Who Is the Face of the Russian Opposition?

[Прочитать статью на русском языке здесь.]

This last Sunday, Russia held its latest round of local elections. Ninety-three percent of the country’s regions (77 of 83) went to the ballot box to vote on mayors, regional parliaments, municipal authorities, and so on. Not surprisingly, United Russia won nearly everywhere, taking slightly more than half of all votes. Wading through the editorial moaning and collective sighing following this ‘national embarrassment,’ I noticed the following line in an article from Gazeta.ru:

Just as before, United Russia’s best results were in the regional periphery, and KPRF had its best results in cities, home to the younger and – most importantly – more educated voter.

This little statement is a hidden explosive; it runs counter to everything we hear about the Russian opposition and the future of Russian politics. Russia’s Communists and its smaller Leftist groups are the great untold story in Russian contemporary protests.

The faces of the anti-establishment are familiar enough: Ilya Yashin, Oleg Kozlovsky, Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Milov, etcetera and so on. These people are all either young themselves (like Yashin and Kozlovsky) or somehow associated with youth and the post-Soviet generation (like Nemtsov). All of them are ‘intelligentsia’ – members of a social class that Lenin once referred to as “not a nation’s mind, but a nation’s shit.” They are professional thinkers and organizers, authors and speech-givers.

As their popularity has dwindled, liberal groups have expanded the scope of their grievances. I distinctly remember being in Moscow in 2003 (before Khodorkovsky was arrested) and listening to a Russian university professor enumerate the key tenets of the Yabloko Party. The party’s goals included things like transparency in government and business, and a basic social safety net. The presentation (which was pure political propaganda from a card-carrying Yabloko member) was made to differentiate the party from SPS, another liberal group that (according to this professor) didn’t pursue social equality so much as promote laissez faire economics. Though SPS has since collapsed and Yabloko persistently refuses to merge with other like-minded groups, it’s worth noting that the rhetoric from this camp has become increasingly grand. Nemtsov and Chubais were once heads of the same party (SPS). Now the latter is a high ranking technocrat working for the Kremlin and the former blogs invectives against the “criminal state” under Vladimir Putin.

In the last decade, the face of the Russian opposition has changed – and it no longer belongs to the admittedly handsome Boris Nemtsov.

Who then are Russia’s brave new protesters?

The latest election results indicate that Russia’s opposition is urban and educated. Others, perhaps not mutually exclusively, draw the line by generation. Writing in Vedomosti last week, Mikhail Barshchevskii argued that the people born after the fall of the USSR are reaching political maturity. They favor market-friendly social spending, he says, sprinkled with impatience for government corruption (migalki, Anna Shavenkova) and national embarrassments like the winter Olympics. (Barshchevskii thought this makes Spravedlivaia Rossia the best candidate for an official opposition party – Russia’s elusive ‘missing link to a two-party system.’) There are other reasons to believe, however, that the opposition is actually fairly blue-collar. The New Times originally reported that the infamous “Putin Must Go” petition was supported mostly by middle class folks. But that analysis only addressed the first 6,475 signatures. A follow-up report on the first 35,000 signatures changed the picture dramatically: blue-collar support jumped from 4.95% to 23%. (White-collar signatures hovered around 10-12%.)

Writing yesterday in his Ekho Moskvy blog, Nemtsov oddly claimed that KPRF failed to improve its elections showing. (KPRF announced two days ago that, despite fraud, the elections demonstrated its growing appeal.) Not surprisingly, Nemtsov blamed the Communists for collaborating with the Kremlin (and responding poorly to the miners crisis in Raspadskaia earlier this year), and suggested that “Communist voters sensed the falsities and didn’t want to support them.” Nemtsov’s ill will toward KPRF’s leadership is understandable: earlier this year, Gennady Ziuganov, with limited success, forbade his Kaliningrad minions from protesting alongside Nemtsov and other Moscow liberals. Attacking KPRF (a perfectly legitimate enterprise) is the liberal version of ‘splitting the tandem,’ except replace ‘the tandem’ with ‘the largest and best organized opposition group.’ It’s in the interests of liberals that the local, on-the-ground wings of KPRF operate as independently as possible from the ‘collaborationist’ top echelons of the party. Such decentralization, after all, increases the odds that small-time Communists will collaborate with the liberals instead! Indeed, Kaliningrad, Samara, and countless other provincial, spontaneous protests have demonstrated that this does happen.

So what is the face of Russia’s real opposition? Op-ed columnists writing from the East Coast of the United States would like to think that Russia’s opposition is rooted in liberal intellectuals. These are the people who provide the counterpoint quotes for their articles. These are the people who made history under Yeltsin. They frequent Washington, DC, and speak fluent English. Indeed, any one of Nemtsov’s blog posts is packed with important-sounding declarations like the first sentence of yesterday’s post: “Yesterday on October 10th, in six regional parliamentary elections, the United Russia party of thieves and traitors won handily.” Nemtsov and three other bigwigs recently announced the umpteenth liberal political coalition: “the Party of People Freedom” (Partiia narodnoi svobody). Last week, he and Milov released a YouTube Frontline-style version of their anti-Putin text.

And then there is the Communist Party. Co-opted, shriveled, and supposedly graying, KPRF enjoys good returns in cities. Younger members of the Left, like AKM leader Sergei Udal’tsov, have scored big opposition points with protest-institutions like ‘the Day of Rage.’ Ziuganov and the Communists announced yesterday that they refuse to acknowledge the election results in three cities (Krasnodar, Chapaevsk, and Tyva). Like good democrats, they’re preparing to submit a complaint to the European Court.

All this begs the question: with Communists like these, who needs the liberals?


  1. “Wading through the editorial moaning and collective sighing following this ‘national embarrassment,’” – embarrassment for whom? The liberal opposition in Russia’s capitals? Those darlings of the West who spend time touring the US preaching to the democratically inclined choir, who are virtually unknown outside the Ring Road? Perhaps their time would be better spent bootstrapping through Russia’s regions than sipping Starbucks in Palo Alto. Just a thought.

    I am intrigued by your idea that the Communists are the more viable of Russia’s opposition movements.

    • Susan, I’m paraphrasing the Gazeta.ru op-ed in question, in which the author says:

      В целом же, глядя на завершившиеся выборы 10 октября, позорящие страну и свидетельствующие, что в стране нет и намека ни на «модернизацию», ни на демократизацию…

      I think it will be very interesting to see how the Communists (and other Lefist groups) mature over the coming decades. Real power still rests with Putin and the Kremlin, obviously, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant that KPRF can attract urban, educated voters. Barshchevskii’s piece is one of these ‘what-if’ explorations that addresses the question of a second party for Russia. This is something we’ve been hearing about for years now, with some renewed interest in light of Medvedev’s growing public profile. (Or is it shrinking? I forget.) So far, this is still the pipe dream of civiloviki and modernizing softies. But a ‘second party’ would presumably cater to some kind of real sentiment in the electorate, even if only rhetorically. Barshchevskii highlights the left-leaning persuasion of tomorrow’s voters. This caught my eye.

      Whether or not they’re the more viable future, the Left is underrepresented in the reportage I see about Russian opposition activity. There are plenty of nefarious, self-serving reasons Nemtsov and company get all the limelight, but the real problem is that it’s just lazy journalism/social science to ignore the commies. They’re out there protesting, too, often in more significant ways than the (perhaps more accessible) Moscow elites.

  2. I agree that KPRF is the most viable of the opposition movements.

    The over-lofty and hysterical pronouncements typical of the “liberals” only highlight their dearth of meaningful ideas. It seems to me that their leaders’ biggest gripe is simply that they’ve been left outside of the political pecking order, or in a lower position than they feel they deserve. Add that to them being far more enamored of the West than the Kremlin (and frequently speaking out against Russia’s national interests which is of course a huge voter winner) and that’s pretty much the entire difference.

    To the contrary, the ideals of left oppositionists, if actually put into practice, would re-engineer at a far more fundamental level – progressive taxation, less inequality, more progressive social & environmental policies, *perhaps* less corruption and more “sobornost'”; on the other hand, perhaps less economic dynamism. So it’s certainly something I’d consider if I had happened to be involved in Russian politics, whereas being a liberal oppositionist – essentially serving the egos of people like Nemtsov and Milov – thanks but no thanks.

    • I agree that the Left has more radical aims than the liberals, but I’m not sure that’s what is relevant here. Certainly, it’s possible that KPRF’s values are what has made it the most successful opposition institution, but I’m not ready to make that claim.

      What seems verifiable at this point is that the Communists and various Leftist groups are doing a better job mounting voter outreach efforts and appealing to the young, educated crowd traditionally believed to be closer to Westernizing liberals. Did they win their hearts and minds, or have they merely become the conduit for a less ideological anti-establishment sentiment?

      I don’t know.

      • Dude, if the KPRF bigwigs were really interested in reaching voters, first thing they’d do is ditch Zyuganov. Let’s be frank here, would you vote for this face? 😉

        IMO, it’s simply that the “values” the KPRF (claim to) represent – social justice, more equality, etc – are an order of magnitude more popular than those proposed by the liberals – anti-statism, Westernization. But just as the liberal movement is fractured by competing egos, so the left movement is hindered from becoming a real opposition movement – one actually capable of challenging the Putvedev group – by the KPRF / Fair Russia fracture, and the KPRF’s inertia at its top levels.

        PS. About Sean’s point that Communists are making more efforts to reach out to young people. The same thing was said of Moldova’s Communists, but as you remember, what followed was the abortive Twitter Revolution and their loss of power. They might well have been getting new young voters, but it’s of little use if their core base (pensioners) are dying off or losing interest faster than new supporters are replacing them. The same question need be asked of the KPRF and its future.

  3. Not having seen an actual breakdown of the vote, I’d cautiously suggest Gazeta’s statement is less a hidden explosive than it is a red herring – although the cities are unquestionably the home of the younger and better-educated voter, there’s no information to buttress the assumption that younger and better-educated voters make up the greater part of KPRF’s support. The cities contain a lot more of everything: street-cleaners and black-market DVD vendors, among others. No data are supplied to suggest these groups are not the mainstay of KPRF support, and their gaining more votes in cities is hardly surprising: that’s where more people are. My take is that Gazeta is simply choosing its words carefully in order to put the best face on the result. I could be completely wrong, but absent supporting evidence, I have no reason to believe that’s the case.

    In any event, the last decade has seen the rise of an electoral dynamic that perhaps represents something worse than a detached, apathetic electorate: voters who are fired up on the issues, but who know diddly about economics. Being politically aware is certainly desirable, but that’s only half of it. It’s great to march around under a banner that says, “I support laissez-faire economics”, but how many know what that means? The kind of laissez-faire policies that led to the U.S.-initiated and worldwide financial stagger of 2008, perhaps? It’s not enough to suggest that aping the west will lead inevitably to prosperity and a cascade of social benefits: in fact, it’s not even true. Unrestrained “betting on the come” from the markets is instead a recipe for catastrophe for all but the inner circle. Too many exalted voters don’t get that, not to mention their would-be leaders. It’s all very well to shout, “We want (insert desirable western value here)”. It’s quite another to have a plan for getting there that contains a realistic assessment of the sacrifice and application that will be required. So far, I submit that is largely absent.

    • Mark, the Gazeta.ru piece was saying that KPRF does better percentage-wise in cities, meaning that they don’t just get more votes but more of the votes in urban areas.

      I actually doubt that the op-ed, authored by a ‘Golos’ member, wanted at all to put a good face on the elections. The piece stated repeatedly that they were “shameful” for the whole country.

      Regarding the liberals’ empty rhetoric and the dangers of an uninformed electorate, I suppose you’re right. Though I’d argue that, when questions to turn existential threats (be they ‘death panels’ or ‘criminal regimes’), both uneducated voters and wise, all-deciding bureaucrats are equally capable of messing things up royally.

      This is probably why liberals have rebranded themselves as “anti-corruption” and deemphasized their ties to the economic policies of the 1990s. While in theory the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Russian voters simply don’t think of the unencumbered market as compatible with any kind of useful freedom or liberty. Thanks a lot, Yeltsin.

      • If it is any indication, I was surprised by the number of young people in the KPRF march on May Day. I thought it was going to mostly be old people. I was wrong.

        But the KPRF is a big tent, much bigger than the liberal tent. Under the KPRF you can have AKM and red nationalists, old people and young, educated intelligentsia and working people. They appeal to a much broader base than the liberals if only because the KPRF’s political identity isn’t rooted in a particular “lifestyle.” In fact, one can say that they share a constituency with ER and if they would pull their head out of the 20th century and appeal to them they might make more headway. I assume this is why ER rigs elections against the KPRF since they are the real threat. The liberals, in contrast, have no hope in hell in every appealing to anyone outside of their echo chamber.

        Frankly, given the political landscape of Russian politics, I’m amazed the liberals are even part of anyone’s conversation (besides poking fun at them. They do provide an endless stream of material for that). Mentioning them is like evoking the Green Party’s viewpoint in every American political debate.

  4. Like good democrats, they’re preparing to submit a complaint to the European Court.

    If I understand correctly, you imply that’s something new for the KPRF, an element suggesting that it is rejuvenating.
    But it’s not the first time that the KPRF complains to the European Court about election result, read here. This is the relevant part

    We have submitted an application with the Council of Europe, haven’t we, sent them convincing evidence of how the Communists were robbed of their votes at 56,000 out of the 94,000 polling stations during the 2003 Duma elections. They should have considered our application in the European Court by now and given us a clear answer how it happened! Why haven’t they?

    If I misunderstood you, sorry for wasting your time.

    • Thanks, this is a good observation. I didn’t mean to imply that this recent election was a watershed moment — only that it represents an ongoing trend ignored by a Western media that prefers to prattle on about Kasparov and Nemtsov. (Milov is less of a household name, but I’d like to think that’s just because anyone who meets him face-to-face can’t stand him.)

  5. I am sorry I don’t *twit* but this is my comment to
    “Эйзенштейн за червяков в еде получил Оскар, а @dzelenin на что рассчитывает?”
    I am not surprised about that worm in salad ( even in Kremlin), after reading this;

    I am so utterly disgusted with Putin’s Russia, that the fact that I have to go to Moscow in few days rather depresses me…:(

  6. Pingback: Weekly Russia Blog Roundup, 15 October 2010 | Siberian Light

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