Since 11 July of this year, protests against the arrest of former popular regional governor Sergei Furgal have continued in Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in Russia’s Far East. The protest has neither leaders nor organization. It originated as a spontaneous civil protest, but very quickly turned into a political and anti-Kremlin one. The sleepy society very quickly turned into a civil society. Unlike in Moscow, where the police brutally suppressed any protests (for example, at one Moscow protest alone — against violations of people’s voting rights, on July 27, 2019 — a total of 1,373 protesters were detained), in Khabarovsk the authorities essentially put the situation on hold: there were few arrests and the protests themselves became part of the regional landscape.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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“Memorial”, Russia’s oldest NGO, counted more than 300 civic and political protests in 2019 (it’s too early to make an assessment for the year 2020). The organization has recognized more than 300 people as political prisoners for religious or political criteria.

But the significance of the protests lies not in the figures or in the longevity of the protest actions. Three substantive trends are noticeable: the rise of civic consciousness/resistance; the resurgence of state repressions (by riot police, the Federal Security Service, prosecutors, and courts); the Kremlin's efforts to appropriate civil society organizations and to form its own controlled artificial “civil society”.

A new Russian civil society is growing from conflicts with the state, as well as — literally — from garbage: the most noticeable, long-standing, and intransigent protests were against outdated landfills or the construction of new ones. Civic protest is most often born out of resistance to urban construction – this is how "backyard sovereignty" is formed (people are defending their habitats), and the environmental movement.

I call this a revolution of dignity — not in the Ukrainian sense, i.e. regime change following an uprising, but in terms of changes in minds and souls. People feel humiliated on a political, electoral, social, regional, ecological, and even cultural basis.

The protests were all about restoring constitutional rights: to vote and to stand for election; environmental rights; freedoms of assembly and association, and others. This restoration of dignity is contagious and has different dimensions. Take, for example, the most significant cases.

In 2019, in Yekaterinburg, one of Russia’s biggest cities, locals took to the streets to stop the construction of a church in a city park. The protests achieved their aim, but at the cost of five criminal cases being brought against participants.

In the small settlement of Shiyes in Russia’s far northern Arkhangelsk region, protests continued for two years (!) against plans to ship trash from Moscow for disposal in landfills in the region. Those plans were met with resistance from environmentalists and regional civic activists, and prompted protests in Arkhangelsk and in the neighboring republic of Komi. Local activists have been fighting for their cause since the summer of 2018, and the outcome was successful: construction was stopped or at least suspended.

In a very high-profile case, the journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested on trumped-up drug charges in retaliation for his investigations into corruption. A powerful wave of civic solidarity contributed to the journalist’s being freed and to the firing of the police officers who had framed him.

This means that sometimes the authorities make concessions when they feel that the image damage is excessive for them. Sometimes they do not pay any attention to image damage.

In Moscow, the decision to prevent independent candidates from running for the city administration sparked a series of mass rallies demanding fair elections. Eleven people were given prison sentences for such “crimes” as throwing a plastic cup in the direction of a police officer. The most prominent case was that of Yegor Zhukov, a university student at the prestigious Higher School of Economics, who was accused of extremism. Following a high-profile trial, he was given a suspended sentence: an outcome considered to be another small victory for civil society and a marker of the emergence of solidarity among students and professors.

In 2020, the above-mentioned Khabarovsk case, which was unprecedented, demonstrated a high level of spontaneous political culture.

The case of Kushtau. In August 2020, environmental activists held a series of protests against the Bashkir Soda Company’s exploitation of Kushtau mountain (although the permit was given by the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov). The government's crackdown on the protest exacerbated the conflict.

This case also demonstrated the Kremlin's technology of intercepting the agenda: unexpectedly, Vladimir Putin took the protesters' side. He linked the problem to the fact that the Bashkir Soda Company had turned from a state to a private enterprise. Putin also played along with the conservative part of society that wanted the state to strengthen its role in the economy.

In addition to intercepting the agenda, the state’s response to this diverse wave of protests combines several elements. The first is unreasonably harsh repression, including the introduction of repressive new laws (riot policework, prohibiting people from using the Internet to criticize authorities, prosecuting people for disseminating “fake news” reports, and recognizing individuals — not just organizations as before — as foreign agents). The second is the construction of the state’s own, controllable “civil society” (for instance, via a pro-Kremlin volunteer movement). The authorities create something akin to ministries: public chambers or units of the All-Russia People’s Front, that are imitating different kinds of civic activity. The state imitates independent civil society by funding controlled communities and NGOs. The Kremlin creates structures parallel to its own (for example, the influential Military History Society almost completely overshadows the independent Free Historical Society), or appropriates a successful project, such as the Immortal Regiment event, in which people take to the streets carrying portraits of relatives who fought in World War II (the march has since been led by President Vladimir Putin himself).

As a result, civil society has three fronts of struggle: with the state; with an indifferent conformist society; with a so-called conservative civil society whose representatives aggressively support the authorities (e.g. various Cossack communities).

At the same time, it is necessary to distinguish between civil society protest and political opposition. We cannot seriously consider a systemic "opposition" – the Communist Party and the LDPR party, which are, in fact, “departments” of the presidential administration that keep the extreme left and extreme right sentiments in the legal field. The real political opposition is Alexei Navalny and his supporters. They are fighting for power. Civil society is not fighting for power, it is fighting for rights.

Navalny has nothing to do with almost any of the most visible civil resistance actions in recent years. At the same time, sometimes a part of civil society, politicizing itself, joins the political opposition. Among other things, we can note the activity of many municipal deputies who work at the intersection of civic activism with political resistance to the regime.

And here's what else is typical. The protest is becoming increasingly anti-Putin, as the example of Khabarovsk shows. From all flanks, left and right, not specifically liberal. Navalny's poisoning only contributed to it as one more irritating factor. Civil action increasingly leads to its participants becoming politicized. For some activists, the pragmatic solution to their problems —or, on the contrary, defeat in their battle with the authorities — signals the end of their civil activities. For others, the outcome only acts as an incentive to expand their efforts. Here civil society is constructing the “parallel polis” and becomes much closer to political opposition. Perhaps this will happen more and more often.

This op-ed was originally published on the ISPI website.