Since the late Soviet period, summers in Moscow have routinely been the backdrop for events that have shaken Russia’s political establishment.
Over the course of the last three months, the Russian capital was rocked by an unexpected wave of political crises that saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets for weeks to protest arbitrary arrests and a series of decisions by the city’s election commission to bar all non-Kremlin aligned candidates from running in Moscow’s city council elections.
The ‘summer of discontent’ was Russia’s biggest display of open opposition to President Vladimir Putin since a series of failed demonstrations in the winter of 2012. What separated these demonstrations from all earlier opposition movements was the clear fact that Russian civil society has awakened after more than two decades of virtual silence.
For the first dozen years of Putin’s rule, political activism was rare and civil society leaders who opposed the Kremlin were often successfully demonised as advocates for a return to the chaotic 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a time of massive social upheaval and economic misery for the overwhelming majority of Russians.
By the time Putin came to power, the population had little appetite for listening to those who warned of signs that Russia’s intelligence services and the hardline anti-democratic forces which remained a part of the body politic even after the Soviet collapse – both of whom bitterly despised the opening up of the country in the years after 1991 – were poised to make a comeback and help install one of their own in the highest position of power.
Putin spent the better part of a decade and a half riding on the merits of the social contract that he established with the Russian people. Buoyed by a strong economy and the systemic consolidation of his own personal authority through a vast vertical of power that increasingly resembled some history’s most notorious demagogues and authoritarian rulers. The Kremlin was, at that time, able to turn to the public and say “keep away from politics and you can go off and do as you like”.
Now, however, the signs are obvious that Russia has moved into a new and uncharted chapter of its modern political history. Average Russian citizens no longer trust the authorities, least of all the Kremlin and its legions of sycophant enablers in the tightly controlled state-run media and the ruling United Russia party. Instead of simply demanding that the entrenched ruling class change, people are now opting to take control of their own fate by making their voices heard both at the ballot box and on the streets of dozens of Russian cities. This sort of determination by individuals who were only a year ago mostly politically passive is a potentially transformative new stage in the development of Russia’s burgeoning civil society and one that is no less important than the movements led by their Soviet dissident predecessors more than a generation ago.
The Kremlin’s crude attempt to brazenly influence municipal elections and its brutal crackdowns on any journalist, activist, or whistleblower who dares report on United Russia’s endless examples of administrative malpractice or the security services’ increasingly violent methods to silence the opposition has only helped pushed Russian voters to the breaking point when it comes to their ability to tolerate the Kremlin’s obsessive appetite to maintain the politically bankrupt status quo.
Shortly after coming to power, Putin briefly flirted with presenting himself as the heir to Imperial Russia’s early 20th century Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin – a man who at the dawn of the last century valued efficiency and order over any notion of democracy. Since the mid-2000s, Putin has abandoned any notions of simply being a public servant in the service of his country and has now fashioned himself as having taken on the dual role of leading Russia as a hybrid – simultaneously both a tsar and a Soviet general secretary.
Putin controls all of the levers of power including the broadcast media, parliament, the courts, a vast and subservient propaganda machine, and full authority over his alma mater – the feared FSB security services, who have seen their influence and penetration of society restored to their Soviet-era levels.
Despite this, his approval ratings have declined precipitously. In a poll this past spring, just 32% of Russians surveyed said they trust him – numbers that are far lower than the heady days of half a decade ago when his approval ratings soared to 90% following Russia’s invasion and later annexation of Crimea.
The reasons for the precipitous drop are fairly easy to understand, but in order to fully comprehend where Russian society is headed following weeks of protests it is important to understand that today’s Russia is without question in a better place than it was when Putin took over the reins of power from an ailing Boris Yeltsin 20 years ago.
Moscow, St Petersburg, and half a dozen other large cities around the country enjoy high standards of living and good salaries. Moscow, in particular, is rapidly becoming one of the most high-tech and dynamic world-class cities on Earth, one that can easily compete with the likes of New York, London, or Hong Kong.
But behind the obvious prosperity is an intense anger over the way an average, and often apolitical, Russian citizen is treated by the system.
When Putin first emerged as the country’s de facto leader in 1999, the Kremlin’s loyal bureaucrats quickly grew used to the idea that the whole of the Russian population is both fully capable and enthusiastically willing to countenance the most grotesque examples of apathetic mismanagement by the state, while at the same time willfully look the other way no matter how detrimental the government’s behaviour was in their lives because the average person craved stability over anything else.
While that cynical view remains the default thought process of the powers that be, the general population proved this summer that they have a very different idea of what Russia’s future looks like. Their undisputed leaders, Alexey Navalny and Lyubov Sobol – both lawyers and anti-corruption activists – are the living embodiment of the new generation of Russians and are a genuine threat to the Kremlin.
Despite the mass arrests and beatings of more than 2,000 protestors by the National Guard over the summer, not to mention the constant police raids of opposition leaders’ homes, the public sent a clear message to Russia’s ruling elites after heeding Navalny’s call to engage in a form civil disobedience through the simple act of what Navalny called“strategic voting”. This saw voters cast their ballots for candidates who were running against the Kremlin’s handpicked favourites.
In Moscow, they stunned Putin’s cronies and successfully slashed United Russia’s presence on the city council. The results represented the first real open challenge to Putin’s authoritarian system since he came to power. United Russia’s defeat was the biggest electoral shock in Moscow since the Democratic Russia bloc defeated the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1990.
The simple fact is that whatever Putin and his followers now stand for is entirely out-of-step with the millions of Russians who have become well-travelled, middle class, comfortable in international surroundings, and often English-speaking in the last 20 years. Their hopes and ambitions for the country aren’t rooted in the Kremlin’s maniacal preoccupation with its perceived greatness or the country’s 1,000-year history of despotism and suffering.
They are at once proudly patriotic about their country’s numerous cultural and scientific achievements, but deeply concerned about their own ability to live in a business-friendly, law-abiding, and educated country; one with prospective jobs, guaranteed constitutional laws, and independent courts. What’s most important is that both Navalny and Sobol, along with an untold huge number of Russian young professionals, want a modern open Russia where the concept of ‘the rule-of-law’ is not simply a state tool that can be used to insult their intelligence and abuse their very existence.