‘If I don’t burn, if you don’t burn, if we don’t burn, then when will we see in the dark?’ Sergei Udaltsov, one of the leaders of the ‘white ribbon’ movement, concluded his final statement to the court with a strange free-form poem. ‘Burning’ is a good description for Udaltsov. I, of course, had heard about him many years before the protest wave of 2011-2012. Working at RBC daily, I asked him for commentary by phone about a hundred times, and in summer 2012 met him in person, in order to get a big interview. We settled into a café in Moscow’s city centre. A man of about 30, simply and cheaply dressed (his wardrobe clearly contains only a few shirts) with a shaved head and large biceps, after two hours Udaltsov still hadn’t got me to understand what it was he wanted to achieve from his political hyperactivity.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, defiant in court on July 24. (c) RIA Novosti/Ramil Sitdikov
He was clearly living for the fight to get rid of Vladimir Putin.
In the short-term perspective of 2012, he was clearly living for the fight to get rid of Vladimir Putin. For this he was trying to please everyone. He very scrupulously agreed to all aspects of the interview: his opinion on Joseph Stalin, on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and on the possible forms of political protests as well as other questions.
The ‘white ribbon’ movement
At the start of the 2000s, Udaltsov created the Avant-Garde Red Youth (Its Russian initials AKM are the same as a type of Kalashnikov) the largest organisation of young Stalinists. In the beginning, AKM worked under the wings of the ‘old men,’ who kept their faith in Stalin during the break-up of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; then AKM left to plot its own independent political course.
AKM soon transformed itself into the ‘Left Front’, no longer Stalinist, but an amorphous leftist structure. The anarchist-leaning historian Aleksandr Shubin took part in Left Front activities, as did the Islamic theoretician Heidar Jemal and the Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov – the only deputy of the State Duma to vote against the ‘reunification’ of Crimea with Russia.
In the ‘white ribbon' movement Ponomaryov and Udaltsov acted in congress, and Ponomaryov developed an ambiguous reputation. The rumours around Ponomaryov increased in 2013, when it was discovered that he took multi-million rouble honoraria for strange lectures in the research centre Skolkovo. Many took this as a form of financing his activities by several groups in the Kremlin, and in particular, those close to Vladislav Surkov.
Today, Ponomaryov is clearly not in favour. In the court case there were wiretaps of Udaltsov’s phone, but no information on who had sanctioned them. Udaltsov’s mobile had conversations with Ponomaryov recorded, but his estatus as a deputy made no impression on the court. The judge had no desire to figure out under what sort of circumstances the security services were listening to the telephone of a ‘disloyal’ parliamentarian.
Since the mid 2000s, Udaltsov took part in the protests of Muscovites against construction companies that were destroying the courtyards and squares of the city’s inhabitants. Even before 2011, Udalstov spent time behind bars on administrative arrest for a total of a little less than half a year. The theme of the city protests connected Udaltsov with human rights defenders;and through them he became acquainted with the ‘non-systemic liberals’ who would a few years later form the basis of the ‘white ribbon’ movement.
On the day of the parliamentary elections, 4 December 2011, Udaltsov was arrested for five days on a spurious charge;and he declared a hunger strike. Then he received another 15 days; then another 10. The unfair detention of Udaltsov behind bars carried him on the crest of the wave of protests that started on 5 December.
Udaltsov is undoubtedlyone of the leaders of the ‘white ribbon’ movement. He went on hunger strikes, shouted through megaphones, was arrested by the police, and gave speeches at demonstrations. He was seen as the number two after Aleksei Navalny, the ‘left-wing alternative.’ Moreover, Udaltsov actually had a lot of supporters.
Sergei Udaltsov gives a speech at a protest in 2011. CC Vitaly Ragulin
Udaltsov is undoubtedly one of the leaders of the ‘white ribbon’ movement.
In Russia there are many Marxist, anarchist, Trotskyist and other such groups. But they are all small; 100 members is considered to be a significant number. Liberalisation of party legislation made it possible for 500 likeminded people to attempt to register their party. But since 2012 there has not been any serious attempts to register a left-leaning communist party. ‘New communist parties’ could be a political spoiler for the KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation); and the KPRF is more a social-conservative and national-patriotic party than a left-wing one.
But even all these divided and small leftist groups did not see Sergei Udaltsov as their leader. At most, they perceived him as a person through whom they could come to an agreement on banners, and on the order in the ‘big general demonstration’ in Moscow.
The ‘white ribbonists’ convinced themselves that they were not just ‘liberals cut off from the real people’ but ‘contained both leftists and nationalists.’ There were also contenders for the title of ‘white ribbon leader of the nationalists’ who were not the most popular in their own environment, but Sergei Udaltsov answered for the ‘virtual left wing.’
This year, Udaltsov split with some of his former comrades. He supported the annexation of Crimea and separatism in Eastern Ukraine.
Anatomy of a protest
In an interview in summer 2012, Udalstov told me that his main place of work was a certain communist publication where he worked as a lawyer. But this newspaper did not even have a website. Udaltsov’s answer sounded like a clear fabrication but I did not look into the issue then.
In autumn of 2012, the notable NTV film ‘Anatomy of a Protest: 2,’ in which a person who looked like Udaltsov discussed with certain men plans for a rebellion of criminals, terrorist acts, and the use of thousand-strong detachments of ‘Barkashovites with swastikas on their arms’ (the activities of Aleksandr Barkashov’s ‘Russian National Unity’ came to naught in the 1990s).
Udaltsov has tried to to set the record straight about this recording, in a very strange fashion. By his version, which he has supported the entire time, the recording is a falsification, but he did really go to Minsk to meet with some potential business partners, who wanted to sell wine in Russia; and also liked talking about politics. The version from NTV that the men in the recordings are politicians close to then-president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, looks more likely.
There is no question, however, that Udaltsov was planning any kind of military adventure, but he did have a certain interest in listening to the nonsense some strange people were telling him. The ‘white ribbon’ movement, however, took umbrage at the situation, which gave the Putin regime a brush that allowed them to paint the protesters as hired goons, working for a foreign enemy’s money.
'Free Sergei Udaltsov' - Left Front rally in October 2013. CC Putnik
Such a recording is enough to bury the career of any politician in any country. But the authorities thought this was too little. In 2012, Udaltsov’s allies, Konstantin Lebedev and Leonid Razvozzhayev were arrested. At the beginning of 2013 Udaltsov himself was put under house arrest. He was accused of organising clashes on Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012, planning mass disorder in the future and of receiving money from Georgia.
Lebedev struck a deal with investigators and went free, having testified against Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev. It was explained that Lebedev made dictaphone recordings of his conversations with Udaltsov, and that they were used in the criminal proceedings. But who actually made the video-recordings used in the NTV documentary remains unknown.
Even the court and investigators only had a copy of the original recording. The original recording for NTV was destroyed for some reason. According to the statements of workers at the pro-Putin television company, the recordings were given to them by ‘a certain unknown man.’
The court case
Despite the fact that the recording and Lebedev’s testimony are in fact the only evidence of the charges, the judge Aleksandr Zamashnyuk clearly sympathised with the prosecution. Many visitors to the trial said Zamashnyuk intereacted with the accused in a manner that bordered on outright boorishness.
The judge Aleksandr Zamashnyuk clearly sympathised with the prosecution.
He did not attempt to figure out how Razvozzhayev was seized in Kyiv, where he was attempting to gain political asylum, and taken to Russia; how he was kept, wrapped in tape in the basement of a private house, and had a ‘statement of guilt’ beaten out of him. Zamashnyuk would not listen to Razvozzhayev’s objections and declared this ‘statement’ acceptable evidence.
Zamashnyuk attempted to exclude Udaltsov from the entire trial, apparently on the basis that he was ‘faking illness’ (from numerous hunger strikes Udaltsov was clearly unwell). After several sessions, Zamashnyuk was forced to return Udaltsov to the court.
Earlier, Zamashnyuk had presided over the trial of the neo-Nazis Nikita Tikhonov and Evgenia Khasis, who killed the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburova; and also the case of the accomplice in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov. At that time, Zamashnyuk’s actions were on the whole well received by human rights defenders. The case against Udaltsov showed that this judge was simply working in the ‘interests of the state.’
In summer 2014, Udaltsov’s activities are already being discussed outside of current events, as if they are completely detached from current events; like something out of history. But Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev will actually have to serve four-and-a-half years in a Russian prison.