Yevgenia Albats is editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based independent political weekly the New Times. She is the author of “The State Within a State: KGB and Its Hold on Russia — Past, Present, and Future.”
On Sunday, more than 60,000 protesters took to the streets across the Russia, proving that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s much-vaunted “stability” is actually fragile. Many international commentators were surprised by this open expression of discontent. They shouldn’t have been. Putin’s romance with the nation is coming to an end.
In 82 locations around the country, from Vladivostok in the far east to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, Russians came out to demonstrate against corruption, responding to a call by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The country hasn’t seen anything like this since the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was collapsing. (Though Russia did experience large anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012, they were concentrated in a few big cities, above all Moscow and St. Petersburg.)
It’s telling that, for most of the day, state-run broadcasters (and even some privately owned information agencies) ignored what was going on across the country.
Most of the demonstrations were unsanctioned. “Unsanctioned” is something of a euphemism, since freedom of assembly is guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. The authorities must give to their approval to protest venues, and as a rule they refuse to allow demonstrations wherever it has been the custom to hold them over the past 30 years — such as Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow, for example. Those who take part in unsanctioned meetings know that they are likely to be beaten, arrested, carted off in special police buses and taken to police stations. Some will get off with a fine, and others will receive a prison sentence of seven to 15 days, or even longer. Following the demonstrations of May 6, 2012, several dozen people ended up with sentences of three to four years in prison camps, losing their jobs and any hope of future careers.
This time, more than 1,030 people were arrested in Moscow alone. Unlike their counterparts in some countries, they didn’t throw smoke bombs and they didn’t set off flares. They simply gathered peacefully and walked. Many of them, such as my colleagues, fellow reporters Timofei Dzyadko and Alexander Plyushchev, weren’t even holding placards. (And it’s not at all clear why authorities decided to detain Guardian reporter Alec Luhn.) Navalny himself was arrested. A court sentenced him to 15 days in jail (not his first sojourn in prison by any means) and a fine.
At some point, in the very center of Moscow, the police simply began to arrest people, packing them into buses with metal grilles over the windows, beating some of them quite badly. None of the protesters had been blocking traffic or causing any sort of disruption to public life.
This random brutality, however, wasn’t the key thing about an event that is unprecedented in Putin’s Russia. For the first time, a generation that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union — a generation that has no personal experience of totalitarian rule — came out to demonstrate.
This generation doesn’t watch the Russian propaganda channels that tell of the great Putin and the horrible West. Its members live on social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Vkontakte and YouTube. It was on YouTube that they watched an investigative film by Navalny, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s sumptuous villas, located on the banks of the Volga River, in the holiday resort of Sochi and even in Italy. The film described vineyards owned by certain charitable funds run by Medvedev’s childhood friends. It showed us the incredible luxury of the prime minister’s homes, surrounded by impoverished Russian villages.
Needless to say, there have already been numerous investigations into corruption in Russia, which is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world. Meanwhile, about 25 million people live below the poverty line.
Navalny, a talented politician, presented this investigation to the greatest possible effect. He has a very keen sense of the moment. Over the past two years, thanks to sanctions and collapsing oil prices, the real income of the population has fallen by 15 percent. At the same time food prices have gone up by 36 percent, utility fees by 28 percent.
At the same time, people see the authorities, from governors and national leaders down to mayors of cities and towns, wallowing in wealth.
What we are seeing now is that young people born after the end of the Soviet Union have reached an age when they want to influence politics in the country. They’re less concerned about prices than they are about the fact that in Russia there is a total absence of any opportunity for social mobility. If you don’t belong to the clan that has developed out of the KGB, then you have only the slimmest of chances of making a career for yourself or running your own business. It’s not just incredibly difficult, it’s also dangerous. The prisons and penal camps are packed with tens of thousands of businesspeople who have ended up behind bars simply because their businesses were successful and caught the eye of the secret police or some other state organization.
It was precisely this post-Soviet generation that came out into the streets all across the country on Sunday. And suddenly it became clear that Putin does not have 86 percent support, as the court pollsters would have us believe. A generation that never knew the brutal restrictions of the Soviet authorities is now declaring its right to take part in politics.
Yes, this remarkable development will probably be followed by a new wave of repression. And yet we suddenly have cause for hope. On March 26, the future of Russia showed itself on the streets of cities across the nation.