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Why the protests in Russia?

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Huge demonstrations in Russia are a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s regime. They reflect decades of failures by neoliberal and Stalinist regimes—and deserve much better leadership
Issue 2741
Putins popularity is fading
Putin’s popularity is fading (Pic: Herman von Rompuy/flickr)

The mass protests in Russia are a product of poverty, lack of democracy and inequality under president Vladimir Putin.

Russian average real incomes have fallen for five of the past seven years, and fell 3.4 percent last year alone. In 2020, the average Russian had 11 percent less to spend than in 2013—and workers are the hardest hit.

A series of reports have shown that over the last 30 years Russia has become the most unequal country in the world.

A 2017 study found the richest 10 percent of Russians owned 87 percent of all the country’s wealth, compared with 76 percent in the US.

The reality for ordinary Russians is soaring unemployment, rampant coronavirus, totally inadequate healthcare and falling wages.

And if they speak out or demonstrate they face harsh repression.

As Putin’s popularity faded, new laws were passed last year cracking down on campaigning online, restricting protests even further and giving the police more powers.

Alexei Navalny has emerged as a central figure channelling opposition to Putin because of bitter battles inside the ruling class since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The end of the East European regimes was not a move from a type of ­socialism to capitalism. Since 1928 what existed in Russia was a new form of class society, state capitalism.

On the ruins of the defeat of the revolution of 1917, the state bureaucracy had become a new ruling class based on its control of the means of production.

So the move towards free market capitalism was a political reorganisation of the existing system, not a social revolution.

Chris Harman, then Socialist Worker editor, described the process as a “move sideways” from one form of capitalism to another. But the move to market capitalism from the late 1980s was used to hammer ordinary people.


Joseph Stiglitz was once the chief economist and vice president of the World Bank. But he later turned against the neoliberal assault on Russia.

He said, “The people were told that capitalism was going to bring new, unprecedented prosperity.

“In fact, it brought unprecedented poverty, indicated not only by a fall in living standards, but by decreasing life spans and enormous other social indicators showing a deterioration in the quality of life.

“The number of people in poverty in Russia rose to somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, with more than one out of two children living in families below the poverty line”

Boris Yeltsin was the first post-Soviet president. His rule balanced between three groups.

One group was made up of former KGB and security service personnel who still had central roles in government.

They distrusted Yeltsin as likely to sell out to the West. In return he tried to sideline them.

Another group had family or other close personal links to Yeltsin.

Some were close to the former regime figures but wanted to not be directly associated with them. A third group was the oligarchs who grabbed many of Russia’s most lucrative business sectors. They profited as the “shock therapy” ­beggared tens of millions of ordinary people.

They gorged on the ­privatisations, sell-offs and general economic chaos that made bribery and looting possible for the most powerful.

Often they had links to the previous Communist regime but also looked to deal with Western multinationals and politicians. Take the example of Oleg Deripaska, who at one time was Russia’s richest man. In 2008 it was revealed that Peter Mandelson, Labour right winger and European Union commissioner, had met with Deripaska on his superyacht.

Mandelson was said to have given Deripaska trade concessions worth up to £50 ­million a year. George Osborne, then Tory shadow chancellor, also met Deripaska as did Andrew Feldman, the top Tory fundraiser.

A letter from Russian socialists in the struggle
A letter from Russian socialists in the struggle
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The oligarchs were therefore partly enmeshed with the other Russian ruling elites, but also had separate interests. Putin, once he became president in 1999, did not trust them to follow his lead.

To consolidate his own power he began to clash with them and occasionally to liquidate them—financially or physically. It’s one reason why some of them ended up living in London, which they dubbed “Moscow on Thames”.

Navalny has emerged as a politician capable of falsely claiming to express some of the popular feeling against Putin. But he also speaks for sections of the rich who have been “left out” by Putin.

He has been through several political shifts. Navalny began as a classic neoliberal demanding the market should be let rip, privatisation rammed through everywhere and workers’ rights dismantled.

That wasn’t very popular. So he rediscovered himself as a Russian nationalist, In 2006 he facilitated the annual “Russian March” which attracts antisemites, Islamophobes and fascists.

Protesters chant, “Russia for the Russians” and some ­speakers push homophobic and racist conspiracy theories. Swastikas were displayed on some of the demonstrations he supported.

In 2011 Navalny appeared in a video where he compared Muslim migrants to a “cockroach infestation”.

But building support through nationalism and racism is a crowded field. The fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky came third in the last parliamentary elections and has substantial support for his vile programme.

And the state itself champions hatred of Muslims and minorities.

The 1999–2000 battle of Grozny, just as Putin took over the presidency, saw the total destruction of the Chechen capital. It was meant as a terrifying warning to Muslims who demanded independence from the Russian state.

More recently the state has set up or manipulated terror attacks as a way of demonising Muslims and justifying extra state powers.

During a wave of protests against Putin ten years ago, Navalny discovered that more left wing ideas were popular.

He changed his pitch to the elastic concept of being “anti‑corruption”. Navalny also takes up issues such as pay rises for state workers and better ­pensions for all.

He is sometimes portrayed as a puppet of the West. Certainly Joe Biden has used the repression of recent protests to signal a more aggressive line against Russian than existed under Donald Trump.

Showing the traditional hypocrisy about democracy, the US state department rushed to condemn the attacks on Navalny’s supporters.


But Navalny is more than a front for the US and the Nato nuclear alliance. He can survive politically at the moment only by continuing to put forward Russian nationalist views.

The emergence of a ­genuine left opposition to Putin is complicated by the fake oppositions which have repeatedly emerged. They cluster around neoliberalism or a desire to return to Stalinism.

The last major set of protests was in 2011, the “snow revolution” that followed rigged ­parliamentary elections.

They featured three main leaders. One was Navalny.

Also prominent was Boris Nemtsov, who had been a key supporter of Yeltsin including being vice president in the 1990s. He then became an ­outspoken critic of Putin.

But his opposition was on the basis of a return to the early days of a free market tearing into people’s lives—hardly an attractive programme.

Nemtsov was then ­assassinated in 2015 two days before a planned demonstration over the impact of the financial crisis in Russia and against Russian involvement in Ukraine’s civil war.

Sergei Udaltsov played another important role. He is widely seen as the “left opposition” to Putin and heads the Vanguard of Red Youth.

But his leftism is a ­hankering for the old Soviet Union. Udaltsov poses with pictures of Stalin and defends the horrors of the 1930s, when all the gains of the 1917 revolution were wiped out.

It is the main ­parliamentary opposition to Putin, taking over 13 percent of the vote at the—highly controlled and corrupt—parliamentary election in 2016.

But it serves as an obstacle to the emergence of a real left. It generally props up Putin rather than opposing him. However sections of the Communists now seem ready to support Navalny.

The courageous protests in recent months deserve much better political representation than all the main forces that claim to be an opposition.

Neither reformed liberalism or a return to Stalinism will deliver what ordinary people need. The hope is that, as protesters take on Putin and his state thugs, more workers will be drawn into active opposition to the regime.

And that the real ideas of socialism and 1917 will be reborn on a mass scale.

Read more

Londongrad: From Russia with Cash: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs

by Mark Hollingsworth


Ukraine: imperialism, war and the left

International Socialism article by Rob Ferguson

Belarus: revolt in the shadow of Stalinism

International Socialism article by Tomáš Tengely-Evans

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