Sergey Solovyov is editor of the journal Scepsis.
The protests that took place in Russia were primarily the result of exhaustion of a certain part of society: from stagnation, social problems, and the bureaucracy-bourgeoisie reign. This exhaustion is enhanced due to the COVID-19 pandemic consequences.
The protests are pro-liberal and personalist (leadermaniac) by nature. After cancelling them on February 2, Navalny’s office announced a “format change” – i.e., taking to the streets with flashlights on February 14 – and this shows very well that what we have here is a manipulated personalist (leadermaniac) movement.
The very form of the protests proves that Russian society is still extremely atomized: no political structures, no social organizations, and no labor unions capable of collective action. We witness the movement of selves brought together by the symbolic leader and by the shared attitude (but not an agenda; the movement has no agenda other than “free Navalny” and, less frequently, “free political prisoners” slogans), coordinated by Navalny’s campaigners via social media. Collective participation during the last significant wave of protests was also not too intense, but much more intense than the one in 2021. The protests against the monetization of benefits in 2004-2005, that barely affected Moscow, being quite dramatic in provincial regions, still remain the largest-scale protests since Putin’s coming to power.
The current situation in Russia makes the personalist (leadermaniac) – as well as pro-liberal – movement the only possible one, given the fact that only the liberals have organizational and financial resources together with foreign support.
It must be taken into consideration that Navalny is a classical right-populist leader (of outrage-mongers kind). It was by no means an accident that he flirted heavily with the nationalist movement, organized chauvinistic “Russian marches,” and used nationalistic rhetoric. Note also that a large part of “middle-class” in Russia is racially motivated (I mean, above all, its social racism, contempt for the poor and migrants), especially in Moscow, where criticism against mayor Sobyanin constantly goes hand in hand with references to his ethnicity and non-Moscow origin (using “reindeer-breeder” pejorative), and with accusations that he “has flooded the capital city with migrants.” These people make up a considerable part of Navalny’s audience. The threat of proliferation of chauvinism looms extremely large, and the left must absolutely not play along with it.
This is not just about the left, of course. The so-called pension reform (retirement age increase), elimination of the public healthcare, and other anti-social welfare measures have exacerbated popular discontent with the present regime. The key issue here is pension reform, which, without causing intense protest, has nevertheless undermined the loyalty of the longstanding government supporters. Furthermore, the population is drawn to protests as a result of a decline in the living standards, the consequence of the authorities’ incompetence in their fight against the pandemic.
Another significant factor is the absence of local (municipal and regional) self-governance. After the protests of 2011-2012, Russian authorities had agreed to gubernatorial elections, and then backed out at a very quick pace; now elections are sort of carried out, but persons undesirable for the regime are dropped out easily and can even fall under criminal persecution (cases of S. Furgal in Khabarovsk and A. Shestun in Serpukhov district of Moscow region). Those who would like to resolve specific challenges at a local not at a federal level, are forced into protests by this absence of genuine local self-governance. The success of struggle against the landfill site construction at Shiyes of Arkhangelsk region is an extraordinary, but far from the only, example of protests of this kind. And it is because of this self-governance problem, because of this pressure of central authorities on regional politics, that masses of people, a lot more than in 2011-2012, have taken to the streets in January 2021.
What should the left do in such a situation? The first option is just to take part in a “progressive movement” in the hopes that the collapse of the system would provide some left perspectives. But this is a pretty utopian option, to put it mildly. The fate of the Ukrainian left after the 2014 coup demonstrates very clearly the fault lines of this approach. The second option – the passive attitude of an observer – can only lead to an increasing marginalization of the left. That leaves only one option – active promotion of the socialist agenda among those protesters who may be receptive to such views, and who do not admire the new “leader of the people.”