Home inFocus Russia: Inside the Enigma (Fall 2017) Social Unrest in Putin’s Russia

Social Unrest in Putin’s Russia

Ilya Levkov Fall 2017
Demonstrators at anti-corruption protest in Russia earlier this year. (Photo: Alexei Zatevakhin)

Looking at events in Russia’s domestic and foreign affairs that have recently created spasms at home and friction with the West, and slowed the development of a new Russian polity, the question arises, “Why, amid it all, does Vladimir Putin enjoy such strong political and popular support, and why has broad social unrest been minimal?”

Social unrest in Russia is not a new phenomenon. It began immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power with the introduction of the secret police known as the Cheka. This state of affairs was called Military Bolshevism. It was followed by the Civil War, forced industrialization, and collectivization. Riots even took place in some cities in the post-Stalin period when workers demanded improvements in their dire existence.

Modern Political Unrest

The apex of social protest took place on May 6, 2012 in Moscow at Bolotnaya Square, led by Sergei Udaltsov, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kas’yanov, Eduard Limonov, Aleksei Navalny, Chess Master Garry Kasparov, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Vladimir Ryzhkov. Their demands were:

• The resignation of Vladimir Putin;

• Dissolution of a “non-legitimate” Duma (Parliament);

• Immediate release of all political prisoners;

• Annulment of the recent election, removal of the Head of the Election Committee and an investigation of election fraud ;

• Registration of all parties of opposition and safeguarding their legal status; and

• New, open and honest elections.

The authorities perceived this as a Russian variation of the Ukrainian call for freedom – Maidan – and responded harshly. More than 400 demonstrators were detained and 30 held on criminal charges. Sixteen demonstrators received sentences from 2.4 to 4.5 years in prison camps; two were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions.

The Present Challenge

The two more recent events that might have caused friction for the regime were the Winter Olympics and the annexation of Crimea. To what extent – if at all – did they move the needle of Putin’s popularity?

1. Staging the Winter Olympics in Sochi in the spirit of national glory was a master stroke by Putin despite scandals concerning the costs, corruption, and revelation of participation in the systemic state-sponsored doping of Russian sportsmen. The International Olympic Committee demanded the return of 23 medals; the sportsmen refused. The result was to raise Putin’s popularity.

2. The details of the occupation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine are well documented. Less well understood are three political frameworks put in place by the Russian government to help move Russian opinion to favor military action:

a. A Human Rights slogan/organization “World Without Nazism” was created in several countries in Europe and in Israel as a springboard to accuse the Baltic States and Ukraine of being fascist. This idealistic-sounding movement found many adherents.

b. Creation of a politicized youth movement called “Nashi” (Ours), designed to be against “strangers,” borrowing “the enemy of the people” from Stalin. It is a tactic to divide people and a dog-whistle to loyalists who oppose strangers, foreigners, and those “not like us.” Because of their zeal and blind loyalty to Putin, they are sometimes called “Nashisty,” echoing the Russian term “Fashisty.”

c. A call to defend the cultural and linguistic rights of ethnic Russians in the near abroad (the former Soviet Republics). Putin has candidly stated that the Russian language should become an instrument of Russia’s influence abroad. He is aided by the nationalist Organization of Russian Bikers. Dressed in traditional biker leather, they crisscrossed several states with huge flags projecting their might and making explicit threats.

The reverberations of military action in Crimea – and the documented deaths of Russian soldiers – divided Russians despite the efforts of the government. The intelligentsia, which had begun to pride itself on being an integral part of the European cultural heritage, was particularly appalled to find itself occupying a neighboring country. At every social and cultural gathering there was an unspoken question, “Are you for or against the occupation?” This poisonous trauma was intensified because the state, and to a lesser degree prominent businessmen (oligarchs) heavily subsidize the world of art and culture. And the oligarchs are tightly integrated with the government.

It might have been predicted that this schism would translate into lowering Putin’s popularity and energizing his political opponents, perhaps making them viable in the forthcoming elections.

But it didn’t happen.

The questions asked by reputable pollster VTsIOM All-Russian Research Center of Public Opinion in August 2016 provide a clue as to why: the concerns of average Russians may be different from those of the intelligentsia.

1. “Our state needs stability, which is more important than reforms and the changes they promise” – 63 percent agreed.

• “Our state needs change, new reforms, even when they might present a risk of loosing stability” – 30 percent agreed.

2. “Russia’s policy should be oriented to strengthen sovereignty and development of native Russian civilization” – 72 percent.

3.  “Russia must be a great power with military might and influence all political processes in this world” – 58 percent.

• “Russia shouldn’t strive toward its super-power might, it should pay attention to the wellbeing of its own citizens” – 33 percent.

4. “Russia needs an iron hand, which will ensure order in it” – 66 percent agreed.

• “Political liberties and democracy must be retained under all conditions” – 25 percent.

5. “I identify with this statement: ‘It is highly important for a person to live in security. He tries to avoid anything that might harbor danger. It is important to him to follow traditions and customs practiced in his family or religion. He should behave correctly and not behave in the manner which wouldn’t have been approved by his circle.’” – 58 percent.

“The following sentence is close to my view: ‘It is important for a person to offer new ideas, to be a creative personality, to follow his own path. Adventures and risks are important for him, since he strives toward a life full of engrossing events.’” – 35 percent.

This indicates what kind of a leader the majority of Russians are inclined to support, it seems, regardless of the general decline in the quality of life for a growing number of people. The following points appeared in Russian newspapers this year, but have led to no open opposition to the government.

• Real income declined 19.2 percent from 2014-2017. Prices for basic food staples, clothes, medication, and household items all rose by more than 20 percent in the same time frame. The price for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables have risen by more than 35 percent.

• The real rate of inflation is triple the official rate.

• 10 percent of Russian citizens report they can barely meet their monthly expenses.

• Movie director Andrey Konchalovsky said recently, “I am eager to be proud of my Motherland, but I am ashamed of it. Our nation is on the path of self-destruction.” He went on to list grievances: “In the past decade we lost 11,000 villages and 290 towns in Siberia alone. We have dismembered our families, and the result is that 8 of 10 elderly people living in institutions have relatives that could support them… Thirty thousand people die annually from drugs and 70,000 from overdrinking vodka.”

Surprisingly, none of these realities moved the masses to demand that the regime keep its eye on improving the life of millions of average Russian citizens.

The present leading candidate of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, is a one-issue candidate – focused on corruption. His additional appeal is to Russian nationalism, albeit not the most radical form. The other potential outsider for leadership is Sergei Udaltsov who just was released from prison.

Accidental Unrest?

It seems that most of the (limited) social unrest in Russia today is being initiated and provoked not by those two opposition leaders but by the government itself! It was not planned that way.

The forthcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution is being dominated by the government’s decisions on four issues that have generated a quantity of measured social protest and unrest.

First is the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. While 40 percent of the population considers Stalin to be directly responsible for millions of victims of repression, in 2009, the chief architect of Moscow approved the return of Stalin’s bust to the vestibule of the “Kurskaya” subway station. This year, new monuments to Stalin are being created, most in peripheral areas, including North Ossetia, taken by Russia from Georgia, and Kaliningrad between Lithuania and Poland. And Stalin’s bust stands at the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

Some 53 percent of Russians consider the reintroduction of monuments to Stalin to be problematic, but the unhappiness has not risen to a level that could be called social unrest.

Second is the first monument to Ivan IV, the first Tsar of Russia – also known as Ivan the Terrible – erected in the city of Orel last summer. The initiative came from a governor who believes the tsar was a great sovereign and reformer whose historical importance has been unjustly denigrated.

Opponents view Ivan IV as the tsar who rode Russia into darkness. For them, Ilya Repin’s historic painting of Ivan IV embracing the bleeding head of the son he just killed is the best representation. Ivan IV established special military repressive units – Oprichniki – that served numerous tsars and became the initial secret police – Cheka, headed by the infamous Feliks Dzerzhinsky – under the Soviets. The former Duma Deputy representing Orel, Yury Malyutin, filed a suit against the monument that is still under deliberation.

In July 2017, a full sculpture of the Tsar Ivan was placed in the front of the “Alee of Russia’s Sovereigns” in Moscow.

This trend of writing Russia’s history of glory and achievements in monuments may have reached its apex with a monument on a street where Anton Chekhov, one of Russia’s most prominent writers, once lived. But the 15-foot monument on a 6-foot pedestal will not be Chekhov, but rather Mikhail Kalashnikov holding his eponymous invention.

Unexpectedly, a third source of unhappiness comes from Putin’s staunch defender, the Russian Orthodox Church. At issue is a film called Matilda, which received state financial support and license to be screened across Russia. Matilda was a ballet dancer of Polish heritage who “dated” Prince Nikolai in 1892. What raised the ire of the Church and others is that the tsar’s family is presented in an undignified light. These groups see dark forces set to undermine Russian heritage and the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the forced abdication of the royal throne.

This has created unrest within Putin’s circle of friends and supporters. Opposing the film are the Head of the House of Romanov; the head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Moscow Patriarchy; the head of the Church’s Council on Cultural Affairs; and a Duma Deputy who asked the attorney general to verify the proper moral contents of this film. A wealthy Christian donor to the Russian Orthodox Church has shot a counter film titled Lies of Matilda. Channel 1 – a pro-Putin channel – has refused to show it.

Fourth is the odd case of film director Kirill Serebrennikov, accused of stealing over 66.5 million rubbles from the state and today under house arrest in Moscow. Serebrennikov, gay and Jewish, is held in high esteem in Europe as well as Russia, and is known for radical productions including full nudity, pedophilia and homosexuality. As a director of Gogol Center, he received a generous state salary and made only mild and cautious political statements. He told an Italian journalist in 2008: “Yes, there is a dose of censorship on (Russian) TV, but I prefer to work, rather than to become a basement dissident. There are pragmatic people at the top who are striving for Russia’s Western model of development.”

Asked if he would vote for prime minister and former president Dmitri Medvedev, he replied: “Yes, I hope that he will act more on his liberal views. He is a capitalist and felt the power of money. But all other candidates are not serious. I do not like that others decide for me…. The roots of our problem are not so much in the leadership, as within the nation. The problem is that contemporary Russia wants this regime. We should not criticize Putin – the problem is within us.”

Such an establishment and prominent person could not be arrested and charged with theft without and against the wish of Vladimir Putin. Why would he?

It is possible that Putin has just moved his first pawn in the 2018 election to test its effectiveness in garnering popular support. Serebrennikov expressed lukewarm support for the dual leadership, but he praised the “good cop” Medvedev rather than Putin. Not since the occupation of Crimea in 2014 has the Russian intelligentsia undergone such a social-political rift, wanting to support Serebrennikov, but wary of losing the freedoms they enjoy. But social media on the event revealed waves of deep public anger against the cultural elite and support for the regime, suggesting Putin knew what he was doing.

Potential Challengers to Putin

Finally, a few words about the most prominent politicians considered potential successors to Putin. Most are insiders and the top five are:

1 – Prime Minister Medvedev;

2 – Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin;

3 – Governor of Tula Alexey Dyumin;

4 – Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu;

5 – Chair of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko.

The highest-ranking outsiders were head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov (13) and Alexey Navalny (19).

Navalny, who has spearheaded a popular movement against corruption, represents the new generation of Russian politicians who have achieved national attention. At 41, he has personal experience and familiarity with Western and American political thinking. He identifies with the national-church mode of Russian politics and goals, and criticizes the influx of citizens from the Central Asian former Soviet republics. All these place him somewhere to the right of center on today’s political map. Some conspiracy-minded thinkers, and there are many, see Navalny as set up by Putin.

The other representative of the “Young Turks” today is Sergei Udaltsov who was just released from a 4.5-year term in a penal colony. In his first extensive interview, Udaltsov made three main points: First, that he seeks an amalgamation of parties on the Left with moderate Nationalists to create a Third Block as a counter to Putin’s United Russia. Udaltsev cannot lead the bloc, as he is banned from any federal elected position for the next 18 years. Second, he believes the people of Crimea and Donbas should have the right of self-determination to leave or join the Russian Federation. And third, he opposes “elites” and “soulless capitalists” who embrace a Western model for Russia.

The West has heralded Navalny and Udaltsov, but there are serious impediments to their becoming a meaningful balancing party, either separately or in coalition. Neither the oligarchs nor several layers of affluent “New Russians” below them are inclined to give away their accumulated wealth. The middle class aspires to become the upper class, not to see it destroyed.

Neither objects to Putin’s recent wars or is prepared to campaign against new ones, which will not serve them well with the intelligentsia. In the best case, as Navalny has said, the wars are “too expensive for us.” The anti-war party “Yabloko” uses the same rationale to stop fighting in Syria: “One shot of “Kalibr” rockets could cover the salaries of 2,600 teachers or 2,000 doctors.” That’s it. The wars are not wrong or evil, just too damned expensive!

The most recent poll on people’s self-perception points out that reformists in any case would have an uphill battle. On August 21, 2017 VTsIOM conducted a poll of 1,200 people 18 years and older, about the core symbols of the Russian state. The three leading symbols of pride are: the Russian Hymn – 75 percent; the Russian Coat of Arms – 72 percent; and the Russian flag – 71 percent.

A poll conducted on August 25th shows that 81 percent of citizens approve of Putin’s work as president and 79 percent trust him. Had the elections taken place the next day, 65 percent would have voted for him. Only 11 percent expressed disapproval of his policies. Most revealing are Medvedev’s ratings – his positive and negative ratings are equal at 39 percent, and while 41 percent trust the prime minister, 50 percent do not.

Boris Akunin, a prominent contemporary writer, succinctly summarized the present problem: “The Russian people en masse are not ready yet to collect in political resistance. Fear of self-induced change is set deep into the Russian psyche, preferring the unbearable reality to unknown threats of the future.”

Ilya Levkov is founding publisher of Liberty Publishing House and a Russian-language syndicated columnist.