Loretta Marie Perera reports from Moscow.
An aversion to Russia’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, is a sentiment shared by many of the feminists, socialists, leftists, and anti-capitalists who joined tens of thousands in protests around Russia starting on Saturday, January 23.
“I disagree with many things about Navalny’s politics: his attitude to migrants, feminism, LGBT,” said Daria, 33, who protested in St. Petersburg. But for many, Daria included, there is a bigger enemy to reckon with.
“I believe that it is impossible and humiliating to continue to tolerate the attitude of government structures towards citizens: our regime has long been rotten, and it hinders development,” she said.
Daria on the streets of St. Petersburg
Ksenia, a member of SocFemAlt (СоцФем Альтернатива) – or the Socialist-Feminist Alternative – said that her group, who issued a statement explaining their participation, faced a lot of criticism for joining the protests. While Navalny is often portrayed in international media as a defender of liberty and justice, easily associated with the left, his capitalist politics are decidedly on the right.
“As a socialist, I cannot support Navalny's liberal and populist programme, his nationalist attacks and general right-wing rhetoric,” she said. “There are no illusions about his views.”
Why Not Navalny?
While the world watches, and international headlines announce “Protesters demonstrate across Russia in support of Alexei Navalny” (Guardian) and “Thousands gather across Russia to protest the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny” (Washington Post), the vibe on the streets suggests something else: that while Navalny remains an important anti-Kremlin spokesperson for the people, these protests are not really about Navalny at all.
As western leaders call for Navalny’s release and threaten another round of sanctions, his relationship with Russia’s left has been far from rosy. For Anastasia, Navalny’s attitude towards women is impossible to align with. “I don't like his condescending and frivolous attitude towards the feminist movement, or that he does not have an agenda regarding domestic violence, gender inequality in society, and the protection of women's reproductive health,” she said. “Once again, it is politics from a man, for men.”
Entering politics as far back as 2000 with the democratic Yabloko party, Navalny, now 44, continued his work with the party in various positions until 2007. It was here he was expelled – the reason given was for his increasing involvement with nationalist activities, including advocating for the infamous nationalist “Russian March” of 2006.
Digging into the archives, Navalny has over the years declared himself a certified nationalist, spoken hatefully on migrants comparing them to flies and cockroaches, and recommended pistols to deflect them. A more recent interview with the Guardian shows that while it was a long time ago, he doesn’t regret it and called it “artistic licence”.
At the same time, the protests his team organise have consistently drawn more crowds, and demanded more attention, than any other in Russia’s recent history. With protest posters that boldly say “Not afraid” in contrast to the finer print: “Free Navalny,” there’s a clear shift to appeal to a larger audience, too.
In 2021, Navalny’s complicated relationship with the left has finally reached a tipping point – and all signs indicate it’s leaning in favour of protest and platform above politics and policy.
Svetlana, 35, protested in the far-eastern Khabarovsk, which recently saw people take to the streets in support of their arrested governor. “I do not feel that Navalny has a clear political program for the future,” she said. “This is a protest about people's fatigue from the arrogance, malice, dishonesty, and stupidity of the current government at all levels – from municipalities to the president.” Because of this, she sees a larger reason to protest.
“The general rise of indignation that has spilled out onto the streets can lead us to a revolutionary uprising.” – Ksenia
For SocFem, Navalny is a political opponent, and the protests were an opportunity to recruit, to organise, and to protest against political repression and dictatorship. “This is our chance to direct the protest against Putin in an anti-capitalist direction, and to be at the forefront,” Ksenia said on behalf of the organisation.
The Castle, the Arrest, and the Many Reasons for the Protests
The protests were a culmination of many factors. Perhaps most important were the poisoning, the nature of the arrest, the charges filed, and the fact that Navalny – penalised for failing to attend a court hearing he was scheduled to attend while he was in Germany recovering from the attack – was taken to an unknown location and kept from his lawyer for hours after his arrest. His return to Russia following the poisoning attempt many have linked to the Kremlin was live-streamed, from landing to arrest and beyond, on independent news channel TV Rain.
Now in a 30-day pre-trial detention until Feb. 15, Navalny faces a 3.5-year sentence for a 2014 money laundering charge, as well as a sentence of up to 10 years for a separate charge of misappropriating nearly $5 million in donations to his anti-corruption foundation.
And then there was the video.
The crowds in St. Petersburg. Photo by @levishka on Instagram
The investigation got one message loud and clear: This means war. And if this was war, the warriors were ready to show up. As of Jan. 30, it had been watched over 100 million times in just over 10 days. Protestors, many with signs referencing Putin’s Castle, some armed with toilet brushes, referring to the 700€ ones revealed in the investigation, and chanting slogans and takeaways from the video, attended in large numbers. And they weren’t only in Russia’s biggest cities – thousands took to the streets everywhere from Moscow to St. Petersburg, from the Siberian city of Yakutsk where temperatures plunged to minus 50 celsius, to the far-eastern Vladivostok.
On January 23, there was something different in the air. For many, such a large gathering of people, and the peaceful nature of the protestors who had just come for a stroll (the Russian reference “прогулку” or to “go for a stroll” as a way to say attending a protest) was what stood out.
But as previous protests have shown, aggression often begins with those in power, in this case the police and riot squad.
“I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't afraid,” said Anastasia, who is concerned by the fact that attending a peaceful protest with no intent of aggression still requires you to be ready for violence. “It's scary to get hit on the head with a baton. But silence is even scarier.”
“I might be arrested, but at least I will have fun.” Photo by @nastasiia.in.wonderland on Instagram
But despite the fear felt all around, the cause was what needed to be the focus.
“Every protest, even a single picket in Russia, is a risk that all our members and activists take for the sake of a common struggle and true justice,” SocFem’s Ksenia said. “There is no room for fear here.”
A spokesperson from the Russian Socialist Movement (Российское Социалистическое Движение) said that while Navalny is a catalyst who encourages this long-awaited action, the protests aren’t all about him, nor do they indicate the coming together of Russia’s left.
“This is a split between those who are ready to participate in protests and start a revolution,” they said, “and those who sit back and take pro-government protective positions.”
“Russia without Putin, Russia for workers.” Photo by RSD in Izhevsk
For revolutionary socialist feminist Ksenia, it may be just the beginning. “This brings the protest movement to a new level. The fact that a huge number of people went to unauthorised rallies in completely different regions, having realised all the risks? That only says that more people will not be silent, and will fight on the streets,” she said. “Hopefully, with us.”