20 years under Putin: a timeline

At the start of 2013, protest sentiments in Russian society are alive and well, but the inability of opposition leaders to give these sentiments an organized form and their late reaction to events reduce the chances of success. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the prospects for the Russian protest movement will depend to a large extent on self-organization and the search for new forms of opposition activity.



It is commonly known that all Russian literature comes out from Gogol’s “Overcoat”—and that all post-Soviet politics comes out from the overcoat of Stalin. It will take much time and effort to rid our outlook on the world and on our own society of its Soviet mold. It is a difficult task for those who are looking for new ways forward in Russian politics, and obviously an impossible one for those who are content with the previous era’s Soviet values. The former group includes a part of the opposition; the latter, practically all of the current authorities.

It is considered bad manners in Russia to compare today with yesterday. “Don’t try to frighten us with the ghosts of socialism. We are not the same anymore!” chirp both the young political crooks and the worldly-wise Soviet elders who are cheerfully marching into our recent past. Only ten years ago, warnings of an authoritarian restoration were greeted by “elite” society as nonsense. But by the end of 2012, when the Russian parliament began to re-adopt a Soviet style of lawmaking, these warnings no longer seemed so absurd.

Unfortunately, in Russia, we are always slow. Society only perceived the threat once the authoritarian regime began snapping at its heels. A bit too late!

A lack of foresight has never been the soul of success. But tardiness is even worse. In a public confrontation, the one who moves fastest has the best chances. One must size up the situation, respond to events, and make decisions quickly. If the opposition only makes one move while the authorities make four, the odds against the former winning the fight are long indeed.

Throughout 2012, the opposition was behind. When the protests were strong and the authorities at a loss, the opposition held meaningless negotiations and endlessly sought permits for rallies instead of augmenting its efforts and dictating its terms. When the regime recovered, regrouped, and attacked, the opposition began making concessions, cowardly finding excuses in the need for public safety in the face of state abuse. Last summer, when Parliament began passing one antidemocratic law after another, the opposition scolded it lazily, leaving the battlefield to columnists and individual protesters. When street protests subsided, the opposition finally came around to forming a Coordinating Council—when there was practically nothing left to coordinate.

Throughout 2012, the opposition was behind. When the protests were strong and the authorities at a loss, the opposition held meaningless negotiations and endlessly sought permits for rallies.

The extent to which the opposition’s slowness is due to the regime’s covert efforts and the extent to which it is due to the Russian mentality is a question for another time. It can be noted, however, that a tardy and inadequate reaction reduces the public protest to nothing. It is like delayed ignition in a car, when gasoline burns down in the exhaust pipe instead of the engine: the sound is loud, but there is no movement.

Unfortunately, the people who positioned themselves as opposition leaders are considerably more preoccupied with their own self-image than with the success of the cause. The process of obtaining permits for street rallies (which are not required by the law) helps these individuals attract public attention to themselves by issuing dramatic reports on the progress of negotiations. And how many mediocre, fervent, Young Pioneer-like, and endlessly repetitive speeches did they give from the platforms of the rallies before realizing that the participants were listening to them with reluctance or not listening at all? Only when people stopped coming to the rallies but were still coming to marches did these “leaders” realize that they had nothing new to say and stop making speeches. This problem, indeed, is well beyond a coordination issue.

Meanwhile, the unmanageable structure of the Coordinating Council, which was elected by a clearly nondemocratic procedure (with candidates drawn from predetermined ideological blocs), and which includes unashamed opponents of democracy and freedom within its ranks, does not allow for timely or relevant decisions. The problem is not only that a 45-member Council is almost incapable of making a consolidated decision, or that some members are on a mission from the government, or even that the Council is composed not of allies but of political opponents. At heart, the problem is that the people who form the Council have different views on basic values, morals, and rules of public behavior. In such a situation, it is essentially impossible to avoid conflicts. The opposition should have considered this potential for gridlock earlier, before leftists and nationalists were given preferential seats and representatives of government institutions (such as the State Duma) were allowed to take part in the election. If “considering” was too difficult, they could have listened to friendly criticism.


In the election to the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition, 15 seats out of 45 were reserved for representatives of three ideological blocs: leftists, nationalists and liberals.


As a result, the inadequacy of the Coordinating Council is all too clear today. The body stayed silent when the whole society was agitated by the Kopeisk prison protests. It did nothing when the Duma passed “Herod’s Law” in response to America’s Magnitsky Act. In both those cases, one organizing spark would have been enough for street protests to resume with vigor, but the members of the Council failed to seize the moment and take a public stand. They meet, according to schedule, once a month and view opposition activism as a job. They urge people to go to rallies as one goes to work. And why should one overtire oneself at work?

Nevertheless, despite the Council’s inertia, people kept organizing individual and collective protests in front of the Justice Ministry and the State Duma. The following outcry of an Internet user nicknamed “valeriomud” recently appeared on the website of Ekho Moskvy radio station: “Wake up, Coordinating Council! The best people entrusted you with coordinating the protests. It is time to act—act decisively and openly, firmly and massively. They are destroying Russia’s future! They have already banned Americans from adopting our children. It is up to you to decide what, where, with whom, when, for how much, and why. It’s your call!”

Of course, the protest sentiments have not gone anywhere. But only an incurable optimist could think that a negative public attitude is enough to intimidate an authoritarian regime. Many people understand that protests must be topical and timely, and they do what they can to ensure that such protests occur. Every Saturday, “weekend pickets” take place in front of the Duma, reminding passersby of the monstrous laws that the Duma passes on their behalf.

Without waiting for Council members to wake up from hibernation (or return from winter holidays,) a group of civic activists organized the January 13 “March Against Scoundrels” in Moscow in protest of the adoption ban. Unfortunately, organizers surrendered to City Hall pressure, rejecting their original plan to hold the demonstration under the Duma’s windows and agreeing to follow the procedure of securing a permit—although the law only requires advanced notification.

The law banning U.S. adoption of Russian children, passed by the State Duma in response to America’s Magnitsky Act, will have far-reaching consequences. Unlike many other laws and political decisions, this one is openly immoral, as it directly targets Russia’s ill and homeless orphans. Even some regime officials spoke out against the law, breaking the apparent unity of the bloc of crooks and thieves. Stealing billions from the federal budget and destroying one’s political opponents is one thing; throwing little children to the wolves is quite another. Not everyone is willing to do that. The borderline between good and evil is not always evident in politics, but in this case, the distinction is obvious.

Stealing billions from the federal budget and destroying one’s political opponents is one thing; throwing little children to the wolves is quite another. Not everyone is willing to do that.

A similar thing happened in the fall of 1983, when the Soviet Air Force shot down a South Korean airliner on its way from New York to Seoul, killing all 246 passengers and 23 crew members on board. The animal nature of the government was revealed to the whole world. Andropov’s arrogant and embittered excuses for this bloodshed sounded pathetic and disgusting. This tragic story played a large role in the breakdown of the Soviet empire. It was then that many people around the world—and within our country’s borders—realized that the Soviet regime had no right to exist. It was then that, thanks to President Reagan, the Soviet Union became known as the “evil empire.”

“Herod’s Law” could have similar consequences. It is too ugly and too obvious. A petition to the U.S. government to include Russian lawmakers who voted for this bill in the “Magnitsky list” of visa sanctions gathered 54,000 signatures on the White House website in just three days (after which the signature collection was stopped). On the eve of the law’s passage, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper collected more than 100,000 signatures demanding that lawmakers not adopt it. As of this moment, Novaya Gazeta has collected more than 120,000 signatures for a petition to dissolve the current Duma.

Organizing and participating in individual pickets and street protests, gathering signatures for public petitions—these are genuine opposition activities. The Coordinating Council can keep on meeting once a month, forming committees and subcommittees and planning regular protests, but it runs the risk of becoming a farce. It is likely that the authorities will deliberately attach an exaggerated significance to this body, opening criminal cases against Council members on more or less feasible pretexts. Such a situation will confirm these individuals’ high status in the opposition and will earn them public empathy—but it will not replace genuine opposition activity, if one understands such activity as an effort to dismantle the illegitimate regime, and not as an attempt to strengthen the oppositionists’ personal standing.

The regime will no doubt increase the pressure on opposition activists and society as a whole. The force of this pressure will depend on the strength of society’s response. There is no such thing as no man’s land on this battlefield; the weaker the society, the stronger the government pressure will be.

The opposition has a difficult year ahead. Hopes that opposition leaders would effectively organize and coordinate protests have evaporated. This is natural. The modern system of mass communication gives the protesters vast opportunities for self-organization. The significance of political leaders is still considerable, but it is no longer that difficult to find replacements for them. Inadequacy is punished by oblivion and by the coming of new leaders and new ideas. This year may see the increased involvement of new people in mass protests through a campaign of civil disobedience or other forms of opposition activity. Individuals may come and go, but the pursuit of freedom will endure.