A Russian Spring? Voices from Russia’s progressive opposition

Protest against vote-rigging that favoured Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in Moscow, December. Photo from Cryptome.org.

It's been a lively couple of months for Russia's opposition. After last December's parliamentary elections, the country was hit by the largest demonstrations since the 1990s.

Defying freezing temperatures, tens of thousands gathered in Moscow alone to protest against election irregularities and the victorious United Russia party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

The huge rise in turnout, compared with any demonstration in recent memory, surprised everyone, especially the opposition.

As the focus shifted to the presidential elections on March 4, in which Putin was elected for his third term as president with a dubiously clear margin, several more large demonstrations were organised by a newly confident opposition.

For Putin's inauguration in early May, there are plans for a “March of Millions”.

But discontent has not just surfaced in mass protests. Civil society organisations are gaining strength campaigning against state repression and for accountability.

In the provincial city of Astrakhan, popular leftist politician and former MP Oleg Shein, who staged a 40-day hunger strike after losing the allegedly rigged mayoral election to a pro-Putin candidate.

Many are now asking, with the surge of dissent against the Putin regime, is there reason to hope that political repression and the power of the oligarchs are waning, and that Russia may soon be heading down a more progressive path? Is there a Russian Spring in the making?

I met four young activists, with different approaches to politics, to hear their take.

Ivan Ninenko, 28, confidently spoke about the present state of affairs. Finishing a PhD in political science, he is an expert on corruption and accountability of state organs. As the the deputy chair of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, an NGO fighting corruption, he is featured on national TV shows and often travels abroad.

It was this international experience that shaped his political development, as he was not shy to explain: “I used to be quite a liberal, because in the 1990s, when I grew up, people thought that as soon as we establish a liberal, capitalist democracy all our problems will be solved.

“But after coming in contact with people in other countries, I realised it's not that simple, and I have come to hold more leftist and anarchist views.”

On why the opposition has experienced the recent surge, he said: “People are outraged at the disrespect shown to them by Putin. He would have probably won fair and square. But they rigged the elections anyway, just to make sure.”

He was cautious about predicting what is to come. “If I realised anything since December, it is that all the bets are off, for predicting the country's political future.”

Still, he added: “I can see the regional elections now starting to become contested, and thus the struggle moving into the provinces. Look at what's happening in Astrakhan, for example, with Shein's hunger strike.

“It's possible that there will soon be anti-Kremlin regional governors.”

I asked him what political colour he would expect those first oppositional politicians to be. He said: “There will probably be a lot of nationalists elected, but people will soon realise that they’re not much use, once in power.

“But that moment will be a challenge for the opposition in general, because actual political content will have to be defined. Things may get pretty interesting as people come to terms with what their political convictions actually are.”

He added: “Putin's presidency may be over soon, or last a few more years, but one thing to remember is, that all depends on the price of oil, because that's what his power is based on.”

Kseniya Brailovskaya and I strolled down Moscow's Sakharov Avenue and she told me how on December 24, 100,000 people gathered there in the biggest demonstration in recent Russian history, to demand fair elections.

The 34-year-old sociologist works as a researcher with an NGO that investigates human rights abuses. During the presidential election on March 4, she was one of thousands of voluntary observers. She has no doubts that there was widespread fraud.

Brailovskaya is enthusiastic about the oppositional awakening in the country, but considers herself apolitical.

“Of all the groups taking part in the marches, I feel most sympathetic with those that simply demand a just electoral process,” she said.

I asked who makes up the majority of protesters. She said she was certain that “it's mostly people not directly affiliated with any of the organisations”.

She said: “That is the difference between now and before. Committed activists have been demonstrating for years. The rallies got so huge when average people started taking part.”

I asked about the liberal opposition party Yabloko, the favourite of Western governments and media. She shrugged: “Yabloko has got nothing new to offer, they've had the same old leaders for years.

“However, I vote for them, since I think they're the best option around.”

I inquired which of the oppositional political figures she has the most trust in. She answered, “Sergey Udaltsov”, leader of the radical extra-parliamentary Left Front.

“Even though I am not a socialist,” she said, “I take him seriously, because he is honest, the only one willing to die for his ideals.”

Her expectations of the near future are mildly optimistic. Rather than large demonstrations in Moscow, she sees people's readiness to get active with petitions and in municipal parliaments as a sign of change to come.

“But we are now at a point where any of a number of future scenarios is equally likely.”

I met Valera [name changed] in Pushkin Square, where the day after Putin got elected, the opposition gathered to protest against what they considered a fraudulent result.

Valera, about 30 years old, is an an active anti-fascist, which in Russia is dangerous business. Beside heavy state repression, resulting in many activists being jailed, there is the threat from militant neo-Nazis, who have murdered at least 15 activists since 2006.

For his own protection, Valera always carries a knife and a gas pistol, though he won't discuss how many times he has had to use them.

Valera is working on his PhD. He is a big guy, with broad shoulders, and like many Russian anti-fascists dresses in a subtle skinhead style.

As we started strolling across the square, he pointed out: “That guy there, is a typical Russian Nazi. Buzzcut, Adidas outfit, and a sports bag over his shoulder.”

He explained: “You can pretty much assume that the younger ones will have knives on them, and the older ones sport-guns, often modified to be lethal.

“Those are the kind of people that make up the nationalist block at the opposition rallies.”

He explains that there is currently something of a ceasefire between neo-Nazis and the anti-fascists due to the elections, on which both sides have been focusing.

An anarchist himself, Valera is very sceptical of the larger leftist factions in the opposition: “For me, the Reds, or almost all of them, are Stalinists, and in that no different from the Nazis themselves.”

I asked his views on the recent rallies. He responded: “Personally, I do not usually go to public demos. It would be a perfect opportunity for the FSB [Federal Security Service], or for Nazis to take pictures of me.”

But he does think they are a good thing: “Firstly to show that people feel discontent. And in the long run, I hope they will radicalise and lead to revolution.”

Revolution, for him, is the way forward. “The government is made up entirely of bandits, trying to talk to them is a waste of time. In Russia things never get better that way.

“In Moscow, you see fancy cars and restaurants, and you may think, that with some reforms, this country would be alright. But in the provinces, it's a different world, there's absolute misery. That situation has to be dealt with drastically.”

Vera Akulova is a feminist, has a degree in linguistics and makes a modest living as a translator. She has been active in a range of radical movements, but until lately has been working as a spokesperson for an organisation called For Feminism.

When I asked her views on the protest movement in general, she said: “I am happy to see the left playing a more important role lately, because the social aspect needs to be addressed more by the opposition.”

She gives Udaltsov and his Left Front credit for having successfully mobilised ordinary people to get involved. “What's at stake now is exactly who gets to influence the majority of the population, meaning the working class. For now, they've been on the side of the government, out of hopelessness.

“They are, of course, the decisive force. If these people rise, there is no stopping them.”

But she cautioned: “Sadly, the Russian left, much like Russian society as a whole, is quite sexist and homophobic. The common sentiment on patriarchy is, 'Let's deal with it after the revolution', while Udaltsov, in order to gain favor with working people, has publicly distanced himself from GLBT-issues.”

Vera added, that another shooting-star of the opposition, critical blogger Alexey Navalny on the other hand, is known to have a nationalist vein, which he might emphasise more in the future to attract the masses. That would be catastrophic, not least of all for gender justice, as that ideology is explicitly sexist and homophobic.

But Vera said there is hope on the feminist front, “because I see people, women, feminists, who only used to passively read blogs, getting active all of a sudden”.

She said: “There is sort of a general civic awakening, with people realising that they can change things. There is a lot of potential.”

Summing up her feelings on the overall political situation, she said: “Growing up, during the Putin years, we lived in a period of stability, passivity and hopelessness.

“Those years are definitely coming to an end. We are now entering a phase of hope.”