But things are changing. While Putin remains entrenched and his system grows more repressive, the Russian people are silent no longer. Last weekend, in a show of defiance unparalleled in Russia’s post-Soviet history, hundreds of thousands went to the streets across the country to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent opponent. Navalny survived an attempted assassination last year, only to be jailed on his return to Russia earlier this month. From Khabarovsk to Moscow, demonstrators braved not only the weather (in the Siberian city of Yakutsk, a mind-boggling minus-58 degrees Fahrenheit) but also arrests and police batons as well as public threats from the authorities, universities, and employers. More than 4,000 people were detained in a single day, a record-breaking number.
None of this stopped the protests. “I’m tired of being afraid,” said one demonstrator in Moscow. “I haven’t just turned up for myself and Navalny, but also for my son, because there is no future in this country [under Putin].”
Concern about the future is the key to this emerging movement. According to snap surveys, the median age of the protesters was 31. These are the people whose entire adult lives have been spent under Putin; who have never witnessed a free political system; who have watched the same faces of Putin’s cronies on television for decades, as if frozen in time. They see no prospects for themselves, their families, or their country while this regime remains in power. Recent polls show that support for Putin among Russia’s youngest voters has plummeted to just 20 percent. Even in democracies, leaders sometimes outstay their welcome. In a regime that does not allow for a change of government through the ballot box, public demand for change inevitably takes more dramatic forms.
Navalny’s arrest — and the prospect of his lengthy imprisonment — was not the only catalyst for the protests. Shortly after the opposition leader was jailed, his team released an investigative film detailing what they describe as “the world’s largest bribe” — a lavish Italian-style palace constructed for Putin’s personal use on the Black Sea coast with funds funneled from state corporations. The vast estate, which includes a casino, skating rink, spa, swimming pool, aqua disco (whatever this is), wineries, oyster farms and helicopter landing pads — all of it guarded by state security services and protected by a no-fly zone — allegedly has a total price tag of $1.4 billion.
In a country where nearly 20 million people live below the poverty line and where 23 percent of the population lacks a central sewage system, such a shameless display of opulence and corruption naturally draws attention. Within days, Navalny’s film was viewed by 100 million people, the vast majority of them within Russia — more than the combined audiences of state-run television programs. There is a new reality emerging in the country, and it is beyond the control of Putin and his propaganda machine.
The regime is trying to regain the upper hand. Predictably, officials accused Western security services of orchestrating the protests, while Putin compared the demonstrations to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, saying that both were against the law. This sort of whataboutist demagoguery had long been a staple of Soviet propaganda — but drawing a parallel between a violent assault on an elected legislature and peaceful protests by citizens who are denied the right to free elections might be a stretch even by Putin’s standards.
New protests are planned ahead of Navalny’s sentencing hearing on Feb. 2. There is little doubt he will be sent to prison — and this may be one of the Kremlin’s biggest miscalculations. Turning the opposition leader into a martyr and national symbol will only expand his appeal and raise his moral clout — and, importantly, boost his tactical voting campaign that has already sent many pro-regime candidates to humiliating defeats in local elections. Now Navalny wants to repeat the feat on a national scale in September’s parliamentary vote. As history shows, most dictatorships fall not under the power of their opponents but under the weight of their own mistakes. It seems that Putin’s will not be an exception.