Tatarstan’s new activists


Like many other Russian cities, Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, has seen public protests since December’s rigged parliamentary elections. A particularly striking feature is the youth of many of the protesters and their range of concerns. What they most seem to fear, however, is a government clampdown on the internet, says Oleg Pavlov.

Oleg Pavlov
23 April 2012

For most of the young people at the ‘Fair Elections’ campaign rally, this was their first protest. With their drums beating and 18th-century three-cornered hats on their heads, they were unmissable. In the space of an hour Kazan’s normal, boring city centre was transformed by this sudden burst of activity. At least, it looked sudden from the outside. New, informal groupings have been springing up and discontent with the status quo has moved from the internet out on to the streets.

The most prominent new group is the ‘Civil Union’. Boris Begayev, one of its leaders, put down his drum to talk about how people in Kazan had woken up. In the run up to the December parliamentary elections they wondered whether the guys at the top had noticed the public mood had changed. Or were they were deaf to the rumblings of discontent?


Protesters in Kazan appear to be motivated by different factors – a dislike of being treated like fools by the authorities, a fear that Russia's internet freedoms will be be curtailed, and opportunistic nationalism. (Photo: Ilya Vyshnemirsky / vyshnemirsky.livejournal.com)

On 4 December it turned out that the authorities simply couldn’t care less. That was when people began gathering on Ploshchad Svobody [Freedom Square], said Boris. ‘When you saw what was going on at polling stations, the extent of the rigging and the lack of response from the courts and the Central Election Committee, it was obvious there was nothing you could do to influence or challenge the results.’ 

Who are the protesters?

'Aleksey Toporov, a Civil Union activist, is a journalist by trade, but his involvement in civil action has cost him dear: no one will employ him any more.

Boris is a typical member of the middle class. He is 36 and he had a promising future as a physicist, but poverty forced him into the private sector. He is new to politics, but was always active in local life: he ran tourist festivals and tried to campaign on local ecological issues, organising regular forays by volunteers to clean up the woods around Kazan.  It was then, he says, that he first encountered the indifference, and on occasion active hostility, of city officials, who would make all the right noises but totally fail to support any grassroots initiatives.

Another ‘Civil Union’ activist, Aleksey Toporov, is a journalist, but his involvement in civil action has cost him dear: no one will employ him any more. In Tatarstan all the media are under government control in one way or another, so he has little hope of finding work. Aleksey is outraged by the cynicism of the country’s ruling elite, which decided the election results in advance and didn’t even pretend to be interested in the views of the electorate. ‘The outcome was clear from the start, and no one bothered to create even a semblance of an election process. It was so totally cynical and obvious that they saw the voters as some kind of rabble which would do as it was told.’

Office workers, computer programmers, housewives even, had been quite happy with their lives and had never even thought of joining a protest movement. It all happened overnight, the night of 4-5 December, thanks, as people joke, to the ‘sorcery’ of Vladimir Churov, Head of the Central Election Commission. Leysan Izmagilova didn’t hesitate for a moment about going out to join in the protest. ‘I was shocked that the fraud was so blatant’, she says. ‘I decided that it couldn’t go unpunished and that something had to be done. So I went to the rally.’ Leysan is now one of the leaders of Kazan’s protest movement, although a few months ago she couldn’t even have imagined herself taking on such a role. She is the managing director of a fairly successful advertising company, likes travelling, outdoor activities and sport. For her, what people in Russia call ‘stability’ looks more like stagnation.

Government failures

Many believe that the Russian government’s big mistake was to take its fellow citizens for ignorant fools, and imagine that they would put up with anything and understand nothing.

The main reason why people took to the streets, rather than attempting to put pressure on the government in some other way, was that there were no other realistic and legal means of influencing the outcome. As Boris Begayev says, ‘influencing or challenging the results is not possible, because the Kremlin is just not prepared to listen.  On the contrary, it makes it quite clear that any protest or attempt to take legal action will be futile. The whole situation was so outrageous that people felt they had no alternative but to protest’. At the height of the protests, Boris’s wife gave birth to a daughter. She grumbles now and then, he says, but understands why he has to be involved.

Many believe that the Russian government’s big mistake was to take its fellow citizens for ignorant fools, imagining they would put up with anything and understand nothing. And calling them names like ‘Bandar-log’ [foolish monkeys in Kipling’s Jungle Book], as Vladimir Putin referred to the participants in Moscow rallies, or ‘hamsters’, as pro-Kremlin bloggers call Aleksey Navalny’s online followers, has only added flames to the fire and set off a new wave of resentment.

The government’s litanies about living standards improving reveal both its complete detachment from reality (and therefore the need to change it) or a total cynicism that allows it to lie shamelessly to its people. It should be thrown out. As journalist and civil activist Aleksey Toporov says, ‘things are getting worse, but TV and the official press tell us that life is better than ever before. People see the contradiction, see the hopelessness of their situation, and sooner or later they come out on the streets. It’s a natural process. The government is just covering its own back, it’s not even thinking about ordinary people.’

'White' ideology

In today’s circumstances, says Dmitry, revolutionary activity is perfectly compatible with 'White' ideology. ‘Look at our government: it’s the same as it was 30 years ago – absolutely Soviet. The people in charge are different, but the form is the same.’ 

'The young men of the "White Movement" think of their group as being primarily about education and history, but they have also taken part in all the recent protest actions, resisting the "Red" enemy of Soviet-style authoritarianism.'

The ‘Civil Union’ is not the only group to have emerged in Kazan after the December protests. Various youth groupings have begun to appear, some of them from apparently unexpected quarters. I met Dmitry and Sergey, the founders of an organisation they call the ‘White Movement’, in a café. Over a cup of coffee the two young men, neither of them much over twenty, told me how the idea behind their movement seemed right for now.

Dmitry recently graduated from university with a degree in Administration and Economics, and is now trying to set up his own business. He is married, with a daughter of three months, and history has been his big passion since childhood. The organisation, he tells me, is still small but membership is growing steadily. His friend and colleague Sergey is still a student, and for him it all started with a keen interest in the history of the Civil War of 1917-1922, a period of revolution and upheaval in Russia when the country was split into Whites and Reds, a situation which he feels chimes with our own times. Dmitry adds that the White movement was not just generals like Denikin, Wrangel and Kolpak, but a distinctive section of Russian culture that was later to be found in concentrated form in emigration, and whose ideology and ethos he finds fascinating. The young men think of their own group as being primarily about education and history, but this doesn’t stop them displaying some civic consciousness, and they have taken part in all the recent protest actions.

In today’s circumstances, says Dmitry, revolutionary activity is perfectly compatible with White ideology. ‘Look at our government: it’s the same as it was 30 years ago – absolutely Soviet. The people in charge are different, but the form is the same.’ 

The end of ethnic harmony?


Ethnic conflict in post-Soviet Tatarstan has been rareto date, but with few ethnic Russians able to gain jobsin public life, it is not surprising that tensions are beginning to rise. (Photo: rusline.net)

At all the Kazan rallies I was struck by the number of Russian nationalist flags -  unexpected in Tatarstan, which has always prided itself on its multiracial harmony. I was even more struck by the fact that the people holding the nationalist flags and slogans were very young. They told me they don’t feel at home here, that all the jobs they might want to do are closed to them. A young man with a nationalist flag, who said his name was Dmitry, was unwilling to talk about himself, but said that young people were under constant pressure not to get involved. ‘Students at all the universities were warned not to take part in any protests, and were threatened with reprisals if they did. But if the government is openly breaking the law, ignoring the constitution and suppressing freedom of speech, then we need to fight for our rights.’   

The emergence of Russian nationalism in Tatarstan’s public affairs is hardly surprising: although there are roughly as many Russians as Tatars living in the republic, all the key posts are held by ethnic Tatars, as are 80% of seats in the local parliament. The older generation may be prepared to tolerate this situation, remembering the discrimination against Tatars in Soviet times, but younger people have no such memories and feel a keen sense of injustice. Unless the republic’s leaders tackle this problem, Tatarstan will soon be in danger of losing its status as a model of multi-ethnic coexistence, which will only further fan the flames of protest. For the moment, however, nationalists, of both the Russian and Tatar persuasion, are in a minority, and their speeches at rallies are met with jeers and chants of ‘Shame!’, which is probably why most of them hide their faces behind masks and scarves. 


Interestingly, now it is not just university students who are out on the streets, but older schoolchildren as well. One of these, a boy called Bulat, told me he is regularly harassed at school for expressing his views. His teachers often take him aside for ‘persuasive’ chats. This kind of harassment is very typical of Russian comprehensive schools: he is ignored in class, so he can’t notch up marks for correct answers, or his work is marked down, or teachers are on his back for the slightest thing.

But Bulat says that nothing will stop him and that he has decided what to do with his life: what he means to fight for and with whom. His main interests are television and cinema, and after school he would like to study to become a film director. Now of course he is no longer sure of being able to do this in Russia, and is looking at the possibility of studying abroad. 

Defenders of the internet

'I asked the young people protesting on Ploshchad Svobody why they disliked the present government. To my surprise, many answered: "because they are going to close down the internet".’

Analysts of Russia’s protest movement have been surprised by the large numbers of young people involved. People have started talking about a generation that has grown up with no memory of the terrors of the Soviet totalitarian system. They don’t want ‘freedom’ to be just a word you hear or read about: they want to live it.

This is true, but the government has made strategic mistakes too. At the rally on 10 December, the first time so many youngsters were out on Ploshchad Svobody, I asked them why they disliked the present government.  To my surprise, many answered ‘because they are going to close down the internet.’  Indeed, two days before the protest a particularly ‘on the ball’ general from the Interior Ministry had suggested a ban on the use of made-up usernames on the internet. Before that there was an attempt to outlaw Skype.

Young people were not interested in listening to the details or the police chief’s ‘explanation’;  they got the message – their virtual living space was in danger and that drove many of them to join the protests. Once a young lad is out on the streets, and feels part of the crowd, there’s no going back. That’s what being young is all about.

Restricting the freedom of the internet is indeed the subject of serious discussion in government circles, since it is both the primary means of dissemination of alternative information and an invaluable organisational tool for the protest movement. If this were to happen, then millions of students and schoolchildren might exchange the internet for the streets and the course of Russian history might take a very different turn.   

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