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 rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. 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.

In 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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