With its long history of serving as a refuge for disaffected Russians, London today hosts a sizeable and heterogeneous Russian-speaking population. Many of them express casual anti-Putin sentiments; some of them are more actively trying to unseat him. How effective is this activism? Is it helping to bring democratic change to Russia, or raising awareness of what is happening in Russia to the British public; perhaps, at the very least, gaining some moral authority in the eyes of Russian society, or is it just so much wishful thinking and hot air?
In the autumn of 2012 Andrey Sidelnikov, the leader of London-based Russian opposition group Govorite Gromche [Speak Up], decided that, after a couple of years of organising regular rallies and various protest demonstrations, the format of their activity should be changed to ‘intellectual discussions and educational meetings.’ Some of these meetings took place in a small basement bookshop in Central London.
The meeting I attended took the form of a Skype conversation with Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. About twenty Russians gathered in the shop and listened to Pavel speaking about his father: how he has managed to write a book; how ‘Putin and his gang’ have no intention of letting him out; and how he continues to be a ‘moral leader,’ even from his prison cell. ‘What can we, Russians living in the West, do to help fight for rights and freedoms of citizens? How can we move Russia back to the democratic path of the early 1990s?’ asks Sidelnikov. ‘We understand that our actions do not have much impact,’ replies Pavel. ‘But we provide inspiration for those who are in prison; and our actions establish a moral authority. And, of course, we might be able to influence Russia’s foreign relations, because protest can be a catalyst for solving political problems….’
We could have been in the London of Alexander Herzen, in the 1850s, discussing overnight ways to make the autocratic Tsar, a liberal. ‘And maybe,’ said Sidelnikov, ‘we could send Mikhail a postcard for the New Year?’
‘He would be very pleased,’ replied Pavel. The meeting was declared closed, and the evening ended in the traditional way – the democracy fighters headed to the nearby pub.
The size of the Russian-speaking population of Britain has increased significantly since the beginning of the century. According to ONS data, there are now 66,271 people who consider Russian as their main language in England, 26,603 of them live in Greater London.
Until the end of the 20th century, while Britain was not the destination of choice for the majority of Russian or Soviet migrants, it did attract a vocal and influential minority. Starting with Alexander Herzen who came to the UK in 1852, and throughout the 20th century there have always been political migrants. Between 1870 and 1914, tens of thousands of Russian Jews fled from the Empire, and settled in the UK. Post-1917 Russian migrants were not so numerous, but they represented the political, cultural and literary intelligentsia who were both socially and politically active as Russians, and also involved in British academic and cultural circles. After the Second World War, former prisoners of war from the displaced persons camps in Germany, who had not been repatriated back to the Soviet Union after the Yalta conference in 1945, were sent to the UK. Later, during the Cold War, some of the ‘Third Wave’ of migrants, dissidents and intelligentsia, found refuge in Britain.
After the first decade of the 21st century, the UK, and London in particular, became a new home for tens of thousands of Russian and post-Soviet citizens. However, despite the numbers, there is no national or ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking ‘community,’ as such, but rather a set of loosely interconnected informal networks. Their members may be brought together by common history, socio-cultural background and language, but divided by class and nationality. The majority has not fled from persecution, rather, they were motivated by economic considerations or attracted by the lifestyle that London offers. That said, there are politicized migrants recently arrived from Russia.
The years 2011 and 2012 saw an increase in the organised political activities of some post-Soviet migrants in Western countries. They organised numerous protest meetings and public demonstrations in London and Paris to protest the results of Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Both of these elections also attracted unprecedented numbers of voters: 4,867 Russians voted in the UK in presidential elections in 2012. Interestingly, the results of the elections in London were different from those in Russia, with the independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, rather than Vladimir Putin, receiving the majority of votes.
Clearly, some Russians living abroad were now exhibiting a degree of interest in political affairs back home. Beyond that, what does ‘being active from abroad’ mean these days?
‘The time of the kitchen debates is gone!’
Sidelnikov’s Govorite Gromche is perhaps the best-known group that organised Russian protest meetings and demonstrations in London. On their Facebook page, the group describes itself as ‘an international movement created in response to consistent politics of destroying the foundations of civil society pursued by Russian authorities’. Their lengthy ‘mission’ includes such objectives as ‘uniting all descendants from Russia who live abroad but are not indifferent to the situation back there and creating an opportunity to be heard for them’, as well as ‘attracting the attention of governmental structures, public organisations and international institutes’ of Western countries to human rights violations, and ‘informing the citizens of the EU and other states about the situation and problems in Russia’. ‘Speak up and you will be heard!’ claims the page, ‘The time of the kitchen debates is gone!’ Written only in Russian, this fiery oratory reminds one of a character by Sergey Dovlatov - a Russian émigré of the late 1970s-early 1980s, stubbornly insisting that, ‘we must tell people the truth about totalitarianism;’ living in the US but hardly speaking any English.
Andrey Sidelnikov tries his luck on the megaphone, but Is "speaking up" enough to be heard? Photo: Demotix/Gail-Orenstein
There is another group of migrants that have distanced themselves from Govorite Gromche and its activities. They are mainly pursuing the agenda of Strategy-31 and concentrating on support for Russian political prisoners. The ‘About’ section of their Facebook page is in English, taking up only a couple of sentences, stating how they ‘demand independence of the judiciary and freedom for all prisoners of conscience in Russia’. These are the two main Russian politicized informal networks operating in London. Both groups emerged from the Strategy-31 movement, but at some point they went their separate ways. Apart from these few people, there are also rallies and meetings in London that have been arranged and attended by generally apolitical, ‘ordinary’ migrants, who stress that they do not belong to any political force.
The protests of Russians abroad have joined the wider movements back in Russia, directed against the increasing authoritarianism of the regime, electoral fraud and violations of human rights. In London, the upsurge started on 31 August 2010, in the context of protest rallies organised worldwide in support of Strategy-31’s defence of the right to peaceful assembly in Russia. This was an exceptional event: an unprecedented constellation of Russian political migrants gathered in front of the Russian embassy in London, including the late Boris Berezovsky, the veteran dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Evgeny Chichvarkin, Marina Litvinenko and others. The UKIP London MEP Gerard Batten was also in the crowd. There were journalists and members of the Russian-speaking migrant population; up to a hundred people overall, according to various estimates. Revealing no allegiance to any political force except the symbol of Strategy-31, they carried banners proclaiming ‘Freedom to protest in Russia’ or ‘Here we can [protest], there we cannot.’
Sidelnikov emphasises that this kind of social activity was completely new for Russian London. He says that Govorite Gromche acquired a more regular format after that protest meeting: ‘I thought at that point, that’s enough sitting about! I had never stopped following what was happening in Russia, and, of course, it was outrageous. And everything erupted on the 31st.’
Since then, Govorite Gromche and other opposition-minded Russians and Russian-speakers have regularly taken part in protest activities. There have been a number of rallies: against fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia; and also dedicated to various causes like the Litvinenko case, Pussy Riot, political prisoners in Russia; and Russian politics in Syria. Sometimes Govorite Gromche has organised small protest gatherings when Russian political figures loyal to the Kremlin, such as Sergey Lavrov or Vladislav Surkov, came to London. Also, it has become common for many activists to boo and whistle at Putin’s and Medvedev’s motorcades when they visit London.
Russian political activism in the UK, in the last couple of years has clearly moved into a new dimension. It receives occasional mention in the Russian and British media, and young migrants ‘like’ the events on Facebook. Activists from London keep in touch with similar movements in other European countries, for example in France and Germany, as well as with the opposition in Russia (Alexey Navalny, The Other Russia.). There is talk about human rights violations; a cherished belief in the inevitable triumph of democracy; and varying attempts to open the eyes of both Europeans and Russians, supposedly naïve and unaware of the sins of the bloodthirsty regime. Should we see these Russian activists as a new generation of dissidents. If so, however, both the internal and external politics of this dissent seem to be poorly organised; and their leaders lack the drive and determination of their political ancestors.
Snakepit or sandpit?
Who are these new dissidents in the second decade of the 21st century? Who is their leader? There is no one dominant figure with either the necessary moral and intellectual credentials, or the media visibility and charisma of a political leader; no Herzen or Bakunin. Then there are the differences in political background, and political aims. Where reputation is concerned, connections between high-ranking politicians, businessmen and activists, both in the UK and back in Russia, are clearly having a negative impact. Sidelnikov’s relationship with Berezovsky (back in Russia through the Liberal Russia party) has considerably tainted his image: how could an exiled oligarch symbolise a struggle for democracy? Others are repelled by contacts with right-wing forces like UKIP in the UK or The Other Russia.
The members of different ‘camps’ seem incapable of getting on with each other.
The members of different ‘camps’ seem incapable of getting on with each other. Andrey Sidelnikov recounts in detail how, after embarking on a political career and creating a youth organisation, he had to get out of Russia, and was granted asylum in the UK. His opponents caustically comment that he is probably the only Russian political refugee who is not wanted by the police back in his home country.
Intrigue is rife: Sidelnikov hints that there have been attempts to muscle in on ‘his’ meetings, but when he chivalrously stepped aside, those activities stopped. He claims that his competitors were not involved in protest activity as regularly and persistently as him. Strategy-31 supporters, in turn, criticize his inclination to monopolise protest activities, and recall with a grin how, when he came to a rally organised by others, with a Govorite Gromche banner, that it was immediately taken off him.
Standing in front of the Russian Embassy in London, Boris Berezovsky holds a now-famous banner addressed to Putin: 'I gave birth to you, and I will bring you to heel' Photo: RIA Novosti/Elena Pakhomova
Pettiness is everywhere: Sidelnikov derides the quality of his rivals’ banners. They in their turn mock his participation in theatricalized events like the protest performance he organised with Chichvarkin in June 2011 near VTB Capital’s closed forum ‘Russia calls!’ a business jamboree highlighting the attractiveness of Moscow as a centre for international investment and finance. The protesters were wearing straitjackets with portraits of Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky. Sidelnikov was sitting in a miniature cage and posing for journalists. ‘He has clearly never been seriously beaten in his life’, comments a Strategy-31 supporter.
Why is that these Russian activists in the UK cannot get on? Perhaps because a shared dislike of Putin’s regime is not enough to bring them together into an effective political community. The people attending protest activities are not heterogeneous – they intersect but they do not connect. Konstantin Pinaev, a blogger who took part in organising one of the London demonstrations in 2011, and who maintains numerous connections within the Russian-speaking population, told me that he hardly ever recognised any of the people who attended Sidelnikov’s events. Moreover, he barely knew any Russian political refugees in London, apart from Sidelnikov.
This lack of political cohesion also means that the influential role of social media in shaping and organising political activity among Russian migrants is both a blessing and a curse. Facebook, Livejournal and Twitter make so much easier all of the things that activists need to do to mobilise their supporters: spreading the word about meetings and rallies; and keeping people informed. However, this online activism is still happening within discrete networks. The super-fast information highway is not persuading London Russians to rally round to ‘the cause’ – the road to Speaker’s Corner is still slow going.
The super-fast information highway is not persuading London Russians to rally round to ‘the cause’
This has much to do with the segregated nature of London-based Russians; they have different levels of education, incomes, lifestyle and political allegiances. They live and communicate within their own social networks, not much caring about each other, and with little knowledge of each other’s lives.
Tsarism, Stalinism, Putinism
Looking back at the protest activity that took place in London in 2011-12, and the subsequent failure or inability to build on that foundation, perhaps we have to see that eruption as just a brief spark of civic activism, in solidarity with events in Russia, rather than an expression of genuine political enthusiasm?
Today, Sidelnikov thinks that ‘educational meetings’ are more useful for London-based Russians because rallies have exhausted their potential. However, one could say that these meetings are preaching to the converted, targeting a Russian-speaking audience who already know that Putin is a baddie and Russians have few human rights. Sidelnikov is not finding a British audience, despite the claims made on the movement’s Facebook page.
Historically speaking, political activism is not new for Russian London. Then, as now, what united political migrants was opposition, not a shared political position. Opposition to Tsarism, Stalinism, Putinism – the regime, whatever it was. Sidelnikov, however, is no Lenin.
Without intellectual and moral authority, Sidelnikov can only whip up the occasional protest confection.
They share only a common monastic outlook When Lenin was living in London in 1902-1903, publishing Iskra [The Spark], he, too, was mainly socializing with other members of the Russian ‘commune.’ His communication with émigrés of previous generations, as well as with the English, was very limited. He only gave two public talks, for Russian-Jewish workers. But Lenin was also actively working on the political programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party; he spent a lot of time in the British Library; and was closely involved in educational work, explaining his programme to Russian workers. Many of these workers and disciples later went to Russia, and became Bolshevik activists. Andrey Sidelnikov is not an ideologist, the intellectual grounding of his activities barely goes beyond claims that Putin is bad, and democracy is good. Without intellectual and moral authority, Sidelnikov can only whip up the occasional protest confection.
Sidelnikov, you remember, wanted to send a postcard to Khodorkovsky; a laudable aim; Mikhail Borisovich can add it to the collection on his mantelpiece.