Small deeds, no politics


Moscow’s protest movement is gathering momentum, bringing in greater numbers and a wider constituency of supporters. What is as yet unclear, however, is whether it has the organisational clout to become a sustained force for change, write Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov.

Irina Borogan Andrei Soldatov
29 December 2011

Nearly a week has passed since the last mass opposition rally in Moscow. We are still in the process of understanding exactly what has changed and the implications it will have for Russia’s political future. However, there are two things we can safely conclude with some confidence. First, that it was attended by many more people than the first. Second, and possibly more significant, that new socioeconomic groups have started to appear among the protestors.

Since these are the first mass rallies Russia had seen for more than a decade, there is little in the way of existing expertise that one can draw upon to estimate the exact numbers of protestors who attended the two rallies. That said, a number of competing ideas and mathematical models are currently being discussed online and in the traditional media. Some of them offer quite sophisticated treatments, taking account of the geographical relief of the location, the density of the crowd and even the flow of people during the four hour protest. For their part, organisers estimated an attendance well in excess of 100,000 (vis-a-vis their estimate of 80,000 people at the Bolotnaya Square demonstration on December 10).

'The first thing to say is that the public at the second meeting was very heterogeneous. On the one hand, it was not difficult to spot organised political groupings: these were the people armed with flags and party symbols nearest the stage.'

An even more complex and interesting issue than numbers is an understanding of who came. The first thing to say is that the public at the second meeting was very heterogeneous. On the one hand, it was not difficult to spot organised political groupings: these were the people armed with flags and party symbols nearest the stage. They represented the opposition practically in its entirety: from communists to anarchists and nationalists; from members of the party of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov to supporters of the former PM, Mikhail Kasyanov.

The first protests of December 10 were attended predominantly by representatives of the intelligentsia elite and metropolitan middle classes. Two weeks on, these same two constituencies were again present: the first could be identified individually; the second by the clothes they were wearing. Many came with stylish designs of poster, which they had printed from the Internet. Some of the posters had the popular Cheburashka cartoon hero in demonstrating mode (specially licensed by author Eduard Uspensky for the protest). Others featured the reviled head of the Central Electoral Commission Vladimir Churov in a wizard costume, manipulating ballot papers.

But further back, these two groups dissipated, and a new wave of protestors were more visible. What was interesting to see here was the prevalence here of men aged 40-50, dressed in dark jackets and knitted hats. They came alone and kept themselves to themselves, neither engaging in conversation or reacting to the chatter and jokes of those around them.


The second opposition rally, which took place on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt on Christmas eve, was said to have attracted more than 100,000 Russians. As at the first mass rally held at Bolotnaya Square on December 10, protestors resolved to demand a rerun of disputed parliamentary elections. New protests have been planned for February, following the traditional Russian New Year recess.

They listened to the speeches very attentively. This was an unusual enough scene for Russia: women are usually the dominant force in any public place, whether that be in church or theatre.

According to pollsters Levada Centre, 60% of the Sakharov Prospekt demonstrators were men. 62% meanwhile had higher education.

Sustaining the conversation

The political naiveté and instinctive suspiciousness of the middle class and intelligentsia in charge of these protests have meant that by and large, the traditional opposition media, such as Novaya gazeta and New Times have been excluded from the organisation process. Activist media resources, human rights NGOs (e.g. Memorial, For Human Rights or the Moscow Helsinki Group) have also been pushed to one side (although one of the organisation committees was held in the Sakharov Centre, an activist hotspot).

In the place of the opposition media are more lifestyle-oriented metropolitan publications: information about the upcoming meeting, for example, was updated on the site of the Moscow bi-weekly magazine Bolshoy gorod, while the entertainment magazine Afisha (equivalent to Time Out) was in charge of providing the sound and large screens required for the event. The role of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which in 1991 and 1993 was one of the main organisers of public protests, was reduced to simply reporting about the events.

The result of these developments has been a narrowing of the discussion space available for Russia’s newly active citizens. On the one hand, the organisation committee, formed from the creative elite rather than politicians, has conducted itself very openly. It has transmitted live footage of all its meetings, and this has attracted a great number of viewers. At the same time, however, it has not managed to create any single space for the discussion of future strategy. Though there has been some discussion about the formation of a 'Shadow Government' and a 'Committee for National Salvation’, there have been no moves to create a structure for such a purpose.

Likewise, while Facebook played a very important role in organising the protest — this is where participants registered and where online voting for speakers took place — as yet no central space  has been set up for debating ideas and strategy, and discussion is once again on the level of individual friend networks.

Just about the only concrete suggestion being made to protestors was that they register as official observers at the Presidential elections in March and, in the more immediate term, that they come out on to the streets to protest against the arrest and inhuman detention of radical opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov. This strategy has embraced by the most popular of all the opposition leaders, Alexey Navalny, who himself is hamstrung by the lack of political organisation behind him (NB - a motion put forward by local Yabloko parties that he should represent the party at the March elections was last week rejected by the party’s elders).

Low-level activism

Meanwhile Moscow’s magazines and online media have started to appeal to their readers to begin low-level activism in whatever form — whether that be collecting things to give to prisoners, to help the disabled and or provide support for orphans. Such activism became quite popular among Moscow’s more wealthy individuals some three years ago, but it is far from clear whether it can satisfy the hope for political change currently harboured by today’s newly active middle class.

'The political naiveté and instinctive suspiciousness of the middle class and intelligentsia in charge of these protests have meant that by and large, the traditional opposition media, such as Novaya gazeta and New Times have been excluded from the organisation process.'

The Kremlin has made its own offer to Russia’s activist middle class. It has, for example, begun to flatter them with a new language: Vladislav Surkov, a major ideologue of Putin’s regime, named them Russia’s 'elite' (he was at that point still fighting for his position in the Kremlin as head of the Presidential Administration). President Medvedev has promised reforms in party registration and to reinstate elections for regional governors. His assistant Arkady Dvorkovich has also made it clear that the Kremlin is ready to enter into discussions about social problems. Finally, Putin himself has suggested that new technology and real-time video transmissions could be employed to ensure transparency in future elections.

It may well be that Medvedev’s proposals are eventually acted upon, but this will not be in the near future, as nor will it do nothing to relieve the political tension. The initiatives suggested by both Dvorkovich and Putin are likewise problematic, since there is no structure within the Kremlin that is able to act as a vehicle for them. The Public Chamber was created a few years ago for the very purpose of connecting government with active citizens, but the invisibility of the Chamber during the protests is a measure of its irrelevance.

Unlike the late Communist era, there are no 'Perestroika discussion clubs' in the Moscow of 2011. These, we may recall, served as a crucible for the career development of many of Russia’s  greatest politicians in the 1990s. Even in a best case scenario, the process of forming parties and representative politicians in such a vacuum is likely to take many years.

US election: what's going on in Trump's must-win states?

Our editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, is on the ground in key US battleground states – follow her on Twitter @maryftz for live updates.

There's never been more at stake. But the pandemic has kept many foreign journalists away. Hundreds of international observers who normally oversee US elections aren't there.

Can we trust the polls? What's the blanket media coverage not telling us? Hear Mary describe what she's seeing and hearing across the country, from regular citizens to social justice activists to right-wing militias arming themselves for election day.

Plus: get the inside scoop openDemocracy's big 'follow-the-money' investigation – breaking soon – which lifts the lid on how Trump-linked groups are going global with their culture wars.

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 29 October, 5pm UK time/1pm EDT.

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData