Russian opposition must defeat inner demons before Putin

    Protesters at Saturday’s Million March in Moscow donning Putin masks. Photo by Sergey Kukota via Flickr.

    Three months have passed since more than 100,000 people peacefully took to the streets in Moscow on June 12 to demand a “Russia without Putin.” Since then, however, the government has tightened the screws and undertaken obviously undemocratic steps such as imposing huge fines for unauthorized demonstrations; classifying international NGOs as foreign agents; reviving the notorious Soviet libel law; opening politically motivated criminal cases against opposition leader Alexey Navalny, May 6 protesters and other “public enemies”; and finally, of course, imprisoning the women of Pussy Riot.

    Despite the heightened state of repression, opposition activists have been anxious to get back out on the streets and prove that they won’t be silenced. Saturday’s planned third March of Millions was their opportunity. According to organizers, around 50,000 people showed up to once again demand social and political reforms as well as keep the pressure on the authorities and Putin’s administration.

    “It is worth rattling his nerves and reminding those in power that we are still here and, apparently, not going anywhere,” said a protester on his way to Sakharova Avenue, where opposition leaders were delivering speeches.

    The protest appeared to attract a mix of nationalists, liberals, leftists, LGBT activists and even communists. At about 1 p.m. they assembled at Pushkin Square, formed two columns representing left and right oppositional parties, and marched through the city under the slogans “Power to millions not to millionaires,” “No to repression” and “Putin go away.” Upon reaching Sakharova Avenue, the protesters were greeted by an impressive stream of speakers, including Alexey Navalny, novelists Boris Akunin and Dmitriy Bikov, leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, Solidarity movement leader Boris Nemtsov, and chess champion Garry Kasparov — each of whom encouraged the growing crowd to occupy the square and remain there as long as possible.

    “Our main aim is to force the authorities to start a dialogue,” announced Sergei Udaltsov. “It’s been three months since our last march. Not a single demand has been met. Not a single political prisoner has been released! We won’t let them play games with us! We will stay firm and resist!”

    Later on, as has been the custom with these marches, the opposition presented an official resolution containing demands for the immediate release of “the prisoners of conscience”; fair presidential and parliamentary elections; social justice; lower utility and housing rates; improvements in education and healthcare; the right to form labor unions and organize strikes; and immediate abolition of unjust laws that were recently adopted. In his speech, People’s Democratic Union party leader Vladimir Rizhkov spoke of wanting to “force authorities to sit down for talks with the opposition and the civil society in order to hold free elections.”

    Despite the excitement surrounding Saturday’s events, a considerable number of social activists have been highly critical of the marches and the whole movement at its present stage. “I would characterize yesterday’s event as normal, just normal,” said Boris Akunin, a writer and an opposition leader. “The smell of stagnation and déjà vu is floating in the air. We do come out in the streets… However, nothing has changed so far but deteriorated rapidly.”

    Meanwhile, other demonstrators have expressed their frustration with the diversity of views and social movements engaged in opposition actions, arguing that the mix of nationalists, communists, LGBT activists and liberals muddles the message and makes it hard to reach consensus. Nevertheless, even the simple calls for free elections don’t seem to be having an impact. As one protester observed, “Flooding the streets and denying the reality doesn’t seem to be enough. Here we are only hearing catchy phrases like ‘Down with Putin’ or ‘Remove Putin.’ People here are far from achieving it.” The overarching criticism is that the opposition movement hasn’t taken the steps that would force the government into negotiations. Dmitriy Bikov has called this stalemate “the crisis of ideas.” During the rally he said, “Every one of us knows what is wrong with the regime, but very few can choose the right way forward.”

    As if the protesters don’t have enough troubles, they must also contend with the state monopoly on information. “The main force which keeps Putin in the Kremlin is information,” says Olga Tregub, a 30-year-old legal assistant, who attended Saturday’s demonstration. “As long as they own the means of information, we are doomed to continue shouting from podiums and on the web, which is free, for now.”

    As the movement stares down this critical moment of internal debate and outside repression, it may find inspiration in the words of Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who, in 1989, spoke of a similar struggle: “We have to work hard so that one day our children will not consider the foregone struggle in vain. However, the only significant obstacle we need to surmount is our own indecisiveness, cowardice and idleness. We are expected to defeat our inner demons.”

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