News & Politics

Russia's New Decemberists Gear Up for Massive Dec. 24 Protests

Widespread claims of election fraud and institutionalized corruption in Russia have inspired the biggest opposition protests in two decades.

Photo Credit: Cea via Flickr

This December, Russia has seen its biggest opposition protests in two decades, and as Moscow braces for another mass rally on December 24, comparisons have been drawn between events in Russia and the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as the Arab Spring.

While aspects of what is happening on the ground in Russia do echo OWS, commentators who link the Russian opposition to uprisings in Egypt, Libya, et al. are misguided.

The opposition took to the streets in Russia following the December 4 State Duma elections. Although the ruling United Russia party, which has been steadily slipping in popularity, did take a predictable hit at the polls and lost its two-thirds Duma majority, widespread reports of voter fraud enraged many ordinary Russians. Discontent has been growing for some time and in many ways, the December 4 elections were merely the tipping point.

Opposition figures in Russia have long been derided as out-of-touch, catering to a small group of individuals who are accused by opponents of being “paid by the West," but the December protests have shown that discontent with the ruling elites in the country is a sentiment shared by diverse people. Anarchists and nationalists marched alongside angry communist grandmas and cosmopolitan twenty-somethings who found out about the protests via Facebook.

Anti-corruption crusader and blogger Alexei Navalny, thrown in jail for 15 days at the start of the protests, was already popular before December. Now many are openly speculating that he will be the Russian president one of these days. And while it is predicted that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be elected president again in the upcoming March 4 elections, Putin himself has gone from mostly ignoring Navalny to calling him the leader of the opposition.

“They call us Internet lemmings!” Navalny roared into his microphone at a December 6 protest, before he was arrested. “I’m an Internet lemming! And I will tear these bastards’ throats!” Coming out of jail, Navalny, who is tied to nationalist causes and says the Kremlin should stop financing the likes of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, told reporters that he knows he has “nothing to fear.” (Kadyrov’s iron-fisted rule in Chechnya is the price the republic currently pays for stability. Following the December 4 elections, poll numbers out of Chechnya were particularly incredible, with nearly 100 percent supposedly going to United Russia.)

While Occupy Wall Street deals with legalized corruption, aka lobbying, the Russian opposition faces illegal corruption that is blatant and out-in-the-open; it faces a wealthy class that is so breathtakingly sure of its inalienable right to rob its fellow citizens that it sees no need to cover itself with a fig leaf of special interest groups and campaign donations. While the opposition chants at Putin to leave, most of the “bastards” that Navalny speaks of are not led by Putin in the strictest sense -- that's beside the fact that Navalny includes both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on his list of bastards. Instead, they are a kind of cancer on both Russian society and government, a cancer that began under the Soviets and grew out of all proportion during the 1990s.

And while Navalny himself has written on his blog that the first years of Putin’s rule were marked by positive economic developments in particular, today’s opposition is united in the belief that the prime minister has failed to deliver on his promises. They see the country’s vast natural resources remaining under the thumb of the wealthy few, they see chaos in healthcare and a meltdown of the transportation system, they are tired of journalists being attacked, they are angry about the elites doing everything from illegally forcing their way down the roads to cutting down forests without input from the public -- and they want change.

Much like OWS, many of the people who are taking to the streets in the country’s urban centers are mistrustful of established politicians, even the ones who are in opposition parties. One of the most-quoted banners at the historic December 10 rally on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square featured a slogan that read, “I didn’t vote for those bastards [United Russia]. I voted for the other bastards [Opposition parties such as Yabloko, Just Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation, etc.].” Much like many of the members of U.S. Congress, Duma deputies are seen as untrustworthy.

OWS is often characterized as a kind of achingly middle-class phenomenon, a chance for privileged kids to vent. The Russian opposition, dubbed the New Decemberists by some media outlets, are often similarly derided. Yet as socialist observer Zhenia Otto recently wrote:

“The analysts are saying that it was representatives of the intelligentsia and middle class who turned out to protest. Yet the majority of low-wage workers consider themselves ‘middle class.’ Teachers and civil servants prefer to call themselves ‘intelligentsia.’ But this does not impact their actual social position.”

As living standards continue to degrade and the gap between rich and poor grows more prominent both in the U.S. and in Russia, it is becoming increasingly hard to characterize both OWS protesters and Russia’s Decemberists as pampered people with nothing better to do. If anything, anger, even desperation, a serious concern for their future, appears to unite both movements.

By contrast, the Russian opposition actually shares very little with the Arab Spring, the use of social media networks to bring people out on the streets notwithstanding. Following the brutal 1917 revolution and ensuing civil war, most Russians are downright allergic to being referred to as “revolutionaries.” They saw blood being spilled in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria, and were horrified. They similarly saw the ill effects of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when opposition politicians utterly failed to improve living standards in the country, and they want nothing to do with it.

Russians want something else: They want their dignity back, and they want the government to begin respecting their voices again, as opposed to trying to placate them with state-run TV (some of which, lately, has begun to openly criticize the Kremlin). They talk of preserving stability at any cost.

As Russian writer and observer Dmitry Bykov put it recently,

“My friends! Nobody wants to take revenge. The poll counts are nonsense, the financial crisis is no disaster. Russia’s forgotten about honor -- it’s never been this bad before.”

At a debate about media freedom in Russia last year, when protests on this scale seemed downright impossible, my friend and colleague, journalist Anna Arutunyan, said that one of the chief problems in the country is that the media is engaged in a dialogue with the government, leaving ordinary people out. By taking to the streets, Russians are saying that they want to be included in the conversation -- they’re tired of paternalism, they’re tired of being treated as though they do not matter.

They want their honor back, and that is no small thing.

As the country gears up for a new round of protests, we’ll see whether or not the Kremlin understands that its electorate has dramatically evolved. 

Natalia Antonova is a journalist and playwright living in Moscow.