Loretta Marie Perera reports from Moscow.
The first two months of 2021 in Russia have been outlined by protest, police brutality, arrests, a fight for justice, and more.
Centred around the return, arrest, and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, massive country-wide protests transformed the streets of Russia, both in central Moscow and far beyond. On 23 and 31 January, and following Navalny’s sentencing on 2 February, protestors took to the streets by the thousands. As the protests grew, so did police presence, and along with it violence on the streets that was both live-streamed and heavily documented on social media as videos of riot squads exerting their force, photos of mass arrests being made, and stories of the treatment of detainees made their way around the internet, and the world.
Internationally, world and European leaders have called for the release of Navalny, announced sanctions, and sent a top diplomat to confront Moscow – the first move of its kind since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But as Russia’s left finds itself in a changing political landscape of new activists and mass movement, one thing is clear: the time to organise is now.
A changing narrative
“[In Russia now], the situation has changed somewhat,” says Denis Razumovsky of Социалистическая Альтернатива (Socialist Alternative). “At first, [the government] tried to ignore the investigation into Putin's palace and completely ignored the protests,” he said, referring to an investigation by Navalny’s team that has been viewed more than 113 million times, with themes and catchphrases that featured heavily in the protests.
“After 11,000 arrests, Navalny's headquarters, which lead the movement, changed tactics and abandoned street protests.”
Due to the massive violence, detainments, and arrests that occured during this time, Navalny’s team has called for two things: attention to be focused on Russia’s parliamentary elections in September 2021, and for citizens to gather in more localised forms of protest, including the recent "Любовь сильнее страха" or “Love is stronger than fear” light-themed protests all were encouraged to organise in their own neighbourhood courtyards on 14 February.
This current tactic, Denis said, is a step in the right direction, and can lead to greater unification of efforts. “We believe that in the current conditions, it is not a bad decision if people use courtyard gatherings to make acquaintances, organize grassroots struggle committees and then mobilize for protests and strikes,” he said.
This sentiment is shared by Anya, a member and activist from SocFemAlt (СоцФем Альтернатива) – or the Socialist-Feminist Alternative. “On the 23rd and 31st, approximately the same number of people came out in Moscow, but the brightest moment at the beginning of the protests was the huge support of the regions,” said Anya, pointing to an important fact about these protests – unlike former public action, these were not limited to Russia’s largest and most populated cities.
“In general, a large number of people want to continue the struggle, but due to the lack of a strong coordinator from above, they have stopped,” said Anya.
Rather than defeat, it is this that allows for progress and coordination, said Anya, who is also a member of Socialist Alternative and Queer Resistance. “It is necessary to promote the idea of grassroots coordination and the creation of committees of struggle to the masses, to explain to people that there is no need to have a leader from above,” she said. “There are other, more effective ways to fight the regime.”
Alexander Siriskin, who was arrested during protests in Moscow, said that the increasing danger of protesting is precisely why collective action is necessary. “There is no point in being a hero alone,” said Alexander, who frequents protests and was on 31 January arrested for the first time. Recalling sitting in a prison cell with a dedicated libertarian (Alexander himself identifies as a progressive socialist), political differences became less relevant. “Against the background of police brutality,” he said, “we developed a strong friendship.”
Alexander (in blue hood) at a protest in Moscow
What happens next?
While the street protests have subsided for now, the issues that led to them have not gone away quite as quickly. “The economic crisis has not gone anywhere, the epidemic too, and unemployment and poverty are only growing,” said Denis. “The capitalist system is simply not able to cope with these problems, and people will look for a way out.”
Because of this general unrest, he predicts, it won’t take much to provoke a new wave of protests.
With this in mind, Denis said, it is essential for socialists to keep their finger on the pulse, participate in the struggle, help people organise themselves, and offer their own program and revolutionary perspective. Next month, for example, a strike against the regime, oppression, and poverty is being co-organised by SocFem and Socialist Alternative.
For Alexander, the main goal now is to continue to take action while fighting for democracy in Russia. “There is more and more interest in social policy in society,” he said. “Navalny began to use more and more leftist rhetoric – I don't know whether it's speculative or not – but it doesn't matter now. All these ideological differences will [only] matter when basic democratic principles emerge in the country.”
Riot police forcefully detained nine activists at a protest in Kazan on 14 February. Photo by SocFem
Coordination and collective action is key during what Anya describes as a wave of mass politicization. “Considering that the overwhelming majority of the protesters are not tied to Navalny, but participated for their own rights, we consider it necessary to be present at all these actions in order to communicate with people and invite them to join us.”
“Of those polled, 42% in Moscow came out to protest for the first time after Navalny's arrest,” she said. “The presence of the left is the only force inviting people to put forward their own demands, and achieve them with the help of grassroots coordination.”
Words for the world
As Russia’s socialists continue to organise and activate, there are some important takeaways they believe is essential for the international socialist movement to understand the movement in a Russian context.
To SocFem, it is important to stand by their position of cooperation with various other groups. “A large number of leftists, both in Russia and abroad, do not approve of our participation in actions organized by the liberal opposition, motivating their words by the fact that we need to go out only to left-wing protests,” said Anya. Due to the fact that most leftists are keen to distance themselves from Navalny’s politics, the question has risen for many: to stand with or against? For the socialist-feminist organisation, the answer is clear.
“Our position on this issue remains unchanged: we will continue to go out to all civil protests promoting demands similar to ours, such as ‘freedom for political prisoners’.”
To better understand this movement, it is important to understand the shifting demographic of Russia’s protest movement, Socialist Alternative said. Because Putin’s politics no longer suit the needs of an increasing number of people across different classes and strata of society, Denis said, the movement while still unorganized, young, and working class at heart, has itself become inter-class in nature.
And while this temporary opportunity for organisation is good, it isn’t enough for addressing key issues.
“Politicians like Navalny want to change the faces at the top without changing anything in essence,” Denis said. “Let's say he comes to power, will he go against these billionaires? No, he will negotiate with them, their parties will be in parliament.”
It is then that socialist solutions and true democracy need to step in.
“Real democracy can be built today only on the basis of a democratic, planned economy,” said Denis. “it is necessary to deprive the oligarchs and billionaires of their economic and political weapons, and to socialize all large enterprises, banks, use their resources to increase living standards, finance high-quality free medicine and education, and to multiply salaries.”
Rather than aligning only with your leftist comrades or fellow progressive socialists, Alexander believes, it is simply human qualities such as honesty, courage, and sticking to your principles that are most important now.
“Consolidation is needed,” said Alexander. “This is the only way to create a really strong opposition. Otherwise, we will not win.”