Staunton, May 3 – That Russian society remains divided and that Aleksey Navalny’s base lies in the creative class of the major cities are beyond question, Denis Bilunov says; but the imprisoned opposition leader has for more than a decade sought to overcome that divide, something that has led him to take positions that have sometimes angered his base.
The political scientist who was the founding editor of the Kasparov.ru portal (2005-2008) gives three reasons for his criticism of Andrey Degtyanov’s arguments that the major cities and the deep countryside remain completely divided. (For Degtyanov’s argument, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-three-russias-liberal-westernizers.html; for Bilunov’s rejoinder, region.expert/deep-creacls/).
First of all, Bilunov says, dividing Russia between “the megalopolises and ‘thousands of small cities and villages’ is an oversimplification.” Both are more complicated, as economic geographer Natalya Zubarevich suggests in her writings about “four Russias.” (On her ideas, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/08/zubarevichs-four-russias-once-again-at.html.)
Even though regionalist ideas are more commonly found in the major cities than in the regions, the political scientist continues, there are enough people who share them beyond the ring road at least to judge from the number of people outside the capitals who have flocked to Navalny’s banner.
Second, he continues, “the key phenomenon for the understanding of present-day Russian (and probably not only Russian) political dynamics, including the evolution of individual actors such as Putin and Navalny is populism.” Putin began his presidential career as a populist but has evolved into a defender of a narrow group of supporters.
That evolution has meant that Putin is no longer one of us for the deep people but rather “the chief oligarch,” someone not interested in helping the people but in protecting his narrow class interests as shown in the case of the 2018 pension reform. To compensate, Putin has been forced to increase the volume of his talk about foreign enemies.
Navalny who himself has “a phenomenal political sense and all the talents of a present-day communicate has exploited this Putin transformation more rapidly and significantly more effectively than others.” His goal is to show what Putin has become and thus exploit the feelings of hatred that the Kremlin leader’s transformation has engendered.
And third, Bilunov continues, while Degtyanov is correct that uniting the various groups Putin and his regime have promoted divisions among is difficult, Navalny has over the past decade “actively sought to go beyond the limits of the police niche of ‘the creative class,” an effort that is the first step toward broader unity.
Beginning in approximately 2017, Navalny has “ever more actively both experimented with a left-wing political agenda and sought direct interaction with part of the communists,” calculating that he can pull away from the KPRF some or even many of its current supporters and thus gain a greater share of the votes.
“It is completely possible,” Bilunov says, “that it was precisely these efforts which so concerned the Kremlin that in the last year, the regime launched what was in practice open war against Navalny.” Navalny has not yet succeeded in all his attempts to overcome Russian divides and unite a broader group of voters, but he is trying and with more success than anyone else.