oDR: Opinion

Putin’s opponents are leaving Russia. Does that make change harder?

A closer look at the world of some anti-Putin emigrants shows they are no great loss to any future revolution

Nikolay Andreev
26 October 2022, 1.48pm

Demonstrators gather to protest the Russian legislative election results on Moscow's Bolotnaya square, December 2011


REUTERS/Anton Golubev/Alamy

A great number of Russians critical of the Putin regime have emigrated since the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.

Many were fearing repression and borders being closed. There was also a spike in departures after the announcement of partial mobilisation on 21 September, as men feared being drafted.

It’s easy to assume that the departure of the parts of Russian society most critical of the Putin regime reduces the likelihood of political changes within the country.

But a closer look at the world of some of these anti-Putin emigrants shows they are no great loss to any future revolution. Their opposition views could even be seen as conservative and reactionary.

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There will be no return to 23 February

I spoke to a number of emigrants in the most recent wave just before their departure. Most among these regretted missing opportunities to realise their personal potential at home.

Russia had long ago become an uncomfortable place to live for many of them due to its lack of political freedoms. They supported liberal politicians and invested a lot of their own resources in political campaigns opposing Putin.

At the same time, they generally had jobs they liked, in which they created islands of progress (for instance, in the culture sector, or in urban development) in a “backward” country and on which they pinned their hopes for Russia’s turn to a different path of development. Some of them even worked for state organs and considered their departments “pockets of efficiency” in a backward state.

Because of this, these emigrés suffer as they remember the “great projects” they were involved in a couple of years ago, or this year, even since the start of the war. Against the background of the existential horror of mobilisation and forced emigration, they remember their previous lives in Russia as calm and even somewhat pleasant. I heard the stories of ordinary mid-level executives who had been preparing to launch, say, IT services, and were saddened by the fact that their colleagues had been forced to disperse, spelling the end of the projects.

So it turns out that the political programme of at least some of the ordinary executives critical of Putin’s regime is to return to the state the country was in before 24 February, only with fair elections and independent courts. They might dream of turning back time to return to 23 February 2022. Or to 2020, when the new constitution was adopted. Or to 2018, when presidential elections were held. Or to 2014, when the annexation of Crimea took place... and so on. For such people, we, as Russians, have had a bright past fraught with issues that can be resolved through the gradual progress of state and society.

What role could a person with such a picture of the world play in a hypothetical revolution in Russia? Most likely, a passive or even a reactionary one, as a revolution would take the country even further from the past they want. Our emigré naively believes that the country before the war could have progressed endlessly, so that by their old age they personally could have a chance to end up in “normal” liberal-democratic Russia – or, at least, in its prosperous Moscow enclave, which, in terms of living standards, could have become one of the best places in the world. They don’t notice the socio-economic tensions of the era they yearn for. They don’t logically connect them with the war. They therefore see a possible revolution as evil, rather than as a liberating necessity.


Advert for the 2020 census saying "We create the future", Moscow subway


ZUMA Press Inc/ Alamy

Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor since 2010, launched urban projects that allowed the capital to become a digital, innovative capital, where advanced technologies were being developed. Yet scratch the surface and these are part of a sort of digital authoritarianism, organically built into the state’s repressive system. For instance, high-tech marketplaces and advanced banking technologies are based on the exploitation of migrants without labour rights and on the credit bondage of millions of people, which creates a giant “reserve army” of debtors, eager to sign a contract allowing them to escape their debt and be drafted into a real army in a real war.

The departure of people with education, financial resources and sympathies for the opposition is undoubtedly a loss for the liberal opposition. They went to rallies, voted for opposition candidates, donated money to political projects and volunteered in them. This is a loss for the opposition, but not for the revolution, because one cannot simultaneously be a grave-digger of the old regime and mourn the opportunities lost in it. The Putin opponents who emigrated in the spring and summer have no political programme for their supporters in Russia. Instead, they simply call for more people to emigrate and gather resources to support them.

One cannot simultaneously be a grave-digger of the old regime and mourn the opportunities lost in it

Nature does not tolerate emptiness

Not all opposition activists are committed to the idea that Russia can be reformed. Many active participants in the protest movement in Russia understand that the country has been accumulating internal tensions for a long time. But the revolution requires the politicisation of new broad strata of people, too, who previously could not imagine themselves taking part in any political action.

There is one big difficulty with this.

There is a naive idea that people are politicised because of hardships that have fallen on them. By this logic, depoliticised citizens should “open their eyes” and “wake up” in response to the harmful actions or inaction of the authorities.

But the entire experience of modern Russia demonstrates that there is often no direct connection between the actions of the government and popular indignation. Therefore, the expectation that citizens are to become politicised after receiving a summons from the military commissariat is excessive and premature.

The intrusion of delegations from draft centres, as well as police and local officials, into private life during mobilisation only really sets the stage for mass indignation. The actions of the state are indeed becoming a test of the loyalty of citizens who are accustomed to exist “out of politics”. Soon, terrible news of death or injury will begin to reach the families of the mobilised, and the cities will be filled with witnesses of the horror of war, ready to continue to reproduce the violence they have experienced. But there is a long way to go from individual trauma to the complex collective action required for a revolution.

There are currently two types of reactions to mobilisation. The first assumes that mobilisation is the private problem of an individual: if they are caught by the draft and sent to war, they are to blame. In another, mobilisation is perceived as a common misfortune and, accordingly, requires solidarity – informing each other in neighbour chats about raids with summons from the military registration and enlistment office, for instance.

It appears that neither of these two trends has become dominant so far.

Whether a new revolutionary class will be formed depends on which way society turns in the hardships of wartime – back to extreme atomisation, where every person is for themselves, or forward to solidarity and reliance on social ties.

When the conflict ends, the flooding of the country with embittered ex-soldiers with weapons, combat experience and financial troubles will mark the complete end of the supposed era of “Putin’s stability”. It will open a new era of socio-economic conflicts that the state may not have enough administrative and financial resources to resolve in its favour.

A political structure will be needed to convert discontent into collective action. It will have to offer something to those eager for answers and solutions to new social problems. At the same time, such a structure must be capable of creating opportunities for collective action. Like happened a hundred years ago, to catalyse revolution in society, a “revolutionary party” is needed – that is, one that is good at organising and offers an ideological alternative with an attractive concept of the future. Russia’s Communist party, the official opposition in the Duma, is not considered to represent a potential alternative, as it has made little attempt to oppose Putin’s regime the last 20 years.

Part of such a “party” may be in exile. But only a part, because the loss of a direct connection with the broad Russian population has led to the notorious “break from reality” that can be observed in many generations of political emigration from Russia. Émigré groups of various waves are immersed in fantasies of a triumphant return to Russia after (or on the eve of) the collapse of the regime and the subsequent division of seats in the future government.

Those in exile like to think of their situation as analogous to the Bolsheviks’ – even those who hold deeply anti-Communist views. But the main thing that characterised the Bolsheviks was not the experience of emigration, but a deeply developed revolutionary philosophy and organisational party network, which they supported and expanded with varying success for more than 15 years.


Meeting calling for fair elections, Moscow 2015


Enik / Alamy 

Why a revolution?

Without trying to classify all possible scenarios for the development of events in Russia (the reality is always more original than any such expectations), I believe that several scenarios are possible. The power of the incumbent elite could be maintained and strengthened. Alternatively, the state might gradually collapse, resulting in indefinite chaos in all spheres of life. A third option is revolution. It’s quite possible that none of these options will happen, but they seems to me the most adequate framework for discussing our prospects.

In the first version, Russia will become more and more of a dictatorship, rapidly getting rid of all kinds of rights and freedoms and stratifying into a microscopic wealthy elite and the rest of the impoverished part of the country. Even the departure of Putin (which cannot be avoided for natural biological reasons, whenever it happens) will not in itself open the way for democratic change: the elite remaining in power will have to deal with the same fundamental tensions in society, economy and politics.

The second option assumes that the elite will not cope with the contradictions and will lose power. In this case, there will be a protracted attempt to divide state power among several equally weak centres. This is the “senseless and merciless” (as Pushkin put it) revolt that many fear, not without reason. The combination of the complete disappearance of the old regime with the absence of a viable revolutionary project that would structure the birth of a new society and state is fraught with unpredictably terrible consequences – from the endless balkanisation of a huge country, to occupation and division between external forces.

Finally, the third option of a revolution, which is discussed in this text, implies the emergence within society of a fundamentally different political project for Russia and of structures capable of implementing it. It would involve fundamental shifts in power, society, government and the economy.

Such a revolution may arise as an alternative to the previous two options. It can take the form of resistance to these two tendencies and will only succeed if it achieves a fundamental reassembly of society. This will require an organised revolutionary force, as mentioned above. It will have to cope with economic, domestic political and international challenges.

It is difficult to see who might become this force in the current socio-political situation. But the more people who now begin to seriously connect their hopes for the future with a revolution, the greater the chances for the emergence of such an alternative.

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