The Tug of War in Moscow


For a month, Moscow was bracing itself for the February 4 Rally. It was pre-planned and prepared by the anti-Putin pro-Western liberal opposition. Despite sub-zero Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Centigrade) arctic frost, the organizers hoped to break their pre-Christmas record and gather a huge crowd and a procession to shatter the will of the government supporters. They had bought up all the thermal underwear in the city stores, joined forces with anti-Muslim nationalists of Pym Fortuyn kind, and marched in strength probably exceeding the previous rallies. Police counted them at 38,000; by their own calculation they were up at 60,000.

But the surprise of the day loomed elsewhere. While the pro-Western opposition gathered on the Bolotnaya Heath («Marais») just across the river from the Kremlin’s red crenelated walls, a small demo was also planned as a token of government support on the Poklonnaya Hill, overlooking Moscow from the west. The White Fronde of the Heath applied for a 60,000 rally permit and made it; pro-government forces planned for 15,000, and even this assessment was considered too optimistic: a previous pro-government rally made between three to five thousand. Indeed, demos are good “against”, not “for” the government.

But the Poklonnaya Hill demo turned something completely different – the rally of the opposition to the White Fronde. And this rally had 138,000 participants, by the police count, almost ten times more than predicted. Vechernyya Moskva, a city paper, ran a huge headline 138 000 : 36 000 Putin Leads. Echo Moskvy, the voice of the Orange, liberal  opposition,  gave 62, 000 Bolotnaya vs 80, 000 Poklonnaya.  There’s the usual gap in assessments partly due to methods of counting. One can count how many people were located on the square at any given time (this will be a low estimate) but it is just a guess how many people came and went away; perhaps the flow was high. By this guess you can reach a very high estimate. I would guess that on Bolotnaya there was a considerable flow: it is a downtown place, easy to come, easy to go. Probably Poklonnaya would have less flow, as it is an out-of-town place, hard to get there, hard to leave. So my estimate would be 50,000 on Bolotnaya, and 110,000 on Poklonnaya.  Though precise numbers are being argued over, the numerical victory of Poklonnaya was accepted by the Boloto people.

It happened because this second and largest rally was not “for Putin” – there were many speakers known for their dislike of Putin and his regime, but they hated the “white” (or “orange” as they say) opposition of Bolotnaya Heath even more. If the West hates Putin, it should try the forces woken up by the rally. It became a rally against neo-liberals, against pro-Western policies, a rally of Red-Brown (or “patriotic”) alliance of statist, nationalist opposition of Russia-First. They out-Putined Putin in no time.

This was a great surprise for the people of Moscow. It was thought that Putin would rely upon his own pet youth movements like Nashi and Steel, organized and paid for by the Kremlin some years ago as a fighting reserve in the case of an Orange revolution, but they folded and faded away at the first sign of trouble. Government officials, both high and low, did not support Putin, either. Nobody predicted Putin would wake up the sleeping beast of popular feelings.

The western mass media missed the point altogether, claiming that the participants were hired or forced to demonstrate, or alternatively that there were few of them. Fox News did their best by broadcasting pictures of the Hill demo and saying it was the Heath. Other western agencies published pictures of 1991 rallies saying they were taken yesterday on the Heath. In Moscow, nobody was fooled: people knew when they were licked.

There is a huge untapped potential of Russia-First feeling, connected with resentment against Western imperialist policies. It is not homogeneous: some of these people have strong attachment to the memory of the USSR, others prefer memory of Tsarist Russia, and some are looking for an alternative future. These people and these tendencies were repressed and delegitimized in the Nineties, during the unhindered rule of the pro-Western liberals.

Putin is a compromise figure between the westernized liberals and Russia-Firsters; he used some of the Russian nativist rhetoric while carrying out liberal economic policy. Russia-Firsters survived his years, but they were never allowed into the corridors of power, where such figures as Alexei Kudrin and Anatoli Chubais, favorites of the IMF, prowled. This opposition burst forth with the Hill rally.

Among the speakers, there was flamboyant Prokhanov, a prolific writer and chief editor of the Zavtra newspaper,  main organ of the Brown-Red coalition. He placed Russia as the next on the line of the imperialist attack, after Libya, Syria and Iran. He fully supported the Russian veto in the Security Council, but he would like to see more  direct Russian support for Syria and Iran, more friendship with China. He is a frequent traveller to Syria and Iran, is a great friend of Palestine, published a book glorifying Hamas and supporting Hezbollah. An Orthodox Christian and a unrepentant Soviet-style Communist, Stalin admirer, he was very critical of Putin and his compromises. Fear and loathing of the Orange revolution mobilised him and his numerous followers to the demo.

Actually, it was the first time since Yeltsin shelled the Parliament in 1993 with the US blessing, that this hard core of Russian political life emerged and was allowed by the Putin’s government to show its strength. There were other speakers, notably Maxim Shevchenko, a popular presenter on  state TV, known for his sympathy to the Muslims and his staunch anti-Zionist stand; Alexander Dugin, “the Russian Heidegger”, a controversial philosopher from  Moscow State University, the founder of the Eurasian movement and a friend of the European anti-American non-racist New Right. They were fiery and outspoken, not so much for Putin but surely against his liberal “orange” opponents.

The polls say this feeling is widespread in Russia, as the Heath protesters allowed themselves to be presented as spoiled brats, rich kids, people in expensive fur coats who like each other and despise the rabble. In vain they protested that they do not strive for an Orange revolution; this was the general feeling, and their connection with the leaders of the Nineties did not add to their prestige. The Heath organisers were aware of that, and none of these old politicians, no controversial figure was allowed to speak during the demo. As the result, they had very little to say beyond chanting Down with Putin.

In the end, the Bolotnaya protesters emerged in despondent mood, in contrast to their feelings after the December demos. They discovered that they hold no patent on rallies, and that their opponents can field many more people on the street. Probably their enthusiasm for rallies will now fade somewhat. The Russians are afraid of “orange” revolutions, as arranged by your friendly National Endowment for Democracy  and other tools of the State Department. Many, perhaps a majority of the Hill demonstrators were afraid of a replay of the Nineties, or of Tahrir, and they were happy to support Putin as a symbol of stability. The government stoked up the fears, by flooding with publicity  a visit of the opposition leaders to the US Embassy. Michael McFaul, the new US Ambassador found himself in the centre of controversy, with many parliamentarians demanding that he be sent home, for this meeting took place almost immediately upon his arrival and even before he presented his credentials.

The Western governments did not understand this change of mood in Moscow when they demanded to vote on their draft  Syrian resolution in  the UN Security Council. They expected that the Heath rally would frighten the Russian government and make it more pliable. They had a good reason: this was the general feeling in diplomatic circles.. When President Medvedev visited Moscow State U a few days earlier, a student (a Heath protester, apparently) asked him whether he was ready to meet the fate of Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, or would he escape to his friendly North Korea. After the Hill demo this Saturday, he would not ask this question: it seems now too far-fetched. Nor will the Russian government feel  it should give in to  Western pressure on Syria: if the Hill speakers are to be judged by their rhetoric, Russia is now more likely to send its anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

So it was a momentous day; a day of cruel frost, probably the coldest day of the year – next day, as if by order, it rose to perfectly palatable minus 12 degrees Centigrade (10 degrees Fahrenheit). Putin can be pleased with this development: the demos brought the Russians out of their hibernation; they are likely to participate in the Presidential elections on March 4, and the danger of massive stay-aways disappeared. Putin supporters woke up and discovered they are a majority, while liberal protesters were reminded that Putin is a compromise figure, and their lot could be much, much worse if the Hill crowd were allowed to set its rules.

The Communists stayed away from both demos. They are busy building up the party chairman Gennady Zuganov as a credible alternative to Putin in the forthcoming elections, so they did not want to be seen as supporting Putin. It is possible that the elections will run in two stages, and then it will be Zuganov vs. Putin. For pro-Western forces in Moscow, that will be a difficult choice: they will have to decide whom do they hate more: Putin or Communists?

However, the liberals are not defeated. Their numbers are small, but they are well positioned. Though ex-Finance Minister Kudrin is now out of power and with the protesters, all his former minions are still installed in the upper echelons. The opposition has a lot of media at its disposal barring the powerful federal TV channels, and the latter are mainly putting out entertainment. The opposition has its supporters among the ultra-rich, and within the inner sanctum of the Secret Service as well. Liberal anti-Putin papers receive quite a lot of advertising from friendly oligarchs.

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny is a rising star of the opposition movement. He made his name on disclosures of the barely legal tricks of Russian officialdom integrated with the moneyed crowd. These disclosures would hardly amaze Americans who remember Enron and the Brits who follow Tony Blair’s tax saga. Apparently, that is in part where the Russians learned the features of real capitalism, mainly warts. Such ugly arrangements – profiteering, usury and asset-stripping – are the mainstay of the current world political economical system. They should be disclosed, outlawed and punished, no doubt, but they are not uniquely or predominantly Russian, rather “modern-capitalist.” The U.S. ambassador in Moscow reported on Navalny some years ago to his bosses, calling him “a Russian Don Quixote” (08MOSCOW2632), for he fought a widely spread and common injustice.

Navalny’s other line was the uncovering of shady oil deals. The U.S. Embassy was not impressed by his results: they checked his findings, according to the wikileaked cable 08MOSCOW3380, with Western managers who told them in confidence that Russian seaborne oil trade had became “open and transparent,” in the words of Dave Chapman, general director of oil trading for Shell Russia.

The idea of Navalny as a new savior ran into obstacles, as his liberal supporters were visibly upset by his ties with Russian nationalists. An old Moscow liberal lady, a respected widow, reported that he called an Azeri party member by a racist term and was expelled from the liberal Yabloko party. Navalny reportedly made snide remarks about Georgian poets qua Georgians. However, the Russians are quite tolerant of racist abuse and probably this story did not hurt him much.

In a long interview with another liberal luminary, the best-seller writer B. Akunin (a Russian Harold Robbins), Navalny tried to dispel such fears, but he did not denounce nationalism. Perhaps Navalny’s nationalism is a clever card well played: at the top of the new Fronde there are not many ethnic Russians, and a “real Russian” with nationalist background would be a good thing to have in the front of a revolutionary movement which is blessed by many Jews.

“Ethnic origin” is not a major consideration in Russia – the country has been led by Tatars (Ivan the Terrible was a son of a Tatar princess), Germans (Catherine the Great was a German princess by birth), Jews (Trotsky and Sverdlov), by Georgians (Stalin) and Ukrainians (Brezhnev, also Khrushchev). Ethnic Russian nationalism was actively discouraged in Soviet times. Still, it is an advantage to have an ethnic-Russian personality at the helm of a movement.

Many liberals and non-ethnic Russians are deeply suspicious of Navalny. But their presentation of Navalny as a “new Hitler” is far-fetched. Blue-eyed, good-looking, a dash of the racist, yes, but not an especially silver-tongued one. Navalny tried to talk to the demonstrators in December but was catcalled more than once. His manner was too rude, as if he were talking to a street gang. He did not speak on the Saturday demo at all. His views are far from clear. When asked for a model state Russia should follow, Navalny said, “Singapore.” This is an odd choice for a person fighting Putin’s strong-arm style, as Lee Kuan Yew was probably more authoritarian than Putin. As fond as I am of Singapore street cooking, I can’t imagine a less suitable model for a vast multinational ex-empire than the tiny Chinese polis.  If Alexei Navalny is the strongest champion the liberal opposition can field to challenge Vladimir Putin, there is little danger to the present regime from this corner. Still, some unseen authority, call him a master of discourse, gave the green light to pounce on Putin. Previously obsequious politicians and journalists refer to the prime minister as if he were already in disgrace. A songwriter who composed a year ago a hit “All Girls Dream of a Husband Like Putin” now penned another hit, “Our Madhouse Votes for Putin.” A governor appointed by Putin dared to reply to his criticism with scathing, “He does not understand things.”    Columnists made a short shrift of his program.

In order to stabilize his hold on power, Putin must reinstall respect and fear, and this can be done by initiating corruption trials against his subordinates – or by strong stand against the U.S. plans regarding Iran and Syria. The visiting Russian warships in the Syrian port of Tartus and delivery of shore-to-ship missiles imply that Putin does not intend to act like a lame duck. CP

Israel Shamir has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow.



Israel Shamir can be reached on adam@israelshamir