What’s wrong with the Russian opposition?
Only 20,000 people at most had shown up for a litany of somewhat listless chants, speeches and songs against President Vladimir Putin, before going home past endless lines of riot police visibly bored for lack of action.
Even Russia’s liberal online daily Gazeta.ru noted that only four of the speakers managed to get any enthusiasm from the crowd, which had already started to disperse well before the day was out.
But it’s not as if the marchers were not given a reason to vent their anger: Last week, Putin stripped Gennday Gudkov, a member of parliament who had jointed the opposition, of his Duma seat on a technicality.
Much has been written about the parallels between the Russian protest movement and the Arab Spring. And while the current situation in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is hardly encouraging, those protests at least succeeded in mobilising thousands of people for long enough to wrest power away from the authorities. Why have Russia’s dissidents been unable to do the same?
One problem with the anti-Putin opposition is that it finds itself caught in the middle. A growing part of the population agrees that the country is misgoverned, that Pussy Riot must be freed, that Putin is a ridiculous authoritarian who must go. In fact, for much of Moscow’s educated and cosmopolitan middle class, all those things are so self-evident that there’s not much point talking about it any more; one possible reason at the decline in numbers on Saturday.
Yet these liberals often tend to blame not just Putin for Russia’s problems, but also the “masses” themselves — less educated, urbane, and sophisticated, and more religious, statist, and liable to fall for Putin’s stunts. So, half the people don’t march because the protests are stating the obvious, and the other half don’t march because it’s too radical.
Such a tension between Russia’s intelligentsia and the ’common people’ whose lot they ostensibly wan to champion has a rich history. In the 19th century, progressive students and reformers ventured into the countryside to agitate the peasants against their oppression. Many ended up attacked and even killed by suspicious and unsympathetic villagers. Later, the vanguardist Bolsheviks ended up attacking and uprooting the customs and way of life of the masses in whose name the revolution was being prosecuted. Though the peasants were acknowledged to be biggest victims of tsarism, their “backwardness” was also blamed for upholding the old regime and resisting “progress” in the form of collectivisation and atheism.
Nor is it unique to Russia. Though the French surrealists aligned themselves with the Communist Party, their provocative and scandalous stunts were aimed as much against the ruling elites as the petit-bourgeois and proletarian prejudices and closemindedness of the “oppressed.”
Today’s would-be revolutionaries seem equally frustrated by the Russian masses’ ‘superstitions’ and attachment to the status quo. In Friday’s interview on the BBC’s flagship programme Hardtalk (which, incidentally, also name-checked this blogger), Petr Verzilov, the husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was asked to admit that the Punk Prayer shocked and alienated religious believers.
His reply — that believers offended by the action simply don’t understand Christianity and are hopelessly wedded to a conservative-nationalist culture that they wrongly conflate with religion — was telling. The masses just don’t get it.
Verzilov may well be right. As Thomas Frank showed with What’s the Matter With Kansas, the working classes are frequently manipulated to act and vote against their best interests. And it’s also true that the official Russian orthodox church, with its Swiss watch wearing, sports-car driving, road-raging, KGB veteran priests and obsession with bling and gigantism is about as far as it’s possible to get from the original teachings of Christ.
But having a posh university graduate and Canadian dual-citizen telling the masses (in fluent English) to stop being duped by their government is perhaps not the best way to win them over.
In Egypt and Libya, a large part of the opposition’s success was due to the cooptation of conservative Islam which had been suppressed by Gaddafi and Mubarak. But in Russia, the opposition — liberal, socially progressive, atheist/agnostic, cosmopolitan, sexually liberated, and highly educated — is still running against the grain of mainstream society, which remains largely statist, chauvinistic, sexist, homophobic, conservative and parochial. And it is precisely those qualities that the Putin regime has cannily decided to uphold as its own.