This week, more than 1,700 people have been arrested in Russia for taking part in anti-corruption protests. The geographical scope of the protests was vast – there have been arrests in dozens of Russian cities, from Vladivostok in the Far East to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Beside its breadth, what is also significant about this latest mass demonstration is that the severe suppression of the previous one in March, when many of the protesters were slammed with heavy fines and criminal charges, did not really stop anyone from joining. On the contrary, a number of Russian cities that previously did not participate in the protests joined in.
This is not the first time mass arrests and prosecutions have taken place in recent years. In response to the protest wave of 2011-2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to “tighten the screws” on legal freedoms. His government introduced repressive laws limiting the freedom of assembly, while the justice system prosecuted a significant number of demonstrators. It seemed at that time that all these measures helped; the protest impetus diminished.
In 2017, Putin tried the same method again. After the protests in March, criminal proceedings were launched against a significant number of protesters. So young people who came out into the streets on June 12 were well aware of the risk of arrest and prosecution. And yet they came out anyway.
It is quite interesting that both waves of protests (2011-12 and 2017) were connected to Dmitry Medvedev. But these protests were actually connected to two different Medvedevs and they took place in two different Russias.
In 2011 Medvedev was associated with the “thaw”, which promised changes and engaged the intelligentsia. The price of oil was hitting record highs, the economy was booming and the middle class was growing. That was the revolution of cheated hope: When Putin decided to come back for a third term, all of these people, desiring change, felt cheated. The insolent falsification of results of the parliamentary elections gave the legitimate reason to go out in the streets.
Today, it is the revolution of desperation. And Medvedev is now associated not with a “thaw” but with pervasive corruption. The protests were triggered by an investigation into Medvedev’s alleged corrupted practices published by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The economic prosperity Russians once enjoyed is all but a fading memory, while the Kremlin stopped feigning moderation. All the talk about common values with the West and liberalism has now been replaced with an aggressive campaign to “expose the fifth column”.
The attitudes of the protesters also have changed. In the winter of 2011-2012, the opposition marches seemed like a festive walk: People were smiling, walking around with creative posters and children. The majority of those demos were permitted by the authorities and were not violently dispersed. Today there is no festive mood or speeches and the protesters are much more resolute about their cause.
The energy and audacity of these protests can be explained by the fact that a new generation has taken charge of them, a generation which does not know Russia before Putin.
Indicative of this was the way the negotiations with the Moscow authorities were conducted to obtain permission to hold the march. In the beginning, the authorities said that they were ready to coordinate with the demonstrators, but that they would be allowed to gather only at a square relatively far from the city centre; the request for a gathering on the main Tverskaya Street was rejected. The organisers of the demonstration (Navalny et al) were ready to agree to that, but when they went to the city council, they were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to use a screen or any sound equipment. So they immediately cut negotiations.
Later the authorities went back on their initial decision and announced that they would allow the demonstrators to have a screen and sound equipment. So negotiations were back on the table. However, a day before the planned demo, the contractor who was supposed to provide the sound equipment, the stage, and the screen, called in and said he wouldn’t be able to deliver them because of orders “from above”. So then Navalny announced that there would not be a stage at the square and told protesters to “go take a walk on Tverskaya Street”.
Meanwhile, the authorities decided to deliver to the designated square not only a stage and sound equipment, but also people to speak on it. That way state channels were able to shoot the scene and show to their viewers that no one showed up to the march. And this was just the beginning of a bizarre surrealistic comedy.
In that very place and at the very time when protesters were supposed to gather (2pm at Tverskyaya Street), the city council organised a historical reconstruction so the whole place was full of people wearing costumes of various epochs. Among them were people wearing the uniform of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the same organ that was responsible for mass repression in Stalinist times. When protesters started their march on Tverskaya Street, the “NKVD men” would detain them and hand them over to the police. And in the middle of this insane panopticon, different epochs merged into one place and time and unwittingly this became a scene of profound symbolism: The history of Russia is not just history of dictatorships and repressions, but also of unity and liberation from an oppressive yoke.
The energy and audacity of these protests can be explained by the fact that a new generation has taken charge of them, a generation which does not know Russia before Putin. Only in Moscow, according to the official numbers, more than 130 minors were arrested during the protests, while the majority of the detainees are up to 25 years of age. They don’t watch TV and they choose their sources of information on their own; they are therefore immune to the traditional Kremlin propaganda. And beside that, young people in general are braver, less likely to compromise and less susceptible to cynicism.
The Kremlin’s propaganda was never successful in increasing people’s trust in the political elite, but it has managed to destroy trust in opposition leaders and cultivate apolitical attitudes and cynicism. But today it is unable to do even the latter. Attempts to taint Navalny and other leaders of the protests have not produced any reaction among the youth other than new sarcastic memes on social media. The attempt of the Kremlin to get into memes and spread its own only confused people.
Of course, the fact that the first attempt to suppress the “youth revolution” was not successful doesn’t mean that Putin’s regime is doomed and will fall soon. We know many examples when much bigger protests that relied on the youth were stifled by state regimes (Iran, Egypt, Turkey).
But it is also true that the current level of repression doesn’t work and won’t work. So as presidential elections are fast approaching, Putin is facing a painful dilemma. He will have to either tighten the screws even more and try the resilience of the youth, or surprise everyone and play the “successor” game again. The second option is still feasible, but it seems that the first one is more likely.
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.