More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the Motherland, Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

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When We Were Ten

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Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

I was ten years old but I remember August 1991 well. And I remember how many people asked, after that unique celebration of unity and freedom, what would have happened had the coup emerged victorious.

Russia 2019 is the answer to this question. It is a country in which the coup has emerged victorious, [a country ruled by] a dozen paranoid old men, their hands trembling in fear.

Yes, the new coup has lasted longer than three days, but not much longer. The first chords of Swan Lake have already sounded.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

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A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the new fair elections protests in Moscow. First, I feel solidarity with the protesters. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to translate and edit eleven posts (so far) about the protests and their ugly aftermath.

But I don’t understand the point made by Alexei Navalny’s comrade Leonid Volkov, an otherwise sensible person, in the Facebook post, as quoted above.

I could very well be wrong, and, actually, I do hope I am wrong, but I see very little difference between the mostly lacksadaisical fair elections protests of 2011–2012 and the relatively fierce but tiny fair elections protests of 2019.

The numbers are, in fact, the main problem. Despite the strange argument made by a talking head from the Carnegie Center Moscow, as quoted in the Moscow Times, that fifty thousand is a number of protesters the Russian authorities cannot ignore, there is no question of their ignoring anything. The Putin regime did not ignore the protests of 2011–2012. It waited until Putin had secured a new term as president before cracking down hard on protesters and quickly adopting a whole raft of laws designed to make public protests and dissent much more dangerous.

In 2019, the crackdown has begun almost immediately, but there is no sign the regime will cave and force the Moscow City Elections Commission to reinstate the candidates it barred in July from running in the September elections to the Moscow City Duma, much less collapse altogether.

Since it is the world’s largest country, it seems funny to say it, but Russia is one of the most insular, isolated places on earth. International news is a genre that barely exists in the country’s mainstream or alternative press nor does it usually make much of an impression on the chatocrats who set the tone in Russia’s remarkably hysterical, dispiriting, troll-infested social media.

It also does not help that places mainly or completely populated by what many Russian liberals regard as subhumans almost never figure in the news in Russia at all. Otherwise, political and media activists like Volkov would think twice before seeing the demise of Putin’s twenty-year-old “putsch” in yet another series of relatively minuscule gatherings of righteous Muscovites brandishing clever placards and getting their pictures taken for Instagram.

If there were real international news in the Russian press, the Russian fair elections movement and its would-be leaders and strategists, like Volkov, would think about the recent, incomparably more numerous, and demonstrably more effective protests in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, for example. When half a million people protest against the powers that be on an island populated by 3.5 million people, the authorities really cannot ignore them, just as Beijing could not pretend all was well in Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million people, when two million people there took to the streets to protest the former enclave’s shrinking autonomy and the PRC’s attacks on its laws and democratic institutions.

Puerto Rican officials have already seen the writing on the wall and surrendered to the demands of the fierce, fearless, relentless protest movement there. The Hong Kong protest movement faces a much stronger enemy, of course, but I think there is a far greater chance we will witness democracy emerging all over China in our lifetimes than we will see the reemergence of democracy in Russia.

Despite the fact the Russian intelligentsia likes to hypnotize itself with dubious theories about history and regime change—namely, that great historical turnabouts have always been powered by tiny but energetic minorities—real democratic change in Russia will only happen when many more people join a movement that, in fact, exists only as a notion, not as a real grassroots movement.

A real grassroots movement, after all, would be capable of mobilizing considerably more than fifty thousand people in a city of twelve million people.

The second big problem with the Russian protest non-movement is that, like many of the Russians who make usually brief appearances in its ranks, it is wildly impatient. Liberal, educated Russians regard themselves as the most “European” and “western” people on the planet, hindered from realizing their true destiny as saviors and leading lights of the nonexistent west only by a thousand years of unrelenting, savage tyranny, an endless dark stormy night punctuated only here and there by occasional, short-lived bursts of sunlight.

Since they are essentially not practically “Europeans” and “westerners” (unlike most actual Europeans and westerners, who, in their view, have given up the west’s civilizing mission by letting their countries be overrun by Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Muslims, among other miserables), many Russians think they deserve to live in a democratic country right now without doing most if any of the things other societies do to establish and fortify democracy and the rule of law at home.

The flip side of this blatantly anti-western “westernism” is that droves (or, at least, very large dribbles) of Russians have been leaving or semi-leaving Russia in recent years, knowing nothing can change for the better under Putin and despairing that the post-Putin era will not dawn anytime soon. Like most of the really important things going in Russia, this story has been underreported, although anyone who has hundreds of Russian acquaintances or who lives in one of the handful of cities on earth that liberal Russians consider civilized (Berlin, Paris, and New York, e.g.) will know what I mean.

In yet another “only in Russia” twist, many people in this new wave of émigrés and exiles are not battle-hardened veterans of the amorphous protest non-movement, but the most politically apathetic people you could ever hope to meet.

This is not to say there are not lots of good eggs among them. Likewise, this blog’s mission has been to reiterate constantly the well-missed point that there are other Russians besides Putin and other Russias besides “Putin’s Russia,” whatever that is. But since I am not a politician and, thus, a sophist, like Leonid Volkov and his friend Alexei Navalny (the first, a well-informed commentator whose reflections I have shared on several occasions with my reader; the second, a smart cookie who might also be nearly the only person in the ragtag Russian opposition who really understands politics and has an inkling of how to build grassroots political movements), I am under no obligation to paint a pretty picture of “democracy in Russia” when what is called for is a horrorshow.

Lastly, fifty thousand people protested in downtown Moscow for the right to vote for their own candidates to a Russian regional parliament in a country where all that parliaments, city councils, municipal district councils, and village councils ever do is rubber-stamp the executive branch’s decisions. At exactly the same time, Russian warplanes were trying hard to finish off the last stronghold of a genuinely popular revolution in what they hoped would be the final chapter in a four-year-long military intervention in a majority Muslim country. And yet Putin’s criminal entanglement of his country’s well-equipped armed forces in Syria has been so uninteresting to liberal Russians that they have never protested in numbers greater than three or four at a time, and you can count those times on one hand.

The irony of this non-coincidence will be lost on Leonid Volkov and his comrades in the Russian protest non-movement, a non-movement that imitates the civil disobedience of the Indian independence movement and the US civil rights movement, for example, while blithely ignoring their superior political, strategic, and organizational aspects. Like the overall ignorance among Russians about today’s protest movements and popular revolutions in Syria, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, this might be because they were movements led and sustained by people of color. // TRR