Russia Over the Abyss of Authoritarianism: The Decade of Protest

Speaking about the perception of today’s Russia in the eyes of an abstract observer, one cannot fail to note that one of the cliches will most likely be the idea of ​​it as a deeply authoritarian country with a rooted tradition of autocracy and dictatorial power (at the same time, those who argue in this way are often inclined to resort to lengthy generalizations of the historiosophical character about Russian history as a chthonic and gloomy process, when “one era of lack of rights replaced another”), and about its people as without exception weak-willed, incapable of minimal awareness of their rights and incapable of defending them (broadcasting the myth of the “slave mentality”1). Even though our tasks do not include the search for the origins of demophobia, which paradoxically brings together the intelligentsia (both pro-Western and loyal to the authorities), yesterday’s aides to the President of Russia, as well as some representatives of the Western expert community, it will not be superfluous to note that already the very fact of the mass anti-authoritarian protest in the big Russian cities that took place refutes the extremely tendentious hypothesis about Russian citizens as “natural and historical slaves” who “simply do not want and do not understand the need for their participation in democratic changes and overdue reforms,” according to director Konchalovsky.

Let’s now move directly to the topic of the title — “the decade of protest”: a description of how peaceful civil protest for ten years tried to keep the country from the abyss of dictatorship, into which it fell nevertheless, with the roar of war that accompanies this sad fall.  For the sake of convenience of description and perception, we will divide the ten-year protest into two key chronological phases, “protest waves”: the protest of 2011-2012 and 2017-2021.  “Bolotnaya protest” of 2011-2012  flared up from the spark of the movement of observers for the elections to the State Duma in 20112, who witnessed, apparently, the first frauds of the electoral process of this magnitude at the federal level3.  However, the greatest irritation was caused not even by falsifications within the entire country, especially in the so-called  “electoral sultanates”4, but in the largest cities — Moscow and St. Petersburg, where real voters did not share such massive pro-government and loyalist sentiments in contrast to the official figures coming from the polling stations of both capitals.

The reaction to the violation of the right of voters was a series of rallies, both in the capital and in major regional centers5, the first of which was a rally on December 5 at Chistye Prudy, which brought together about 10 thousand participants. And the most significant in terms of scale were the rallies on Bolotnaya Square (which later gave the name to the entire protest of 2011-2012, along with the rally on February 4) and Academician Sakharov Avenue, which, according to various sources, gathered from fifty thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand participants. On February 4, the rally on Bolotnaya Square repeated, bringing together approximately the same number of participants as the Sakharov rally. It should be noted that the authorities responded to the activity of the opposition not only with traditional police measures but also by holding an alternative rally in their support, held under the slogan “We have something to lose”. The regime will actively use such tactics in the future. On May 6, the “March of Millions” took place, bringing together several tens of thousands of participants. The rally was initially agreed upon with the authorities, however, its completion was an unprecedented scale of detentions and subsequent repressions which became possible due to a provocation. As a result, 35 people became political prisoners in the “Bolotnaya case”6, which drew a grim line under the efforts of the opposition and the entire civil society to achieve an honest recount of votes in the elections to the State Duma, as well as to prevent a third term of Putin’s presidency — “castling” in the ruling tandem of Medvedev and Putin7.

The important features of this new protest for Russia were: “a protest without leaders” – the former opposition leaders did not enjoy unconditional authority for the main participants in the protest, and new ones had not yet appeared;  the adoption by the opposition of the tactics of protest voting, which was quite rarely used until that time, later included in the arsenal of political science under the term “degasism”8 — an example here is the movement “nah-nah: vote against everyone” by Boris Nemtsov, who called on supporters to cross out the ballot;  the social composition of the protest is residents of Russian megacities, actively involved in new economic relations, the sphere of services and ideas, free employment and freelancing, the so-called “creative class”9.  These features fundamentally distinguish the protest of 2011-2012 from all previous forms of protest activity that had previously taken place in Russia. The last major protest in a series of protest activities in 2011-2012  became the “March of Millions” on June 12, then, according to the route agreed with the Moscow City Hall, from the monument to A.S.  Pushkin along the boulevards to Sakharov Avenue, where the rally itself took place, was attended by a total of fifty to one hundred thousand people, the most adequate estimate is the figure of 70 thousand participants. Although the protests continued until September 2012, they were no longer able to gather a comparable number to the previous ones, limited to a few thousand people. In 2013, one can especially note the rally in support of Alexei Navalny during the mayoral campaign in Moscow. In 2014, the protest agenda began to shift towards demands for an end to the “hybrid war” in the territories of southeastern Ukraine, condemnation of the annexation of Crimea, and prevention of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict from escalating into a full-scale war, which, as we now know, unfortunately, all still could not be avoided. These rallies and other protests that went down in the history of Russian resistance under the name “Peace Marches” gathered about twenty thousand participants10.

It was the protests of 2011-2012 that became a catalyst for new protest moods, and the formation of new opposition leaders (the most striking of which, of course, was Alexei Navalny). And although the goals that the protest of 2011-2012 were not achieved (except for a short period of liberalization of legislation regarding the registration of political parties, the return of direct gubernatorial elections, with almost complete exclusion of candidates from the “non-systemic” opposition from participation due to the municipal subscription “filter”, as well as several other formal changes that are more of a “cosmetic” nature than significantly changing the nature of the political regime in the country), its impact on the subsequent evolution of the forms and methods of political protest in Russia is extremely difficult to overestimate. A few years later, the assassination of a key protest figure, Boris Nemtsov, right in front of the Kremlin, the ancient symbol of Russian power, became the symbolic line that finally and irrevocably divide Russia of the 2011-2012 model, a still peaceful country that has just begun to move towards hard authoritarianism, and Russia of  2015-2021, with a finalized dictatorship, mired in a “hybrid war” with Ukraine, which naturally developed into an open armed confrontation with a neighboring country, fully justifying the well-known warning: “Putin is war”11. Protest activity 2017-2021 will be the subject of the second part of this article.

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  The Russian protest of 2017-2021 is impossible to imagine without Alexei Navalny, who by that time had become a figure of federal significance. Against the backdrop and occasion of the presidential campaign, the oppositionist and his team managed to deploy a structure to investigate corruption, raising a new generation of young politicians in the country’s regions. The anti-corruption investigative activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK)12, founded by Navalny and his associates, determined the direction of the campaign network and the topics of the upcoming protests. The first of these was the protest “He is not Dimon for you” on March 26, 2017, the reason for which was the release of a film-investigation of the corruption of the Prime Minister of the Russian government Dmitry Medvedev. Protests against corruption in the form of rallies, marches, and single pickets took place in almost a hundred Russian cities. According to the FBK, protesters in Moscow numbered 30 thousand people, and at least 150 thousand in the whole country. In the Russian capital alone, detainees exceeded one thousand people. The next major protest organized by Navalny’s team was a march along Tverskaya Street in Moscow, on the day of the official holiday — Russia Day, June 12. The call to his supporters to go to an unauthorized protest, in the presence of a site agreed with the authorities on Akademik Sakharov Avenue, caused not only support, but also criticism of the opposition politician from some public figures and opinion leaders (in particular, Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies, spoke against this move). As a result, the protest was divided, and the actions were held both on Tverskaya Street and Sakharov Avenue. The participants of the procession on Tverskaya faced a festive fair and a reenactment show as if the new Russia looked into the eyes of archaic Russia.  In total, both protests gathered up to one hundred thousand people.  Alexei Navalny himself was detained even before they began and sentenced to thirty days of administrative arrest. The next year was marked by a rally, caused by a new large-scale anti-corruption investigation by the FBK, this time President Vladimir Putin himself became its object. On May 5, 2018, a rally “He is not our czar” was held. Besides Moscow, protests of the same name were held in 27 Russian cities. In terms of the number of participants, these rallies were approximately comparable to the previous Navalny rallies and demonstrations.

The trigger for another outburst of protest was, first, the exclusion of independent candidates, and then fraud in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, just as the cause of the “Bolotnaya protest” was the numerous recorded violations during the elections to the State Duma. On July 27, 2019, supporters of excluded opposition candidates to the Moscow City Duma announced a meeting of candidates with voters that does not require approval from the authorities. Nevertheless, the police preventively detained all those whom it considered “organizers of the unauthorized action”, the following politicians: Ivan Zhdanov, Lyubov Sobol, Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Yashin, and Yulia Galyamina. On August 10, another rally, this time coordinated with the authorities, took place demanding admission to participation in the Moscow campaign of independent candidates under the slogan “Let it!”, organized by journalists Ilya Azar and Petr Verzilov.  Those who gathered on Sakharov Avenue also demanded a complete cessation of criminal and administrative cases against all those detained at unauthorized rallies on July 27 and August 3.  The rally gathered up to one hundred thousand participants. After its completion, several thousand marched to the building of the Presidential Administration, and in the process of this procession, law enforcement agencies carried out rather harsh detentions, 256 people came to the attention of the police, were arrested, and sentenced to administrative terms and fines.

Another reason for the surge of all-Russian protests13 was the reaction of civil society to the poisoning and return of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was detained and arrested immediately upon arrival in Russia on January 18, 2021.  On January 23, uncoordinated with the authorities, protests were held in support of him in more than 60 cities. The number of detainees, according to the independent human rights project OVD-Info14, amounted to more than four thousand. According to FBK, the total number of protesters was estimated at 250-300 thousand people, Leonid Volkov, the head of the network of headquarters of Alexei Navalny, confirmed later the same estimate. At least 40,000 protesters gathered in Moscow, while the Ministry of the Interior, predictably, called the figure ten times less, only about four thousand. In general, a hundred thousand more came out across the country — 140 thousand people15. The protest in support of Alexei Navalny continued a week later, on January 31, when Navalnov’s headquarters in Moscow and the regions called on their supporters to take to the main squares of the cities, for many Russian citizens who share the protest mood, the public expression of civic position, in addition to police resistance, faced abnormal frosts: in particular, in Krasnoyarsk, those who went out into the street were met with a forty-degree frost, in Yakutsk, several dozen protesters felt the cold at minus fifty, showing remarkable resilience. It should be noted that people were not afraid to go out en masse, although the weather events, of course, significantly adjusted their numbers down. 74 thousand people came out all over Russia16. The last series of fading Navalny rallies took place a few months later, on April 21, when 67,000 protesters took to the streets of Russian cities17.

The trends that we observe both concerning the “Bolotnaya protest” and the “Navalny protest” (since the role of one protest leader, of course, should not be overestimated) indicate that the citizens of our country are by no means so politically passive and apathetic as idle commentators sometimes try to present them, evaluating the state of affairs in Russia from the outside. It should be noted that the process of growing protest activity in the past decade has marked a steady positive trend throughout the world;  leading international analysts dealing with this issue estimate it at 11% per year from 2009 to 201918. But even despite this, against the background of the rest of the world, the growth of protest activity that took place in the same decade in Russia, especially in 2011-2012 and 2021, looks more than impressive. After analyzing the data of almost 7 thousand different protests in all countries of the world from 2011 to 2020, experts conclude that only a little more than 10% of them gathered 10 thousand or more participants, only 3.5% gathered more than 50 thousand, and only 2.5% — more than 100 thousand people19. Thus, even on the example of open data on the number and scale of the Russian protest of 2011-2021, it is obvious that in our case we are talking about a really large protest.  Such a protest, which, on the example of the modern history of neighboring countries, with an extremely high probability would have every chance to serve as a trigger for very serious political changes under a less authoritarian regime or of the so-called “competitive oligarchy”“transitional hybrid regime” (according to Freedom House classification). Such regimes as Georgia under Shevardnadze, Ukraine under Yanukovych, and Armenia under Sargsyan, where the protests led, if not to the dismantling, then at least to a significant reformatting of the regime, or the situation in Russia itself of 2000s model: studies on the state of civil and political rights and freedoms, as well as visual maps of the Freedom House index of freedoms, show that for such regimes their level is in the approximate range of 30-45 points of the freedom index20. However, if you have a “consolidated authoritarian regime” (0-15 points on the Freedom House scale21), then even a massive peaceful protest is unlikely to quickly and painlessly lead to the desired changes. In regimes of this type, the degree of permissibility and tolerance for violence on the part of the state and society is much higher than in democracies or “hybrids”.  On the other hand, elite groups are incomparably more disciplined and united around the holder of the highest political power in the country than in the regimes of “competitive oligarchy”, not to mention democracies. In such a situation, one cannot hope for early democratization of the political atmosphere in the country, and the predicted outcome of the protest activity will be a further increase in the role of the repressive component of the regime22.

So what exactly were the protests in modern Russian history? On a closer look, it may well turn out that this is not an uprising of the people against the authorities, but an uprising of the de-modernized authorities against the modernized people23, the symbol of which is the blatant behavior of police officers and other law enforcement agencies who resort to unjustified violence against the civilian population during, as well as before and after the protests. Everyone who happened to directly take part in opposition rallies in Russia, at the same time, had to be a witness to police arbitrariness as if it was a violent uprising by the security forces against society and not a peaceful protest of society against the government. However, the protest was not in vain — neither for its participants nor for society as a whole. Documented in detail by the independent media24, accompanied by photographs of Yevgeny Feldman25 and other eyewitnesses and correspondents of the protest, we have evidence — we were, we resisted, we protested against the gathering darkness of dictatorship and war. Whatever the case, we did our best, and it’s not just a figure of speech. By 2022, the protest movement in Russia came up completely defeated. Thus, in January-February alone, more than 13,000 people were detained at protests, 9,000 of them were sentenced to fines and administrative arrests, and dozens of people received years of imprisonment on trumped-up criminal cases26. For many politicians and political activists, staying in Russia turned out to be simply dangerous for their health and life, which resulted in an emigration outflow from the country against the background of the aggressive war unleashed by Russia with Ukraine, the “partial mobilization” and the policy of restricting the issuance of visas to Russians by the EU countries, further reinforcing the de-modernization and isolationist processes in Russia — the conservation and “freezing” of the regime.

Politicians, political and civil activists, as well as generally caring people, endowed with a sense of civic consciousness, remaining inside the country and continuing in word and deed to resist the Putin regime against the backdrop of an aggressive war unleashed by him, these are courageous and heroic people who put their physical survival at stake for the sake of the survival of the Russian civil society, risking their lives and health. However, it is equally important to understand that many of those who, due to various circumstances and reasons, have decided to leave the country, bring with them a very important experience of solidarity and protest — the “decade of protest”, during which their political becoming took place: the experience of participating in the protest of direct action and protest election campaigns, organizing political movements and actions, resisting and confronting the brutal repressive machine of Putin’s state, which in the same time has gone “backward” from a spin dictatorship27 to an open and undisguised fear dictatorship28. The decade of Protest of 2011-2021 is an important chronological period in the formation and constitution of a new type of political protest in Russia and abroad (if we recall the dynamics of the growth of world protest). Belonging to this movement is a source of political legitimation, giving the right to speak on behalf of Russian civil society and the political opposition. In this regard, we see projects of movement towards the creation of workable structures for the representation of the emigrant community and the political institutionalization of emigration as really important. This is what will be the focus of my next article.

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  1. An example of such generalizations is, in particular, Andrey Konchalovsky’s article “Russia is not ready for the democratic reorganization of society”, which, due to clearly non-random circumstances, was published in early 2012, that is, just at the peak of anti-authoritarian protest speeches that are the focus of this article. Link: https://rg.ru/2012/02/07/konchalovski.html. // On the other hand, an equally important example is Vladislav Surkov’s article “Putin’s Long State”, with the myth of the so-called “deep people”, written almost exactly seven years later. Link: https://www.ng.ru/ideas/2019-02-11/5_7503_surkov.html
  2. In which a special place belonged to the election monitoring organization Golos, at that time the Association of Non-Profit Organizations for the Protection of Voters’ Rights, later the Movement for the Protection of Voters’ Rights, the website of the movement of independent observers Golos: https://golosinfo.org
  3. It was then that the famous method of analyzing the results of elections by Sergei Shpilkin, using mathematical tools – “normal distribution” or “Gaussian curve” became widespread. At that time, an article about “possible frauds” in the elections could still be published on such a resource as Gazeta.ru, however, Sergey Shpilkin himself, for some unknown reason, was called by the publication “a colleague of the head of the CEC”: https://www.gazeta.ru/science/2011/12/10_a_3922390.shtml?updated
  4. A term proposed by political geographer Dmitry Oreshkin to describe regions characterized by manifestations of anomalous electoral behavior (fictitious electoral behavior), which in turn leads to the declared super-high results of the “party of power” against the background of extremely inflated official data on voter turnout. By consensus, the regions – “electoral sultanates” include: the republics of the North Caucasus (primarily Chechnya), the Astrakhan region, Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Kuzbass, Mordovia, Tatarstan, Tyva. After the 2021 elections in Moscow, which were held for the first time using the “remote electronic voting” (DEV) system, the data of which suspiciously differed from the will of voters at the polling stations, “overturning” the results of opposition candidates in favor of candidates in power, to “electoral sultanates of a new type” the Russian capital itself is already considered the one.
  5. In Krasnoyarsk, the author’s hometown, two rallies were held –  “unauthorized” on December 10 and “authorized” on December 24, each of which, according to various estimates, gathered from 1.5 to 3 thousand participants.
  6. The defendants in the Bolotnaya case, who undoubtedly deserve to be named by name: Vladimir Akimenkov, Dmitry Altaichinov, Oleg Arkhipenkov, Andrey Barabanov, Maria Baronova, Fedor Bakhov, Yaroslav Belousov, Dmitry Buchenkov, Alexei Gaskarov, Ilya Gushchin, Alexander Dolmatov, Alexandra Dukhanina, Stepan Zimin, Dmitry Ishevsky, Nikolay Kavkazsky, Alexander Kamensky, Leonid Kovyazin, Mikhail Kosenko, Elena Kokhtareva, Sergey Krivov, Anatoly Leonin, Maxim Luzyanin, Denis Lutskevich, Alexander Margolin, Oleg Melnikov, Alexandra Naumova (Dukhanina), Ivan Nepomnyashchikh, Maxim Panfilov, Natalya Pelevina, Alexei Polikhovich, Dmitry Rukavishnikov, Anastasia Rybachenko, Artem Savelov, Richard Sobolev, Polina Strongina.
  7. On September 24, 2011, the 12th Congress of the United Russia party took place, during which the then President of the country, Dmitry Medvedev, announced from the rostrum of the congress that not he, but Vladimir Putin would go to the presidential elections in 2012.
  8. The term “degasism” is used to denote a protest vote, movement, or social mood, aimed solely at the removal from power of one or another politician or ruling class as such, without a clear vision of an alternative (either by preventing opposition candidates from participating in the political process or because the objective absence of an alternative in the political class). It got its name from the experience of the political analysis of the Arab Spring: from the French. “dégage” (“get out”). The call to get out (from here) was used by a policewoman in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in relation to the illegal fruit merchant Mohammed Bouazizi, who later committed self-immolation, which became the trigger event for the revolution in Tunisia, which led to the resignation of the government of the country on January 14, 2011.  A number of political experts believe that the revolution in Tunisia was the first example of a revolution of the modern type in history – a revolution of dignity. 
  9.  The term “creative class” was first proposed by the American sociologist Richard Florida in his book of the same name to describe a social group of residents of megacities whose activities are entirely related to the post-industrial sector of the economy: the service sector, information technology, the creation of digital products and the production of high-tech goods. 
  10.  More detailed figures can be found in an article by political scientists Kirill Rogov and Aba Shukurov, which is specifically devoted to assessing the number of participants in the protests of the past decade in Russia, published on the Liberal Mission project website: https://liberal.ru/lm-ekspertiza/protesty-2021-goda-i-protestnoe-desyatiletie-2011-2021-gg-dinamika-i-oczenki-chislennosti.  
  11. Noting the most significant actions that took place between the protest waves of 2011-2012. and 2017-2021, one should name the rally on March 1, 2015, in memory of Boris Nemtsov, organized by the Solidarity movement. Initially, the opposition planned to hold a protest march “Spring” on March 1 in the southeast of the capital, but after the assassination of politician Boris Nemtsov on the night of February 27-28, the organizers’ plans changed dramatically. The organizers of the rally decided to cancel the procession in the Maryino area and instead held a funeral march in the very center of the capital. The participants moved from Kitaygorodsky Proyezd along the Moskvoretskaya Embankment and the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge to the Small Moskvoretsky Bridge. According to the organizers, about 50,000 people took part in the procession, and according to the Moscow police – 21,000.
  12.  The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) is a Russian non-profit foundation created by Alexei Navalny in 2011, which aims to investigate and expose corruption in the highest echelons of power and other beneficiaries of the Putin regime. FBK website: https://fbk.info. On March 22, 2022, Alexei Navalny announced the creation of the international Anti-Corruption Foundation.
  13.  We deliberately leave out regional protest cases, the most significant of which were rallies in support of the arrested governor of the Khabarovsk Territory, Sergei Furgal, one of which (a rally in Khabarovsk, 07/18/2020) gathered up to 47.5 thousand people, which, of course, is quite a serious figure for the regional center, which, moreover, is not even among the Russian million-plus cities.
  14.  4002 people, to be exact.
  15.  Rogov K., Shukurov A. “Protests of 2021. Dynamics and estimates”.
  16.  Ibid., and also see Wikipedia: Protests in support of Alexei Navalny (2021). // On January 31, from 51.3 thousand to 120 thousand people took part. – MBH media. — 2021: https://mbk-news.appspot.com/news/naakcii. // Rozhdestvensky I., Ulyanova Zh., Malakhovskaya E., Ovsyukov V. The number of rallies on April 21 in support of Alexei Navalny in 15 largest cities amounted to 118,000 people – Open Media. — 2021: https://openmedia.io/news/n3/chislennost-mitingov-21-aprelya-v-podderzhku-navalnogo-v-15-krupnejshix-gorodax-sostavila-do-118-tysyach-chelovek
  17.  Ibid.
  18.  Brannen S., Haig C., Schmidt K. The age of mass protests: understanding an escalating global trend / S. Brannen. – CSIS, European Union, 2020.
  19. Clark D., Regan P. Mass Mobilization Protest Data (2021) / Harvard Dataverse (database).
  20.  See ratings and maps of political and civil freedom and democracy from Freedom House: https://freedomhouse.org/countries/nations-transit/scores, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scoreshttps://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2022. As well as a description of the comparative study methodology: https://freedomhouse.org/reports/freedom-world/freedom-world-research-methodology
  21.  Ibid.
  22.  This was well demonstrated by the outcome of the protest against Lukashenka’s dictatorship in Belarus after the announcement of the official results of the presidential elections. Wikipedia: Protests in Belarus (2020-2021).
  23.  Treisman D. Reverse evolution of manipulative dictatorship. An article on the website of the project of political scientist K. Rogov “RE: Russia. Expertise, Analysis & Policy Network LMA Foundation”: https://re-russia.net/analytics/026.
  24.  As the online media Mediazona was founded in 2014, whose activities are almost entirely devoted to covering political persecution in Russia: https://zona.media
  25.  Author of a journalistic photo project dedicated to the presidential campaign of Alexei Navalny and protests against the exclusion of an opposition politician from the elections. Project website: https://navalny.feldman.photo.
  26.  Data on the statistics of the number of people detained at protests in 2021 (as in previous years) – from the independent human rights media project OVD-Info: https://ovdinfo.org
  27.  A “spin dictatorship” is an authoritarian regime that relies primarily (but not only) on information manipulation, the regime’s monopoly control over the media, marginalization, and silence of political opponents than on the arsenal of classical tyrannies: repression and terror.
  28.  A“fear dictatorship” is a traditional dictatorship that uses the tools of political repression and intimidation of those who disagree with the political course chosen by the country’s authorities, often the “fear dictatorship”, in addition to internal repression, is distinguished by an aggressive foreign policy. Political expert Daniel Treisman sees the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, as a kind of “transition point” in the “reverse evolution” of the regime in Russia: from a “spin dictatorship” to a “fear dictatorship.”