A week after thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest corruption in the top ranks of their government, the movement already appeared to have fizzled. Only a few dozen turned out over the weekend of April 2, a mere echo of the crowds that flooded squares throughout the country on March 26. Among the demands of this follow-up protest: payment of compensation to hundreds of detained protesters, including anti-corruption activist and protest leader Alexei Navalny.
Yet, even the protests of March 26 never approached the peak of mass activism in 2011–13, when electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency drove thousands to demonstrate against their country’s orchestrated politics. Those demonstrations, the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sparked a raft of laws criminalizing unauthorized protests. Activists accepted that risk when they joined Navalny in the streets at the end of March.
Western observers often read one of two opposing narratives into Russian protests, either seeing them as evidence of Vladimir Putin’s secret unpopularity and the possible fragility of his regime, or dismissing them as a negligible urban minority with no power in Russian politics. Both interpretations are wrong. Russian protests matter, but don’t expect the government to collapse any time soon.
“It’s really important to not exaggerate, but actually keep a close eye on what is happening,” said Katerina Tertytchnaya, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford who studies Russian protests. “This is not revolution. This is not aiming at revolution.”
The high price of protest
According to numbers compiled by online newspaper Meduza, March’s protests drew between 30,000 and 90,000 participants, which in a country of over 140 million amounts to a rounding error. Skeptics might point to the small numbers and argue that the outpouring of international coverage was unwarranted—and could lead to inaccurate impressions of how widespread anti-government sentiment is in Russia.
But the high cost of protest in Russia means that a turnout of 30,000 carries more weight than a similar number in a liberal democracy. Putin’s United Russia party has created a legal environment in which unlicensed protesters can expect rough treatment at the hands of security forces, fines running to hundreds of dollars (in a country where the average monthly salary in 2016 was $558), and weeks of jail time. The punishments seem calibrated to deter all but the most dedicated activists, while minimizing a wider backlash.
Given the risks, it is reasonable to assume that demonstrators voicing discontent with officials also speak for others who sympathize, but are not prepared to do a stint behind bars. Some evidence for this seemed to come from a survey conducted by the Levada-Center shortly after the protests. Asked what was motivating protesters, pluralities of Russians said dissatisfaction with the state of the country (38 percent) and corruption (36 percent)—versus only 24 percent who thought demonstrators had been paid to protest. Russian protesters might be few in number, but they should not be dismissed.
Vladimir Putin’s enduring popularity
Despite the high cost and resiliency of protests, Vladimir Putin, who has made himself the indispensable man of Russian politics, remains very popular. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval ratings have remained above 80 percent, despite economic pain caused by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Indeed, Navalny was able to mobilize so many demonstrators by focusing ire on the deeply unpopular Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, rather than the country’s president. Putin has long managed to float above the vitriol and discontent directed at United Russia, even if the party moves in lockstep with his initiatives.
Kremlinologists have explained Putin’s enduring popularity as a lingering “rally-around-the-flag” effect from the Crimean annexation, reinforced by Western sanctions targeting Russian officials and industries that further unified everyday Russians. Others have cited Putin’s authoritarian style and “make Russia great again” rhetoric as successfully leveraging Russians’ resentment of the West and disillusionment with the chaotic “liberal” politics of the 1990s. Regardless of the cause, the reality of Putin’s popularity is not in doubt, even if drilling into the numbers reveals a range of enthusiasm among his supporters.
The disconnect between Putin’s popularity and the contempt some Russians hold for his government can be explained, in part, by the generational trauma of the Soviet collapse. As former state-run industries foundered in global markets, Russians experienced a drastic decline in standards of living. National male life expectancy plummeted from 65 in 1987 to just 58 in 1994 and did not recover until the mid-2000s. The 1998 financial crisis wiped out savings accounts and interrupted pension payments.
Likewise, the turnaround under Putin was dramatic. When American reporter Anne Garrels returned to the provincial city of Chelyabinsk in 2012, she described a community transformed by the buying power of its new middle class: “travel agencies are everywhere, offering a booming business in cheap tours to Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, and Dubai.” While much of this new prosperity derived from rising oil prices, which reached a peak of nearly $150 a barrel in 2008, Russians associated the changes with their new president, who—trim, fit and disciplined—even provided a physical contrast to the fleshy and louche outgoing president Boris Yeltsin.
The result is an abiding faith in the man who presided over Russia’s climb out of disorder and ignominy. When older Russians see crowds denouncing the federal government and calling for reforms, many are reminded of the reformers of the 1990s, which included Western advisers, who dismantled the social safety nets of the Soviet Union and organized the wholesale of state industries, enriching a small class of oligarchs. With these memories still fresh, Putin’s claim that protesters are Western-backed agents seeking to undermine the country’s hard-won stability seems plausible.
“I think it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the 1990s and the chaos in the 1990s and the disappointment around the political system on Russians over a certain age,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia’s Harriman Institute.
This generational divide is reinforced by differing habits of media consumption, Gorokhovskaia said. Older Russians almost exclusively get their news from television, which the Kremlin controls. During the peak of the protests, state media did not even mention that they were taking place, instead reporting on the dramatic chase for an escaped cow in the U.S. While today most Russians say that they are familiar with Navalny, many know him as the corrupt, “selfish” campaigner of state broadcasts. By contrast, younger Russians often go online for their news—and observers noted the large numbers of school and university-aged protesters who turned out on March 26.
In short, Russia’s protesters might represent more than the small numbers who show up to brave the riot police, but they face a larger contingent of Russians that remains loyal to Putin personally—if not his less popular underlings—and wary of change.
Why protests scare the Kremlin
More broadly, protests in Russia must be understood in the context of the so-called “color revolutions” that swept away post-Soviet governments during the ‘aughts. In Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, street protests escalated into popular revolutions that ousted what were perceived as corrupt, sclerotic regimes. In each case, protesters had links to civil society organizations that had received Western support, which sufficed for Moscow to see them as US-supported coups.
Since the 2000s, heading off a color revolution in Russia became a preoccupation of Putin’s inner circle. Laws were passed that severely restricted the freedom of international NGOs to operate in Russia and forced local civil society organizations that received international funding to register as foreign agents.
The specter of a popular revolution explains the Russian government’s extraordinary sensitivity to even small protests. Since 2015, authorities have engaged activists in a battle of wills over an unauthorized memorial to murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Each night, garbagemen cart away the collection of flowers and portraits that activists assemble at the site of Nemtsov’s death, only for the memorial to reappear the following day. If Putin’s government takes seriously seemingly minor acts of defiance, outside observers should, too.
Photo by Wikimedia user Overwasted, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Protesters gather at an anti-corruption rally in Saint Petersburg on March 26.