Infernal Machine   /   August 9, 2017

Navalny’s Gamble

Guest Blogger

Alexei Navalny via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, Russia’s uncommonly chilly early summer and volatile political atmosphere gave rise to a joke. Putin goes to a fortune teller and asks: “How long do I have left?” The fortune teller responds, “You have one summer.” “All right,” Putin says, “No more summers!”

The delayed summer weather finally arrived, but Putin’s government is still pretending that the protests that have been occurring since late March are isolated eruptions fomented by provocateurs, in particular by the opposition blogger Alexei Navalny. To maintain this pretense the authorities have deployed overt repression, covert intimidation, and ideological indoctrination to stifle public displays of dissent. Yet the recent wave of protests on June 12, Russia’s Independence Day, demonstrated that these tactics have only inflamed the spirit of disobedience.

Many young Russians are eager to proclaim their independence from the corrupt and unjust regime, and the March 26 protests, dubbed “the children’s crusade,” announced that a new generation has joined politics. High schoolers and college students who have grown up under Putin have paradoxically turned out to be more free and idealistic than their parents who had a taste of Gorbachev’s glasnost and Yeltsin’s reforms. Their youthful enthusiasm in denouncing corruption and naive assertion of their constitutional right to free assembly caught everyone, including the government and its obedient media, by surprise.

While the government-controlled media kept silent, the police and security forces arrested thousands in order to break up the demonstrations. Afterwards, participants were threatened with expulsion by school principals and college administrators. Prompted from above, many teachers lectured students on “patriotism” and “extremism” and told them to stay away from the internet and politics. Many of these “lectures,” recorded by students and uploaded to social media, show just how reactionary and subservient to the government these educators are. Small wonder their students have long stopped listening to their teachers and embraced peer education on social media.

In addition to punishment and threats, Kremlin ideologues tried to discredit Navalny and appeal to young citizens by using twenty-first  century communication tools, the tools that have allowed Navalny’s anti-corruption videos to spread so rapidly. Thus several weeks after the March protests there came a YouTube video that depicted Navalny as a new Hitler. Navalny’s nationalist sympathies—for which he has been criticized by Russian liberals—are not a secret, but the video was so comically inept in achieving its goals that Navalny posted it on his website as yet another sign of the government being out of touch with its intended audience.

More efforts to sway young minds followed, this time involving music videos by pop singer Alisa Vox and rapper Ptakha (“Birdie”). Vox, dressed in a mini skirt, played the part of a sexy teacher who scolded her teenage students for attending demonstrations and admonished them to study math instead. Rapper Ptakha recorded a song in which he painted protestors of March 26 as spoiled adventure seekers who were funded by Uncle Sam. It was soon revealed that these performances had been paid for by the Kremlin. Both artists have become laughing stocks on social media.

But the height of unintended comic relief was supplied by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, one of the targets in Navalny’s video expose of Prime Minister Medvedev’s corrupt assets. Not content with filing a defamation suit against Navalny in a Moscow court, Usmanov recorded two videos of himself addressing Navalny in most unflattering terms. He ended the first video with “I spit on you!” and the second with “I spit on you once more!” Usmanov’s dour persona and poor rhetorical skills have become a source of amusement in liberal circles, and “I spit on you” has become a cultural meme. Like other attempts at discrediting Navalny, these videos only increased the politician’s name recognition.

Usmanov was the only pro-Kremlin figure who directly acknowledged Navalny as a threat, and his admittedly ham-handed appeals, if not directly engineered by the Kremlin, were among an array of means to thwart this David versus Goliath presidential campaign. Predictably, Usmanov won his suit against Navalny, and the politician was court-ordered to take down his anti-Medvedev video. Navalny’s response to this was an emphatic “no.” Undaunted, Navalny continued to make more videos, each ending with the phrase “subscribe to our channel, truth is spoken here.”

Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade is not the only protest movement ignored by the media. The “Open Russia” organization sponsored a nation-wide action during which citizens delivered petitions asking Putin to resign. The action’s slogan was “Nadoyel,” or “we are fed up.” In Southern Russia, independent truck drivers protested increased tariffs on road use which would obliterate their meager profits. In Moscow, thousands of residents took to the street in opposition to the mayor’s plan to demolish their Khruschev-era five-story apartment buildings to clear room for new high-rise construction that would enrich private developers.

Civic anger has been simmering across the country, and its causes—the government’s corruption and disregard for citizens’ basic property rights and economic needs—have been largely non-ideological. But Putin’s government has refused to see these protests as a legitimate form of feedback and instead relied on direct force or intimidation to stifle dissent. This attitude was on full display on June 12, when the officially allowed protest meeting in Moscow, for which Navalny had applied in advance, was sabotaged by the mayor’s office. The authorities have made it impossible for Navalny’s team to find a contractor to install a stage and sound system necessary to conduct the event as planned. Refusing to play by the government’s twisted rules, on the night of June 11 Navalny called on his supporters to “go for a walk” along Tverskaya street, Moscow’s major thoroughfare and the location of the Day of Russia festivities. The authorities’ retaliation was swift: Navalny was arrested the next day before he left his apartment building. In Moscow center, to prevent the protest from interfering with “normal” festivities, police and security forces in riot gear arrested anyone who looked suspicious or chanted slogans and pushed the rest of the crowd off Tverskaya.

The head of the department of Regional Security Vladimir Chernikov boasted later that day that the size of protest in Moscow—about five thousand, in his estimation—was negligible compared to the festive crowds. Indeed, many onlookers came downtown to enjoy the pageant “Times and Epochs” organized by the mayor’s office. The pageant—featuring men clad in military dress of various epochs and countries—was a fitting symbol of the government’s unabashed preference for force over dialogue. As riot police were grabbing protesters chanting “Russia without Putin,” costumed reenactors wearing uniforms of NKVD, the progenitor of KGB, were strolling nearby. This tableau spoke volumes: You were allowed free assembly only if you came to admire the regime’s glorification of its repressive antecedents.

Navalny’s gamble may have misfired and his presidential ambitions may remain just ambitions. But the lesson the young protesters received on the Day of Russia was clear: They cannot expect the current government to change. The vision of the future Putin’s regime promotes is a grotesque imitation of the country’s totalitarian past. In that vision, there will be no more summers.

Anahata Lovegood (a pseudonym) is a Russian-born scholar teaching in the United States.