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Widespread Protests Rock Putin’s Regime in Russia

On Saturday, thousands of people protested in almost 200 cities throughout Russia in response to the arrest of populist anti-corruption figurehead, Alexei Navalny. Will this protest wave become a sustained movement?

Dima Gonskiy

January 28, 2021
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Protests in Russia
Image: Sergei Mikhailichenko/Getty Images

A few days ago, Russia was shaken by large protests in response to Alexei Navalny’s arrest after his return. In August, Navalny was poisoned by what seems to be a group of FSB (Russia’s main security force) agents allegedly directed to do so by president Vladimir Putin. Now Navalny faces the possibility of up to three to ten years in prison on trumped-up charges. However, the current protests create a crucial question about what the future holds for Russia: will this protest wave become a sustained movement? 

The tightening of the screws

To understand the events of January 23, we must first explore the current reality of Russia. 

2020 has been a hard year for Russia. Covid-19 has simply revealed many of the problems endemic to Russian capitalism since 1991: the complete destruction of the social sphere, underfunding of hospitals and staff, the prioritization of profits over the needs of the population, the complete de-industrialization of the Russian economy, and the transformation of Russia into a semi-colonial economy based only around the export of raw materials to their more developed Western counterparts. Amidst a growing loss of hope and plummeting numbers for the ruling party United Russia, the state that Putin built, a state built on the oppression of the working class and defending the gains of Russian capitalism from the 90s, as well as the ruling faction of the bourgeoisie, has done what it has been trained to do and in fact what every state in which the capitalist class is in control is programmed to do: more state repression. 

Throughout the summer and autumn, an unprecedented wave of state repressions began throughout Russia. No one was exempt, not even popular Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal from the reactionary LDPR who was jailed due to his insubordination or the son of former Irkutsk governor and leader of the Communist Party group in the region, Andrei Levchenko, who has been held in solitary confinement for the past 4 months. Many journalists and opposition activists were arrested and harassed. Unfortunately, the pressure orchestrated by the police took a huge toll on some, with journalist Irina Slavina killing herself in large part due to this. 

At the same time left-wing activists, both independent and those supporting the reactionary social-democratic CPRF, have suffered possibly most of all. One example of this would be Nikolai Platoshkin (leader of the ‘New Socialism’ group, a proto-socialist organization) who received a long sentence for organizing an ‘uncoordinated’ protest, or Oleg Sheremetev, a deputy of the Moscow City Council from the Communist Party, who received a heavy sentence for alleged fraud. 

These repressive actions have been followed with a large number of new laws destroying the limited amount of freedoms Russian citizens still held in the system. A new packet of laws passed in the autumn heavily prohibits the possibilities of campaigning online, restricts the freedom to protest, and expands the powers of the police.  

In a sense, Navalny’s arrest and the later protests were a culmination and a sort of reaction to the constant state repression. Many were simply outraged at the fact that Navalny was so brazenly thrown in jail. 

The recent investigation by Navalny which exposed Putin’s massive palace, situated on the Black Sea coast did nothing to help the state. This, especially to a population that has suffered economically, with many losing their jobs, was seen as simply too much. 

The Protest

After Navalny’s arrest, he called on his supporters to come out on January 23. Many ‘political analysts’ were skeptical about the potential for a large turnout, as most of Russia had below-zero temperatures, as well as the threat of the coronavirus which continues to paralyze most of Russia. 

In addition, as per usual, pro-Navalny activists and organizers were arrested en masse. Many of them are facing up to 30 days in detention for organizing ‘unregistered protests’. The Russian prosecutor’s office also sent requests to Tiktok, Youtube, and other social media platforms to remove all content on the upcoming protests, which these platforms blindly obeyed. Tiktok removed up to 50% of all content about the protests. Finally, to stop young people from participating in the protests, schools were required to hold compulsory events on January 23. 

Despite all the repression and preparations that the state undertook, probably more than a hundred thousand people turned out across the country. The only recent protests with comparable turnout would be the ‘He is not Dimon to you,’ protests in 2017 which were against the prime minister at the time accused of corruption by Navalny and his team. Moreover, the Navalny protests were probably more national in scale, which specifically considering the circumstances in which it took place, makes the turnout even more impressive. 

What was most surprising was the large turnout in regional cities which are usually considered apathetic and aren’t considered pro-opposition places. This was seen in towns like Tyumen, Vladimir, or Saratov, where over a thousand people turned up despite the harsh weather and massive presence of riot police. In general, this is a sign of the growing dissatisfaction and increasing anti-Putin movement outside of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities. 

As always, the state police organized mass detainments, often using extremely violent methods. To scare protestors in the European part of Russia, riot police organized an especially harsh crackdown in the far Eastern parts of Russia, like Khabarovks and Vladivostok. All in all the police detained over 3,000 people across the country, an unprecedented number. At the same time, protesters also fought back with whatever means they had available. For example, protesters in Moscow threw snowballs at riot police. In general, however, protesters were incredibly peaceful despite all sorts of provocations from the police. 

What next? 

The current protests were undoubtedly a massive accomplishment for all people against the current regime. Thousands of people came out to protest in a largely peaceful way. In the end, while the protests were sparked due to Navalny’s arrest, ultimately they were a protest against the suffocating powers of repression the state currently wields as well as the lavish spending by government figures. 

It is important for the protests to remain organized and consistent, until not just Navalny but all political prisoners are released. In addition, immediate reforms to ease protests and to expand citizens’ political rights must take place. Finally, a real investigation into Putin’s palace and all high ranking corruption must be initiated and led by an impartial committee. 

Despite the success of the recent protests at mobilizing people from all across the country, there is still a long way to go until Russia will be free from both the dictatorship of Putin and the dictatorship of capital. 

Most importantly, the current protest movement remains a predominantly idealistic petit-bourgeois movement comprised of younger people. For true change to be achieved in Russia, a movement that doesn’t just include, but is led by the working class masses is needed. And unfortunately, the working class has become apathetic. Seeing both the failure of Russian colonial neo-liberal capitalism of the 90s as well the failure of Putin’s ‘national’ capitalism, the working class being forced to choose between these two systems prefers to remain on the side lines. 

Unfortunately, a large amount of the Russian population still remains lumpenized due to incessant propaganda. This leads many Russians to side with reactionarism and national-chauvinism, especially in the face of increasing international pressure. These ideas only benefit the bourgeoisie and in fact serve only one purpose: to defend the current system. 

At the same time, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation continues to fail to organize a true socialist alternative, instead only offering moderate social-democratic reforms wrapped in Soviet symbolism and the bitter taste of reactionarism and opportunism. This is unsurprising, especially after realizing that the current leaders of the ‘Communists’ benefit from the current capitalist system and that they have been busy watering down any really radical demands ever since the 90s. The rest of the Left in Russia is in an even sadder state: the Kremlin organized spoiler parties with reactionary rhetoric, Stalinist sects, minor parties with few members that constantly bicker, and extremely sectarian ‘Marxist’ clubs. The only small ray of light is the growing Russian Lefttube, embodied by Youtubers like Konstantin Semin or VestnikBuri, both of whom have over 200,000 subscribers. Unfortunately however, attempts to translate this interest into a real organization capable of challenging the monopoly of the ‘Communists’ have so far been unsuccessful. 

In conclusion, the only true way for Russia to move towards a brighter future is a working-class led movement organized behind the idea of socialism, which rejects both reactonarism and petit-bourgeois liberalism. This movement must be committed and willing to take power and smash the machine of state repression that Putin has built. Only such a movement can unite the youth with a promise of true freedom from both capitalism and state repression, the working class with a promise of true liberation, democracy, and better living conditions, as well as the senior population with the promise of a stable life and good healthcare. 

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