Sergei Udaltsov, one of the leaders of the Russian Left Front was freed on August 8 after spending four and a half years years in a penal colony, convicted for inciting to violence in connection with the 2011-2012 mass protests against electoral fraud.
He was also accused of accepting money from shady businessmen from Georgia and Moldova, allegedly to sow discord and chaos into Russian society; human rights campaigners have called these accusations and his imprisonment politically motivated. His freeing has been welcomed by the leaders of various movements of the Russian opposition, but is unlikely to lead to any significant shifts in Russian politics.
The Russian population is politically apathetic after years of political and economic turmoil and relentless persecution of alternative political movements. For most, having food to eat and being left alone by the state is a preferable condition. Unsurprisingly, this situation is not conducive to mass-scale political action.
Further, gauging the actual moods and desires of the population is difficult in a country where elections are not free and the government recently closed down the last independent pollster. Left-wing ideas may or may not be popular; in any case, wide-spread Soviet nostalgia should not be confused for unreserved support for communism as such.
Most Russians can still remember the persistent shortages of basic goods and mindless repetition of Marxist slogans emptied of content, typical of the late “socialism” of the 1980s. True, many long for the social stability and security of income of the Soviet times, but do not see this as a question of working-class politics, solidarity, or even renationalisation of the country’s industries.
The left is not a serious contender in national politics, although the Kremlin allows the Communist Party of Russia, headed by Gennadiy Ziuganov, to occasionally make noises about nationalisation of industries and benefits for large families. Like in other post-Communist countries, the CPRF is socially conservative and far removed from such ideals as anti-racism or gender equality.
Currently, the most popular opposition groups in Russia are pro-market liberal groups of the middle class, exemplified by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalnyi and his Progress Party, and a host of various nationalists organisations.
The opposition has had a hard time providing feasible alternatives by uniting in their resistance to Putin’s regime, because of the stark ideological differences and personal disputes between the leaders of the various groups. Navalnyi’s neoliberal and light-nationalist ideas are mostly popular in the big cities and enjoy little support outside of the educated middle classes of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Nationalist ideas have grown increasingly popular in Russian society during the past ten years, partially because of the relentless persecution of alternative political movements and the Kremlin’s own campaign for redefining the concept of the Russian nation in more ethnically exclusive terms. Also, liberal politics of the Western stripe have been discredited because of the crippling transition recession Russia endured in the 1990s, which wiped out many ordinary Russians’ savings.
Liberal ideas such as LGBT rights are typically associated with the economic right in Russia, as opposed to Western European countries, where liberal values are usually connected to the political left. A liberal and left agenda does not make a lot of sense to most postcommunist citizens.
Some of the country’s left-wing opposition is assembled under Left Front, a network of socialist organisations.
Udaltsov is the unofficial leader of the Vanguard of Left Youth (Avangard Krasnoi Molodyozhi, AKM), which joined Left Front in 2008. Udaltsov has been a staunch opponent of Putin from his very first term, calling him a “henchman of capitalism”.
Unfortunately for the left in Russia, AKM and other organisations like it have turned increasingly “patriotic” after the 2011 protests. Udaltsov has himself expressed approval of the occupation of Crimea. In this, he and AKM follow the “red-brown” traditions of the Russian hard left opposition, which tends to be nostalgic about the Soviet past and Stalinist in ideology.
Russia has relatively organised and consolidated trade unions, but the largest and most active ones (under FNPR, Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia) have been appropriated by the government; as such, they are patently unable to advocate any kind of working-class policies. Instead, they act as clientelistic redistribution machines and practice grounds for future Duma deputies.
Similarly, the state’s paternalistic adoption of publicly funded civil servants (biudzhetniki) has essentially made them into a new middle class, now well-off enough to pre-empt any protests about the state’s neoliberal policies such as privatisation of state companies and recent cuts in healthcare. The regime has also bought the acquiescence of pensioners, who dutifully vote for Putin and his corrupt party or for the regime-created opposition parties (e.g. the Liberal-Democratic Party, which is neither liberal nor democratic), whose job it is to support the ruling party in the legislature.
The only relatively prominent anti-fascist, democratic, and socialist organisation currently active in Russia is the Russian Socialist Movement (Rossiiskoe Sotsialisticheskoe Dvizhenie, RSD).
Recently the RSD’s activity seems to have picked up some pace, which is of course comforting, but currently envisaging a mass left-wing movement without nationalist and/or Stalinist overtones in Russia is difficult.