Russia's 2013: Macbeth, or the Comedy of Errors?

2012 started in a huge upsurge of opposition activity: street protests, marches, arrests and imprisonments. A year later the scene is much calmer. Daniil Kotsyubinsky considers the future for the opposition, and does not find what he sees particularly encouraging

The anniversary of the 2011 December events is not unlike a wake, which people are making strenuous and fruitless efforts to turn into a toast.

The Akunin view

Author Boris Akunin, ex-ideologist of the ex-revolution of the White Ribbons (symbol of the 2011-12 protests), has written an article, A Year Later, for the anniversary of last year’s street demonstrations. He reminisces: ‘Last year on 9 December I posted a message on my blog “I have to go” and rushed from France to Moscow to help the campaigners.’

Akunin then moves smoothly on, without a break in his romantic-self-satisfaction, to sound the death knell for these pleasant revolutionary reminiscences: ‘I’m against both revolution as such and so-called peaceful revolution. I don’t want the authoritarian regime to collapse as a result of demonstrations, roadblocks, countrywide campaigns of civil disobedience and mass occupations. Chaos scares me….I don’t want the authoritarian regime to collapse suddenly, loudly and dramatically. I should like it to change gradually as a result of fair elections at all levels… Oh, why can’t the centrists form a party?’

Further on, Akunin explains how to intensify pressure on the government without demonstrations and occupations. ‘From time to time I get calls from various high-ups suggesting a meeting for an exchange of views, a discussion of the situation etc. I always turn these offers down…I shall be pleased to meet anyone and to help to find a way out of our public crisis – the day after the release of Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, the prisoners of Bolotnaya [square in Moscow where earlier demonstrations took place, Rn word means marsh], Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina [Pussy Riot] and so on, down the list. Not a day earlier.’

Declaring a telephone boycott on important people in the Kremlin is, naturally, daunting. Would they continue to telephone Akunin if the supporters of demonstrations in city squares were to take heed of the the guru’s centrist exhortations and suddenly disperse to their homes in anticipation of contrite telephone calls from Putin and Medvedev?

Realising that a telephone boycott would hardly suffice, Akunin spoke a day or two later about the necessity for ‘marches and demonstrations’, including without official permission, and for dialogue with the government ‘from a position of strength.’ As a successful example of such a dialogue, Akunin collected a mass of signatures in support of various good draft laws. ‘It’s also important to ostracise the regime. Putin can stick with his retinue of comical “special advisers” who were so outspoken in their criticism of him yesterday.’

Boris Akunin wearing a white scarf in symbolic alignment with the 2012 protest movement. His recent interventions have been laden with more conformist rhetoric. (Photo: Poka Tut)

Akunin clearly felt that his recommendations generated more questions than answers and came up with an elegant concluding remark: ‘As to how I imagine the operation to force the regime towards peace…I have no ready answers. I am not a politician or a political consultant. We should think about this together.’

What an excellent suggestion. First, however, it would be good to know why, when addressing a 120,000-strong demonstration in Bolotnaya Square last year, Akunin was effectively a firm supporter of ‘city square demonstrations’, whereas now he suddenly describes himself as a centrist and has taken on the thankless task of distinguishing between ‘city square demonstrations and occupations’ and ‘marches and protest rallies.’ Perhaps in the intervening period the threat of bloody anarchy has so obviously been looming over Russia that now, as in 1909, it’s time to move smartly to the right and follow Mikhail Gershenzon, author of Landmarks, in ‘blessing this government which, with its prisons and bayonets, still protects us from the people's fury.'

Of course it isn't. It's not that there's a threat of a senseless and savage uprising. Boris Akunin is not actually afraid and recognises that 'peaceful revolution in today's Russia is a great deal more possible than everyone (including the government) thinks.'

Time to back off?

So why did he decide to resile publicly from 'city squares and occupations' now, when the anyway not very frightening revolution is definitely on the wane? There is only one possible answer: he decided that the revolutionary bank was about to crash, so it was time to take back his PR-deposits.

The other unrealised leaders of the non-revolution are also de facto taking their leave of it, hurriedly adapting their current 'demands' to conform with the usual 'pre-revolution' format of a humble collective petition addressed to 'Himself'. The co-chair of the RPR-PARNAS party, Vladimir Ryzhkov, for instance, expresses the hope that henceforth the Russian president's priority will be 'comprehensive political reform, transition to gubernatorial elections with no filters, and mayoral elections.' This courtly obeisance to Putin is all the more surprising because Ryzhkov himself immediately acknowledges that there's no hope at all of comprehensive political reform for the moment.

‘Why did Akunin decide to resile publicly from 'city squares and occupations' now? There is only one possible answer: he decided that the revolutionary bank was about to crash, so it was time to take back his PR-deposits.’

Even opposition leaders who maintain a 'high-level of street readiness for battle' have essentially accepted the depressing vector of public action and are not counting on any serious victories.

A telling proof of this is that, despite the triumphant formation of the Opposition Coordinating Committee, there has been no renewal of ideas or tactics there.

Demands – real and potential

The opposition, as always, addresses itself only to the government, not to the people. Their old slogans are meaningless: freedom for political prisoners, pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections, an end to repression, judicial reform. Now, these are all excellent and very necessary demands! The problem is that the Kremlin blithely ignores them, to all intents and purposes happy to continue its cat and mouse games with the opposition, while carrying out 'repressive liberalisation' and making a great play of engaging, selectively, in the battle with corruption.

It's true, the opposition do have a new ideological 'super weapon' which has almost never been used: the slogan 'comprehensive political reform'. On closer examination, however, the planned set of ideas and tactics is only aimed at a return to the situation of 20 years ago, the Yeltsin era and a softer model of presidential autocracy (which has, let us not forget, already thrown up the 'Putin vertical').

How does the RPR-PARNAS party see far-reaching reform, for instance? 'A return to 4-year terms for the State Duma and the presidency…. limited to two terms (without the word “consecutive”)' a return to elections for governors. leaders of local authorities and members of the Federation Council. The question arises once again of whether political déjà-vu can be considered far-reaching reform.

But it's not even that these ideas have already shown themselves to be a historical dead-end. More importantly, any conversation, however revolutionary it may appear, that does not manage to go beyond the limits of the 'presidential paradigm' will be instantly seized on by the Kremlin and turned into absolutely conservative official discourse.

In essence, all the PARNAS points for reform listed above have already been taken over by the Kremlin and loudly proclaimed as its top-priority goals, with all kinds of crafty qualifications, of course. Even the word-combination 'political reform' was used by Putin in December 2011, before opposition leaders had learnt to throw the phrase around.

As might have been expected, the Kremlin found it even easier, and with what enormous Machiavellian enjoyment can only be imagined, to appropriate from the opposition its winning theme of the battle with corruption, putting it into practice with great pomp and circumstance.

Former Defence Minister of Russia Anatoliy Serdyukov commands a military parade on Red Square. In dismissiing Serdukov for "corruption", the Kremlin has co-opted part of the opposition's agenda, and reduced room for manoeuvre. (Photo: Marina Lystseva).

So if the opposition leaders really wanted to throw down the gauntlet to the authoritarian government, they should have put forward some constructive demands. These have to tick three boxes: firstly, they should be really new; secondly, it must be easy for them to become popular and promising i.e they won't have palled after one season of street marches. And thirdly, they should be inedible for the Kremlin, no matter how much Machiavellian sauce is piled on top of them.

Such demands have been around for some time and are obvious.

I must say straight out that the idea of 'fair elections' is not among them. It can't work and, as we have seen, hasn't succeeded. The dream of political freedom has only come true once in the living memory of today's generations, and that was at the beginning of the 90s. Soon after that, as it turned out, the idea was fairly seriously compromised in the eyes of a significant sector of society, which is why it can't work today as a tool of the massed ranks of the opposition.

Anyway, as distinct from the time of perestroika, the idea of free and fair elections is today completely acknowledged by the government (in word, if not in deed).

So what is it that Putin's Kremlin would be unwilling to accept at any time at any price?

There are three hypothetical points for a programme with which the opposition could, if it so wished, arm itself and three are quite enough. The demands are:

  1. Russia should become a parliamentary republic and the post of president abolished. With a bit of application, it would, on the whole, not be difficult to popularise the republican slogan. In the archetypical plan it would be no more than the call 'All power to the Soviets!' in a slightly different form. Despite all the travails of perestroika and post-perestroika times, this call is still potentially full of straightforward democratic charm.
  2. The regions should have the freedom of self-determination and the forceful, and extremely costly, retention of the Caucasus should be brought to an end. For the Kremlin this demand is also unacceptable because it is the Second Chechen War and the alarmist cry about 'saving Russia from collapse' that are the foundation of the police potential of Putin's system of 'checks and balances.' If this 'one and indivisible' self-justification is pulled out from under the Kremlin, all will immediately become clear: the high-handed despotism which has been going on for many years has absolutely no moral or political justification.
  3. The fate of Russia's hydrocarbon revenue is almost the most sensitive issue for both the government and society. Here the slogan 'A gas voucher for each Russian citizen!' could be universal: fatal for the whole corrupt government pyramid at the same time as being 'left wing', 'liberal', and economically justifiable. It would certainly be popular.

Now for a rhetorical question: why have none of the opposition leaders in- or outside the system, from Nemtsov to Udaltsov, not put forward anything even vaguely similar to these three self-evident points for an opposition agenda, or even one of them?

The answer is not difficult: the masters of the White Ribbons have no intention of throwing down a gauntlet, whether real or fake, to the Kremlin because it would bring in its wake almost certain persecution, though after that – victory.

Opposition leaders

'Reading the internet,' huffs the inventor of the media simulacrum 'The march of millions', leader of the 'Left Front', Sergei Udaltsov, 'you see that many people say things have changed: there are fewer people and the protests are falling away. I see no grounds for suggesting that this is the situation.'

Odd. The fact that the Egyptian revolution is not on the wane can be seen by everyone with the naked eye, even from Russia. To find traces of non-dwindling Russian opposition activity, on the other hand, you would need a large magnifying glass or, better still, a telescope. But it doesn't help. Sergei Udaltsov is left moaning at the apparently crooked internet mirror.

I think this is to do with the personal cowardice and notorious 'venality' of the opposition leaders. During the 20 years since perestroika, Moscow political life has turned irrevocably into a self-sufficient government/opposition huddle, which has no objective interest in any radical changes for Russia.

This is because any real, rather than pretend, political reforms will first and foremost threaten to unravel the imperial model of state structure in Russia and this would mean the global redistribution of all the resources and capitals – financial, political and reputational. In other words, the end of Moscow as it is today. All the total monopolies and all the VIP-filling, including Putin, Medvedev, Abramovich, Mordashov, Nemtsov and Navalny, Akunin and Bykov, TV's Channel 1, NTV and radio station Echo Moscow, with Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta added on for good measure.

‘During the 20 years since perestroika, Moscow political life has turned irrevocably into a self-sufficient government/opposition huddle, which has no objective interest in any radical changes for Russia.’

The capital's VIP society, including the opposition leaders, naturally has no understanding of this, though at the level of the instinct for collective self-preservation, they know. So they prefer the lordly bird in the hand to the democratic two in the bush. Or, more precisely, an endless flood to the final act.

Boris Akunin has written about this fairly clearly: ‘I wouldn’t wish for a peaceful revolution such as we had in August 1991…Twenty years ago the collapse of central government led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The next time the same thing could happen with the Russian Federation. For post-imperial states any crisis in central government is fraught with the danger of a separatist explosion. We don’t want to run that risk.’

Quite logical! If you’re afraid of separatism, then don’t go on demonstrations. Even if you really want to, it’s better not.

At the same time, characteristically for people who have wanted something for so long, but can’t have it, the Moscow opposition community has turned to the psychological defence mechanism called hypercompensation. This is essence can be summed up as the loser’s exaggerated sense of his success and significance.

And now?

Well… even if the world hasn’t come to an end this year, the end of the capital’s colourless revolution can be predicted with a high degree of probability. Or rather the end of the hopes associated with it throughout the country by Russians with a mind to protest.

If Dunsinane Castle (in Kurosawa’s film of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), it is called the Spider’s Lair, which is rather more illuminating) is doomed to fall, it will only be ‘when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane’. In other words, until the regional forest is on the move and advancing towards the imperial lair, the capital’s Macbeth, with an admixture of The Comedy of Errors, will go on forever. In an emptying hall…