Staunton, July 30 – Since at least the time of Lenin, Russian leaders have operated on the assumption that no significant civic action is possible without the presence of leaders and that such activism by the population can be stopped by arresting, killing or otherwise isolating those key figures.
On the one hand, this reflects the contempt for the population that guides the current Russian regime in particular, a contempt that holds that the people are incapable of any serious action unless they are led by someone either on the scene or abroad, be it a Boris Nemtsov or the US State Department.
But on the other, it is important as a guide to the Russian government’s actions. Throughout the entire period of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has sought to deal with popular anger by decapitating any social movement or isolating the population from those who might provide such leadership.
But now the regime is confronted by something new, Rosbalt commentator Andrey Stolyarov says, civic activism without leaders that has nonetheless worked out “a culture of peaceful protest” and against which the authorities find it very hard to struggle (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2019/07/29/1794564.html).
After 2011, Stolyarov continues, the authorities made it clear that they would allow and might even respond to the demands of social protesters but that they would crackdown hard on any political demands. That position had served the regime well until recently when those who took part in any protests social or political gained experience and the nature of the protests changed.
As Russians participated in protests even on the most anodyne subjects, they acquired a new culture and have become less fearful of the police and less needful of leaders. Instead, using social media, they have come together on their own, something the authorities had not counted on given they assumed that they could instill fear at low cost and decapitate political protests.
This is a recapitulation of what happened 30 years ago in Eastern Europe, when the powers that be discovered that the “surgical” use of force or removal of leaders was insufficient to stop the growth of protests, ultimately forcing the powers to choose between increased repression or concessions.
Now it is Russia’s turn to experience this, Stolyarov says. The country has something of “a popular militia,” one that isn’t yet at least involved in “direct revolutionary action, an uprising or street battles, but all the same is exerting growing civic pressure on the decaying powers that be,” powers that are confronted by a choice they had sought to avoid and don’t want to make.