Left perspectives on the protests in Russia and Navalny – Sean Guillory

Sean Guillory provides critical commentary on Russia’s past and present on his blog, Sean’s Russia Blog (

  1. No one is surprised, least of all Navalny himself, that the Kremlin finally decided to jail him (give him “real time,” in the Russian parlance). Killing him didn’t work, so physically removing him by other means was the next step. As some commentators have noted, this suggests that the siloviki have won out within Putin’s circle in answering the Navalny Question.
  2. There is no doubt that Navalny’s jailing is a watershed moment. But it is one of several lines that have been crossed over the last several months. The attempt to murder Navalny. His defiant return to Russia. Navalny’s blockbuster expose on Putin. The mass unsanctioned protests and the accompanying police violence and arrests. And finally throwing Navalny in jail for just short of three years. Many other smaller steps could be inserted in-between, but these are the big lines.
  3. All of these have broken what for the last several years were the general “rules” between the government and opposition: The state allows for a modicum of space for protest on the streets or in the press, catches and releases protesters, and harasses and surveilles but keeps repression precise and minimal. In return, the opposition abides by process of getting petitions, remains in designated protest zones, and relegates much of their frustrations to social media and the “opposition” press.  This unspoken set of rules have now been shattered. Navalny’s poisoning and the personal attack on Putin has sharpened an already highly personalized politics in Russia. Unlike in 2011-12, this acceleration has made political compromise, on both sides, moot. The question now is what the new “rules” are. These will certainly be negotiated on the street, in the courts, and jails in the lead up the Duma elections in September.
  4. Navalny’s imprisonment will be a real test for the opposition. The Kremlin clearly thinks that cutting the head of the snake will be enough. Now we will really see if there is a “movement” out there, and not just a fragmented political force centered on one man and held together out of hatred for one man. Antonio Gramsci has the notion of “war of movement” and “war of position.” Until Navalny’s imprisonment, the opposition has been conducting a war of movement—unsanctioned protests, attacks on the legitimacy of the Putin system, individual and collective acts of defiance. But now a “war of position” is needed, especially as repression is sure to ramp up. It might be time to hunker down and do the slow, grueling work of building alliances with the many other social and political forces in Russian society. 
  5. The beauty of Navalny’s “anti-corruption” stance is that it defies the political spectrum. No one is for corruption. Everyone is against it. However, consolidating the growing dissatisfaction solely around negation is a very tall mountain to climb. A new political language is needed. One that proposes a Russian future worth fighting for that links up the many struggles in Russian society that are decoupled from Navalny’s symbolic resonance. 
  6. Navalny’s sentencing has produced a chorus of international outcry from the usual suspects. Condemnation, the threat of sanctions, etc. With Biden in office, issues of “human rights” and “democracy” are already returning to foreign policy. It would be a mistake, however, for the United States to invest in this fight over Russia’s domestic present and future. There is just very little the US can do to change conditions on the ground. Efforts to pressure Putin over the last six years have gone nowhere. What the US can do—wag its finger and make righteous statements—will only confirm what the Kremlin already believes and wants the Russian public to believe—Navalny is a devil sent by those scheming Americans to destabilize Russia. American policy makers should refrain from their usual arrogant and narcissistic impulse to do something because something must be done. The American track record on curtailing its egotistical impulses is, sadly, abysmal.
  7. This of course doesn’t mean the struggle in Russian doesn’t deserve support. It does. But not for American interests, or the naïve belief that getting rid of Putin will make things better for America’s imperial interests. My support is because I think it is in Russia’s interests. I admit, I’m personally invested in this—I have friends participating in the protests and the wider effort to democratize Russian politics. But we, and here I’m speaking to my Leftist friends, must show international solidarity. Yes, Navalny is not our politics. But we should not reduce politics to him. That would be reproducing the mistake we already see in bourgeois commentary—it’s Navalny vs. Putin etc. What Navalny has done is allowed for the creation of a space for politics as such. The Left outside of Russia should support their comrades in Russia in their efforts to be a force in this politics.
  8. Finally, solidary with the Russian cause is also solidarity with our own. We must resist seeing the police violence, the disregard for law and basic human rights in Russia as an outlier. State sanctioned violence—either through repression or police batons, tear gas, or tasers is the international norm, not the exception. The state has shown its willingness to use violence against protesters, whether in the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel-Palestine, France, Belarus, China, and elsewhere. The contexts may be different, but the faces of repression are the same. The gap between “democracies” and “authoritarianisms,” which many liberal pundits desperately assert, has rapidly closed over the last several years.