Mass anti-government demonstrations across Russia last Saturday, 23 January, saw tens of thousands of protesters on the streets, confronting the brutal forces of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime. There were mass protests in at least 65 towns and cities. Three thousand demonstrators are reported to have been detained and arrested nationwide.
This dramatic day marks a new chapter in Russia’s history. Even in 2012, when up to 100,000 demonstrated against Vladimir Putin, they were mostly in the western cities, and particularly Moscow. This Saturday’s ‘coming out’ called by Putin’s arch-nemesis, Alexei Navalny, began in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, with at least 3,000 demonstrators braving the extreme cold and the batons of the riot police. The local authority there later reported 500 arrested. Further North and West in Yakutsk, protesters faced even lower temperatures of minus 50, only to be chased and beaten up by riot police, arrested and bundled into waiting vans to be taken into custody.
Navalny himself came back to Russia on January 17th from Germany where he had been recovering from a bungled assassination attempt by Putin’s agents last August. He was arrested at the Moscow airport to which his plane was diverted – away from the supporters who turned out to greet him. He was charged the next day with violating his parole … by being in Germany (He had been openly flown to Germany for life-saving treatment with the full knowledge of the state authorities). Now Navalny is due to appear in court on February 2nd to answer charges of embezzlement, which few believe to have substance. He could face 10 years in prison and/or a long stint in a penal colony. What kind of verdict is returned depends a great deal on how the present movement he has initiated develops.
What has angered the authorities as much as his defiant return to Russia has been the two-hour video he launched a couple of days later. It reveals devastating footage of Putin’s alleged secret ‘palace’ on the Black Sea built with €1.35bn of taxpayers’ money. It is “set on an estate 39 times larger than Monaco, with an underground ice-hockey rink, a casino and a red velvet hookah lounge and dance pole.” (Economist, London, 23 January). The video was watched at least 70 million times in the first few days of its appearance.
Protesters have been quick to lampoon Putin over this Ceausescu-style luxury. Imitation palaces have been built out snow and bashed down with glee. Speaking to foreign TV reporters on Saturday, one older woman said angrily: “People are searching through rubbish bins for food in this country and he builds himself a palace!” Demonstrators have gone further than demanding Navalny’s release and charges against him to be dropped. The cry is now widely heard of ‘Ykhadi!’ (‘Get out!’) – addressed to Russia’s president, Putin, just as it has been in Belarus against the self-declared president, Lukashenko.
As in Minsk, so in Russia’s capital, last Sunday. Thousands of demonstrators pouring into Pushkin Square, not far from Red Square and the Kremlin, were grabbed and brutally beaten by riot police. Reports say at least 40,000 were on the streets of Moscow. A cacophony of car horns blared out in solidarity while violent arrests were being made, including that of Lyubov Sobol , one of the few of Navalny’s spokespeople still ‘at large’, and Navalny’s wife, Yulia (she posted a photo from inside the police van that took her away saying: ‘Sorry about the quality of the photo. It’s dark inside this van’). One car driver flew a pair of underpants like a flag, as a taunt to the authorities who bungled the attempt to kill Navalny by putting Novichok in his underwear!
After being flown out to Berlin and brought back to health in the famous Charité hospital, Alexei Navalny could have remained a ‘guest’ of Angela Merkel and a useful stick for Western so-called democracies to beat the Putin dictatorship with. But in this case, he would have faded from public view and failed in his political aim. His ‘mission’ is to end the dictatorship of Putin and the oligarchs in Russia and it is clear he has developed a huge following.
Navalny has networks of supporters and campaigners across the vast Russian Federation. While unable to establish a party, as such, they challenge all pro-Putin candidates by supporting almost anyone who stands against them. Navalny and his team have completely stolen the show from the traditional opposition parties, including the tame ‘Communist Party’ of Gennady Zhyuganov. It has been discredited by its failure to stand up to Putin, even over the blatantly rigged referendum last year. That vote ‘approved’ changes in the constitution which effectively gives Putin the presidency for life and protects his vast riches and properties.
The so-called Liberal Democratic Party, also led by a veteran politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which is neither liberal nor democratic, has made more gains for its stance against Putin. It gained a majority in regional elections in Khabarovsk last year, greatly upsetting the president. But fundamentally both the so-called ‘Communist’ and the Liberal Democratic parties refuse to challenge Putin and are tolerated because they give a fictional picture of ‘opposition’ parties sitting in the parliament. Navalny’s campaign, if it gets into full swing, can inflict heavy blows on Putin’s United Russia party in parliamentary elections due in September.
Navalny’s exposure of corruption, nepotism and kleptocracy has brought the heavy hand of Putin’s ‘kept’ court system against him. Before being poisoned, Navalny was due to appear in court for bringing the president and his men into disrepute over their ill-gotten gains and vast wealth. Putin is the richest of all oligarchs in Russia and one of the richest worldwide. No wonder he was trying to avoid the truth coming into open court proceedings. Navalny’s team were able to evince an admission from a security agent that Putin had, indeed, ordered his assassination (That agent now faces 10 years in prison).
Help from the German government has elicited some erroneous parallels with that given by Kaiser Wilhelm II to enable the return of Lenin and other exiled socialists to revolutionary Petrograd in April 1917.
But Navalny is no Lenin. His outlook, like that of the leading oppositionists in Belarus who had their election victory stolen from them, is not anti-capitalist, and he has no affinity to socialism. His support has come mainly from the middle layer in society. He is against the rule of oligarchs and for basic democratic freedoms, he states, to create “clean” capitalism, but there can be no such thing.
To date, there has been little or no organised or spontaneous involvement of Russia’s still vast and highly exploited working class in the democracy movement. Nevertheless, Navalny’s challenge to the Putin regime is gaining widespread popularity amongst the youth – students at schools, as well as universities. It is attractive to all those who suffer the daily depredations and difficulties of life in today’s Russia and underlines the need for the building strong organisations in the workplaces and a democratic party of workers.
Saturday’s protest in St Petersburg, the birthplace of the socialist workers’ state in October 1917, was at least 20,000 strong and overwhelmingly youthful. Some veterans of the left saw it as unprecedented in recent times and a harbinger of historic events ahead. It made its way along Nevsky Prospect towards Kazan Cathedral – where Plekhanov and many other revolutionary leaders addressed agitated crowds in the past. They were confronted by helmeted riot police with shields and batons bringing down heavy blows and carrying out arrests left, right and centre. But, as in Moscow, protesters broke through the lines leading to pitched battles on the streets.
“Those who have been demonstrating today,” said a long-standing friend of the CWI in St Petersburg, “Have great courage. They have seen what happened to protesters who came onto the streets in Belarus and know it can happen to them. They are participating in what can come to be seen as a historic turning point in Russian politics, as significant as the events of almost exactly the same date in 1905 – January 22. The march on that day to the Czar’s Winter Palace, led by the orthodox priest, Father Gapon, made its way from the Putilovsky factory through the area that I live in today. Those events opened up a new historical period; maybe we will witness a new chapter in Russia’s history arising from today’s events. Many things have changed in the heads of people. One swallow does not mean the summer has arrived, but it is a herald!”
A new mood is taking hold that can replace the feeling of helplessness that has gripped Russia for decades now. A new generation will not tolerate the oppression and privilege of a small layer in society. The search is on for an alternative to the oligarchic capitalism that has engulfed Russia and the former republics of the USSR in the period since the collapse of Stalinism. The action against Navalny has been the last drop that leads to an overflowing of pent-up anger in society.
The struggle is taking on momentum – for democratic rights, an end to corruption and a cleansing of the oligarchs’ Augean stables. Concrete demands would include an end to mass arrests and arbitrary sentencing, the freeing of all political prisoners and the FSB must be abolished and all surveillance and repression end. Freedom of the press, speech, assembly and organisation should apply at all times. The right to organise trade unions must be fought for and established in all workplaces, including within the rank and file forces of the state.
The working class and youth will want to use democratic rights to organise, to win change and real improvements, all of which will bring them into conflict with the ‘liberal’ capitalists and create conditions for the growth of genuine socialist ideas.
The fight for basic democratic rights – of representation, organisation, free speech and freedom of the media – is vital in the struggle for a better life for all. But the elimination of oligarchic capitalism cannot be completed without the involvement of workers and their elected representatives in a major struggle between the classes. A party based on the working class with a programme to re-take industry and the banks into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management is needed to renew the struggle for socialism. A mass workers’ party would fight for a genuinely representative parliament – a workers’ government. Genuine socialism, and not the bureaucratic deformations of Stalinism seen previously, would mean the election of all officials, subject to recall and living on no more than the average wage of workers.
The events of this week-end provide a quandary for representatives of international capital worldwide, not least the newly elected President Biden in the US. The German ruling class are torn between dependency on Russian energy supplies and the need to be seen not to sanction the behaviour of a dictator.
But these events may also have opened the way not only for a new era of working class struggle in Russia. Like that of more than a century ago, the building of a powerful workers’ movement in Russia, armed with genuine socialist ideas, can inspire the oppressed classes of neighbouring countries in Europe and Asia, as well as further afield, to follow suit and also to renew the struggle for socialism.
A party based on the working class with a programme to re-take industry and the banks into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control and management, is needed to renew the struggle for socialism.
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