For those who don’t remember, this past Saturday, the 27th, is the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down about 100 meters from the Kremlin wall. This extremely public killing seriously upped the ante for dissidents in Putin’s Russia. In 2012 there was the crackdown on protest leaders. This would be followed by more laws restricting media, the liquidation of state-run news outlets that were too objective, and more of the usual harassment of opposition figures by pro-Kremlin youth groups. Violent incidents, especially among leading figures of opposition parties, was still rather rare- and then Nemtsov was shot. If he could be killed within sight of the Kremlin, literally a couple minutes walk from St. Basil’s Cathedral, what chance would ordinary, often working class Russian citizens have in a climate of increasing hatred towards “traitors?”
While the murder and the woefully inadequate investigation were no doubt aimed at intimidating opposition supporters, it would seem that it failed to do so. Just before Nemtsov was killed he was preparing to lead a sanctioned rally the following day. The march proceeded as planned, but instead of a protest it was now a funeral procession. I was not present at that event, but estimates say there were about 50,000 people in attendance. It is quite possible that the shooting actually convinced more people to come out. It certainly convinced me to come out Saturday.
Prior to the shooting, I never had a good word for Nemtsov. That is not to say I despised or had any ill will towards him; our politics are very different and so I paid him little mind as I do with most Russian opposition politicians. But what I learned over the past few years, what I didn’t know back during those days of protests in 2011 and 2012, is that the system is increasingly tightening its grip so that people who dissent rarely have the luxury of being able to sit around and wage polemical wars with each other. In 2011-2012 I was constantly arguing with Russian liberals. By 2014 I had to humbly admit they had a point. They knew this system better than I, a foreigner with expat privilege.
Not having seen any significant Russian political demonstration since 2011, I decided to go to Saturday’s anniversary march to get my finger back on the pulse of Russian opposition politics. As a side benefit, attendance gave me the opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends and acquaintances.
When I first emerged from the metro, I noticed some organizers standing around with clipboards and taking down names. The people giving their names were wearing St. George ribbons and other insignia suggesting they were probably pro-Kremlin counter-protesters, possibly of the hilariously named “National Liberation Movement.” The way this works is that organizers use casting sites and casting groups on social networks to recruit demonstrators or counter-protesters. Participants are usually paid about 350-500 rubles for forty or so minutes of standing around with a flag or sign. They tend to be students or pensioners. I’m happy to say that after I reached the starting point of the march, I did not see anyone who looked like a counter-protester or provocateur. If they were there, they must have been corralled near the starting point of the march.
What struck me about the march was the ease of getting into the starting place on Strastnoy bulvar, near Chekhovskaya metro station. As is usually the case in public events like this one, the police had set up a line of metal detectors that marchers had to pass through. Yet in contrast to other events I’ve witnessed, it took very little time to get through and there was little back-up behind the detectors. I ended up near the front of the march, but for what seemed like about an hour Strastnoy bulvar all the way to Petrovka street filled up with people. It was starting to get rather crowded an I occasionally retreated and changed positions to reach a point where I wouldn’t be so hemmed in. For some reason the police weren’t letting the march proceed.
Overhead there was a police helicopter flying over the crowd from various angles. Strangely this particular helicopter was a common European model and not something local such as a Kamov or Mil. So much for import replacement. It seemed people were getting a bit agitated at being made to wait for so long. Occasionally chants would break out, with slogans such as “Russia will be free,” “Russia without Putin,” and a couple of young men near me chanted a variant of the latter based on a Ukrainian made meme: “Rossiya bez khuilo!” This means “Russia without the dickhead”- guess who that is. Many signs made references to head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, widely thought to have had at least some connection to the Nemtsov murder.
Eventually the march got underway and I could make more observations. One thing that jumped out at me was the age diversity. Attempts to categorize Kremlin support or dissent by age fail to meet expectations. There were elderly people and young people. Among the latter were many that did not measure up to the stereotype of the “creative class” types. At one point I heard a young girl with a beautiful voice singing “Where have all the flowers gone?” walking next to me. At her side was a man that looked to be her grandfather.
One thing I was pleased to see was the preponderance of Ukrainian flags and ribbons. Here is where you can see Ukrainian pride without nationalist symbols and Bandera portraits- yes, that’s actually possible! And speaking of nationalists, protests in 2011-2012 often had large far-right contingents, identifiable by their flags. This was partially because Putin, who has long had a roller-coaster relationship with nationalists, was on their bad side at the time. Since the beginning of Putin’s military adventure, a lot of nationalists went back to the system’s camp, especially when granted the ability to take out their aggression on Ukrainians. On the other hand, I didn’t notice any far leftists such as anarchists.
Something that really struck me was the police presence. It seemed considerably relaxed compared to other marches I’ve been to, and that includes 1 and 9 May marches held by official opposition parties like KPRF. The Internal troops weren’t called out, and the whole route wasn’t lined with human chains of cops, as I’d become accustomed to. They were certainly visible, but they were mostly blocking off perpendicular streets with the help of large trucks. I didn’t witness any conflict between police and the marchers.
The best opportunity to get an idea as to the attendance was when we began to ascend Petrovsky bulvar in the direction of Trubnaya square. Here it became clear that there were actually two columns marching on either side of the park that divides the lanes of Petrovsky- apparently the “5th column” had been divided into two 2.5 columns. The crowd stretched back as far as the eye could see. I’m no expert in estimating crowd sizes, but I’ve been to marches involving around 20,000-30,000 people and this looked rather similar. It’s quite possible that this march had roughly the same numbers as last year’s memorial march, i.e. approximately 50,000.
Naturally this march infuriates the pro-Kremlin crowd. In their eyes all those present are liberal scum, traitor 5th columnists working with the United States to destroy Russia because…reasons. Yet as with many concepts in Kremlin propaganda, what we have here is a case of Schrodinger’s 5th Column. The “liberal” opposition is minuscule and unpopular (actually true), but at any moment it will spring into action and start a Maidan-like “color revolution” that will deliver up the world’s largest country to the US.
Apart from all the other idiotic aspects of such claims, the sad thing is that the people who buy into the color revolution conspiracy don’t realize that revolution is preferable to the more likely alternative- collapse. See revolutions have organization, intent, plans. Collapse is just that- collapse. When I look at Russia’s political landscape, I don’t see any potential for a Maidan-style “revolution” at all. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is unlikely to come from that marginalized political ghetto that is the organized opposition. One must credit Mr. Putin’s media and political technologists for rendering that movement toothless. But in doing so, they are actively destroying whatever chances Russia has left for recovery.
When I contrast collapse to revolution, I’m not suggesting that it won’t involve some kind of popular uprising, I’m just suggesting it will not be very organized and it will lack clear goals, leading the country right back to where it was in 1991. Organized political opposition in Russia may be small in number, but discontent and protests are on the rise. Most of these are related to economic grievances as plants close and firms fail to pay salaries on time. Few of these people see their plight as a political struggle, and occasionally you seem them pathetically appeal to Putin for some kind of relief. As the economic situation worsens, the protests will inevitably increase. People can talk about “enduring” and “patriotism” all they like, but when you have no access to food or shelter you’ve basically got two choices left- lay down and die to stand up and do something. History shows that all demeaning stereotypes about “collectivism” and “despotism” aside, Russians won’t choose the former when it becomes a matter of life and death.
Sadly, Putin and his cronies are so afraid of the tiny 5th column replacing them that they end up suppressing the one movement of people who can save the country and give it the functioning institutions it needs after the regime collapses. And mark my words, the regime will inevitably collapse sooner or later. It is simply too rife with contradictions and its leadership is too disconnected from reality. If nothing else happens, Putin is not immortal or immune to incapacitating diseases or conditions, and once he’s not there to anchor the system, if only symbolically, things are going to get very interesting indeed.
NOTE: For more, much higher quality photos from the march, click here. You might notice some familiar characters.