On Power and Russia's Protests
(translated by George Shriver)
The mass anti-government demonstrations that took place all across Russia on February 4 showed that discontent in the country is not dying down in spite of the winter cold and the government’s energetic propaganda campaign. The success of the mass mobilizations was especially noteworthy in light of the obvious failure of official events held to try and counteract the pro-democracy demonstrations. A rally in support of Vladimir Putin was held in Moscow at Poklonnaya Gora (a patriotic site overlooking the terrain where the Battle of Borodino was fought in 1812, a battle in which the Russian army nearly brought Napoleon’s march on Moscow to a halt). The government authorities went to great lengths to make people attend the rally, putting pressure on workers with threats of job loss and promises of bonuses. Young people and pensioners were offered 500 rubles each to spend an hour in the freezing cold. The upshot was that after the rally a noisy and shameful scene erupted, with people cursing and shoving, demanding their money.
The marches in provincial cities were less impressive than the demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but they were far more massive than had been expected. These events should make it clear to the authorities that their propaganda campaign is not all-powerful. It may be possible to make people believe that the mass demonstrations in Egypt, Italy or Ukraine were the result of some sort of manipulation or bribery. But they can’t convince people that their own discontent is the result of some conspiracy by outsiders. A person may believe that others go out to protest in return for money, but he won’t believe that about himself—because he knows no one is paying him.
The government sees that its propaganda isn’t working anymore, but it still thinks that it’s only a matter of finding specific, effective propaganda techniques. It thinks it’s losing because the other side’s propaganda is better, not because what it stands for itself is doomed by history.
The officials believe in their own lies and are taken in by myths of their own making. They sincerely assume that no one is capable of conscious, rational action, that no real society exists, and that the only reality is mindless mobs that can be manipulated. And they respond to the protests not with political reforms but with further attempts at manipulation. They drag unwilling people out to demonstrate support for the government, forcing them to stand around in freezing weather, cursing the government that has made this mockery of them. The officials do not realize that in this way they are only piling up new enemies for themselves—enemies who will be much more aggressive than those who now march through the streets under anti-government banners.
The government has forgotten how to count. To be sure, it does have a superior advantage many times over in terms of resources that can be spent on propaganda and manipulation. No matter how much money Russian neoliberals and their foreign backers may spend on oppositional activity, the government of Russia spends not ten times but a hundred times more—if not a thousand times more. And it should not be thought that the government’s PR men and other propagandists are worse. The fact is that the very same people are involved, constantly crossing over from one side to the other, to whichever side pays better. If the government is losing the war of information, it is not because it doesn’t know how to wage such a war.
Society has changed. Life has changed. And the government itself has changed. It has lost the capacity to understand and control the processes under way in our country.
The government’s open supporters have been discredited. This has forced officialdom to call up its last reserves—the “safety fuse” critics, those who previously were allowed to speak radical words on the TV screens as long as those words did not hit home or hurt anyone. The nationalists, the commentators who tell us about the achievements of the Soviet era, the learned men who know huge quantities of facts without making any connection between those facts—all these people are now being mobilized to defend Putin. But it turns out there are not all that many such people. We already know their names from government television programs—Sergei Kurginyan and Maxim Shevchenko, Dmitry Rogozin and Anatoly Vasserman. Essentially that is the entire “iron cohort” that has been organized to fight against public opinion. And in this fight, they have already lost not only their political credibility but also their personal reputations.
It was remarkable to listen to Kurginyan predicting on the eve of the February demonstrations that, without fail, the protest organizers would call for foreign intervention in Russia. And then—asked Kurginyan—what will the protest participants look like? But now (since no one called for foreign intervention) what does Kurginyan look like?
A more serious attempt to regain the initiative was made by Prime Minister Putin himself during his campaign trips to various regions of Russia. He and the organizers of his election campaign tried to draw a contrast between the discontent of the middle classes in the capital cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and the loyalty of the provincial workers. Terrified neoliberal commentators immediately began to cry out about the government’s “left turn,” but their fears were unfounded. After all, Putin had done nothing but make some vague generalizations. In order to base oneself on the working class, one must do more than chase tired workers out, when their shifts are over, to take part in official events or, in the best of cases, to promise them bonuses or additional time off. What needs to be changed is not the rhetoric but the policies. Instead of assembling pro-government rallies, government ministers need to be removed from their posts. Instead of arguing that the people support the government, what is needed is for the neoliberal reforms of the past two decades, which are hateful to the people, to actually be reversed. But the Putin government cannot do this, because its very own essence is expressed in those neoliberal reforms. It was precisely for the sake of those reforms that the authoritarian system represented by Putin was created, and decorated with the slogan “managed democracy.”
The paradox is that today in the capital cities representatives of the prosperous part of the middle class, those who support the government’s policies, have actually revolted against the government. This shows that the existing order is doomed. If the system is not supported even by those who objectively benefit from it, what will happen when there is a revolt by those against whom the government’s policies are really directed?
Such a revolt by the working class has not developed in full force up to now only because those at the bottom are still passive, crushed by the weight of their problems, tormented by the daily struggle for survival, denied the right to have their own political parties and free trade unions independent of the government. So far, their hatred of the ruling circles has built up in the form of a concealed and unspoken anger. Self-organization is a difficult task. Habitual passivity and fear are not overcome at one stroke. But the government itself is forcing working people out onto the streets, involving them in politics. Leading, undeniably, to its own destruction.
The authorities try to convince us that our whole life is bound up with Putin, without whom everything will go to rack and ruin. The neoliberal opposition thinks along almost the same lines. The former endow the prime minister with divine attributes; the latter demonize him. The government fears change and cannot defend itself in any way other than by holding on to Putin more tightly than ever, thereby demonstrating its own impotence and weakness, and in fact the collapse of the decades-long policy of stabilization, whose results have not by any means led to stable political institutions. As for the neoliberal opposition leaders and their flocks, Putin is vitally necessary for them—to explain away the defects and failures of the system that they themselves consider the only correct one.
If Putin were to depart from the scene, it would become evident that he is not the problem. Capitalism is. It is not a matter of “scoundrels and thieves” but of the bourgeoisie and the market system. The problem is not corruption but neoliberalism. In a parallel process, both the government and the opposition are being discredited simultaneously.
The opposition (both within the system and, to a considerable extent, outside it) was not the force that organized society’s resistance to the government. Together with the government, the opposition has benefited in a parasitic manner from the passivity of society.
The social awakening is accompanied by a growing awareness of the contradiction between the interests of the majority and those of the political elites who claim to speak in the name of the people, in the name of the majority. The organizing committee of the Moscow demonstrations has aroused growing feelings of anger, which now and then break to the surface. And the more energetically the opposition, in the person of its present leaders, conducts itself, the greater will be the disillusionment with those leaders, no matter what they do or say.
Because the problem lies in the situation itself. In the very existence of “the citizens’ broad united front,” which does not unite anything other than the desire of various opposition leaders to make use of the government’s crisis to further their own personal aims. Because fair and honest elections in our country’s present situation are a phantasm; they are impossible “in and of themselves.” Because falsified election results are not the cause of the discontent, the government’s policies are. Because the fake elections are not the reason for the protests. They are just a pretext, and everyone knows it, both those on the speakers’ platform and those in the crowd.
The call for “honest elections” will soon become outdated, as will the hopes that the government, after looking in the mirror of mass protest and being frightened, will reform itself. What we need is free elections, not “honest” ones. And that is impossible under the present system, with the parties and politicians of the present day. The meaning of real change is not the counting of votes but transformation of the system. Not only politically, but socially.
(translated by George Shriver)