Revolution or collapse? Thoughts on the Nemtsov memorial march

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.


Oh what? A Russian helicopter isn’t good enough for the Moscow police?

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.

On th

On the bridge where Nemtsov was shot. Putin’s system eliminates or suppresses anyone who can pick up the pieces after he breaks Russia.

NOTE: For more, much higher quality photos from the march, click here. You might notice some familiar characters. 



20 thoughts on “Revolution or collapse? Thoughts on the Nemtsov memorial march

  1. Gabriel Gerard

    I can’t help but draw parallels between what you’re describing in Putin’s Russia and what happened in Libya after Qaddafi was ousted. Allison Pargeter contrasted the situation in Libya and the situation in Tunisia by saying that while Ben Ali’s regime was brutal and repressive, he’d left Tunisia with a strong institutional framework and a functional state for his successors to build off of, whereas Qaddafi had not. I fear Russia may look less like Tunisia and more like Libya when Putin falls.

    1. ramendik

      Except Qaddafi fell by direct Western intervention. So all the institutions he created (he claimed to have created them, at least) were destroyed by invaders and their “rebel” lapdogs, a.k.a. Islamists.

      There was no direct intervention in Tunisia, so the comparison does not seem fair.

      Compare Iraq, where the ban on the Ba’ath Party ensured that the institutions created by Saddam could not work.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Not really. It was an air campaign in support of the rebels. And I didn’t notice Russia being so concerned about Gaddafi just a few years before that, when he was happily working with the West.

        And again, I’m very sorry but many of those original protesters and rebels were not Islamists. Islamists gained power because like I said before- when you crush civil society and leave no opportunity to change things peacefully, violence is the only way. And groups with a history of violence and funding are naturally going to excel in that environment.

        As for Tunisia I think you missed the point. If Arab Spring were, as the Russian media says, an American-inspired conspiracy, why did things start in Tunisia and Egypt, two regimes the US wouldn’t want to lose?

        In fact, to the best of my knowledge the Russian media never took advantage of this wonderful opportunity to score propaganda points by asking why the US government was insistent on the Libyan and Syrian regimes leaving while not saying the same about Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt. That they didn’t merely reflects how paranoid the regime is about protest movements.

      2. ramendik

        I actually think the Arab Spring was a Jihadist conspiracy to start with. They managed to destabilize Tunisia and Egypt, playing on people’s desire for a better life, but their real plan is Sharia and murder. I don’t know why the U.S. keeps playing on their side – Benghazi showed yet again what kind of gratitude they can offer.

        Some Egyptian Christians were duped too, who participated in protests in 2011 – only to face violent harassment from the victors.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Have you ever considered that mass protest movements often consist of different, sometimes conflicting factions? This is especially true in countries dominated by dictators because it forces everyone else in to one side. Arab Spring was actually a big problem for Al Qaeda, who had to rapidly catch up. The reason being is that they claimed that only by their struggle against the “far enemy” (USA) could Muslims be “free,” yet they were suddenly confronted with the rise of secular, democratic movements that were achieving much more.

      4. ramendik

        What secular democratic movements? Is there a single example of a country affected by Arab Spring where a secular democratic movement came to power? Unless you consider Muslim Brotherhood to be that.

      5. ramendik

        The description at your link should like Jihadists in intentional disguise. Slipping up about a 6th Caliphate and “liberation of Jerusalem”, but presenting a “moderate” image to outsiders – with experts showing the image is a sham, and many secularists in very justified fear. (They even renamed themselves from “Islamic Tendency” as a part of the face-presenting exercise).

        Looks like creation of pseudo-secular fronts is a major part of the current Jihadist strategy. That’s going on in Syria, too. A “moderate” force presents itself. US provides resources or even trains fighters for it. Then, all of a sudden, the resources and the fighters end up with Jihadists. Cue puzzled press articles. Rinse, repeat. Sample puzzled press article:

        A quote from the article: “Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi, who also purports to be a Jabhat al-Nusra member, added that Division 30’s commander, Anas Ibrahim Obaid,had explained to Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders that he had tricked the coalition because he needed weapons.”

        This is what they do. And this is what Enhanda is likely doing, in order to fool more secular urban people in Tunisia itself, as well as Western powers.

      6. Jim Kovpak Post author

        It’s funny how you label all the forces in Syria as jihadist when it’s clear you haven’t bothered to do any research into those forces. I’ve already mentioned before (and this was reported by Buzzfeed) that the Pentagon rebel-support program was an abject failure while the CIA program has been quite successful. The US certainly should have put more pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who don’t seem to care about who they support, but other than that the idea that the US is intentionally supporting jihadists doesn’t hold water.

        And as for your criticisms of the ruling Tunisian party, they’re far more moderate than Hezbollah or the ruling regime in Iran.

        In fact in Russia there’s a guy who claims to run things by Sharia law and he’s demonstrated time and time again that he has more authority than Puitn- Ramzan Kadyrov.

      7. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Also if you’re so concerned about Islamism and countries supporting jihadists, why don’t you have anything to say about Russia supporting Iran and Hezbollah? These are also Islamists. I believe they’re also friendly with or at least recognize Hamas, an Islamist party no too different than some of those Russia is fighting in Syria.

      8. ramendik

        Hezbollah and Iran are Shia, while the global Jihadist threat, including the perpetrators of terrorist acts in Russia and the West as well as the force I think is behind the Arab Spring, claim to be Sunni. Not that I really like them anyway, but “enemy of my enemy” tends to happen a lot in international politics.

        (But as for “liking”, one really can’t sympathize with Saddam and Iran at the same time – and I think Saddam was not half bad, and Trump was right to say the world would have been better off with him and Gaddafi still in power. Though I think Trump said that because Rand Paul was leaving the race, wanting to scoop up his supporters).

        Hamas is indeed of that same ilk as the terrorists/revolutionaries (not to mention being terrorists themselves) and I hope that Russia goes tougher on it as it finds itself fighting against Hamas-backed forces in Syria. The fact that Hamas-backed forces and US-backed forces are the very same forces is interesting, though.

      9. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Hezbollah is still recognized as a terrorist group and they have engaged in terrorist attacks abroad in the past. Also while Iran is Shia, there is strong evidence to suggest that they have made deals with groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda in the past. Assad allowed Al Qaeda forces sanctuary in his country after the Iraq invasion up until 2007 or 8, when they were destroyed in an American cross-border raid.

        The idea that Sunnis and Shiites are deadly enemies everywhere isn’t entirely accurate. Dictators have a very different strategy than leaders in larger, more powerful nations.

      10. ramendik

        So the Jihadists betrayed Assad too. Not a great surprise these days. Rats, as Gaddafi correctly described them.

        At least Assad moved to suppress them after being betrayed by them. The USA was betrayed in 2012 but continues to support them.

      11. Jim Kovpak Post author

        So everything’s cool with Assad supporting jihadists because they “betrayed” him (any idiot could have predicted they would), but the US must be eternally condemned for supporting jihadists during the Cold War, even when they were “betrayed.” Sounds like what the Russians would call a double standard there.

  2. ramendik

    “suppressing the one movement of people who can save the country and give it the functioning institutions it needs after the regime collapses.”

    Excuse me, but that’s literally the group of people who created the institutions of the 1990s, which were not very functioning. and to the degree they were, they brought Putin to power. I mean they were there to commemorate the then Governor of Nizhny Novgorod. And you are saying they are good at creating functioning institutions?

    I’l all for freedom of assembly and it was great a few months ago to learn that the march proceeded without problems. But I do take issue with this particular description. Funnily you seem to be echoing the “who else if not Putin” crowd, only for the opposition camp.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      “Excuse me, but that’s literally the group of people who created the institutions of the 1990s, which were not very functioning.”

      Actually many of these people were children when that was happening.

      And the “who else if not Putin” thing is the self-fulfilling prophesy his media machine has deliberately created. The problem is that sooner or later there will be no Putin and there’s no plan yet to replace him within the corrupt system he’s created.

      1. ramendik

        “And the “who else if not Putin” thing is the self-fulfilling prophesy his media machine has deliberately created.”

        Not sure I’d blame the media machine specifically, but I do agree it was government-created. However, I think “who if not the Nemtsov/Navalny opposition” prophesy might be its handiwork too. Most people in the country who remember the 90s, or whose families remember the 90s, won’t trust these people (I was actually not that badly off in the 90s – IT, my professional area, was a growth zone – but I don’t decide this stuff and I see how other people were impacted).

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Navalny and many opposition figures had nothing to do with what happened in the 90’s. And while Nemtsov could be said to be “tainted” by the 90’s, he was far from the only person. Putin was also taking advantage of corruption in the 90’s as well, in St. Petersburg.

        As for the media, it goes hand in hand with the government. It’s what built Putin’s image.

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