A Big Deal

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.





20 thoughts on “A Big Deal

  1. AndyT

    So – Russia is either plagued by CIA/NWO agents… OR the situation is getting so bad people chose to join the protest, no matter what.

    Which explanation will Russian pundits pick?

    Side note: despite all of those claims about the “information war” the West is supposedly waging on Russia to make her look bad, most Italian media outlets failed to cover the protests until Sunday evening – and even then with little emphasis.

    If I weren’t following you and another handful people on Twitter, I would have known nothing about them (and the ongoing mess in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan) at all.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This will be a bit tricky for them. One thing they have trouble getting around is this idea that Putin made Russia strong, secure, and stable, but at the same time the country is so threatened by foreign meddling that it’s necessary to crack down on people for sharing things on social media.

      Note how these protests had been going on since morning in the Far East, and yet you didn’t see any mobilization of the so-called 96%, all the “patriotic” Putin supporters of Anti-Maidan. There was a laughably tiny counter-protest in Ekaterinburg, I believe. It was like four people. That’s it.

      Of course the real reason is that you need to pay or threaten people to get them to come out for a pro-government meeting, and it often means busing them in in cities like Moscow. The authorities in Moscow had some time to prepare but they probably thought the ban on the protest was sufficient to keep the numbers small and manageable.

    2. zephyrean

      It’s not just the situation geting worse (although of course it does), it’s also people supporting the substance of Navalny’s updated agenda beyond “Putin is a dick”. Navalny started leaning left and Putin had coopted Nazis and related “social conservatives”. That’s something I’m willing to get my skull smashed in over.

      1. AndyT


        At this point, the govt’s reaction will make or break the situation: while accepting people’s requests and curbing corruption may make look the Kremlin “weak”, a violent repression can make people even more willing to protest.

        Many revolutions begin this way after all: citizens ask for reasonable change, the government tries to crush them, and rioters start asking for the regime to fall…

        Finally – has someone already mentioned the 1917 vs 2017 comparison yet?

      2. AndyT


        Navalny “leaning left”?

        I don’t know much about him, but I’ve read he used to endorse clear anti-immigrants policies…

  2. Tess

    RU sponsored tv RT did broadcast the Moscow protest live via their Periscope account – over 30k views last time I checked

  3. Dima

    “A new democratic regime in Moscow may be unlikely to hand over the Crimea without a struggle,”

    You are right, I think that Crimea has become a complex issue now without simple solution. Yet, I’m sure that the new democratically oriented government will provide more good will and faith to negotiate the with Ukraine on the Crimean issue, and they may find some middle ground with the help of Western moderators. The agreement may look like: to leave Russian as co-official in Crimea; Crimea will be under sovereignty of Ukraine, but guarantee that Crimea will be exempt from joining NATO even if UA proper joins it; Russian Naval base enclave will remain under Russian control indefinitely, with strict border control of that enclave to ensure that it is not used for take over of Crimea once more. Also this all will be guaranteed by a concrete treaty to guarantee sovereignty of Ukraine over Crimea and security of its territorial borders. In terms of the degree of autonomy of the Crimean government to return back to the degree it was prior to the occupation.

    1. Mykhailo

      Typical problem of finding compromise: compromise acceptable to one side is unacceptable to other. Ukraine unlikely to agree to such terms:
      1)Russian as official – that would be seen as breeding ground for new separatism movement, so not happening
      2)”Crimea will be exempt from joining NATO” – countries join NATO, not regions.
      3)Russian Naval base enclave – after what they’ve done with blocking Ukrainian navy? Impossible.
      4)”concrete treaty” – You know what they say about treaties with Russia.

      1. Dima

        I disagree with some of your points. Let me expand on it:

        (1) Having Russian as co-official in Crimea has no correlation with separatism. There are a lot of places where two or more languages have official status. I do not support Russian actions in Ukraine at all, neither do I support its promoted policies, such as federalization, greater autonomy of E.Ukraine, or official status of Russian language in mainland Ukraine. However, despite of all that I do believe that Russians have a case for official status in Crimea. I can explain my point further if you’d like.

        (2) Legally it is absolutely possible to exempt Crimea from Joining NATO even if it is part of Ukraine. Whether UA government goes for it is another question.

        I agree with you on other points. Russia has indeed lost all credibility, it is not trusted anymore so this will be very hard to negotiate.

    2. Shalcker

      The only likely scenario is that Crimea will be considered “leased” to Russia (for something like 100 years) with appropriate payments. Getting it back to Ukraine even with most West-leaning government is not going to happen, unless you trade that for something like getting Russia into EU (and not as “association” but as full member). And such offer is highly unlikely too.

      And certainly before even that might happen you have to get Ukrainian government to accept similar approach for Donbass – you know, those Minsk agreements do have parts about Russian language among other things… and Ukrainian government doesn’t seem to be willing to accept that.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        There’s nothing in the Minsk agreement about the Russian language.


        The fact is that a democratic Russian government may not offer any proper deal on the Crimea, but they will want to get out of the Donbas because it is literally hurting Russia and they have absolutely no need for it. The Donbas war was started by Putin so as to sabotage Ukraine and keep it from succeeding. There is no other reason. If Putin’s thugs left tomorrow, the war would be over.

        As for the Crimea, I’m not concerned with terms. Russia’s most likely heading for 1991 scenario sooner or later and when that day comes, it will not be up to Moscow what happens to Crimea.

        And remember…Crimeans express their self-determination in referendums, don’t they? When the shit hits the fan in Moscow and Ukraine is a pathway to Europe, some folk in Crimea may get some ideas.

      2. Shalcker

        Donbass war was started by Ukraine (though Russia certainly joined at some point).

        And Ukrainians are also their own worst enemies as far as succeeding goes. Maybe they’ll be able to overcome it and become inspiration elsewhere. Their history doesn’t inspire much confidence though – being driven by history rather then being drivers of history, being dependent on Russia acting certain way to reclaim Crimea or Donbass, and being unable to influence it in that direction…

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        No, it was started by Russia because the unrest and occupations were organized by Russia and involved many Russian citizens. In Kharkiv and some other cities, effective action by the SBU prevented the outbreak of real violence, but in Donetsk and other eastern cities the “rebels” refused the amnesty offered to them in April and fought back with increasingly heavy weapons. None of this happened without Russian planning.

        Even the “DNR” existed as an organization with ties to Russian ones as far back as 2006. These existed for one reason- to maintain a hold on Ukraine.

  4. gbd_crwx

    Two points:
    1. Does these protests in any way realte to the Belarus protests?
    2. If we look beyond Ukraine, how would a democratic Russia affect other frozen conflicts?

  5. NonDenominationalLeftist

    Was hoping to see that finally, in the age of Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen, the international left would hold some solidarity with dissidents against the increasingly fascist Russian regime, but no, more towing the propaganda line: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/03/29/russ-m29.html

    The irony is that this is done in the name of resistance to western capitalism. The reality is that when it finally comes down to resisting the far right governments in the US and Europe, leftists are going to find themselves described under very similar terms as the Russian or Belarusian opposition.


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