The Russian has bared his angst against President Vladimir Putin. Equally, there is a groundswell of sympathy and support for the detractor, Alexei Navalny, a vociferous Putin critic who was arrested immediately after his return from Berlin where he recovered from an attempt to kill him with a nerve agent. Sunday’s robust demonstration against Putin would have been inconceivable till 1991 and more accurately in the era of the Soviet Union.
It is a measure of the intensity and fury that marked the protests that more than 5,000 people were detained, the Metro stations were closed, and the city centre blocked. In a word, Moscow lost its connectivity with the rest of Russia.
By that token, the protest was spectacular. The neartotal dislocation reaffirms the groundswell of support for Navalny and the people’s fury against the Kremlin. He has blamed the security services for the attempt to kill him, a charge that has predictably been denied by the Kremlin. A protest in Russia is still a risky proposition.
Navalny has blamed the security services for the attempt to kill him, a charge that has been denied by the Kremlin. Even if one escapes the police batons, a protestor can be fired at, face a hefty fine or criminal prosecution. So the fact that people turned out for a second weekend, right across Russia, is significant.
By blocking off central Moscow, the authorities were trying to prevent a large crowd gathering in one place and so play down the scale of dissent. Instead, the protesters marched along main city streets to the hoots of passing cars whose passengers waved victory signs in support. Most protesters said they were not fans or followers of Navalny in particular, but they are shocked at how he has been treated.
They described him as a symbol of resistance and talked of their own desire for change. It would be less than accurate to suggest, however, that Putin’s ouster is imminent. But after two decades in power, the shine has begun to rub off his presidency. Navalny has denounced his detention as “blatantly illegal”, saying the authorities had allowed him to travel to Berlin for treatment following the Novichok poisoning, which happened in Russia last August.
Thirty years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it is the sheer vindictiveness of the Kremlin that is palpable and direly so. While Navalny is an opponent of the Kremlin, it is the people who are now, by and large, opposed to its praxis to counter even ideological dissent, though political philosophy now lies rather thin on the ground. This is the parable to be drawn from Sunday’s spirited protest by Muscovites.
In Putin’s home city of St Petersburg, a crowd gathered in a central square and chanted: “Down with the Tsar.” Small wonder that Russian and/or Soviet history in the wider canvas is so absorbing.