The nominal cause for the march, and for similar gatherings in dozens of cities across the country, was alleged corruption that Navalny and his researchers had unearthed about Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s largely enfeebled Prime Minister. Earlier this month, Navalny had published a report detailing various far-flung properties, luxury yachts, and other high-end goods that Medvedev has allegedly acquired over the years, in part funded by contributions that Russian oligarchs made to fake charity foundations. But Sunday’s demonstrations were also about a creeping mood of public dissatisfaction and fatigue, a sense that, after seventeen years, Vladimir Putin’s political system was running out of arguments to justify its continued monopoly hold on power. Official corruption proved to be a more compelling rallying cry than civil rights or voting irregularities: less about abstract political freedoms and more about the insult of learning that your country’s Prime Minister had acquired a vineyard in Tuscany while disposable incomes dropped an average of twelve per cent since 2014.
The Moscow mayor’s office had not authorized the march route—it had instead offered organizers the use of a park outside the city center—and had cautioned that it could not “bear responsibility for any possible negative consequences” of the unsanctioned demonstration. The warning didn’t seem to keep people away. On Tverskaya, it was impossible to judge the size of the crowd, but it was easily several thousand. The official response seemed chaotic and inconsistent. Most people walked unimpeded up and down the street for hours. But Navalny himself was grabbed and thrown into a police van a few minutes after he arrived, with a pair of Nike sneakers hanging from his neck—a riff on one of the charges that he had levelled against Medvedev, who he said used a front company led by a loyal crony to buy himself running shoes.
Near the Central Telegraph building, where I stood, the flow of people passed unbothered, but by Pushkin Square riot police, wearing black body armor and helmets, arrested dozens of people, clubbing and beating them before dragging them away. By the end of the day, as many as a thousand people in Moscow had been detained, far more than in 2011 and 2012, the last time the capital saw demonstrations of this size. A reporter from the Guardian was caught up in the arrests; he was taken to a police station and charged with “holding an unsanctioned rally.”
I was struck by how many young people had joined the protest march. During the previous wave of large-scale demonstrations in Moscow, the crowds were largely drawn from the capital’s middle class—educated, professional people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. On Sunday, the presence of high schoolers and college students was immediately noticeable. “Never before have schoolchildren and students participated on such a massive scale in opposition protests,” Meduza, an independent news site that is home to some of Russia’s best journalism, declared. “Teen-agers easily experience feelings of envy, unease, of being trivialized—and they go out and they try to do something,” a seventeen-year-old, named Konstantin, told the site, explaining why he joined the demonstration.
In explaining Putin’s consistently high approval ratings, many analysts and journalists point to the fact that more than eighty per cent of Russians receive their news from state-television broadcasts. Younger Russians, though, are less likely to pay attention to state-controlled TV, and it seems that the Kremlin has less certain tools for reaching this demographic, let alone shaping its political attitudes. Even LifeNews, a usually servile, pro-Kremlin tabloid site, has admitted this new reality. In an article published on Monday, called “Farewell, Television,” a Life columnist acknowledged that “television, by focussing on the adult, even elderly, part of the population, completely missed the active and young audience.” Sunday’s protests, in the columnist’s view, represented an “extremely disturbing and serious warning sign” for Kremlin officials. “Television has failed, and its inefficiency as a mass ‘agitator and organizer’ will only intensify.”
Russia’s young people can truly be called “Putin’s” generation: those under twenty-five have no significant memories of any other Russian leader. Yet, as was the case during perestroika, in the nineteen-eighties, the authorities appear to have lost a certain sway over the country’s youth, and no longer speak their language. Two weeks ago, a remarkable video of a meeting between a principal and high-school students in Bryansk, a provincial city some two hundred miles from Moscow, surfaced online, and was widely shared. The students had been hauled in for a lecture after one of them had urged his classmates to attend the local version of Navalny’s anti-corruption protest.
The principal’s tone is hectoring and frustrated. “What Navalny is doing is a pure provocation. Do you get it? You still don’t understand this,” she tells the students. They push back against her claims. One says, “We basically took it,” referring to Crimea. Another tells her about evidence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine: “There are videos going around—you have no idea.” The argument goes in circles, with the principal trying to scare the students with talk of civil war and unrest, and the students answering her with talk of “justice,” or what one describes as “when the authorities care about their people, and not just about themselves; when they care about ordinary citizens, and not about their millions of dollars.” Losing her patience, the principal asks whether Putin and Medvedev have made life worse. No, a student answers, “but they’ve stayed too long.” Neither side convinces the other, but it is the students who sound more confident and clearheaded in their arguments; the principal’s voice is marked by a note of disorientation, the frustration of falling behind the times and no longer enjoying the easy authority she once had.
For the Kremlin, the geographic diversity of Sunday’s protests was just as unsettling as their demographics. Gatherings of various sizes were held in nearly a hundred Russian cities, including places where demonstrations hadn’t occurred five years ago, during the previous wave of anti-Kremlin protests. A couple of hundred people came out in Nizhny Tagil, an industrial stronghold in the Ural Mountains where, in 2011, factory workers had volunteered to travel to Moscow and, if necessary, use force against anti-Putin protesters. More than a hundred and fifty people were detained in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a republic in the North Caucasus where Putin got more than ninety per cent of the vote in 2012. It was clear that the Kremlin hadn’t anticipated anti-government activity in such regions, and that it had failed to give clear instructions to local authorities. As a result, in some places, the protests went on unmolested; in others, they were broken up roughly, as in Omsk, where authorities had snowplows drive out the crowd in the city’s central square.
The demonstrations were also tied up with Navalny’s political ambitions. He has declared his intention to run for President next year, when Putin is up for reëlection, though Navalny faces a years-old fraud case, which, if the Kremlin decides to pursue it, could bar him from the ballot—the sort of legal gray zone in which the Kremlin likes to keep the country’s opposition. Still, Sunday’s demonstrations put the Kremlin somewhat on the defensive, or at least in search of a new public-facing message of the kind that gives authoritarian governments such as Putin’s a sense of legitimacy.
Each of Putin’s Presidential terms has been bolstered by a different narrative. His first term, which began in 2000, centered on restoring the authority of the state and bringing a basic sense of order and competency to the administration of government. His second term, from 2004 to 2008, was about the redistribution of the country’s windfall oil-and-gas profits, fuelling a consumer boom and effectively buying the population’s political disengagement. And since 2012, when he returned to the office of the President after a faux withdrawal from power as Prime Minister, Putin’s rule has become defined by Russia’s standoff with the West, played out in Ukraine and Syria, which is really about restoring Russia’s self-image as a great power and an influential player on the world stage.
With elections a year away, it’s unclear what argument or bargain Putin wants to make with the Russian people in his fourth, and presumably last, term. The patriotic boost that the annexation of Crimea provided is starting to fade. Russia’s military operation in Syria is an even less potent propaganda tool. Putin and his political advisers don’t have a coherent answer to the populist and non-ideological anti-corruption message offered by Navalny. That doesn’t necessarily mean Navalny represents an actual danger to them at the ballot box. In 2013, Navalny lost the Moscow mayoral election, attracting twenty-seven per cent of the vote—an impressive number given the numerous disadvantages he faced, but perhaps a sign of his electoral ceiling. A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that the number of Russians ready to vote for him for President—which stood at thirty-three per cent in 2011—is now around ten per cent. In the end, Putin’s near-total control over the country’s electoral commissions, local legislatures, and court system at all levels means that his continued rule is likely to remain unchallenged.
Navalny’s real talent is in revealing the system’s weaknesses and blind spots, and in making it look awkward and unsure of itself. Last week, when unidentified pro-Kremlin activists threw green medical dye on him during a campaign rally, Navalny managed to turn his stained face into a popular meme. Sunday’s demonstrations were a clear success, not least because the Kremlin was so unprepared for them. They have awakened a sense of possibility in Navalny’s campaign, if it is allowed to proceed. On Monday, a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to fifteen days in jail for disobeying police orders—ostensibly a window the Kremlin wants to use to reassess its strategy toward Navalny and figure out what to do next. But, even if he figures out how to deal with Navalny, Putin will still face a trickier dilemma: How much longer will the cocktail of inertia, stability, and fear of the unknown keep him generally popular? And, if that political tincture loses its potency, what will his next offer to the Russian people entail? He may be able to delay answering those questions for some time, but not forever.
Author: Joshua Yaffa