Sergei Udaltsov: has the Russian left found its new leader?

Sergei Udaltsov, leader of Russia’s ‘Left Front’ movement, had barely been heard of before the recent elections, but his emotional speeches, hunger strike, imprisonment, not to mention an incident in a frozen fountain, have since turned him into a hero. Ilya Azar met Udaltsov in a Moscow coffee shop and reflected on the emergence of an unusual and fearless politician onto the stage of mainstream politics. 

A girl in a white wedding dress and a serious looking young man in black trousers and a tee shirt with a picture of Stalin and the caption 'Victory will be Ours' stand hand in hand. In his free hand the young man is holding a placard with the words 'Putin is a puppet of capitalism'. Behind the couple can be seen another image of Stalin; the monstrous Soviet leader appears to be looking at the newlyweds and smiling in approval at their union.

Sergei and Anastasia Udlatsov at their wedding in 2001.
Back then, Udaltsov went to great lengths to shock people.
His ideas and behaviour matured since then but his passion
for dramatic measures to gain attention has remained.

Anastasia Udaltsova, press secretary of the ‘Left Front’ movement, recently posted this photo of her wedding on her Twitter page. She and her husband Sergey Udaltsov got married in 2001, two years after Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia. After leaving the registry office (in the photo album of the wedding Nastya jokes about signing the register, calling it an ‘act of capitulation’), the couple visited Lenin’s mausoleum and the office of the pro-Stalin party ‘Trudovaya Rossiya’  (Russian Workers’ Party), whose youth wing was headed by Sergey, and there they took the jokey photo in front of the Generalissimus.

Ten years later Nastya is at home with the couple’s two sons when I meet Sergey at the Costa Coffee on Pushkin Square. He’s a bit late – he was doing another interview at the fast food joint next door. When we were arranging the interview he joked that he preferred KFC – it was not so bourgeois.  

But then Udaltsov himself is a bit more bourgeois these days. He no longer wears tee shirts with Stalin on them, and he gives joint press conferences on Pushkin Square with his ideological opponent, the liberal Boris Nemtsov. He is also changed in appearance – his nerdy, neatly combed hairstyle has given way to a revolutionary, you might say, shaven head.   

‘It was just an adolescent desire to shock people’, he says about the photo. ‘It was like ‘you’re all afraid of Stalin, but I’m wearing a picture of him on my tee shirt’. Obviously my views have evolved in the ten years since then’.

'The ‘Left Front’ coordinator reminds me that the leader ‘died in his greatcoat on a saggy old sofa’, and he himself wears the same black leather jacket all summer and black padded jacket all winter.'

Udaltsov is of course fed up with being asked about Stalin. He refuses to admit that he is still a Stalinist, but he is not prepared to condemn Stalin unequivocally. ‘I’m not one of these people who see no difference between fascism and communism. Yes, there were elements of totalitarianism in both, but their aims were different, and it’s very dangerous to equate the two. Stalin’s aim was to create a communist society, a welfare state with equality of opportunity and justice for all.’   

As well as his fight against corrupt officials and lazy bureaucrats in general, Sergey approves of Stalin’s famously modest way of life. The ‘Left Front’ coordinator reminds me that the leader ‘died in his greatcoat on a saggy old sofa’, and he himself wears the same black leather jacket all summer and black padded jacket all winter.

Protests and arrests

Udaltsov referred to his three year old jacket in his emotional speech on Bolotnaya Square on 4th February, as a riposte to Putin’s dismissal of the protest movement as ‘a mink coat revolution’. This was Sergey’s first appearance before the new ‘objectors’ or ‘angry urbanites’, as they were christened by the former deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov. At the time of the two earlier (and largest) rallies in December he was behind bars.

'They just basically didn’t want him turning up at any meetings [ ] They had this nightmare about Seryoga calling the masses to storm the Kremlin, and everybody following him.'

Ilya Ponomaryov, MP

He had been picked up, as a preventive measure, on the morning of 4th December, as he was leaving the home of a friend, where he had spent the night in an attempt to avoid arrest. In fact, before the parliamentary elections, no one in Russia expected tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in anti-government protests. Sergey himself wasn’t expecting anything, but had nevertheless, from force of habit, advertised an unauthorized opposition rally on Manezhnaya Square.

The authorities are keen to keep Udaltsov away from mass
protests by putting him behind the bars. This naturally helps
him recruit more supporters. Photo: Demotix/pleshkova

On 4th March, the day of the presidential election, he was once more arrested and sent down for five days, ostensibly for jaywalking and swearing at a policeman. A ‘Left Front’ colleague and MP, Ilya Ponomaryov, believes that the government had taken a decision to keep him away from any protest actions, just in case.  

‘They just basically didn’t want him turning up at any meetings’, he says. ‘They had this nightmare about Seryoga calling the masses to storm the Kremlin, and everybody following him. You need to remember that Udaltsov really gets up the cops’ noses’, adds Ponomaryov. In the course of his political career the ‘Left Front’ leader has been in administrative detention more than 100 times. He spends almost half of each year behind bars (fortunately his wife is also a party member and doesn’t complain too much).

'In that month Sergey, thanks to a combination of official determination to keep him inside and his own announcement of a hunger strike, turned from a little known politician into a national hero.'

At the dizzy height of Russia’s ‘snow revolution’ the authorities decided it was even more important to keep Udaltsov off the streets and he was sent to prison twice more, for 15 and ten days respectively. In that month Sergey, thanks to a combination of official determination to keep him inside and his own announcement of a hunger strike, turned from a little known politician into a national hero.

‘I believe that when they lock you away,’ he explains, ‘a hunger strike is by far the best nonviolent means of fighting for your rights. Of course there is an element of calculation. We’re not crazy. But you need to put the authorities into a situation where it becomes awkward for them to keep you in prison.’

Where has Udaltsov come from…?

Before December, the press didn’t take Udaltsov seriously, and most future ‘angry urbanites’ had barely heard of him. In 2000 the graduate of the law faculty at the Water Transport Academy became leader of the ‘Red Youth Avant-garde’, the youth wing of the Russian Workers’ Party. In the next few years he organized regular ‘people’s gatherings’ and rallies to protest against high rise developments, rarely attracting more than thirty people. From 2009 onwards Udaltsov, in his role as coordinator of the new ‘Left Front’ movement, was one of the moving spirits behind the ‘Day of Wrath’ antigovernment actions, which did well to draw more than 1000 people.

‘The phone would ring. [ ] An educated voice would say something like, ’We’ve just held a picket at the Finance Ministry building, demanding it takes all the money from the rich and gives it to the poor. Two people were arrested. Might your newspaper carry the story?’

Andrey Kozenko, journalist

‘It usually happened like this,’ says journalist Andrey Kozenko, who worked for the Kommersant newspaper at the time. ‘The phone would ring; I’d look at the caller number and pick it up with a sigh. An educated voice would say something like, ’We’ve just held a picket at the Finance Ministry building, demanding it takes all the money from the rich and gives it to the poor. Two people were arrested. Might your newspaper carry the story?’ The ministries and demands changed, but the last sentence never varied. Another sigh from me, because it would be impossible to give it even a few lines. It was always very frustrating to receive these calls and then to think about this entire generation of young politicians who had grown up not knowing what to do with themselves.’

As a true charismatic leader, Sergey Udaltsov is eager to express his position in accessible ways. Here he is seen tearing Putin's portrait during the Bolotnaya Square protests on 4 Feb 2012. Photo: Bogomolov.PL

Now things are completely different. During my interview with Udaltsov his phone rings incessantly, and what’s more he almost always answers it – he’s not yet used to his new celebrity status. He is asked for his opinion on every possible issue, and has become just about the most sought after opposition figure, managing to reconcile his image as an implacable enemy of  the system with attendance at parties given by Dmitry Medvedev.

Udaltsov is possibly the most energetic and charismatic figure in contemporary Russian politics. If you ask any opposition activist why the 10th December rally was moved from Revolution Square to Bolotnaya, they will tell you it was because Udaltsov, the blogger Aleksey Navalny and one of the leaders of ‘Solidarity’, Ilya Yashin, were all behind bars at the time. There was simply no one left to storm the Kremlin. 

'[he] has become just about the most sought after opposition figure, managing to reconcile his image as an implacable enemy of  the system with attendance at parties given by Dmitry Medvedev.'

Udaltsov himself, when he was released in January, didn’t suggest anyone storm the Kremlin. Nor did he suggest it on Bolotnaya Square on 4th February or on Pushkin Square on 5th March.

‘Storm the Kremlin?’ he retorts. ‘For that you would need either a few thousand Latvian riflemen or soldiers or sailors behind you, like in 1917, or you would look like a complete agent provocateur. I don’t think you can artificially overtake events, whether you like it or not. Although of course I don’t like it,’ he admits.   

Many did indeed call Udaltsov an agent provocateur after the ‘For Fair Elections’ rally on Pushkin Square on 5th March. Sergey, without discussing it with anyone, announced from the stage that he would remain in the Square until Putin stepped down as president. As an idea it was obviously doomed to failure, and it led to the brutal mass arrest of all those who stayed with Udaltsov (as well as his own). This thoughtless act sparked furious criticism of Udaltsov from many demonstrators. 

…and where is he going?

Sergey Udaltsov and blogger Alexei Navalny standing
at the fountain on Pushkin Square on 5 Mar 2012.
Udaltsov's threat to erect a tent provoked mass arrests
of the activists. Photo: Ilya Varlamov

Unfortunately Sergey doesn’t know how to do anything differently. He knows how to conduct a hunger strike and a protest march; he knows how to get himself arrested. Life would of course be impossible without such people; they are a kind of lynchpin, a kind of necessary madness. A charismatic fanatic is a good thing, but not an effective instrument of change. And as Vladimir Tor, one of the leaders of Russia’s nationalists says, you need the right instrument for the job.

Writer and National-Bolshevik Eduard Limonov is more critical of Udaltsov (as indeed he is of everyone apart from himself). He calls Sergey a brave man, but a politician with the mentality of a sergeant.

Tor found Udaltsov standing in a fountain funny. Meanwhile, the frozen fountain on Pushkin  Square into which Udaltsov climbed with Navalny and Yashin has enriched Russia’s political vocabulary. Udaltsov himself, when I ask him who was better – Stalin or Putin, answers ironically, ‘Neither of them is a fountain.’ He laughs as he says it – we are, after all, sitting on the first floor of the café, from which we have a great view of the famous fountain, which has now been fenced off for a month – God forbid that anyone should repeat Udaltsov’s ‘heroic deed’. 

'It’s impossible to say what Udaltsov will do now. For the present he is calling for people to take part in a so-called ‘March of the Millions’ on 6th May, although it will be a big achievement if the opposition gets a turnout of even 30,000.'

It’s impossible to say what Udaltsov will do now. For the present he is calling for people to take part in a so-called ‘March of the Millions’ on 6th May, although it will be a big achievement if the opposition gets a turnout of even 30,000.

An agreement between Sergey Udaltsov's "Left Front"
and the Russian Communist party, the second largest
party in the Duma, catapulted Udaltsov from being a 
popular activist into the ranks of serious politicians.

It is more or less accepted that Sergey will be Gennady Zyuganov’s main successor at the head of the Russian Communist Party. He was his agent at the 5th March election. Udaltsov himself is cautious on this subject. 

‘Zyuganov is a man of principle, that’s clear to me’, says Udaltsov. ‘And he is concerned about the future of the party. For him it’s not just a question of spin. And he has also succeeded in maintaining the party’s structure.’ 

In the next few years Sergey would like to create a broad left coalition which would include ‘Just Russia’ with Sergey Mironov and Ilya Ponomaryov, as well as himself and Zyuganov. Even now, he says, the ‘Left Front’ is gaining the new supporters it always lacked before. However even Udaltsov has to admit that Russia is still a long way from a second socialist revolution. ‘Objectively, if there are revolutionary processes brewing at the moment, they are of a bourgeois-democratic character: freedom, human rights, economic competition. And that’s normal. I of course am on the side of socialist revolution, but conditions are not ripe yet.’

How long the seeds sown by Udaltsov will take to ripen depends to a large extent on himself.

About the author

lya Azar is a Moscow-based journalist and special correspondent for the news portal lenta.ru