oDR: Feature

Russian protesters on why they’re risking their futures

Why did Russian citizens come out in such large numbers last month? This researcher spoke to 50 protesters in Moscow. Here’s what she found

Elena Bezrukova
10 February 2021, 9.29am
Riot police block the entrance to Red Square after Alexey Navalny was sent to prison for 2.5 years on 2 February
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(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Over this past month, Russia’s mass protests in support of Alexey Navalny have brought people out in over one a hundred cities across the country.

According to independent monitoring organisation OVD-Info, the total number of people detained during the first rally on 23 January was 3,770. This figure, a record in Russia’s recent history, was quickly surpassed: on 31 January, 5,600 people were detained at anti-government protests across the country. Then, on 2 February, people who came to support Navalny at Moscow City Court were also detained en masse, as well as protests later that night in Moscow and St Petersburg.

For many Russian cities, detentions and clashes with riot police are a completely new phenomenon. Yet elsewhere - for example, Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or Khabarovsk - the actions of the police were, it seems, less than surprising given recent violent dispersions of protests by Russian law enforcement.

To understand what motivated people to participate in unauthorised rallies in January - despite the risk of being detained, 15 days of administrative detention and a heavy fine - I interviewed protesters on the streets of Moscow on both 23 and 31 January.

Mass protests are not places to hold extended interviews. I asked respondents only two or three questions: why they decided to participate in the protest, issues that they were personally concerned about, how often they attend protest actions and whether they were afraid of being detained by police.

On 31 January, I also added questions about the respondent’s social status (level of education, profession), and asked whether the interviewee considered themselves to be supporters of Alexey Navalny, how they define their political views, whether they participated in the 23 January protest the week before, and whether they will participate in protests in the future.

In total, I interviewed 27 people at the first protest and 23 at the second. The youngest respondent was 17, the oldest was 86.

“Our money should not be removed from the state budget, but used for the good of the people, and instead it goes on palaces”

This poll does not claim to be objective and is aimed primarily at showing the opinions of ordinary protesters who are not members of Russian political parties or civic movements. All 50 respondents said that they attended the protests as citizens, except for an 86-year-old man who considered himself a member of the liberal Yabloko political party.

The survey was conducted as part of my dissertation research into Russia’s protest movement. My hypothesis is that many years of prohibitive measures aimed at restricting freedom of assembly in Russia - including complicating the procedure for obtaining permission to hold a public protest, the common practice of refusing to sanction protests, equating a series of single pickets to a group rally, and much more - do not contribute to a culture of peaceful protest.

Rather, on the contrary, these policies force people to take part in unsanctioned protests, where police can use force against protesters and, indeed, prosecute them. There are now more than 40 criminal cases connected to these two days of protest. That number is continuing to grow.

“I’m afraid, but I’m still go into the thick of it, I can’t restrain myself"

People’s responses generally supported my hypothesis: most respondents said that they are not afraid to attend unsanctioned rallies and be detained by the police.

At the same time, participants’ answers were different on 23 and 31 January. In particular, during the first rally on Moscow’s central Pushkin Square, all my interlocutors answered negatively when I asked them whether they were afraid of being detained. On 31 January, respondents’ opinions were divided: some answered that they were afraid, but this did not affect their desire to protest.

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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 reserved

“I’m afraid, but when I see that people are being detained, I still go into the thick of it. I can’t restrain myself,” said Anna, an oriental studies specialist who is currently looking for a job.

Ilya, a 29-year-old engineer with a university degree, responded similarly:

“Yes, I'm very afraid. I was at the first protest... I was at several metro stations, Sretenskaya, I think, Sukharevskaya. Then I was sitting in McDonalds, and people were getting detained in front of me. It was scary.”

“So you are afraid, but you go out anyway? Why?” I asked him.

“Yes. What else am I supposed to do?” he said. “What will I tell my children? I’ll be telling them about the beautiful Russia of the future, and they will ask: where were you? I was sitting on the couch at home.”

The majority of respondents (18 people) announced their intention to protest in the future. Two people said that they would protest depending on the circumstances.

“I’m tired that people are being put away unlawfully”

When asked why they were attending the rallies on 23 and 31 January, most of the respondents identified a very specific motive: the fact that opposition politician Alexey Navalny had been arrested on his return to Russia - in their opinion, unlawfully.

In addition, virtually everyone cited poverty and corruption. Many also spoke about the illegality in Russia’s law enforcement system:

“I am against the judicial system in our country - when any person can be put away for no reason if they don’t fit. I do not like how our economy works, when the basis for the economy is corruption. Everywhere, everything starts with corruption: you can’t get anywhere, you can’t get a job. There are no jobs in the regions. The money is only in Moscow, and my friends in the regions are all unemployed,” said one respondent, 20, who attended a protest for the first time ever on 23 January.

"The thing that affects me most is censorship, propaganda. This is what puts pressure on your psyche every day, and a person has this kind of cognitive dissonance: he sees one thing, but hears another"

Several young people in a group of friends - almost all with bright makeup and highlights - expressed a similar thought:

“We came out because we are tired, because our country is being robbed,” Natalya, 19, explained.

Ivan, 20: “I came out to protest against the situation that happened with Navalny, because I think how he was detained is complete lawlessness. And I want to show that we care, together with other people. Because this topic of fair elections, in particular…”

Natalia interrupted him: “We want thieves and murderers to be punished, and so that it’s impossible in our country to one day just f*** the opposition completely.”

This group said they already had experience of protests. The women in the group, for example, took part in a protest against domestic violence and an action dedicated to a 2018 fire in a Siberian shopping centre, which killed 60 people.

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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 reserved

At the 31 January rally, protesters also pointed to problems with the Russian justice system:

“We are tired of people being put away unlawfully. We want to live in a state governed by the rule of law somehow, where the law is respected,” said Konstantin, a 30-year-old programmer with higher education.

Many said they were responding to Navalny’s latest investigation into an alleged $1.5bn secret palace owned by president Putin, especially given their deteriorating living standards. In almost all interviews, respondents added that they were dissatisfied with the state of Russia’s economy, sometimes also mentioning problems with low-quality education and medicine.

“I am not satisfied with life: how we live now, what poverty we live in. I want to support Alexey Navalny. He is the only person who does a lot for Russia,” said Olga, 42, who was protesting for the first time.

“For some reason I used to think that they would be fine without me. But now I think I need to be a part of this”

Prokhor, 44, a reseller with higher education, said he last went out to protest in 1991. “I did not even think about protesting these past 30 years,” he said.

“The economic indicators... as can be seen over the past 10 years, testify to [their] inability to govern the country effectively,” Prokhor continued. “The current status of recruiting, say, managers. The collapse of the national currency over the past ten years is a fiasco, in my opinion.”

Artem, a 36-year-old surveyor with higher education, says: “In the country as a whole, I am not happy with the fact we are following a dead-end path in all sectors, starting from foreign policy, when we have quarreled with almost all countries in 20 years, including the peoples closest to us. Plus, domestic policy, when our economy, education and demographic situation are in ruins.”

“Helplessness has been drilled into them”

Many of my conversations referred to moral indignation against injustice in society and the silence of the Russian authorities.

In addition, people on Pushkin Square were dissatisfied with censorship, lack of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

“I am worried that there are restrictions on freedom of speech and that people are afraid to express their opinion on any issues at all, and you can see this everywhere,” said a young man who had previously participated in Russia’s 2011-2012 fair election protest cycle.

“You can see this especially among the older generation,” he continued. “Helplessness has been drilled into them. They are afraid to talk about these topics. My uncle, for example, generally thinks that he is being bugged everywhere and that he should ‘avoid saying anything out of turn’. I think that if we break through this wall, it will be great.”

Artyom, another protester, also spoke about lack of freedom of speech:

“Finally, the thing that affects me most is censorship, propaganda. This is what puts pressure on your psyche every day, and a person has this kind of cognitive dissonance: he sees one thing, but hears another. It seems to me that this is a road to nowhere, and the further we drive into it, the worse it will be afterwards.”

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Protester detained on 23 January in Moscow | (c) SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Image. All rights reserved

After the protests on 23 January, pro-Kremlin publications and national television channels began to speculate on why underage people were involved in protests in support of Navalny. But contrary to popular belief, many of those who first came to the rally were over 18 years old:

“For some reason I used to think that they would be fine without me,” Roman, 35, said on 23 January. “But now I think I need to be a part of this.”

The only minor - a 17-year-old boy - whom I was able to interview on 23 January, said that he had been attending protest actions for two years because he was dissatisfied with the situation in the country.

“I’m protesting against the monopoly on power, against the monopoly of state-owned companies, against criminality first and foremost. People commit crimes only because we allow them to,” he said.

Social discontent and lack of freedom of assembly

The protest on 23 January managed to mobilise new participants, many of whom had witnessed past protests, but had not participated in them.

This is confirmed by Alexei Zakharov, a senior lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, who wrote that the average age of the protesters was 31, which is slightly less than in previous protests. “However, only 10% of the respondents were 18 years old or younger,” he remarked.

As the polls by the Foundation of Public Opinon and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center show, for the third year running about 30% of respondents state they are ready to participate in protest events. Approximately the same level of readiness to protest was observed during the protests of 2011-2012, then it fell, rising again in 2018 amid the pension reform.

According to recent studies, over the past year, the number of mass protests in Russia has decreased for objective reasons: coronavirus restrictions have given local authorities reason to refuse sanctioning protests. At the same time, many people did not want to protest for fear of infection. And although in 2020 there were no large national-level protests in response to Russia’s constitutional reform, this does not mean that the discontent has disappeared. Instead, it has only accumulated - and now an agenda on living standards and pandemic-related restrictions has emerged in addition.

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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 reserved

In recent years, in Russia, almost all protest events have referred to socio-economic issues, but there remains no consistent political force capable of picking up and driving this agenda.

The majority of those I interviewed initially singled out the unlawful detention of Navalny as the main reason for protesting. But poverty and low living standards were the most frequent answer to questions about general issues. What’s more, by now, people have been affected by coronavirus fatigue, inflation, lower wages and the risk of losing their jobs - all of which create a general public alarm.

“I am not a supporter of Navalny, but for now we are on the same road”

Many people also saw the example of Belarus and the continuing regional protests in Khabarovsk, and in response to constant attacks on freedom of assembly in Russia, people who are ready to go out to protest actions are gradually becoming angrier.

“Our money should not be removed from the state budget, but used for the good of the people, and instead it goes on palaces,” said Inna, 20, on 23 January. “The money goes through offshore accounts. And we want to have normal healthcare, so that we have a good, decent education, so that our children don’t go abroad to study, but get a decent education in this country. This requires money that instead goes on palaces. That’s it.”

“There are questions about Navalny, too”

During the 31 January protest, I also asked respondents whether they supported Navalny. Among the 15 respondents who I asked, roughly half of the respondents said that they do not consider themselves his supporters - they were mainly above the age of 25.

Prokhor, 44, said: “In fact, I don’t like him. He is toxic. Until last month, when the authorities made a real hero out of him with their clumsy actions. That is, I would support him now, but a year ago - no.”

Artem, 36: “I myself have quite a few questions for Alexey Navalny, but I am more an opponent of the current state of affairs. It seems to me that there is chaos right now and I need to make my position clear somehow.”

“I am not a supporter of Navalny, but for now we are on the same road,” said Vladimir, 43.

As during Russia’s 2011-2012 protest, which encompassed people with quite different interests united by a general civic agenda, the current situation is very similar. But compared to 2011, the field for expression has narrowed, and so many people are looking for a platform to protest against Russian state policies in general.

Those who participated in these protests came out first of all to be heard and to admit the possibility that opinions can be different. They are young, angry, visible and want to be heard by the Russian authorities

One conclusion I took from this survey is that people are no longer afraid to attend unsanctioned protests and are beginning to consider them a common practice. They understand that they have attended an event that is unlawful from the point of view of Russian legislation. But for them, the right to express their opinion is more important.

This behaviour can be considered a result of the restrictive policy on freedom of assembly in Russia. Today, people who are ready to protest are so accustomed to protest bans that they no longer see the difference between a sanctioned and unsanctioned rally - and will protest anyway. During the last two protests, I heard several people express opinions that citizens have the right to peaceful assembly in accordance with the Declaration of Human Rights in general and the Russian Constitution, even if this is contrary to the law.

The bulk of the respondents who said they had previously attended protests said that they began joining rallies in 2019, most of which were also unsanctioned protests. Thus, mass participation in an unsanctioned protest, despite the high risks for participants, is, in a sense, a new reality for Russia.

The plan to block off central Moscow on 31 January to prevent protesters from reaching the original protest starting point, the Lubyanka, also turned out to be a failure. As a result, despite the fact that the start location was moved three times, which inconvenienced not only protesters, but also city residents, people still came out to protest. This suggests the seriousness of intent and consistency of participants.

At the same time, it’s clear there are different opinions in Russian society. At the end of the action on 23 January, I interviewed Oleg, 50, a regular participant of protests who is standing with a placard (“Thank you for coming out”). As we were speaking, a stranger interrupted to shout: “Thank you for leaving!”

The rhetoric of the Russian authorities typically suggests that protesters do not represent or speak on behalf of society. But Russia is a huge country, and these generalisations are, at least, far from the truth. Those who participated in these protests came out first of all to be heard and to admit the possibility that opinions can be different. They are young, angry, visible and want to be heard by the Russian authorities.

* Names of respondents have been changed.

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