Left perspectives on the protests in Russia and Navalny – Georgiy Komarov

Georgiy Komarov, member of the executive committeeof Marxist Union (Russia)

The Russian Left should definitely try to adapt to new reality and not to stay aside from the protest. However, the devil is in the details.

Alas, the rallies of January 23 were nowhere near a mass revolutionary movement. The rallies boast only tens of thousands in 144-million country. Moreover, no populist agenda, no “smart voting tactic” can efficiently appeal to the general audience while they’re directly connected to Navalny, a Yale graduate who has pledged allegiance to Western liberal values numerous times that he can’t be viewed as a viable leader by most Russians. In order to understand why, one should take a look at Russia’s modern history.

The secret of Putin’s political longevity is not only his authoritarian power but also his image of “the saviour from 1990’s liberal chaos”. That’s ironic given Putin’s purely neoliberal policy, but on a surface level, his populist rhetoric has paid off for many years. The 90’s Russia was a borderline-failed state hung on IMF loans while still drowning in poverty and unemployment due to “shock therapy”. On the contrary, thanks to rising oil prices in the 2000s Russia became a fairly independent developing country. The former was ruled by self-proclaimed “liberal democrats”, and the latter by Putin. It’s not hard to see why many people still consider their eternal president “the lesser evil” in comparison to his liberal opponents — even though the economic growth of the 2000s is long gone. Recent decline in Putin’s approval is due to his policies (pension reform, insufficient anti-pandemic measures etc.) being too neoliberal and reminiscent of the 90’s, not being “not liberal enough”.

Thus being liberal in modern Russia is a disadvantage. Moreover, any political power strongly associated with liberals is doomed to be rather unpopular. Even Navalny seems to get it since he included some “social” demands in his 2018 program – yet fails to successfully distance himself from liberal brand. So, the Russian Left has a chance to become demarginalized only if it’s able to present itself as a fully independent force.

Does it mean that leftists should abstain from any participation of “navalnyite” rallies? I don’t think so.

First of all, the younger generation of Russians is clearly less susceptive to the “post-Soviet trauma” than their older peers. While those over 30 still remember “the miraculous escape” from 90s hell, 20-somethings experienced only decline of prosperity in their lifetime. This forces them to become more politically aware. Recent years have shown unprecedented growth of both liberal, libertarian, and leftists clubs and organizations. The younger Russians look for any viable answers to their questions, so many of them can become fertile soil for sowing leftist ideas.

Second, if you need to summarize the protests in two words, these words are “spontaneous and unorganized”. As editor-in-chief of my organization’s public media, I had the chance to read numerous in-field reports on January 23. These reports demonstrate that almost everywhere outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, from Far East to Central Russia, the vast majority of protesters didn’t really care about Navalny’s political stance. They didn’t really follow any organized liberal force. They just use that “call to arms” as an excuse to finally let loose of their discontent with powers that be. For many of the protesters it was the first time they ever participated in a political rally. This amorphousness of agenda gives the Left a chance to appeal to them, and moreover, to become a center of attraction for some of them.

The problem is how to use these chances and at the same time not be associated with liberals. After all, millions of Russians are still suspicious of anything connected to Navalny or other pro-Western politicians. The answer seems to be clear yet tricky: to become a “third party”. It requires a nuanced approach: the Left should neither fully embrace the protest without reservations, nor condemn it and abstain. The latter means to lose any chance to appeal to a younger audience. The former means to give into the illusion of “democratic revolution” when in fact it’s a minority movement. We should’ve learned the lessons of Belarusian leftists’ participation in anti-Lukashenko rallies of 2020: to overestimate the momentum is no better than to underestimate it. And joining a liberal-led coalition as “junior partners” equals making yourself virtually indistinguishable from liberals in public discourse. No matter how many “social demands” you have in mind, if you make a statement that you support something launched by liberals – you’ll be labelled liberal supporter and nothing else.

If we’re able to walk this thin line, – i.e. to campaign for leftist agenda during the rallies without positioning ourselves as a part of the pro-Navalny movement, – we’ll have a potential to become prominent players. It is a real possibility given that various polls show the overwhelming majority of Russians supporting economic equality, craving social welfare, and being generally sympathetic to Soviet legacy. But if we fail, then being “part of the democratic movement” won’t really pay off.