Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Four Russian Activists Reflect on Protest in a Time of Pandemic

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitutional amendments and especially the one allowing him to serve for life have certainly increased anger among many Russians, but the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s measures against it, including a ban on meetings of more than 50 people are restricting the possibilities for protest.

            The Kasparov portal asked four Russian activists for their judgments about where the protest movement is now and whether it can find new ways to be effective at a time of pandemic or whether those who want to protest are going to have to wait for better times (

            Aleksandr Sofeyev, who is part of the Pussy Riot group, says that the coronavirus has given cover to the Kremlin’s “anti-constitutional coup” but that “public trust in the authorities under current conditions is rapidly falling,” and the government is putting its own legitimacy in doubt by its actions.

            People are angry but demoralized, he continues; and they are uncertain how to act, especially given the risks arising from the pandemic. But those who take part in individual pickets can and do testify that they are receiving more expressions of support from passersby than they did earlier.

            Dmitry Sidorov, an activist for Young Yabloko, says that “the ban on mass actions is not able to reduce civic activity.” It is only changing the form, from large meetings to individual actions and from offline activities to online ones.  Online protest has increased, and his group is promoting that, Sidorov says.

            Aleksandr Gud, a libertarian activist, says that he does think the ban on meetings has reduced civic activity. But there is another reason for this decline, he suggests. Until the amendment allowing Putin to rule for life was offered, many of the amendments did not present the clear-cut choice of most elections. As a result, people have held back.

            But Gud continues, protest is always possible no matter how repressive the regime becomes. If a curfew or martial law is imposed, Russians can hang flags and placards from their balconies “just as people in Italy” have done when restrictions on leaving their homes were imposed.

            And Konstantin Fokin, a member of the Extinction Rebellion, says that the amount of protest involves “at a minimum,” three factors: the importance of the issues, the boldness of the powers, and the actions of those who want to lead a protest. No one thing determines the amount or frequency of protests.

            Under the conditions the pandemic has created, “protest musts be expressed less massively but more deeply, with well planned actions” that involve things like civil disobedience, including the blocking of roads or putting up posters and signs to attract greater attention.

            “Any participation is valuable, and all forms are good,” Fokin says, “except for force. Each chooses the most suitable kind for himself.” But there must be coordination and common brands” if these are to resonate and have an impact.

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