20 years under Putin: a timeline

Alexei Navalny’s much-publicized return to Russia, his arrest and criminal trial triggered a new wave of protests across Russia. However, according to Ofer Fridman, this short-lived upheaval has been a wasted historical opportunity to turn anti-Putin activism into pro-Russia politics.

 

May 6, 2013: Alexei Navalny delivers a speech at the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow at the first anniversary of the anti-government protests that resulted in clashes with police, mass arrests, and a politically motivated Bolotnaya case. Photo: Evgeny Feldman | Novaya Gazeta (via Wikimedia Commons).

 

On April 16, 1917, a Russian political activist, persecuted by the Russian government for many years, arrived by train from exile to a tumultuous reception at Finland Station in Petrograd. He made his career by openly criticizing the existing regime, by appealing to the political consciousness of the masses, which he desired to save from this corrupted and autocratic regime, and ultimately by suffering the consequences of his political actions. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and the rest is history.

On January 17, 2021, another Russian political activist, persecuted by the Russian government for many years, arrived by plane from exile to a no less tumultuous reception at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. He too made his career by openly criticizing the existing regime, by appealing to the political consciousness of the masses, which he desired to save from this corrupted and autocratic regime, and ultimately by suffering the consequences of his political actions. His name was Alexei Navalny, and his return was as unremarkable as Lenin’s was history-making.

The main difference between these two arrivals is that Lenin, on his train, realized something that Navalny failed to grasp on his plane—the historic moment to become a politician. Two main and very important factors separate an activist from a politician. First, while both can be highly critical of the existing regime, a politician not only fights against it (similar to an activist), but also offers a better future (or at least their interpretation of it)—something that an activist is not required to do. In other words, an activist only propagates change; a politician offers an alternative.

The second important factor that turns an activist into a politician is the readiness to put their ideas about this future to the test of the masses. And this is not an easy decision. It requires much courage and political maturity, especially in the face of a regime that would go great lengths to stay in power. 

On his arrival at Finland Station, Lenin underwent the transformation from activist to politician. His April Theses were a plan for action, his slogans “End to the War,” “Land to the Peasants,” and “Factories to the Workers” were a more concrete version of the vague “better future” sold to the masses. The Bolsheviks not only argued that “we will destroy this world of violence, down to the foundations…,” but also “we will build our new world. He who was nothing will become everything!” Lenin took the risk, and the rest, as I already said, is history. 

Navalny, however, on his return to Moscow, preferred to stay in his activist comfort zone. No “January Theses” (plan for action) were outlined, no visions or versions of a “better future” were offered. Instead, another video-investigation in support of Navalny’s main line of activism was released online, accusing (again) Putin of corruption. While the video did enjoy high levels of viewership, it failed to take people to the streets in their masses—of the 26 percent of the public who had watched (or at least heard about) the film, 77 percent stated that it did not change their attitude towards Putin. 

On the one hand, the situation Navalny faced was incomparably more difficult than the one Lenin faced in 1917, when the Tsarist regime had already fallen and the Russian Provisional Government was paralyzed by political factionalism and the general breakdown of state structures. On the other hand, before his return to Russia, Navalny enjoyed an unprecedented (for an activist) approval rating among the Russian public. In September 2020, 20 percent of the public approved his actions—Lenin could only dream about such a support. Moreover, approximately the same number closely followed the protests associated with the arrest of Navalny on his return to Moscow. While this implies that approximately 20 percent of the Russian people sympathized with Navalny’s cause, it does not mean they were ready to take action.

Only activists try to achieve political goals for personal reasons—true politicians achieve personal goals through political activity. And only a true politician would recognize the difference.

Indeed, the tens of thousands of protesters, who took to the streets in over 100 towns and cities across Russia demanding the release of Navalny, who was arrested immediately after he landed in Moscow, were just a small fraction of those sympathizers who preferred to stay home. I agree with Navalny’s top aide Leonid Volkov that fear of possible repression prevented many from joining. His statement, however, that “we are not fighting for two percent or even 20 percent, we are fighting for a political majority, and these actions clearly demonstrated that” is, again, a statement of another avid activist. After all, even if he is right about the numbers of demonstrators, 300,000 people is only 0.26 percent of 112 millionpotentially politically-active adult Russians. To make it worse, these 300,000 constituted only 1.3 percent of the 22.5 million (20 percent of the population above 18) who already approved of and sympathized with Navalny. This might be a victory for an activist, but for a politician who has already won the minds (and perhaps hearts) of 20 percent of the population, it falls short of even a moderate achievement. 

These people were ready to follow Navalny the politician, not Navalny the activist. They wanted him to offer them a better future. Instead, he gave them the same old story of “Putin Go Away” without any light at the end of the tunnel. Navalny’s return to Russia on January 17, 2021, was thus a wasted historical opportunity to turn anti-Putin activism into pro-Russia politics.

This is not surprising. After all, Navalny has never dared (or matured) to become a full-fledged politician. He prefers to remain a political activist—an activist with a political cause, who is familiar with the rules of the game and knows how to play it well. But that doesn’t amount to being a true politician. Only activists try to achieve political goals for personal reasons—true politicians achieve personal goals through political activity. And only a true politician would recognize the difference.

This lack of political flare is not only Navalny’s fault. It characterizes the overall state of what is colloquially called the Russian opposition—group of individuals and institutions that oppose the Kremlin mainly from exile. The level of anti-Putinism among them is understandable. For many, it is personal. But the state of their “fight” against the Kremlin could be likened to the state of climate-change activism. It has its own Gretas (Thunberg)—who are good at finger-wagging, but do not offer many solutions. It has its own Bills (Gates)—who are good at donating money for a good cause and offer plans for the future, but prefer to stay out of direct political involvement.

The main difference between the climate-change and anti-Putin activisms is that the former is already a politicized issue and the latter is not—at least in Russia. Politically speaking, climate change concerns both people and politicians who are divided by their positions, judged by their actions on the issue, and compete with their opponents to achieve political gains. And the U.S. turbulent affair with the Paris Agreement is a good example of that.

Despite the anti-Putinism of the Russian opposition, Putin remains the only political consensus among the majority of Russians. People might disapprove of the prime minister, the State Duma, or governors, but Russians do like their president. They might believe that Putin is connected to corrupt politicians, that people’s interests are alien to him, and that his rule is based on the siloviki, but they still think of him in more positive-neutral ways, rather than negative. Maybe Russian poet Ivan Tyutchev was right to say that “Russia cannot be known by the mind.” But he also said that “Russia can only be believed in”: 22.5 million Russians were ready to believe in Navalny-politician, but he, driven by his anti-Putin activism, failed to believe in them—unlike Lenin, he did not trust the masses with his ideas about Russia’s future.

In some ways, perhaps, it is good that Navalny is not Lenin. His inability to become a politician and lead millions to the streets may have saved Russia from another revolution with all the tragic economic, military, political, and social consequences that revolutions bring about. Maybe we should, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky suggests, wait “five maybe ten more years” until the regime in Moscow tumbles by itself. But then what is the purpose of Free Russia Foundation’s roadmap for a new Russia, Khodorkovsky’s principles for the post-Putin Russia, the Institute of Modern Russia’s Post-Putin Russia: Plan of Reforms, and other visionary products of the Russian opposition, other than patting themselves on the back? After all, to repeat Khodorkovsky himself: “nobody knows how it [Putin’s regime] will end,” and Russian history shows that a power turnover in the Kremlin (peaceful or not) usually produces surprises (good or bad) for both the Russian people and those who lead this process. When a new transition does happen, Russia will need a true politician, not an activist, to lead the country, and it does not seem that it has one yet.

 

* Dr. Ofer Fridman is Lecturer in War Studies, King’s College London.    

 

Russia under Putin

IMR would like to announce a new vacancy position in the capacity of president of the organization. The potential candidates should have at least 10 years of relevant experience, profound knowledge of Russian politics, and understanding of the current US media and political landscape. Please refer to the full job description here.

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.