The Russian protest movement: why my optimism was misplaced

Journalist Oleg Kashin was recently brutally beaten up. To ram the message home, the fingers on his writing hand were broken, as well as his jaw and shins. He had been active in protesting the building of a highway through the Khimki forest nature reserve. Now he reflects on the authorities’ handling of a football demonstration with nationalist overtones and the arrests of the leaders of the punk protest group Voina, ruefully concluding that all this time he has been missing the point.

I am very tempted to call the blocking of Leningradsky Prospekt by fans of Spartak Moscow the most outrageous event of the month or, to avoid generalizations, at least to say that personally I am totally outraged by the blocking of Leningradsky Prospekt by the Spartak fans. Let me clarify what exactly it is that I find outrageous. It is not the blocking itself – quite the contrary, protest actions inspire respect and delight in inverse proportion to the numbers of people they attract and the radical ideas they represent. Nationalist slogans? Nothing shocking about those either  - in fact, Article 282 and a whole array of official anti-extremist measures have been largely responsible for provoking a rise in grass-roots extremism; if a moderate nationalist party called „Russia for Russians” had seats in parliament, there would at least be fewer of them in the streets. „Russia for Russians” is therefore not the reason why I find the Spartak rally shocking or intolerable.

Spartak fans

Just days after Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup, the crowd of football fans blocked Leningradsky Prospekt shouting “Russia for Russians!” and “Moscow for Muscovites.”

So perhaps it’s got to do with the people involved? Football fans are a rather particular sort (by the way, when I say my attacker looked like a football fan, I mean precisely that – a physically strong type, of Slavic appearance, nothing more), so of course it is not pleasant to have thousands of them milling around the town blocking the streets. But this is not an argument; even in Triumfalnaya Square on the 31st of a month [the date for regular rallies for the freedom of assembly] you will find unpleasant people heavily outnumbering those you might feel like welcoming with a kind smile. To be totally blunt, most of our country consists of unpleasant people, so however unpleasant the Spartak fans on Leningradsky Prospekt might be, this is not what makes their action outrageous.

What really makes the blocking of Leningradsky Prospekt by the Spartak fans outrageous, loathsome and monstrous is the response of the authorities. After arriving on the scene, the special purpose police unit OMON was trying to persuade the fans to disperse – and by persuade, I mean verbally, not with truncheons and Black Marias. The authorities then proceeded to bandy about terms such as „unauthorized march”, „demonstration” and so on. „Softly-softly”, „as softly as possible” and then „even more softly” was the way the authorities responded to what appears to be the largest protest action of recent years. The football fanclub leaders and members have no need to hide in safe houses or abroad, they have no need to fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night and police raids; they have no need to fear anything at all.

Yet even the authorities’ softly-softly approach, in and of itself, would not be so outrageous if other incidents had not occurred that beg to be compared with this unprecedented display of the humane approach in Leningradsky Prospekt. The list includes the anti-fascist action in Khimki in July, regular rallies on the 31st of the month, and the fight between anti-fascists and OMON on 19 January – there are lots of examples of interaction between power structures and citizens protesting in the streets.  So numerous are they in fact that it is fair to claim that the only kinds of protest („only” being the painfully key word) to which the government does not object are those by the football fans with their slogan „Russia for Russians”. The designation „class allies” no longer sounds like „something out of Solzhenitsyn” but quite like a rather up-to-date political term and I don’t think anyone will be suprised if this phrase suddenly starts cropping up in official documents.

In my view, the incident in Leningradsky Prospekt symbolically sums up this past year. It has been a year in the course of which more words than ever before have been uttered (including by me) about street protests becoming fashionable, about the masses embracing politics again and about the conflict between the slick and the brutal being some kind of real split within the tandem. Everyone understood there was nothing to expect but everyone was expecting something nevertheless. Have any of these expectations materialized? Well, yes, and not only in respect of the „class allies”  in Leningradsky Prospekt.

Voina bridge

A group of graffiti street art, known as Voina (War), had painted a 213-feet- tall, 89-feet-wide penis at the historical Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg

For example, the art group „Voina”, which many regarded as a symbol of „hipster protest” has been crushed (at least people can no longer say „Voina” had the backing of special services or the Kremlin). Its leaders,  Leonid „Screwed Up” Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov, were arrested on charges of group hooliganism motivated by hatred for a social group (which carries a sentence of up to seven years) and are now in the pre-trial detention centre in St. Petersburg, having been driven there in a van with bags over their heads – there’s both the slick and the brutal for you. „Voina” is not class allies with anyone and the fact that Nikolayev and Vorotnikov are behind bars has not provoked, and will not provoke, any mass protests. The guys from Leningradsky Prospekt are the only ones capable of pulling off a mass protest and even they can presumably do so only because the regime regards them as its own.

It’s damn difficult to admit that everything you’ve said and written all year was beside the point.

About the author

Oleg Kashin is a prominent Russian journalist. His work has appeared in Kommersant, Lenta, Colta and numerous other publications.

Read On

Racism fears grow for 2018, by Anna Arutunyan, Moscow News, Dec.9, 2010

Free art group Voina, web site

More On

This morning I visited Oleg Kashin in hospital. He’s just had another operation, which has literally and metaphorically restored the face of Russian journalism. The brutal beating of this Kommersant correspondent has provoked a much stronger response in society and professional circles than any other previous attempt on the life and health of Russian journalists. 

Leonid Parfyonov, www.openDemocracy.net