Russia’s new resistance ‘Meduza’ analyzes the rise of a new wave of protest movements
For three weeks in a row, Moscow residents have taken to the streets to demand fair elections for their City Duma. The Russian capital’s government has done its best to ban the protests, and police have dispersed them as violently as ever, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from taking part even when the marches aren’t protected by a permit. The Moscow City Duma election protests were preceded by a number of others: In early June, pickets and marches put pressure on Moscow officials to free Ivan Golunov, a Meduza correspondent who was falsely accused of drug distribution. In mid-May, Yekaterinburg residents put up a fierce fight against plans to build a new cathedral in one of the city’s few green areas. All in all, it’s clear that Russia’s protest movements have reached a new stage of development in the last two or three years. Meduza analyst Dmitry Kartsev set out to explain, point-by-point, what about those movements has changed.
1. Now, almost any kind of problem can trigger a protest.
Data from Russia’s judicial system provides a convenient way to pinpoint the beginning of the current wave of protests. That’s because there is a specific statute, Article 20.2 of the country’s Codex of Administrative Violations, that law enforcement officers use to charge protesters. In 2015 and 2016, fewer than 1,000 people per year were punished under that law. In 2017, however, that number shot up to nearly 4,000, and it was only slightly lower in 2018.
That new wave of protest movements can be said to have started with Russia’s March 26, 2017 anti-corruption protests, when between 36,000 and 88,000 people took to the streets in 97 different cities. Those protests stemmed from the release of the short investigative documentary “Don’t Call Him Dimon,” which detailed Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s ties to secret luxury properties. The video, which was created by opposition politician Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, was impactful enough to trigger Russia’s largest mass protest action in several years. In many cities, Moscow included, the protests went on without a government permit, greatly increasing the risk of arrest.
The significance of those events was that people chose to protest en masse not because of a specific, controversial government action (such as the falsification of election results in 2011) or because of a high-profile crime (such as the 2015 murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov) but because of a media revelation, even if that revelation was political in nature. In other words, the protesters did not have a specific set of demands for their government. Instead, they used highly generalized anti-corruption slogans, and the impulse for their actions came from a general frustration with the government’s broad abuses of power.
Another significant milestone in the Russian protest movement was the series of protests that swept the city of Kemerovo a year later after a fire at the Winter Cherry shopping mall there caused more than 60 deaths. Those demonstrations immediately took on broader political dimensions: Their central demand was not to punish those directly responsible for the fire but rather for then-Kuzbass Governor Aman Tuleyev to resign. Tuleyev had been leading the region’s government for more than 20 years. At around the same time, residents of Moscow’s suburbs began protesting against the construction of new trash incineration facilities and landfills, all while regularly demanding resignations from local government officials.
By the spring of 2019, Arkhangelsk residents were also protesting against a new garbage storage facility in the former village of Shiyes while calling on Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin to resign. Those protests were followed in May by the clashes between Yekaterinburg protesters and their local government over the planned cathedral. The arrest of Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov on fabricated drug charges led to an unsanctioned protest in central Moscow on June 12 even though Golunov had been cleared of all charges by that time. Thousands of people attended the march.
Finally, the Moscow City Duma elections have never before held this much significance even on a local level. That’s in part because the City Duma has very limited authority. However, this year, relatively ordinary government measures taken to stop opposition candidates from running for the citywide legislature caused widespread frustration. According to the “Belyi Shchetik” (White Counter) organization, one of the resulting marches brought 22,500 people onto Moscow’s Sakharov Prospect on July 20, making it the largest opposition protest since 2014. That protest did receive a permit from the local government.
In short: In today’s Russia, any kind of problem can turn into a political problem.
2. Unsanctioned protests are becoming more frequent and better-attended.
Until the last couple of years, Russia’s largest ever unsanctioned pro-democracy protests were those held by the Strategy 31 movement between 2009 and 2011. Even though the only punishments available for illegal protests at the time were small fines and, on rare occasions, up to 15 days in jail, the Strategy 31 protests rarely attracted more than 2,000 people, making it a relatively marginal movement.
Then, as the winter of 2011 and 2012 devolved into large but primarily government-sanctioned protests, Russian authorities began acting to tighten the country’s protest laws. Along with the repressive Bolotnaya Square case and the aftereffects of the annexation of the Crimea, that led to a decrease in street protests in the capital. However, the situation changed drastically again in 2017, and unsanctioned protests have been far more common ever since. On March 26, 2017 (the “Don’t Call Him Dimon” protest), as well as July 27 and August 3, 2019 (two of the Moscow City Duma protests), the number of people marching through Moscow’s streets was several times larger than the number who marched in the largest Strategy 31 protests despite a higher risk of heavy fines and jail time. Precise estimates of the number of protesters at unsanctioned events are rarely available, but the marches in question certainly involved more than 10,000 people.
Unsanctioned protests in Russia’s regions are also on the rise. On May 5, 2018, between 6,000 and 40,000 people attended protests headed by the slogan “He’s not our tsar!” to mark Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a fourth term as president. The protests, which took place in various cities (making their total attendance difficult to estimate), were largely unsanctioned. In Yekaterinburg, the cathedral protests peaked at between 3,000 and 6,000 people. In Kemerovo, the impromptu protest against then-Governor Tuleyev attracted up to 5,000 local residents.
The sharp increase in arrests under Article 20.2 in 2017 and 2018 provides further evidence that unsanctioned protests are attracting more and more participants while the measures the Russian government put in place to repress them have stopped working as planned.
Situations where protesters’ frustration stems from an ostensibly apolitical problem can prove particularly complicated for government forces. It has become clear that, unlike experienced activists, those who decide to join apparently apolitical protests are typically unfamiliar with government-imposed limits on freedom of assembly. Those protesters tend to take to the streets spontaneously without even considering the possibility of going through the government’s permit application process.
Technically, that gives law enforcement agencies an easy excuse to arrest, fine, or jail protesters, but such measures can complicate the situation even further by triggering even more anger from local residents. Ultimately, in the 2018 Kemerovo protests, local authorities refrained from making mass arrests at all, and on May 15, 2019, in Yekaterinburg, police dispersed the largest of the anti-cathedral protests but then canceled the building’s construction the very next day.
In short: Just a few years ago, unsanctioned protests tended to attract several hundred people at most. Now, they can draw thousands or even tens of thousands, and protests are regularly held simultaneously in multiple cities around Russia.
3. The protests have new, less conciliatory leaders.
Among the activists who organized Russia’s 2011 – 2012 protests, only a few are still involved in the new activist wave. They are former State Duma deputies Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov as well as Alexey Navalny and his supporters (Ilya Yashin, for example). Some, like Mikhail Kasyanov, stopped being politically active, while others, like Garry Kasparov, emigrated from Russia. Boris Nemtsov, another leading opposition figure, was killed.
The current protests have no single leader, and there is no unified political force that has positioned itself to benefit from them. Many protests in the regions are organized by local activists who care little about their political orientation. In Moscow, people with no professional political career began leading protest organization efforts. Ilya Azar, for example, is a journalist for Novaya Gazeta and a municipal deputy, not a longtime activist, but he was among the leaders of the Moscow protest for Ivan Golunov. Actress Yana Troyanova, meanwhile, helped lead the Mothers’ March, which demanded justice for teenagers accused of extremism in the New Greatness case.
It seems that the old guard of protesters is stepping back in large part because of a rising public demand for new faces. The Moscow City Duma protests very quickly shot politicians to fame who had previously worked in the shadows: those leaders include Anti-Corruption Foundation lawyer Lyubov Sobol, Konstantin Jankauskas, Elena Rusakova, Yulia Galyamina, and Libertarian Party leader Mikhail Svetov. It’s also no coincidence in that context that 17-year-old Olga Misik, who spent her time at the Moscow City Duma protests reading the Russian Constitution aloud to riot police, became a near-instantaneous celebrity while Higher School of Economics student and video blogger Egor Zhukov attracted a public solidarity campaign after he was jailed following those same protests.
The presence of new faces in the activist scene, the heightened role activists have begun to play in public life, and the rise of lesser-known politicians to more important roles have historical precedent in Russia. However, what makes this generation different is that it is less willing to compromise, and its representatives consciously reject leadership roles that would enable them to control protests single-handedly. That may be in part because these new leaders remember how unilateral leadership played out in December of 2011. That month, after the very first mass protest against fraud in the State Duma elections, opposition leaders agreed in a closed meeting with Moscow City Hall officials to move the next mass protest from Revolution Square right by the Kremlin to the more remote Bolotnaya Square. They were subsequently accused of weakening the protests.
The June 12 march for Ivan Golunov provides a more concrete example of the new protest leaders’ implacability and their unwillingness to take on traditional leadership roles. Moscow City Hall refused to issue a permit for the June 12 protest and instead approved a later protest organized by two journalists who are friendlier to the state, RT editor Ekaterina Vinokurova and Moskovsky Komsomolets Editor-in-Chief Pavel Gusev. Ilya Azar decided to withdraw from the organizing committee of the unsanctioned June 12 protest after “the idea of going to City Hall” to negotiate gained strength among his colleagues. Azar said he remained “of the opinion that going to negotiate with City Hall is wrong: They’ll divide us and lie to us.”
Ultimately, the march’s other organizers were unable to get City Hall officials to agree to their conditions, and they also resigned as the event’s organizers, saying “anyone who decides to attend the march anyway should understand all the attendant risks.” They also promised to come out to the protest themselves. The unsanctioned protest went on without any official leaders, and 500 of the marchers were arrested. Meanwhile, the state-approved June 16 protest attracted fewer than 1,000 people.
Even the Libertarian Party, which had previously made efforts to receive state permits for its protests, has been palpably radicalizing its approach. While the party previously argued that it would not have the resources to defend its supporters if they were arrested at an unsanctioned protest, it has changed its tune even in the course of the past few weeks. It was the libertarians who organized the government-approved election protest on July 20 that drew more than 20,000 participants, and they tried to receive a permit for a more central location for August 3. However, on July 30, immediately after a negotiation session with City Hall, Libertarian Party leader Mikhail Svetov was arrested and jailed for 30 days. Svetov himself said the jail sentence was “revenge” for his refusal to “agree to the bureaucrats’ conditions” and allow the protest to take place on Sakharov Prospect, as it had on July 30.
In short: The government’s effort to clear the political field of opposition leaders didn’t go as planned. The opposition’s old leaders are being replaced by younger and significantly more radical ones.
4. Individual protest marches seem to have lost the need for leaders altogether.
Just before the July 27 protest in Moscow, law enforcement officers arrested key opposition leaders and City Duma candidates as a preventative measure. Alexey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Dmitry Gudkov, Konstantin Jankauskas, Yulia Galyamina, Ivan Zhdanov, Vladimir Milov, and others were all in police custody and unable to lead the protest itself. By the time the next protest began on August 3, not a single opposition leader was still walking free. However, both protests still went on as planned.
Moscow’s protesters clearly identify not with a given constellation of political stars but rather with the act of protest itself. In deciding whether to march or not on a given day, they tend to lean more on the number of social media RSVPs for the event in question than on whether they can count on seeing individual politicians.
That doesn’t make these protests spontaneous — in Moscow, at least, the most recent marches were all announced in advance — but opposition leaders have become more of a moderating force than an organizing one. Previous political actions, especially government-approved ones, often saw opposition leaders conflict with one another. They would often refuse to speak from the same stage or march in the same group unless the protest’s targets were unusually significant.
The Russian government’s repression efforts have solved that problem: Any political celebrities who are able to attend opposition protests can typically no longer lead from center stage. That leaves protesters themselves to decide what actions to take on the ground depending on the circumstances of each specific protest. Often, the result is a mass march with extremely broad ideological aims and no pre-planned course of action. Russia’s most recent protests are maximally unideological.
In short: Russia’s latest protests have gone on even when their organizers have been arrested or jailed. In fact, the absence of famous politicians decreases the probability of conflicts among the protesters.
5. Protests have taken on totalizing tactics.
Traditional political protests all ran along a very similar scheme: They would either gather protesters to listen to a series of speeches or march along a pre-planned route. Some events would combine the two. Even unsanctioned protests, as a rule, were planned in advance.
However, in Moscow in 2019, the government has rarely issued permits for protests, police have arrested their leaders, and protesters have started seeing physical pushback from law enforcement officers as soon as they arrive on the scene. That makes protests highly unpredictable. Without a chance to follow any preset plan, protesters have to act spontaneously according to the situation around them. On one hand, that decreases the unity of the protesters’ actions. On the other, it makes life harder for the police officers tasked with dispersing these events.
Nowadays, a stationary protest can start moving and turn into a march before stopping once more at a different location. That makes Russia’s recent protests something like the Dutch total soccer method, which enables an entire team to act as defenders or forwards whenever needed. Sometimes, when faced with advancing police lines, protesters have split off into multiple small groups that proceed to act independently of one another. In turn, protests have stopped being localized events: almost the entire city center has become fair game for marchers.
There is an analogy to be drawn between those trends and the current protests in Hong Kong. In 2014, the Occupy movement was defeated there. In the summer of 2019, however, protesters have been demonstrating against Chinese influence and threats to the city’s autonomy almost every day by building on their predecessors’ experience five years ago. The protesters have compared themselves to “water” that can easily permeate or recede from any given location, making it difficult to disperse. However, there is an important difference between the Hong Kong protesters’ tactics and those of their Moscow counterparts: While crowds in Hong Kong have been occupying government buildings and disrupting public transport, Russian opposition activists have limited their activities to street protests that cause no significant impediments to business as usual in their capital city. Only riot police have gone so far as to close off Moscow’s central streets during protests.
In short: Harsh police crackdowns have forced protesters to find new tactics in which power is broadly distributed among them, making recent marches in Russia harder to stop.
6. The new protests are effective — to a point.
At first, the Russian government reacted to the 2011/2012 protests by liberalizing its legal system, but it soon switched to far more repressive tactics. After the Bolotnaya Square protests were dispersed, government bureaucrats at various levels began ignoring activists’ demands. However, that began to change in 2018, especially in Russia’s regions:
- Kemero’s governor was forced out of office following protests
- Yekaterinburg’s government canceled the construction of a cathedral in one of the city’s central parks
- In June of 2019, construction equipment was removed from the planned Shiyes garbage storage facility following protests in Arkhangelsk, and the project is now awaiting additional safety probes
- The day after Moscow’s March of Mothers on August 15, 2018, a court released two defendants in the New Greatness case from pretrial detention to house arrest
- After a series of protests for Ivan Golunov, the Meduza correspondent was cleared of all charges, and a number of police officers were fired.
All that said, some protest movements have also failed to achieve their goals:
- Protests against massive renovation plans in Moscow led nowhere
- Demonstrators were unable to counteract government plans to raise the national retirement age, though protests did prompt Vladimir Putin to make a televised address
- There is reason to doubt that Russia’s Central Election Commission and, subsequently, its courts, will allow independent candidates to run for the Moscow City Duma
While Russian protesters have spontaneously taken on broad political goals, the politicians taking advantage of that politicization still belong to an organized group of opposition activists, many of them affiliated with Navalny. Even liberal commentators have written that their ultimate goal is to seize power. In those circumstances, the Kremlin is unlikely to be willing to make political compromises.
In short: The number of successful protest movements in Russia is on the rise, but they have been unable to achieve systemic change. At most, they have forced politicians and law enforcement officers to resign.