Left perspectives on the protests in Russia and Navalny – Rossen Djagalov

Rossen Djagalov is a LeftEast editor.

There is little new in the debate taking place within the Russian left and around it whether to participate in the protests called by Navalny and his team. One has been hearing a version of it since last August on Belarusian material. A few years earlier, the issue was hotly contested in Ukraine and or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, which was experiencing a liberal-dominated protest wave. Should we go in full historical mode, a similar debate would continually divide Third-Worldist Marxist parties and movements’ uncertainty whether to ally themselves with the nationalist bourgeoisie against colonialist forces, or in European communists’ dilemmas whether to work with social democrats or liberals or to go it alone. If there’s anything this extensive historical record teaches us is that there are no a priori answers to this question. At times, the attempt to participate in the anti-authoritarian protest coalition results in abject failure (think of the attempts of a Red Maidan in Ukraine in 2014); in another episode, the sectarian line adopted at the Comintern’s Fifth Congress made it impossible for German communists to collaborate with the social democrats against the greater enemy. What we can do is analyze the relation of forces, the nature of local society, its place within global capitalism, etc., etc., etc., and then decide. And even then there are no guarantees of anything.

Not living in Russia right now, and following the events from a great distance, I am hardly in a position to even begin this analysis. What is possible, however, is to identify and think through the three positions already taken by different sections of the Russian left vis-a-vis the protests: participation, critical/separate participation, and boycott. Of the three, I find the arguments in favor of boycott potentially the most harmful to the left. Though often evoked in good faith, they ultimately pave the road to red Putinism, the paradoxical passive support for the current regime in the name of left values:

1) In making the case against leftist participation in the protests, boycottists often begin their accounts of the protest movement with a negative psychological and political portrait of Navalny. And while any self-respecting leftist should be suspicious of Navalny, there is a sleight of hand in over-identifying the movement with his figure. In the first place, because there are so many different groups that stand to gain from this over-identification, starting with Navalny’s own team, which seeks hegemony over the protests and ending with the Kremlin, which seeks to limit the appeal fo the movement by reducing it to a divisive figure. For now at least, this over-identification doesn’t correspond to reality: even the most cursory look at the footage from the protests on Jan. 23 and 31 reveals that Navalny’s name was hardly the chant animating the masses. But the boycottists’ call can become a self-fulfilling prophesy if the left absents itself from the protest movement and refuses to engage the tens or hundreds of people that came out on the street and the millions that support them without lending their bodies to the cause or the majority unhappy with the way Russia is run. Moreover, set against this negative portrait of Navalny’s (authoritarian, nationalist, liberal), Putin doesn’t seem so bad after all (though he is in reality, even more authoritarian, nationalist, and economically liberal). Better the devil you know. This way we won’t have to inconvenience ourselves with action.

2) A related argument in favor of the boycott position is the evocation of Maidan. The Maidan of 2013-14 is strictly speaking a Ukrainian phenomenon and reflects the particular disposition of forces in Ukrainian society/politics. Thus, to analyze the Russian protests in terms of Maidan risks imputing to them Ukrainian characteristics (a geographically divided country, a weak and dependent state, and a site of virulent nationalisms and super-power competition) and erasing Russian specificity. As “Maidan” becomes our go-to comparison and ur-model, we sideline potentially more relevant anti-authoritarian movements with similar fundamental characteristics (Gezi in Turkey, the Arab Spring, etc.). The main user of “Maidan” discourse are authoritarian states (in our case, Russia), which need to showcase a scarecrow as the main alternative to their rule. We can’t easily “own it” without amplifying the state’s position (i.e., no matter how imperfect, the status quo is preferable to the changes that come). The fundamental political work that the Maidan comparison does for the left is to keep us passive owing to our Ukrainian trauma.

3) Other leftist opponents of the protests (especially abroad) tend to look at them through the prism of some geopolitical Great Game. In this logic, the US and the EU are the main imperialist powers to be resisted at all costs. As Putin (or Assad or Erdogan) are often in the business of this resistance, they become allies to be supported in this anti-imperialist struggle. Far be it for me to deny the reality of Western imperialism, but this kind of undiluted geopolitics renders Russian (Syrian, Turkish) societies, their class structure, divisions, and inequalities, completely irrelevant. And this is the primary appeal of geopolitics: one doesn’t need to know anything about a society to know which is the right side. It suffices to identify whom the West opposes and side with that party. As applied to Russia (as opposed to Ukraine or many of the smaller states of the former Soviet bloc, all of which are characterized by a high degree of dependency), this makes even less sense.

This realistically leaves us with the other two positions that dominate the responses LeftEast received: 1) full-fledged participation in the civic protest, in solidarity with its democratic demands (freedom for political prisoners, expansion of liberties, a fair electoral system) but also seeking to introduce social demands; and 2) critical/ separate participation in the protests, with the aim of constructing a distinct leftist force, a third pole that refuses the choice between Putin and Navalny. I really wish these divisions could be dismissed as semantics or treated as a question of sequence or resolved with comradely discussion in the spirit of the elusive “the broad left.” But good will is, alas, in short supply and there is now the very real danger of different sections of the Russian left finding themselves on opposite sides of the metaphorical barricades on the basis of the implicit alliances each of these positions leads to: 1) with the extra-systemic liberals; and 2) with the loyal opposition of the Communist Party. These are the unenviable choices our Russian comrades are staring at right now, choices with whom to ally oneself and by whom to be betrayed.

Indeed, the Russian left has been dealt a bad hand and it will take a great deal of skill and wisdom to play it to advantage. But the moment is pregnant with possibility. And as the greatest Bulgarian soccer player of all times, Hristo Stoichkov, put it with pitiless clarity (in an advertisement for the national lottery), “If you want to win, you play. If you don’t want to win, you don’t play.”