The first few months of 2021 have been a whirlwind in Russian politics. The return of Alexey Navalny after being poisoned last summer set off a new wave of protests, police violence, detentions – and tactical disagreements within the Russian opposition.
Maxim Reznik, a member of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, has seen these fractures up close. As one of the leading opposition deputies in Russia’s northern capital, Reznik is known for his role in several important protest campaigns in the city, for example, against the transfer of a prominent city cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church.
He also speaks openly in defence of the opposition leader, Navalny. Indeed, Reznik supports the Navalny team’s ‘smart voting’ strategy, where the plan is to run a single opposition candidate in election districts in the parliamentary elections this September to deprive the United Russia party of votes. And he encourages voters to support the campaign.
In the wake of the Russian authorities’ decision to ban Navalny’s political movement due to it being deemed “extremist”, Reznik opened up about the tensions within Russia’s opposition politics – and what the country’s young people really think.
Does the attack on Navalny’s network and the ban on its existence signal the end of mass protest in Russia?
No, I’m sure that protest will find new forms. These bans openly demonstrate what our Russian government, this punitive dictatorship, fears most of all – Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his network, whether people in other parts of the Russian opposition like it or not! It is the FBK that poses a threat to the Russian authorities. And this threat, in my opinion, is focused not so much on public rallies as the preparation for the ‘smart voting’ campaign.
Repressions against the FBK are, first of all, an attempt to interfere with ‘smart voting’. I am sure that other people and other groups will be found to organise rallies but organising the ‘smart voting’ campaign requires structures, horizontal connections and smooth organisation – everything that would have been provided by Navalny’s network.
Do the recent mass demonstrations express the real popular mood in the country?
It is hard to say! After all, even Russia’s sociologists cannot assess the mood in society with complete surety because even in anonymous polls, people are afraid to speak frankly.
I am sure that there are tens and hundreds of times more people who sympathise with the protests than actually come out. The only question is: how can all these protesters express their opinion? Elections are the safest way for citizens to express their opinions, especially when compared to a rally, where you can be kicked in the stomach or injured with an electric shock. This is why the authorities are afraid of elections and the ‘smart voting’ campaign.
"It’s not only people who support Navalny 100% who promote him – the majority of people at the protests support freedom. These are young people who have realised that there are no mechanisms of social mobility, that Russian politicians and state officials are incapable of progress"
The authorities are already so adept at rigging elections that surely they don’t have to be afraid of them.
In Belarus, the authorities have also become adept at rigging elections, but even that country, with its reputation for patience, took to the streets en masse! We seem to be moving in the same direction – a crazy dictator and no opposition.
Do we have an opposition now?
At the moment, yes, that’s why they’re under attack. In Belarus, there are no elected officials like we have, such as Lev Shlosberg, Boris Vishnevsky or myself. Although lately the tendency is moving towards shutting these people down. Only the ‘smart voting’ campaign, in my opinion, could seriously change the situation.
Are Navalny’s supporters, especially the youth, capable of radically changing the political situation in Russia?
I think they are the only ones who are capable. I see this not only online, but also as a frequent participant in rallies myself.
After all, it’s not only people who support Navalny 100% who promote him – the majority of people at the protests support freedom. These are young people who have realised that there are no mechanisms of social mobility, that Russian politicians and state officials are incapable of progress and are only hindering the country’s development. At the same time, the older generation, which has taken root in power, appoints their children and grandchildren to high positions.
Do you think protesters really want to express their dissatisfaction and political views or just make some noise?
And run from the police? No, this is a genuine protest which is now looking for new forms. We, the older generation, think about protests as going to the square, standing, listening to speakers and then going home. Now it’s different – there are no speakers, the protest happens around you. I am also more accustomed to the old forms of protest but they have led us to where we are today. I welcome new forms, and I am not at all inclined to criticise them, even if I don’t like something about them.
The people who have led our country to a dead end with their old forms of protest don’t have the moral right to criticise them either.
How would you describe the overall political situation in the country? Is there real politics?
There is politics. There is a person who gathers other dissatisfied people around him: Alexey Navalny. Even if he’s in jail. He is alive, and more and more people are speaking out in his support.
But politics isn’t just one person, it involves a variety of viewpoints.
Of course, the [political] palette should be multi-coloured! But the Russian government has done everything to make the picture black and white – only Putin and Navalny. Those who tell me that there are many others do not understand this, they are watching some other film – the authorities have destroyed all the other players. This is why I support the white in this black and white palette. Although, of course, I would like to see a diverse political field.
Your colleagues in the St Petersburg assembly, such as Boris Vishnevsky, have accused Navalny of radicalism and irresponsible behaviour. What do you think of that?
Naturally, because Vishnevsky represents the Yabloko liberal political party. But so far, neither Yabloko, nor my respected colleagues, have organised a noticeable protest against Vladimir Putin’s policies. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Vishnevsky is actively helping people detained at pro-Navalny protests. And he stands for using Yabloko to nominate candidates at the elections, including supporters of Navalny.
Why did none of Russia’s legally registered political parties support Navalny’s protests? Why is there no solidarity among the opposing political parties? Where does this disunity come from?
They did not support the protests because all these legal parties are strongly integrated into the system and they are afraid to part with their positions of power. Although these positions, excuse my French, more and more resemble a prison toilet block.
But the lack of solidarity is a fundamental issue. When Navalny was arrested at the airport in January, I thought, well, now members of Yabloko will take on a unifying role, rally people around supporting freedom of political views! And what did we get? The notorious letter from Yavlinsky [In February 2021, Grigory Yavlinsky, the Yabloko leader, published a letter attacking Navalny on grounds that he was a populist]. The public reaction to this letter was very harsh.
Nevertheless, the Yabloko party is ready to support Irina Fatyanova, who is part of Navalny’s network, and possibly me, in future elections in St Petersburg. But I have no answer to the question of solidarity. I was actively pushing for the ‘smart voting’ campaign to support Yabloko candidates as much as possible. Because the Yabloko party, whatever kind of party it is, is the only party that distinctly opposes Putin’s policies. There is no one else in the country who can support a real protest against Putin’s policies in the elections.
"I myself would not invite my students to a rally, but when they go to these actions, I am proud to support them. I understand that I taught them well"
You are describing a rather grim situation with the political opposition in Russia, yet you’re still a deputy in the Petersburg assembly. Why is your role there important – both for you and for society in general?
The most important thing now is to not be silent. If you do not remain silent, I am sure that soon the opposition will have the majority of votes, both in parliaments and in power.
Aside from the legislative assembly, you are also a history teacher. In your opinion, do today’s high school pupils have a genuine desire to engage in politics? Or does everyone only think about career growth?
They do. Moreover, when I was arrested in 2017, this occurred precisely because my students needed to express their position on political issues.
On the eve of one of the first mass actions by Navalny back then, a group of my best students texted me to ask: “Where will the action take place tomorrow?” I started to answer them: “Maybe there is no need to go, this is Navalny, after all, this is far from one-sided.” Then I stopped for a second and said to myself: “Reznik, what are you writing? After all, you yourself taught them to think and not be afraid to express a civil position.”
I erased what I had written and told them where and what time the protest was taking place. And I went out to it myself, along with the students. As a result, I was put in jail for ten days – and this is how my ‘friendship’ with Navalny began. I myself would not invite my students to a rally, but when they go to these actions, I am proud to support them. I understand that I taught them well, that they are not indifferent, that they are true citizens of their homeland.
What do you think the political mood is like among young people? And what influences them?
Of course, the mood is extremely anti-Putin, I am sure of that. Their main influences are their parents and the internet – school has practically no influence on young people’s civic position and beliefs. This is also because the school system drives out people who think for themselves or who are atypical.
I wanted to ask about the role of parents. At the end of 2013 in Kyiv, when the Ukrainian riot police began beating up children during what became the Maidan revolution, parents went out into the streets and stood up for them. This is how the revolution took place. Why do Russian mothers and fathers stay at home when the Russian National Guard beats their children?
You should wait and see. I really hope that someday this will happen. September will reveal a lot.
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