Remember those guys everyone was talking about back in 2011-2012? You know, they were all over the news! Who were they again? Oh that’s right! The Russian opposition. The white ribbon folks. Whatever happened to them?
Seriously I have to be honest here and say that despite attending the first Bolotnaya rally and the big gathering on Prospekt Sakharova which followed shortly thereafter, I never really followed the nebulous opposition movement very closely. I was familiar with the big names and some of the organizations, but I had little faith in it. I think that the past two years have vindicated me, as I think it’s fair to say that a major reason for the silence of the opposition is that a large portion of their supporters went back to Putin’s side.
Of course that shouldn’t be a surprise since many of them were nationalists or pseudo-Communists whose main beef with Putin was that he wasn’t nationalistic enough. When the president began all his anti-American posturing and the Western media as well as American politicians stupidly played along, these people simply couldn’t resist. The idea of Russia pissing off the West is like heroin to these people. Heroin that causes one to start furiously masturbating immediately upon shooting up.
Of course the dreams and desires of that faction of the opposition might have been totally disconnected from reality, but for the rest of the opposition there was incoherence. Navalny is often put forth as a leader of the “liberal” opposition when in fact he is an open nationalist. His claim to fame is exposing corruption, but on the rare occasions that he puts forth his solutions they are nothing but unrealistic, populist crap. Boris Nemtsov can’t seem to get it through his head that Russian people are never going to be nostalgic for the era of Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s regime was not conducive to building a democracy either; the whole crushing protests with tanks and snipers bit should have been a dead give away. And Pussy Riot? Please. Name a major political change for the better that came from shitty performance art.
When I’m critical of the Russian government, opposition-minded people perk up their ears the same way “patriots” are all too happy to listen to me condemn the American or Ukrainian government. But the fact is that the “opposition” is largely part of the problem. Some of them lack the principle, resolve, and attention span not to be distracted by jingoistic flag-waving, while others simply do not understand the values they claim to represent. In nearly all cases alliance politics rears its ugly head, e.g. “The state-run media is saying there are fascists involved in Maidan? Well then it must be a total lie! We must uncritically support Maidan now!” It’s as if there are no real politics in Russia, only what I refer to as cargo cults.
If the reader isn’t familiar with cargo cults let me run it down for you. The phenomenon involves small tribes of people inhabiting very small Pacific islands. During WWII, these islands were used by the Japanese and more often Americans, who would turn them into supply bases and airstrips. These natives, not having had outside human contact for generations, were awed by the strangely-dressed newcomers. As if that weren’t enough, imagine what it must have been like for them to see massive ships approaching their shore. The newcomers would start constructing some kind of metal mat on the land they had cleared, and sure enough these massive flying beasts would land and disgorge more newcomers and crates full of exotic food. The term cargo cult derives from how long after the war it was found that many of these tribes were discovered to be mimicking the behavior of either American or Imperial Japanese military personnel, adopting drill and ceremony practices as sacred rituals and building mock-ups of airplanes out of wood. They had come to believe that those strange men who appeared in the 40’s had great patron gods who bestowed unimaginable riches on them in return for their bizarre rituals.
This is what I see when I look at many Russian political movements, but especially the “liberals.” They don’t really understand the concepts they espouse. They only believe that the Kremlin is opposed to them for some reason and therefore they must be doing something right. They rattle off words like human rights and civil society without understanding these things as part of a coherent ideology. That’s how you end up with people like Navalny attending nationalist rallies full of football hooligans or the late “liberal” dissident Novodvorskaya, who praised Apartheid and the bombing of Iraq. In Western nations these people would find themselves excommunicated from liberal or progressive movements because they espouse beliefs or exhibit behaviors which directly contradict the basic values of those movements. In Russia it’s totally cool because you’re for democracy and civil society, or something. There’s no inconsistency in demanding freedom for Pussy Riot while you simultaneously demand that the police round up and deport all immigrants from Moscow.
To be fair, many people in Western democracies are politically illiterate. Occupy really demonstrated this, since you could see how many protesters with supposedly socialist leanings were duped into alliances with the libertarian “End the Fed” crowd. But there are some distinct lines in our political arena. You don’t see liberals cozying up with people who think the Bible should be taught in biology class instead of evolution, and you don’t see Tea Partiers whose grievance with Obamacare is that it’s not single payer. Yes there’s hypocrisy, yes people sometimes cross a red line or two, but there are at least more or less distinct camps, and that means there is at least some form of opposition in American politics, to use one example.
I don’t think the Russian opposition realizes this. It’s as if they, like the Ukrainian Maidan supporters, need to be sat down in a chair while someone carefully explains to them why it’s bad for a movement supposedly concerned about freedom and human rights to associate itself with neo-Nazis or radical nationalists. No, they want to go toe-to-toe with the Kremlin in a motley alliance of creative hipsters and nationalists who dream of restoring the Russian empire. They can’t see why this won’t work, and it won’t work because they are just assuming that the most important core belief they can have is hostility toward Putin. While they share that one feature, their motivations, goals, and visions of a better Russia differ widely. Putin himself proved that by showing what a large chunk of the opposition could be hacked off and brought to his side with some patriotic posturing.
The focus on Putin as the root of all evil in Russia is counter-productive as well. Putin is a symptom, not the disease. Although with each passing day I lose more and more faith in his connection to reality, he is the only person who can lay the foundation of a future, functioning democracy. When the so-called liberal opposition manages to pull its head out of its own ass and actually learn what liberal values actually are, they should strive to open up a dialog with Putin and encourage him to help build an actual democratic society, by bourgeois standards at least. He might not realize it now, but Putin has a big incentive to work with such a movement for that goal. That’s what will allow him to retire in peace without fear rather than leave Russia in the manner of Yanukovych. Rest assured that he will not be able to maintain this farce for the nationalist, militant forces he has stirred up in recent years, and those folks aren’t going to be so compassionate or principled as to follow the rule of law. But again, this requires the opposition to accept the reality of Putin and work with him since there is no way they can work against him.
Whatever happens, it’s probably going to be a while before the opposition comes back in any form, but rest assured it will be back, especially due to the Kremlin’s recent shot in the foot, i.e. “counter-sanctions” on imported foodstuffs. Unfortunately I’m afraid that a large part of that opposition is going to consist of more militant, far-right fanatics blaming Putin for betraying their imperial dreams of recreating “Novorossiya.” I certainly hope either an alternative appears real quick, or at least everyone can just try to maintain the status quo long enough so that I can get myself and my family out of here. After that they’re free to wreck the country in the manner they see fit as far as I’m concerned.