Not enough rage against the Russian machine

By bne IntelliNews October 3, 2012

Julia Reed in Moscow -


"We don't have enough personal rage in this fight. Every person on the other side knows that if they lose, he will lose a million dollars, a yacht or a house for their mistress on Cote D'Azur... We fight for an abstract idea: freedom, some equality, some human dignity that you can't put it in your pocket. But we must see it as a very concrete thing we can't live without. We can't live without freedom; we don't need a life without human dignity. We will never give up."

Stirring words from opposition leader Alexei Navalny, during his speech at the latest "March of the Millions" protest held in central Moscow on September 15 - and words that clearly touched a nerve with the crowds that turned out to hear him. As usual, there was a "battle of the estimates" between the police and demonstration organizers that ranged from 14,000 to 150,000 respectively; the bne correspondent who attended puts the figure at the high end of the range. The nascent opposition seems to have lost some momentum since the euphoric first rallies in December 201, but its supporters have clearly dug their heels in and won't go away. This is going to be a long, long fight.

Navalny's call to rally around the "abstraction" of human dignity seemed to touch the crowd and had echoes of US President Barak Obama's call on Americans to take their responsibilities as citizens seriously in his recent nomination speech. The protesters listened to Navalny in silence. For about five minutes there were no background commentaries or interruptions. It was clear that this message was what united the nationalists, communists, socialists, gays and lesbians, anti-fascists and just general people at this gathering. The urge to fight for their dignity might be something that would prompt them to come again.

The comment about needing to go to rallies like going to work also struck a chord. Those gathered at this rally were certainly not attracted by curiosity or the novelty of the event. They've seen it all before. And this time they expected their leaders to come up with more than just condemnations of the government and statements of intent.

Since December 2011, a fatigue has certainly set in amongst the protesters. This time there weren't very many silly costumes or funny signs, fewer laughs and less cheering. Protesters came on their own; the children and family that attended earlier rallies were missing from this one. The speakers on stage struggled to excite the crowd and couldn't get them to chant the usual slogans. For many, the rally felt more like an obligation than fun. The post-rally reporting was similarly downbeat.

The theme of the rally was presidential and Duma re-elections and freedom to all political prisoners - notably to the three members of Pussy Riot, to Taisia Osipova (a member of the 'Drugaya Rossia', an unregistered opposition party, who was accused of drug smuggling and recently given eight years in jail despite numerous legal violations in the case), and to those detained after the May 6 clashes with the police. In addition, the recent political expulsion of the opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov from the Duma for allegedly running businesses while holding his post was condemned.

The fathers of those detained spoke movingly about the political repression inflicted on their children, about the pressure that has been applied to the suspects so they testify against the opposition leaders to make the clashes look like orchestrated and not spontaneous acts of violence.

Another theme that resonated with the crowd were the soaring communal payment tariffs as well as the educational and medical reforms that will lead to wider commercialization in the social sphere.

But the key question is: has the protest movement run out of momentum?

Despite the lower numbers at some events, the movement as a whole is not going to cease thanks to the deep-rooted discontent with the authorities in Russian society. Corruption, an economy dominated by oil and gas, a lack of accountability for those in power, and diminishing political freedoms will feed this discontent in the face of otherwise improving standards of living. As long as there is no contact between the citizenry and their rulers the problem will not go away.

So what comes next? Russia's growing wealth gap between its own 1% and working class minority who have missed out on most of the gains of the last two decades is still growing and will probably manifest itself in new forms of protests such as strikes. And the fragmentation of the democratic parties and lack of leaders or platforms also mean the future of protest seems to be shifting into the hands of young Marxists, socialists and other left-wing movements, who are better organized than the newly minted opposition leaders. The protest movement is lurching to the left.

And economic issues are slowly replacing the more generic disgust with the regime that brought the marchers out nine months ago. The average Russian is more concerned with preserving the gains of the last two decades than they are with political freedoms per se.

Isabel Magkoeva is typical of the new breed. A young Ibarruri Dolores (a Communist leader during the Spanish Civil War and the author of the slogan "No pasaran!), Magkoeva is leader of Occupy.Russia and the Russian Socialist movement. Speaking at the rally, she read an address to Putin demanding the release of everyone detained following the violent May 6 clashes. She seemed to have no fear. Her voice was passionate and forceful. Magkoeva is going to stand in the October 20-21 elections for the Coordination Council of the Opposition.

As I looked at her red ribbon and watching her long black hair flying in the wind, I thought that it is idealistic and uncompromising people like Magkoeva who will soon pick up the baton because she does feel the rage.

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