20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 1, an “anti-crisis march” organized by Russian opposition leaders is set to be held in Moscow. Its goal is to protest against the war in Ukraine and to show people’s frustration with the economic crisis. Organizers estimate that as many as 100,000 people will participate in the march. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov examines the character and potential of Russia’s protest movement.


The last ten years in Russia have shown that for a protest to become large-scale, people need to be widely disappointed not only in the current state of affairs, but also in the country’s leadership. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev / AP


The March 1 protest is designed to bring thousands of people who disagree with the policies of President Vladimir Putin onto the streets of Moscow and several other major cities. The event is meant to revive the anti-Putin protest movement of 2011-2012. There is some logic to this, since there were quite a few protests held last year in various parts of the country: hunger strikes by health workers in Moscow and Ufa; rallies by holders of mortgages denominated in foreign currencies; rallies calling for the preservation of a park on St. Petersburg’s Kostyushko Street; demonstrations in support of independent television in Tomsk; protests by parents in the Perm Region city of Kudymkar; several different peace marches; and various gatherings in support of the Navalny brothers in December. There were also almost 300 labor marches in 2014. However, none of these events were national in scale. 

It’s not that people in Russia are afraid to protest. It’s that the majority of people in the country do not notice the dismantling of civil liberties or the sporadic repression of the opposition. In March 2014, amid a campaign against NGOs by Russian authorities, only about 10% of the population perceived tension in the relationship between human rights activists and the state. Acts of censorship on the Internet and in the media were carried out under the pretext of protecting moral and religious values, and therefore were endorsed by a majority of people. Due to the influence of state-run television, the number of Russians who believed in the validity of charges against opposition leader Alexei Navalny increased significantly. 

Calls for political protest fall on deaf ears, since most people consider the ruling regime to be legitimate. (It is worth noting here that the main driver of Putin’s increased popularity was the annexation of Crimea and a large-scale confrontation with the West). One of the main indicators of this fact is Putin’s 85% approval rating. The government’s high approval rating has caused protest activity to drop to an all-time low. The social discontent and anxiety caused by the economic crisis are growing, however, and soon this will be reflected in the approval ratings. 

Looking back at Russia’s recent history, it is clear that in order for protests to draw large numbers of people, there must be both widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and unhappiness with the country’s leadership. The mass protests of 2005 and 2011 came after the authorities had lost the support of at least one-third of the population. In the mid-2000s, over the course of just one year, Putin’s approval rating went from 86% to 65% (from December 2003 to January 2005). Between 2008 and December 2011, the number of people who said they approved of Putin dropped from 88% to 63%. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, poll data showed that a majority of people in Russia felt insecure, disoriented, and uncertain about the future. This sentiment was universal among both the xenophobic football fans who rioted on Moscow’s Manezh Square in December 2010 and the participants of the peaceful opposition rallies and marches of 2011-2012. 

So when an authoritarian ruler’s approval rating falls into the “danger zone” of 60-65%, it means that a critical mass of frustrated people has accumulated in the country and criticism of the regime will find sympathetic listeners. When a large segment of society is dissatisfied, any event can trigger open dissent, even an event not necessarily “civic” in nature. In 2005, the impetus for mass protests was the cancelation of social benefits, including free travel on public transportation for the elderly. (A similar situation occurred in Brazil two years ago). In 2011, the protest movement began with protest voting in the parliamentary elections. As a result, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party lost its two-thirds constitutional majority in parliament and, for the first time in many years, the intelligentsia’s frustration with electoral fraud bubbled above the surface. 

The right to justice and a fair trial is among the top five most-desired rights—this can therefore be considered the central point of a common agenda for activists and the general public. 

It is a mistake to think that in 2011-2012, the mass protests were the result of efforts by the political opposition and civil society leaders. Rather, they were a spontaneous reaction by a subsection of Russian society to the government’s abuse of power. Most participants of those rallies took to the streets to voice dissatisfaction with the fact that the state had become unaccountable and authoritarian—not to support opposition leaders and organizations. The existence of a well-developed civilian infrastructure was able to translate discontent into peaceful gatherings, but that infrastructure proved unable to mobilize protesters after the government seized the initiative and the wave of protests began to subside. Social networks, the importance of which is frequently emphasized by activists and researchers, were effective in the early stages of the protests when people were being mobilized, but not later. 

It is important to highlight here that a significant part of the population at that time was receptive to criticism of the authorities. From the very beginning of the protests in 2011-2012, the events enjoyed the sympathy and understanding of almost half the population nationwide (in Moscow, more than half). This was the case not because people trusted the protest leaders or supported their slogans (polls have shown that that was not the case), but because the protests coincided with widespread anxiety over and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and disappointment in the government. 

People believed the protesters to be motivated not only by a desire “to express dissatisfaction with the election results” (in February 2012, 34% thought this was the case), but also by “overall discontent with the state of affairs in the country” (38%). Another 22% of Russians interpreted the protests as a reaction to the authorities’ abuse of power. Under these circumstances, people without clear political preferences began to join the core group of activists. This shift in sentiment by a large segment of the population (i.e., including former Putin supporters) was what made possible the rapid growth of the protest movement, from 2,000 or 3,000 participants in December 2011 to more than 100,000 people in the first half of 2012. 

But there is every reason to believe that this concurrence of the attitudes of ordinary people and activists was coincidental. This explains why the authorities were so successful in creating a divide between the majority of people in the country and the opposition minority. Six months after the first demonstrations, most people in the country no longer agreed with the protesters, saying they did not understand their goals. Then both sides came to reject each other’s points of view. Now, in early 2015, state propaganda has effectively discredited dissenters and opposition figures, making them out to be crooks, perverts, or agents of the West. In turn, among the opposition it has become the norm to call Putin supporters “Colorados,” “vatniki (quilted jackets),” or simply “vaty (cotton wool)” (and to call public opinion polls that show the mood of the majority “cotton wool sociology”). 

It seems that many opposition activists wrongly conclude that the majority of people have the same interests, values, and political preferences as they do. People who only pay attention to the opinions of those in their circles of friends and to the results of surveys on social networks are particularly susceptible to this view. Often there is no attempt to understand what the average Russian cares about and what makes the majority support the existing political order. This leads activists to become disappointed with the majority of their fellow citizens. It is much easier to go on the offensive and reject public opinion polls (which reveal the predominant attitudes in society) as false or fraudulent. But by refusing to believe that such attitudes exist, the opposition will always lose to the ruling authorities, who successfully manipulate public opinion because they monitor it carefully. It seems that the Russian intelligentsia has fallen into a trap similar to that which snared it in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Narodniki movement failed because of its participants’ misconceptions about the interests of the Russian peasantry. 

Recent polls show that the biggest concern of most Russians is social rights. Healthcare, education, and working conditions are of great importance to over 70% of people in the country, whereas the right to participate in public and political life and the freedom of assembly are important for only 15-17%. It is important that the right to justice and a fair trial is also among the top five most-desired rights—this can therefore be considered the central point of a common agenda for activists and the general public. It is also worth noting that the freedom of speech, the right to information, and even the right to freedom of association is much more important to Muscovites than to the population at large. 

The low level of interest in political issues on the part of the majority does not mean that the opposition must abandon important slogans such as “Freedom for political prisoners,” “Freedom of peaceful assembly,” and so on. But democratic values are in themselves important to only a small segment of the population, though they could be crucial to achieving a more just social order. The experience of the 2011-2012 protest movement has already shown that the niche interests of smaller groups can receive recognition by the public, but only within a broader social agenda. By themselves, such interests are unlikely to attract public support.