In case you haven’t heard yet, yesterday Russia experienced its largest protest action since 2012. Sanctioned and unsanctioned anti-government protests took place in over 80 different cities all over Russia. Over 700 people (including American Guardian reporter Alec Luhn) were detained in Moscow, where the march went ahead without official sanction.
Of course if you watch any news besides Russia’s major state-run networks, you probably already know about the protests.
Now I had planned to write an explainer about the significance of these protests, but as it turns out, Mark Galeotti handled that:
I have a few points I’d like to add to Mark’s, but before I do, check out that massive collection of Osprey military history books on the right. That’s an impressive collection. This is a measure of wealth among military history nerds. A friend in the States is hanging on to my Osprey collection (which is about the same size as what you see there) so that, as per tradition, they may be buried with me when I die so I’ll have something to read in the next life. For as it says in The Havamal, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself must die. But I know of one thing that never dies- the fame of a dead man’s Osprey book collection.”
Now getting to my own points about the protests, I think the first thing to keep in mind is that the Moscow march was unsanctioned and it happened anyway, drawing as many as 20,000 people. This makes it smaller than some of the recent sanctioned opposition marches, but huge by unsanctioned protest standards. I can’t stress this unsanctioned part enough. People tend to get carried off by police even during sanctioned meetings in Moscow. If a meeting is unsanctioned, it’s possible to get hauled off by police just for getting too close as you pass by. The implication is that if the meeting is unsanctioned and you go to it, they have every right to take you (they actually don’t, according to the Russian constitution). Yet in spite of this threat hanging over everyone’s head, about 20,000 Muscovites decided to roll the dice. This is very important. It shows that there is a growing number of Russians who refuse to submit so easily.
Another interesting point is how the Russian state media almost totally ignored the protests. While yesterday’s events were unfolding in the center of Moscow, several state news outlets were covering the exciting story of a cow in the US that led police on a wild chase after it had escaped. This is curious because you think it would have been a great time to deliver a call to arms to the alleged 96%, the die-hard pro-Putin majority who support the Glorious Leader out of sheer patriotism and who don’t want to see him toppled by a US-sponsored “Maidan.” But alas, they decided to cover almost anything but this, including a helicopter crash in Ukraine. Of course.
Lastly, I’m now in a position to better gauge Ukrainian reactions to the protest, and while some of my friend were at firs highly skeptical and critical of the protests before they took place, that attitude changed somewhat when they saw how many Russians came out in spite of the threats and arrests. Ukrainians are understandably upset because most Russian opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny, typically tip-toe around the question of the Crimea and the Russian occupation of the eastern Donbas. What I would remind them is that first of all, there’s often a big difference between Russia’s opposition leadership, which has many ideological problems beyond the Ukrainian question, and the rank-in-file. Anti-war messages and Ukrainian flags were more visible at the past two Nemtsov memorial marches. In fact, this year’s march apparently had a lot of Crimean Tatar flags, which is even more controversial as it directly highlights the Crimean issue.
Ukrainians have every right to feel betrayed by the Russian people, including opposition supporters, but there comes a time when you have to ask yourself whether you’re going to remain bitter towards everyone or start forging ties with those who are closest to your side. Let’s not forget that at Maidan, a number of political groups with horrible ideas were tolerated and even respected because the brutality and corruption of the Yanukovych regime deliberately forced disparate groups into one camp. If it is wrong to associate Maidan as a whole with those marginal groups (a mistake I was once guilty of), it is surely wrong to pretend that Russians willing to risk arrest and much worse for the sake of standing up to the regime are no different from a pro-Putin vatnik just because they haven’t yet accepted the reality about the Crimean annexation and occupation. These are the people who you can actually dialog with, but not if you just dismiss their protest offhand, the way you were all dismissed as neo-Nazi Banderites by the Russian media back in 2014.
One more important thing to keep in mind on this point is that while it is true that many anti-Putin Russians still hold imperialist views on the Crimea, you’re unlikely to find any who support the war and occupation in the Donbas. In fact, I’d say very few Russians in general actually support the war in the Donbas. While it is important to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity in total, it is the Donbas that is literally bleeding Ukraine at the moment. A new democratic regime in Moscow may be unlikely to hand over the Crimea without a struggle, but they’ll happily end the war in Ukraine to stop wasting state resources and lift the most hard-hitting sanctions. Also, if Putin feels threatened at home he will have to cease or at least greatly scale back his military adventures, and that includes in the Donbas.
So from the Ukrainian point of view, it’s important to realize that a seed has been planted and it needs to be nurtured. Just three years ago it seemed like all resistance in Russia was dead and buried. Now Putin and his cronies are waking up to reality- that the opposition they thought they’d all but stamped out is not only alive, but actually growing and spreading in places they never expected. Given the fact that non-political labor protests and strikes have been increasing throughout provincial Russia in the past few years, it’s only natural for them to eventually become politicized as more and more formerly regime-loyal people wake up and realize that the problem isn’t the “bad boyars” but the Putinist system itself.
It may go slowly or quickly, but one thing’s for sure- it’s only downhill from here for the Kremlin regime.