despite many parties toeing the line of United Russia, it is still a vital strategy as the Duma (legislative) elections are crucial for Putin’s re-election in 2024. This requires time, but pairs political tactics with political mobilisation in the streets.
There are fears that that the September 2021 election will bring out ‘Putin’s silent majority’, those who will secure dominance of the Duma for him and United Russia 2. Putin’s arrest and conviction of Navalny is a treatment for the symptom and not the sickness. Fraud and corruption at the highest level, poor government support during the pandemic, and an economic contraction which may lead to years of economic hardship, is being recognised both by opposition forces and the general public. Putin is trying to sweep the figurehead Navalny under the carpet – when will he realise the movement is so much bigger than him?
As students continue to learn, workers continue to get angry, and white-collar professionals become disillusioned with a government that is no longer lining their pockets, Putin will face a hard battle with little options other than continuing down this repressive road or accepting it is time for change. It will be interesting to see the role each group has in this period of increased opposition. Just as the students led the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the middle classes championed the French Revolution and challenged upper-class privilege, and the working classes dominated political and historical discourse of social revolt. A combination of all three groups allied in the pursuit of de-seating President Putin could have the potential to be fruitful, if the groups’ momentum can sustain and tentatively wait for the opportune time to contend for the Kremlin.
1 Roache, Madeline. “’The Whole System Needs Changing.’ The Russia Protests Are About More Than Just Alexei Navalny” Time February 5, 2021 Available at: https://time.com/5936827/russia-protests-alexey-navalny-inequality/
2 Budraitskis, I and Matveev, I. “Putin’s Majority?” New Left Review 13 February 2021 Available at: https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/putins-majority?fbclid=IwAR3wl9D6OT5vjGFbDijUnD5D-Cg_7uJrmxmtZfqBbjKaYqdcfWD4X7-fmuY
3 Baryshnikov, V “‘Protest has become mainstream’: Who Goes to Rallies in Russia” Radio Liberty February 3 2021. Available: https://ru.krymr.com/a/mitingi-protesty-rossiya-navalniy-meynstrim/31082662.html
4 Peterson, A. “Social Movement Theory.” Acta Sociologica 32, no. 4 (1989): 419-26. Accessed February 26, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4200771.
5 Levada-Center “Presidential Ratings and the State of the Nation” Press Releases February 4, 2021. Available: https://www.levada.ru/en/2021/02/04/presidential-ratings-and-the-state-of-the-nation/
6 Mackinnon, A., and Detsch, J. “We Are Gaining in Strength’: After Navalny’s Imprisonment, Russian Opposition Looks Ahead” Foreign Policy February 5, 2021 Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/05/navalny-imprisonment-russia-anti-corruption-opposition-putin/
7 King, H. “Remembering ’56: The Hungarian Revolution” Origins published by The Ohio State University and Miami University 2016 https://origins.osu.edu/milestones/october-2016-remembering-56-hungarian-revolution-sixty
8 History.com Editors, “History of Student Protests” History MAY 31, 2019 Available: https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/history-of-student-protests#section_4
10 Denis Volkov, Stepan Goncharov, Maria Snegovaya. “Russian Youth and Civic Engagement” Center for European Policy Analysis [CEPA]. September 29, 2020 Available at:https://cepa.org/russian-youth-and-civic-engagement/