So the last thing I wanted to do was write another serious post about Russia on this blog, but as my mic is nowhere near up to par for the video I wanted to make, I feel like I should write my thoughts about the recent protests in Moscow here.
Is this tEh rvOlUtIoN?!! No, far from it. But there were several things that jumped out at me when watching the footage of the protests. For one thing, the level of civil disobedience seemed much higher than in the past. Apparently the Garden Ring road near Tsvetnoi Bulvar was closed off. For those not familiar with Moscow, this is a major important street encircling the center of the city. After one day, over 1,300 protesters were detained.
What I also noticed was the more violent response from the riot police, which included a lot of swinging batons and there was even some blood drawn. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Russian riot police, particularly in Moscow, are still often much more reserved than their counterparts like Berkut in Yanukovych-era Ukraine or even in Western countries. When Berkut went after the students on Maidan in the end of November 2013, they came in swinging and broke bones. From my experience and observations, Russian riot police snatch people. It’s forceful, it’s scary, and they often do it to people who aren’t actually involved with the demonstration, but it’s efficient and doesn’t tend to cause serious injury. We may be seeing an end to those days. Mark Galeotti seems to suspect it has to do with authorities’ fears about provoking a Maidan-like reaction. After all, excessive use of force by police was what turned a small student protest focused on a single issue into a revolution that drove out a regime, and there’s nothing Putin fears more than being driven out of power.
I think this leads to a sort of paradox because while on one hand Putin and other authorities are wary, perhaps unrealistically so, about provoking a larger resistance movement, on the other hand it’s crystal clear that Putin and his cronies have zero reservations about unleashing the full violence of the state against unarmed civilians if they should feel the threat of revolution is immanent. We know from his own words and the message of his media machine that Putin believes the masses need a strong hand and a strong leader does not show weakness in their eyes. Putin is of that mindset that believes that leaders cannot forfeit their legitimacy via rigged elections, massive corruption, or gross human rights violations. This same mindset only sees problems with Russia’s historical leaders when they make concessions to rebelling masses. Both Nikolai II and Gorbachev were “weak” because they didn’t murder enough of their own citizens and that is why they were toppled.
And the leader of the Kremlin regime has demonstrated these beliefs not only in word, but in deed. Apart from producing numerous conspiracy theories about the sniper massacre on Maidan in 2014 (and in fact Putin himself repeated one of these conspiracy claims to Oliver Stone), Putin continues to back Bashar al-Assad, arguably the most murderous person of the past decade, to the hilt. He continues to do so despite the rampant use of chemical weapons and the continued use of barrel bombs. Assad famously took this “not me” approach in response to protests after the flight of two other Middle Eastern leaders, and I have no doubt Putin has drawn conclusions from Assad’s experience and praxis. Indeed, when something resembling revolution is brewing in Russia, it will be “Putin or we burn the country.”
We haven’t seen anything approaching that level of violence yet, however, which suggest to me that the authorities don’t yet feel so threatened, even despite Putin’s record-low ratings this year. In fact they’ve even granted another protest permit in a few days. While the authorities can’t necessarily rely on the working masses in the hinterland anymore, those people don’t seem ready to join any mass Russia-wide movement, and while the opposition has made a lot of inroads outside the capital in recent years, it may be that the authorities still believe this to be a Moscow-based phenomenon, one they are confident they can handle.
Russian society is still very atomized and divided by distance, which makes it easy for people to ignore the plight of others in different locales. Moreover, it is still afflicted with the great power delusion, which may not be strong enough to stop Russians from standing up for their own rights, but isn’t strong enough for them to go as far as they need to and put an end to the last major European empire. They demand to live in dignity, yet they still think Tatars should be happy speaking Russian and that Crimea is theirs. Until they realize that these are lies and paltry privileges they get in exchange for bondage under authoritarian regimes in the Kremlin, I don’t think any truly revolutionary movement will build within Russia. But then again, I’ve believed more or less the same about this since at least 2008.