Is the opposition even about Putin?

One of the most striking differences I noticed between the opposition march last Saturday (September 15) and rallies I went to last spring was what appeared to be a difference in focus. Before it seemed nearly everyone was wearing the white ribbons of the “citizen protest” movement and the most popular slogans were “Russia without Putin!” and “For fair elections!” This time, the march had a distinctly more red hue.

Russia with Putin | Russian without Putin
The main enemy is the capitalist system!

“Politicians come and go, come again, change to others, but in the country nothing changes: corruption, robbery, bribery, crisis, everywhere the lie and general decline. It only gets worse! Have as many different individuals as you like! The main enemy is the capitalist system!”

The color issue is of course the continuing presence of various kinds of communist organization in Russian politics–the above flyer was being distributed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, while many others were coming from other splinter groups. I’m not going to get into the whole history of post-Soviet communism here, so let it suffice to say that there are quite a few different groups, their members tend to be older, and the CPRF in particular has been one of the more thoroughly institutionalized political parties in the post-Soviet period, a minority party but an active one nonetheless. So it wasn’t surprising to see a wave of red in a political demonstration this large. Especially since at least one group was handing out bright red balloons!

The Levada Center, which has been surveying participants at some of the major rallies, found that about 17% of participants identified as communists, up from 13% in December. By comparison, 29% identified as ‘democrats’, 23% as ‘liberals’, down from 38% and 31% respectively.

But I’m not sure that was the most important difference. Note the message of the flyer above: Russia with Putin, Russia without Putin–they’re basically the same. Getting rid of Putin himself won’t get rid of corruption, theft, bribery. And while the specific solution offered by the communists (down with capitalism!) wasn’t shared by all, their broader concern with social and political problems beyond Putin himself was something many of the disparate groups marching had in common. People were variously protesting budget cuts, austerity reforms in higher education, corruption, political repression, immigration, censorship, discrimination against LGBT groups. To call it a march of “Anti-Putin protesters” is to miss quite a lot of what was going on.

The question I’m thinking about now is how the visible changes in the march itself relate to developments within the opposition itself. I’ll try to write something later this week sketching out my current understanding of what’s been happening with the opposition movement internally. The big question they’re facing is probably familiar to anyone who’s been involved in a popular mass movement: How do you organize a mass of people into a force for change when many of them fundamentally disagree about what that change should be and how it should be achieved?

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