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‘The important thing is what people believe’ Russian opposition figures on the controversial ‘Noon Against Putin’ election protest strategy

Source: Meduza
Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg / Getty Images

On March 15–17, Russians will head to the polls for yet another election whose winner is known in advance. Despite the predetermined outcome, St. Petersburg opposition politician Maxim Reznik has come up with a protest strategy that he says will show voters they’re not alone in opposing Putin. The idea for the “Noon Against Putin” initiative is simple: everyone who doesn’t support Putin goes to the polls at exactly 12:00 p.m. on March 17. Reznik doesn’t suggest voting for any particular candidate, just not for Putin. Meduza asked various opposition figures, as well as a political strategist, for their thoughts on the initiative. The independent journalists’ cooperative Bereg has also kindly shared the opinions of some individuals they spoke with.

Maxim Reznik

Opposition politician and former St. Petersburg lawmaker who proposed the “Noon Against Putin” initiative

From prison, Alexey [Navalny] wrote that “a reasonable person should spend every day trying to harm the Putin regime.” I have the same motives. Putin is currently conducting a “special election operation” to show that the Führer and the nation are one — and we have to sabotage it. Putin is after one thing; we want to show something different. I’m fed up with arguing about the right way to fight Putin’s fascism. It’s time to do more fighting than arguing.

Putin desperately wants all the world headlines after the election to say he “got 85 percent” (and for “Navalny was murdered” and “authoritarianism” to only be mentioned as an afterthought). This way, the myth that “Putin is Russia” will persist in the average person’s mind. And if that’s the case, then we have to negotiate with Russia, we have to start understanding it.

But now, rest assured, you’ll see! All the headlines won’t be about Putin’s performance but about what happened at “Noon.” And that will already be a victory for the resistance because “the Führer and nation unity” spectacle will be disrupted.

Even if nobody shows up [to the protest], that will also tell us something: we’ll get a clear reading of the situation and won’t be living in illusions. We have to live in full awareness of the situation. We can’t change it right now, but we have to put up a fight. This is our Borodino. Yes, Napoleon will win — but something will change. Just like it did after the lines [to leave signatures in support of anti-war presidential hopeful Boris] Nadezhdin, just like it did after Alexey’s funeral.

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getting out the vote

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We can’t win these elections, and I don’t understand why Maxim Katz is selling [his audience] hope that it’s possible. We have to honestly say that we’re not aiming to win against Putin in the election but to thwart his “special operation.” If we go like meat into this meat grinder — vote for [New People party candidate Vladislav] Davankov, [Communist Party candidate Nikolai] Kharitonov, [ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia candidate Leonid] Slutsky — then we’ll turn into “meat patties” on this electoral stage without having solved anything.

It’s deceiving oneself to vote for the moderate fascist Davankov. And it plays right into Putin’s hands. We shouldn’t embarrass ourselves by stooping to using every possible little thing to “harm” Putin. Our capital lies in our reputation: if we didn’t have our “moral high ground,” we could justify bombings and killing Ukrainian children. And Katz seems not to understand this. He says, ‘I’ll call for “Noon” later!’ No, call for it first, start by talking about the important thing!

If the protest is successful, it will change both Russia itself and people’s attitude toward it — and this isn’t an exaggeration. People won’t be talking about how popular Putin is, but about how unpopular he is. We can already see the impression the lines at Alexey’s funeral made on European politicians. Heroes don’t just simply die. Alexey, falling to the ground, turned into a huge patronus. We can’t afford to not take advantage of this. If we go all in, we’ll be in shock after the elections — but from inspiration, not fear.

Leonid Volkov

Oppositionist, former chairman of Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation

Everything that works toward consolidation is good. We’ve seen people lining up for [Boris] Nadezhdin, we’ve seen people at cemeteries, we’ve seen eight million people watching the broadcast of [Navalny’s] funeral. These people exist, but all these years, propaganda keeps insisting that they don’t. According to surveys, we know that anti-war Russians are not just a majority but an overwhelming majority. But they’re absent in the media landscape, and it’s as if everyone in Russia supports the war.

The idea behind ['Noon Against Putin’] and other similar protests that we [the opposition] will definitely organize [in the future] is for the majority to see themselves and realize that they are the majority. It’s a very simple and unifying thing. The political instrument and the symbolic meaning are inseparable here. There’s no need to come up with other meanings; nobody plans to defeat Putin with this kind of voting. The prison walls won’t crumble because of it — but they will once the overwhelming majority, which has already formed, realizes itself as such. We’re taking an important step in that direction.

Of course, this protest will have the greatest effect where more people come. Purely mathematically, the largest number of voters is currently in Moscow; there are many people there who support change. I think the protest will be effective in all major cities. And if two or three people meet in some village or small town, and each one sees that they aren’t the only liberal, then maybe this will be even more valuable than in the large cities with crowds.

This protest could influence the political atmosphere in Russia, the political feelings of people who oppose Putin. Right now, they feel marginalized, hunted — like a dying breed. But they’ll see that they exist in Russia and that there are many of them. The main goal of the protest is to change the narrative.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Politician, member of the “Russian Anti-War Committee”

When we agreed during an Anti-War Committee meeting to endorse this initiative, our standpoint was that it was crucial for people to realize there’s a greater number of individuals opposed to Putin than they might believe. One of the main techniques of authoritarian regimes is to convince their subjects that each of them individually might be “against” the regime, but everyone else is “for” it. And you need a visual image to fight against this.

It doesn’t matter how the votes are counted later; the important thing is what people believe. If they believe Putin didn’t get the majority, then that’s what will stay in the public’s consciousness. It worked with signatures for Nadezhdin: before the lines, Putin said he’d collected three million signatures, and people believed him. “Well, he probably could.” But after everyone saw the lines that formed when Nadezhdin only collected 200,000 signatures, they knew that those three million Putin signatures don’t exist. That it’s pure bullshit.

The most important thing [in "Noon Against Putin"] is for people to see each other. Like in the lines to Alexey Navalny’s grave, like in the lines to leave signatures for Nadezhdin. Now, we hope they’ll see each other at the “Noon Against Putin” initiative.

Authoritarian regimes’ main vulnerability is that they don’t hold fair elections. And as long as people believe that the majority supports the regime, it holds on [to power]. When this belief disappears, everything turns in a day. There’s the example of [the Socialist Republic of] Romania: [its president, leader of the national-communist dictatorship, Nicolae] Ceaușescu was eventually shot at a rally he convened in his own support.

Maxim Katz

Politician, blogger

Anything that allows people to see like-minded individuals within the constrains of a dictatorship is good. These types of rallies help you understand and feel that you’re not alone. If people realize that, then the moment when they’ll come out onto the square and won’t leave isn’t far off .

This is a good initiative, I like it. It’s a small brick in a large protest wall, and the time to place this brick hasn’t yet come. It needs to be placed at the very top of the wall, and we’re still building the middle. To convince people to vote against Putin, we need to talk to them not about when to come to the elections, what to bring, how to dress, but about what to do there.

So, for now, I’ve called for voting for [Vladislav] Davankov. I want the public discussion to focus on this now. Right now, we need people to decide to come out and vote for Davankov. Or against everyone, if they don’t like him. Most importantly — against Putin.

This is what I plan to talk about with my audience all next week. And then, after this discussion, somewhere around the Thursday or Friday before the election, I’ll call for everyone to come to the polling stations at noon.

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Right now, opposition-minded people believe that they’re in the minority, and therefore all we can do is just look at each other. Just try asking any oppositionist now what they think about there being a second round [of voting]. Try having a serious discussion about who would make it to the runoff: Davankov or Kharitonov. They’ll tell you that you’re out of your mind! That it won’t happen, that Putin will get 75 percent. Any oppositionist will tell you that now because people don’t believe in themselves. This is very bad.

But in reality, there are a lot of us. And at some point, those who disagree with Putin will realize that they’re the majority. And that support for Putin is an illusion, not reality. Then, there will be significant changes in the country.

And this could happen as soon as next week. Citizens might start thinking: why not vote for this forty-year-old neutral person [Vladislav Davankov] rather than this 71-year-old, who’s lost his appeal?

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Dmitry Gudkov

Former Russian State Duma deputy

Maxim Reznik, who came up with the initiative, and I have been thinking about it since fall, and we came to the conclusion that it’s the only noticeable thing that can be done. Back then, I assumed that 99 percent of candidates who were worth voting for wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the election. The lines at this kind of rally will show that opposition-minded people exist in Russia. At the same time, it’s completely safe.

The crucial thing is that there’s no basis for contradictions within the opposition itself or among supporters of different strategies. The general message is to come to the polling station at noon. You can vote for any candidate except Putin, spoil your ballot if you want to boycott, or simply stand in line. Usually, voter turnout is low at noon, and if a line forms then, it’ll be clear who came — there’s no need for some kind of extra identification.

People will see all their neighbors from their building, from the area. They’ll realize that they’re not alone, they’re not in the minority, but in the majority. The elites, who maybe think that the majority supports Putin, will see opposition-minded individuals. Security forces, who disperse protests in the name of the majority, and election committee members will see them. They’ll see that the king isn’t real, and this will truly be a new reality.

There will definitely be consequences, but it’s too early to talk about them. The West will see opposition-minded Russians, and it will be much easier for us to counteract sanctions that don’t affect Putin’s inner circle but hit ordinary people.

Stanislav Andreychuk

Co-chair of the independent election monitoring movement Golos (spoke with Bereg)

From what I gather, the organizers’ main objective is to refine their mobilization strategy again. And their expressed intention is to make the protest visible. I won’t venture to assess how feasible the first goal is, but the second one is very difficult. And it’s not because people won’t come. In Russia, the voting districts are too small to organize large lines to [the polling stations]. Making a line at 200 or 300 polling stations in a city with 500,000–700,000 inhabitants isn’t the same as making a line at one signature collection point. The math is simple. Voting districts cover a maximum of 3,000 people (except in Moscow). About 40 percent of voting districts have less than 1,000 people. There are up to 10 commission members giving out ballots at each polling station. It’s very difficult to organize a noticeable line under these conditions.

There’s only one way to do this — through the ‘Mobile Voter’ program [where people can vote at the polling station most convenient for them]. In short, everyone who wants to participate can switch their registration to one of several large polling stations in their city. Then, they’ll be put on an extra list and will all stand in one line and go to one polling station worker, not ten. This is also possible at polling stations abroad. So basically, we’ll still see some photos [of lines], but if you’re going to participate in the protest in a Russian city or village, don’t expect a noticeable line.

Political strategist 

Works with Russian regional authorities

Honestly, it’s not clear how this will work. It’s not clear whether it’s possible from abroad to rally people for a truly massive protest on a national scale. Comparing it to Navalny’s funeral is pointless. There was a clear gathering place: the church, and then the cemetery. Having 15,000-20,000 people in one place looks impressive, yes. But if they’re spread out over thousands of polling stations in Moscow and the Moscow region, then probably not.

Navalny’s death “stirred” the opposition scene to action; this is evident not only from the lines at [Navalny’s grave] but also from Davankov’s rating. It went up, even though nothing significant happened in Davankov’s campaign at the time. The emotion [from Navalny's death] is intense, but the peak won’t last long. Things might quiet down by the elections.

Yekaterina Duntsova

journalist, founder of the Dawn party, denied registry in the 2024 Russian presidential elections by the Central Election Commission (spoke with Bereg)

This demonstration is about the feeling that we aren’t alone. That at noon on the last day of [voting], people like us, who want peace and a better future, will come to the polling stations. They’ll meet, get to know each other in line, talk, and see that there are many us.

For now, this is the only peaceful way to express one’s attitude toward the lack of change in power. A way to show officials that they need to pay attention to society’s demands and to make some concessions, even if they’re small. I’m dreaming that after the election, they’ll decide to make some concessions, or even release some political prisoners. Pardon, amnesty, anything.

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You can’t just ignore society’s demands indefinitely. First, there were lines for Boris Nadezhdin, then there was a huge line at Navalny’s funeral. It won’t be possible to ignore this forever. Especially at noon, when lines start forming at many polling stations. They’ll have to respond.

Of course, people are worried about what will happen to them after [the protest], but they can’t stay silent anymore either. In rural areas, people over 60, who grew up on stories about repressions and “kitchen talks” [private conversations where dissenting opinions could be expressed] come up to me. For them, today’s reality is déjà vu: it’s once again become dangerous to bring attention to yourself, even just by leaving a signature in support of a candidate as part of an election campaign.

When you’re with people who are close to you in spirit, it helps you cope with despair and apathy. It’s like a psychological support group. Civil society begins with these small communities. Someday the darkness will end — many are holding on to this feeling.

Boris Nadezhdin

Former Russian State Duma deputy, denied registry in the 2024 Russian presidential elections by the Central Election Commission (spoke with Bereg)

It’s important to me that people come out in general and vote against Putin. It would be better if they came to the polling stations on March 17 in person, rather than voting remotely. I won’t impose any stricter conditions on my supporters; they’d simply reduce the effectiveness.

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Reporting by Andrey Pertsev, Lilia Yapparova, and  Bereg

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