oDR: Analysis

What’s new about Russia’s new protests?

New research shows that a new core of protesters have emerged in Russia - and now they want a concrete programme for change

Svetlana Erpyleva Oleg Zhuravlev
3 June 2021, 12.00am
Nizhny Novgorod, 23 April 2021
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(c) Nikolay Mayorov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Earlier this year, opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia provoked a political crisis and mass unsanctioned rallies. It seemed that Russia’s protest movement had reached a new level: a large number of new protesters, mass participation in cities and towns across the country, and, finally, new slogans, themes and emotions – all this pointed to a new development in the country’s democratic movement.

But the latest unsanctioned protests, held in Russian cities on 21 April, seemed to blur the novelty and scale of the new protest wave. This protest took on a new, angrier mood – anger against Russian law enforcement responsible for violently dispersing protesters and the elite’s luxury lifestyle mixed into a blend of class hatred. For many, it felt if the protest’s new ideas and emotions, which a few months ago had appeared a guarantee of the movement’s further development, had disappeared somewhere. Many, it seems, experienced a feeling of disappointment in the aftermath of spring 2021.

New research allows us to look at Russia’s latest protests differently – without unnecessary pessimism or excessive optimism. Together with the Monitoring of Contemporary Folklore, Public Sociology Laboratory, an independent research initiative, conducted 89 interviews at rallies on 21 April in defence of Alexey Navalny both inside and outside the country. These interviews made us ask the question: is what’s new about these protests really so new?

As we show, the rallies on 21 April alluded to the main parameters of Russia’s protest movement – the mix of existing protest structures from the last major protest wave in 2011-13, and the new elements that could change the protest movement in the future.

Russia’s new people

Quantitative polls conducted at three rallies – two in January 2021 and one in April – by two organisations, Monitoring of Actual Folklore (MAF) and White Counter, showed that many people who had not previously protested came out to the 2021 protests.

For example, in Moscow, at the rallies on 23 and 31 January, immediately after Navalny’s return and arrest, ‘new’ protesters made up 42% and 38%, respectively, of the crowd. These numbers allowed analysts to speculate that discontent had grown, affecting new segments of Russian society.

Qualitative interviews with protest participants, however, revealed that the ‘newcomers’ at these rallies were not new to protest politics in general: their protest sentiments and sympathy for Navalny emerged at least several years before 2021.

Just over a third of the protesters we interviewed at the rallies on 21 April 2021 began to attend rallies for the first time this year. However, only a few of them can be called ‘new protesters’ in the full sense of the word: they were not actively involved in Russia’s protest agenda and were not planning to attend protests until Navalny was poisoned in autumn 2020 or even imprisoned in January 2021.

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"Freedom" - protest in support of Alexey Navalny on 31 January 2021 | (c) Mark Cicco / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Most of those who attended protests for the first time had, one way or another, followed the political situation in Russia, including protest movements and Navalny. For at least several years, they had also developed an unequivocally negative attitude towards Russia’s political regime, often showing their civic stance by donating to opposition causes, discussions with acquaintances and posts on social networks.

Some of these protesters had begun to be critical of Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s after the first arrests of opposition figures and the establishment of the ‘power vertical’ Others became politicised in the wake of protests for fair elections in 2011-12, and the third group, the majority, became active after Navalny released his famous investigation into prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption in 2017. Many of our interlocutors thought about attending protests, but didn’t for various reasons. When the ‘time was right’ after the end of 2020, it seems it became impossible for them not to protest.

Apart from new protesters, the rallies on April 21 were also attended by people who had already participated in mass protests. Among them, firstly, there were experienced opposition activists who had become politicised during the 2011-12 free elections, in the early or mid-2000s, or even during perestroika at the end of the 1980s. Since then, these people have periodically attended various protests. Secondly, there were protesters ‘with little experience’ at the rallies. Their dissatisfaction with the situation in Russia resulted in participating in public protests over the past few years, from 2017 to 2019.

Thus, the poisoning and subsequent arrest of Navalny did not attract a new audience to the protest movement – although it certainly radicalised and mobilised an already existing audience. This audience, the new protesters, became politicised slowly, over the course of several years, thanks in part to the routine work of Navalny and his team. Polls by the Levada Center, a survey organisation, also show that support for Navalny has grown steadily but slowly since 2013, rising from 6% to 20%. However, this number has not changed significantly since the summer of 2020. Thus, after the dramatic events of the end of 2020, Navalny is more recognisable, but does not necessarily enjoy more support.

Many participants directly said that they were worried about social problems: the gap between the rich and the poor, unjustly low salaries, the Russian elite’s interest in “building palaces” rather than people’s problems

If during the free election protests in 2011-12 there were more protest events (many participants mobilised “suddenly”), then today’s protest is a more routine affair. Mobilisation for the latest mass protests is not so much the result of spontaneous discontent, but rather the systematic work of Navalny, his team, politicised local councillors and well-known activists. Judging by the fact that dissatisfaction in Russian society is growing, especially among the poor, and the protest audience is not expanding (support for Navalny is growing very slowly), the people who came out in 2021 are likely the core of a potential protest audience: not just people who are dissatisfied with the Russian state’s policies, but those who support specific politicians fighting against the regime and are confident in their own readiness to act.

Indeed, another point that suggests this is the case is the determination of the participants in recent rallies to continue protesting no matter what. The overwhelming majority of people interviewed on 21 April expressed their confidence that they will continue to attend rallies. Many protesters, according to them, can be stopped only by a prolonged arrest, serious illness, or, in the words of one young man in Moscow, “if our demands are achieved, including a change of power”. Others said they will be stopped if the risks associated with protesting increase. In other words, these are not people who hesitated to the very last minute whether to attend, went just to ‘have a look’ and are not sure whether they will go again. These are people who attend, or have attended, rallies regularly – the core of a potential protest audience.

New requirements?

A protest core can be thought of as a kind of layer between protest leaders and a mass of disaffected people who are not yet ready to protest on a regular basis. The demands made by this nucleus are largely set by the leaders of the protests. At the same time, their dissatisfaction goes far beyond the demands formed by the leaders, and reflects the dissatisfaction of wider sections of the population. This gap between perceived discontent and the motives and demands articulated by protesters was clearly visible in the interviews we collected.

The most popular motive for participation, according to those who attended the 21 April rallies, was support for Navalny, who was ‘held hostage’ by the Russian authorities, as well as demands for his release and allowing independent doctors to treat him. Many informants formulated their concern about the situation with Navalny, who was on hunger strike at the time, in terms of ‘a regime that kills’: “It is unacceptable to kill people” (male, 66, Moscow), “I cannot watch a living person being killed” (female, 60, Moscow). This is an agenda explicitly voiced by the organisers of the rallies.

Often, demands related to Navalny were supplemented by demands for the release of other political prisoners. In general, many of our informants spoke about protesting in support of “innocent political prisoners” (female, 42, Moscow). We also encountered demands from the protests of 2011-12. For example, informants proposed abstract slogans “against the arbitrary actions of the authorities” (female, 43, Moscow), “against a unchangeable regime” (female, 42, Moscow) and even “against everything” (female, about 50, Moscow), and also “for our rights, freedom and for the beautiful Russia of the future” (female, 24, St Petersburg). Sometimes there were demands for the rule of law and observance of human rights, and the need to “show that we exist in the country”. In general, these slogans coincide with the rhetoric of the YouTube channels of Navalny, and the investigations by his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

During the 2011-2012 protests, Russian protesters advocated for “honesty” – and today they call for the no less abstract “freedom”

Finally, some protesters explained that they went to rallies out of curiosity, without voicing any specific demands. They came to “see what will come of it” (male, 28, Moscow), “to see, well, from the outside, how this is making its way through society and how far the people, in fact, are ready to discuss these issues” (male, 39, St Petersburg). Probably, there were also those among them who could not express their dissatisfaction in the language proposed by protest leaders.

As we can see, protesters’ demands have not changed much over the past nine years. During the 2011-2012 protests, Russian protesters advocated for “honesty” – and today they call for the no less abstract “freedom”. At the same time, both then and now, protesters demanded that key institutions necessary for liberal democracies actually work in Russia – in order to ensure fair elections (then) and a change of government (now). Demands for freedom for political prisoners and Navalny personally are, to be fair, new. But it is important to understand that protesters’ demands are not the same as the reasons for their dissatisfaction.

For example, corruption, which, as shown not only by our interviews, but also by MAF and the White Counter polls, practically disappeared from protesters’ demands in 2021, has remained a popular cause of discontent for protest participants. Interestingly, Russian protesters often interpret ‘corruption’ in terms of social stratification. When asked what problems need to be solved in Russia, one of our informants replied: “This is a fight against corruption, against social stratification. There should not be thousands of dollar millionaires, billionaires and tens of millions of people who live on a salary of 30,000 [roubles]. I’m on a monthly salary of 30,000, and I understand that this is, in general, unfair” (male, 44, St Petersburg).

Many participants directly said that they were worried about social problems: the gap between the rich and the poor, unjustly low salaries, the Russian elite’s interest in “building palaces” rather than people’s problems, regular price increases, and lack of social support for the elderly. And, finally, least of all, informants voiced dissatisfaction with police violence and the existence of political prisoners, Russia's aggressive foreign policy, excessive centralisation of power and the lack of solutions for regional problems.

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Protest in the wake of Alexey Navalny's imprisonment, 2 February | (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserve

Precisely because the discontent of those taking to the streets is more varied and more variegated than the rhetoric of demands proposed by the leaders, ordinary protesters have a clear sense of the lack of specific political programmes – and the need for them. Only a small fraction of the participants interviewed on 21 April insisted that the protest doesn’t need a programme. They cited the arguments familiar to us from the 2011-12 rallies: first, you need to achieve fair elections, change of government, the existence of working political institutions, and only then is there a need to think about a positive programme. Others suggested that programmes drive protesters apart, and yet others were clear that there was only one programme: to permit independent medical personnel treat Navalny.

Most informants, however, claimed that the protest movement lacked specific political programmes. The informants referred to their acquaintances and relatives, who often ask them questions like ‘what next?’, and the protesters do not find answers from opposition representatives. They admitted that well-known (and likable!) politicians explain to them what they are opposed to, but rarely offer intelligible alternatives. They complained that the agenda of recent protests had been vague. As one of our informants said: “Of course, I would like to have a super mass protest so that everyone is united. But it seems to me that this does not work so well. Some ideas are needed. People will protest for ideas. Otherwise, it’s not clear why people go out at all…. To replace one person with another? Well, that doesn’t work” (male, 29, St Petersburg).

This demand for specifics is a new quality of today’s protests in Russia.

New sympathies?

Comparing our past research with these new interviews, we can see how much the political context in which collective action is unfolding has changed. On the one hand, the Russian regime’s strategies and tactics have changed – it has become much more repressive. On the other hand, Russia’s protest movement and the opposition have changed: if before, in 2012, Russian protesters were in many ways similar to each other in socio-political views and moods, but a variety of forces from the Opposition Coordination Council competed for their representation, then now everything is the other way around. The protesters are very different, but they are essentially represented by a single force – Alexey Navalny, who combines elements of different ideologies in his rhetoric, from liberalism to left-wing populism. However, the connection between ordinary protesters and leaders has remained – a connection based primarily on personal trust, sympathy for individual leaders, and the populist image of a national conflict between the “people” and the “authorities”. That said, this image has become more diverse.

Aside from Navalny, slightly more than half of those interviewed on 21 April said that they sympathised with other well-known opposition leaders and liberal organisations. Most often, protesters expressed cautious sympathy for the Yabloko political party, almost every time making a reservation that the party’s leader Grigory Yavlinsky did not personally inspire them. Sometimes, Russia’s Communist Party also appeared on this list (most often Pavel Grudinin, Nikolai Bondarenko, or simply “young deputies”) and the libertarian party. Sometimes the names of Moscow opposition politicians Maxim Katz, Ilya Yashin and Lyubov Sobol were also mentioned.

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Alexey Navalny | (c) c) ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Slightly less than half of the informants, however, got lost when asked if they supported any other organisations or figures: “Nothing comes to my mind” (male, 28, Moscow), “I can't remember” (female, 27, Berlin), “that puts me on the spot” (male, 29, St Petersburg), “I can't tell you anything on this topic in detail” (male, 28, Tyumen). And then protesters usually explained their difficulty in one of two ways. Some believed that there are no worthwhile political forces in Russia apart from Navalny, that the Kremlin controls all other forces, or that they don’t follow “political minorities with a strange position” (meaning small opposition groups or movements). Others did not think of themselves in terms of the political system at all, saying that their views are simply against what is happening in the country as a whole, and they would support any force that is ‘against’ the situation.

These observations must be considered in light of what we said above: that in April 2021, it was the ‘core’ of Russia’s protest community that came out to protest. This means that we are now observing a kind of paradox: the people most firm in their determination to fight the Russian government are those who are in no hurry to understand the details of the country’s swirling civic, protest and opposition scene. The protesters are practically unaware of the existence and activities of political forces and civic movements which do not have a million-plus online audience. Moreover, these people appear to show no interest in them.

This finding is unfortunate, as it suggests that the Russian authorities’ efforts to clean up the country’s independent opposition and protest movements, as well as break them up into small rival groups, have been successful. On the other hand, at least half of those participating in the protests are eyeing political forces beyond Navalny and his team. This means that small political movements and groups may have a chance to win new audiences.

Protests and political crisis

Based on the above analysis, one can draw a cautious, but simple conclusion: the main novelty of Russia’s current protest is the demand for something new, including the development of a concrete political programme. In other words, just like ten years during the last major cycle of protest, Russia’s protest movement does not know what it wants to achieve, apart from fighting corruption and a change of government. There was no positive agenda in 2011-12 and there is not one today.

However, if the absence of a concrete political agenda in Russia was the norm in 2011, then today it has become a problem. In response to the crisis of the Putin system, protesters have begun articulating their urgent need for a concrete programme – though not yet an alternative itself.

What the alternatives will be, who will formulate them and when – these are the key questions of the future protest movement in Russia.

Interviews were collected by Elena Bezrukova, Anna Orlova, Marina Solntseva, Elena Yugai, as well as volunteers who wished to remain anonymous. The interviews took place in Moscow, St Petersburg and Tyumen, as well as Berlin and Stockholm.

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