With Navalny Headed to Prison, Russia’s Political Battle Enters a New Stage
By Joshua Yaffa
February 3, 2021
he final outcome was surely preordained, but that didn’t make the proceeding any less dramatic. A little after eight in the evening in Moscow on Tuesday, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in a Russian penal colony. His ostensible crime was violating the conditions of a suspended sentence that he received in 2014, during an earlier, politically motivated trial. But his real offense in the eyes of the Kremlin lay elsewhere, and was as obvious as it was darkly absurd: he had managed to survive the state’s attempt to poison him, and, what’s more, had managed to unmask his would-be killers from the F.S.B., the K.G.B’s successor agency—and then had the temerity to return home, to Russia.
Before the verdict, Navalny addressed the courtroom. He is a confident, deft, and skillful politician, who has proven able to seize control of the narrative even from a position of weakness—in mid-January, held out of sight in pretrial detention, he released an investigation into a sprawling residence on the Black Sea, which he dubbed “Putin’s Palace,” forcing Putin himself to react; and this week, a defendant awaiting his sentence in a glass cage guarded by court bailiffs, he launched into a speech that was immediately posted, widely shared, and fervently discussed across the Russian-language Internet. Navalny has a talent for memes, and resurfaced several (calling Putin a “little man in a bunker,” a reference to Putin isolating himself for months on end during the pandemic), and he minted new ones (“Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” a riff on how Navalny’s killers applied novichok poison to his boxer shorts).
In his speech, Navalny barely addressed the court, instead aiming at Putin, turning what was nominally a probation hearing into a set piece in a far larger battle. “He’s simply going insane,” Navalny said. Putin, he went on, is a “bureaucrat who was accidentally appointed to his position. He’s never participated in any debates or campaigned in an election. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight.” He then made an appeal to Russians following the proceedings and the thousands who have joined protests in recent weeks. “They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions,” Navalny said. “This isn’t a demonstration of strength—it’s a show of weakness . . . You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”
Navalny, who surely knew he was not walking out of that courtroom a free man, was speaking for history—that may sound grandiose, and it is, but it’s also true, not to mention in keeping with his character. One could surmise that Navalny has a Messianic streak, a kind of compulsion to martyrdom: Why else would a person, after nearly being killed by a nerve agent, return home to certain arrest, or worse? But that gets things backward. It’s not Navalny who is most actively creating his heroic myth, it’s the Kremlin.
The authorities and their tactics—from hoarding taxpayers’ money to the blatant use of excessive force against peaceful protesters—are becoming visible and transparent.
Who were the people who turned out in droves across Russia on Saturday, January 23 to attend mass protest rallies inspired by the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny? Some preliminary conclusions can already be made. The geographical scope of the protests has grown, the number of participants has increased (taking into account that the rallies were not sanctioned by the authorities), and both sides are more intransigent than before: not quite at the level seen in neighboring Belarus, but apparently ready for something similar. Another parallel with events in Belarus is that some of the people out on the streets could never have imagined just a few weeks ago that they would be indignant enough to be there.
Sociologists have been analyzing the age, educational status, and prosperity of Russian protesters since the 2011–2012 wave of rallies, and have found that most protesters in that period were in the twenty-five to thirty-nine age bracket, had a college education, and were reasonably well off, putting them in the middle class. Subsequent research showed that although schoolchildren and students were very active and noticeable at later protests, the core of protesters remained about the same age. Their main complaint remained the lack of change in Russia’s system of power.
Research carried out by the Carnegie Moscow Center together with the Levada Center over the last five years shows that the same category of people who were active in the protest movement eight or nine years ago still makes up the core of those who would like to see the country modernize. These are the people who—unlike the paternalistically minded majority of Russians—understand what changes they would like to see. The regime has grown old and obsolete, and cares about nothing except for the preservation of the elite. The out-of-date system is becoming extremely ineffective, and is incapable of ensuring stable economic growth or stopping the constant fall in household income.
Sociologists haven’t yet studied the massive protests that took place on January 23, though some limited polling of protesters in Moscow revealed that the core of the protest had changed little: it was still made up of people in their thirties.
What had changed, however, was that more than 40 percent of those polled said it was the first time they had ever taken part in a protest. This is undoubtedly down to the impact of Navalny’s return to Russia following his poisoning with a deadly nerve agent, his subsequent arrest, and the release of his film about “Putin’s palace,” which has become a symbol of the establishment’s vulgar wealth and the enrichment of the elite.
Navalny’s case has reinforced the dividing lines between the TV generation and the internet generation. Those who get their information from the internet support the version that Navalny was poisoned by the authorities, while those who don’t believe it are more likely to rely on TV for their information. Naturally, opposite points of view are also held by those who don’t approve of Putin’s leadership and those who do. The structure of Russia’s aging population means there are more people voting above and just below the retirement age than there are young voters, which works in Putin’s favor, though with significant caveats.
Younger generations (the eighteen to twenty-four and twenty-five to thirty-nine cohorts) are unhappy that under the current regime the country is not modernizing, and is wasting its potential. Meanwhile, those approaching the retirement age are unhappy with Putin for socioeconomic reasons. Following their 2014 high, Putin’s ratings didn’t fall sharply until 2018, when he led the initiative to raise the retirement age.
There are no new polls gauging public opinion of Navalny and the protests yet, but the situation appears to have changed drastically. First, the differences in opinion between various age groups are clear to see. Second, Navalny’s latest film has shown Russia’s rulers not to be fearsome, but simply grotesquely ridiculous: the comically overpriced toilet brushes allegedly found in “Putin’s palace” quickly became a mocking symbol of the protests.
The third change is the sharp increase in Navalny’s visibility and in the readiness of urban Russians across the country to take to the streets: partly to show solidarity with the opposition leader, but mainly to protest against what they see as an archaic political regime.
The fourth and final point is that the Kremlin and the security services find themselves in a completely new media situation. About 4.5 million people watched the live transmission of Saturday’s protests on Navalny’s online channel alone. Nearly 11 million watched Dozhd’s transmission via YouTube, while a TikTok video featuring Navalny garnered 1 billion views.
The authorities and their tactics—from hoarding taxpayers’ money to the blatant use of excessive force against peaceful protesters—are becoming visible and transparent. This is a new situation: not only is the government monitoring the people, but ordinary people can now observe the authorities’ actions online.
The Kremlin made a mistake by delegating responsibility for dealing with the Navalny situation to the security services, and now the situation is dramatically changing following his arrest, the release of the film, and the protests, at which over 3,000 people were detained. The authorities themselves have turned Navalny into a moral leader, and applying the kind of repressive tactics seen in neighboring Belarus to civil society won’t be enough to undo that: those tactics have grown old live on air.
Thousands of Russians protest against Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment
Millions more watch his video accusing President Putin of corruption
Jan 24th 2021
“WHO CARES about him?” Russian president Vladimir Putin smirked at a recent press conference. He was referring to Alexei Navalny, his main political challenger, who had survived an attack with the nerve poison known as Novichok and returned to Russia from Germany on January 17th. He was arrested at the airport on spurious charges before he even passed passport control.