Last week the Internet was flooded with numerous reports and video evidence of fraud and violence in polling stations in favour of Putin’s United Russia. The party “won” 49.32% of the votes on this basis in the recent parliamentary elections. This was the trigger for the masses to take to the streets.
On the night before the astonishing results had been announced, several people from the outskirts of Moscow reported that armoured vehicles and thousands of troops were moving into the capital. Similar reports were received from other big cities all around Russia. Many people have never seen so much military force on the streets of their towns. The message was clear: the state would defend its power.
The first unorganized protest gathered about two thousand people and resulted in clashes with the police and a few people were arrested. These people received 15 days of in jail for “resisting the police”. The mood of the people was deeply unhappy and angry about the blatantly rigged elections. The question “Who are you Mr. Putin?” which the western press used to ask years ago, is out of date. United Russia is now widely understood within Russia as “the party of thieves and crooks”.
Within a few days, with the help of Facebook, Blogs and Twitter, people managed to mobilize. Last Saturday demonstrations and protests took place in all cities of Russia and in some European capitals, including London. According to the official report, fifty thousand people were on the streets in Moscow (unofficially up to 100 thousand) and ten thousand in St. Petersburg.
These are the largest demonstrations in Russia since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago. It thus represents a qualitative break in the political situation, mirroring the global development in the class struggle over the past year, a class struggle that, after the collapse of so-called Communism, was never supposed to happen.
The Russian people are clearly protesting against the same problems of capitalism as elsewhere. Indeed, these problems are of a particularly acute kind in Russia thanks to the extreme crony capitalism there, and it shows that also in Russia the people cannot be held back forever.
Their demands are as follows:
- release all political prisoners;
- repeal the results of the parliamentary election;
- resignation of Churov, the head of the election committee; investigation of every case of reported violation of the elections;
- right to register and access to the elections for every opposition party;
- pass new laws for the democratization of the election process.
The speakers at the demonstration in Moscow called on the crowd to put pressure on the state and the leaders of the official opposition, and begin serious negotiations with Putin's government. These demands put forward by the leadership of the movement are extremely tentative and mild in manner; they do not go nearly far enough in grasping the essence of the crisis in Russian society that Putin represents. But the main thing is that the Russian people are finding their feet after decades of silence. It is inevitable that in the very first stages of the reawakening the slogans put forward would be of the most general character, designed to be “acceptable to all Russians” (including some oligarchs with a bone to pick with Putin).
At the moment the protests and the most active opposition are led by the middle class and upper middle class – a tiny layer of society – and this is in the country where the gap between poor and rich is massive. If we look at the slogans and placards that are being used, there is a complete absence of demands for the increase of the minimum wage. The unacceptably low living standards of the masses are never mentioned.
The newly-born petty bourgeoisie originally trusted Putin and his promises, which were to destroy corruption, bring about order and to pave the way for small and medium enterprises. Navalny, the leader of this new opposition to Putin, is famous for his experiments with big businesses: he used to buy small parts of companies and, with the shareholder’s right, demand to see the real facts. He attempted thereby to expose the unfair and criminal monopoly system.
Navalny is also the founder of RosPil, the internet-based group of lawyers whose aim is to investigate the improper use of the state budget. At the moment, he is very popular within certain social groups of small businessmen, managers, entrepreneurs. Another leader has emerged – Bozhena Rynska, who has gathered and inspired the Russian beau monde to participate in the protest. This person, whose dream is “to set-up life in London and do no work”, can hardly represent the majority of the nation.
These individuals and their supporters are against the monsters of the oligarchy, the bureaucracy and the government of thieves. It is their anger about the stolen votes that motivate them. Yes, the democratic right was violated, but the question is who did they want so badly to be represented in parliament? None of these leaders proposed serious democratic change before the election, and the truth is they are products and beneficiaries of Putin's regime. These new political figures are defending their own interests, not fighting to improve the conditions of teachers, doctors, workers and poor soldiers.
So why are ordinary working people not involved in these protests? Why in the face of the crimes of Putin and United Russia are the 140 million not on the streets? Ivan Loh (1917.com) provides the following reason: after the collapse of the Soviet Union the institutions of trade unions and the workers' party were totally destroyed. Any attempts to re-establish this apparatus failed due to the enormous shock and depression the working class suffered after the reversion to capitalism, from which it took a long time to recover, the relentless propaganda of the miracles capitalism would bring to ordinary Russians and the difficulties that the state has created to register such a political party.
The working class is not organized, it is atomised and spoon-fed with the state controlled three-channel TV showing heroic achievements of Putin and Medvedev 24\7; with family quarrels on the basis of lack of money. For 20 years workers have been struggling one day to the next to cope with the economic disaster that followed the destruction of the USSR. But the law of dialectical materialism says that sooner or later, everything turns into its opposite. The right-wing London-based journalist Maxim Valetsky wrote:
“Now civil society [read: the working class] has a huge opportunity - for the first time in the past 20 years, the people are no longer silent. Of course this is restricted to the residents of large cities, but that was always the fate of Russia.”
The Russian working class needed time to come to its feet, but the moment to do it has finally come. Society is seething, for the first time the whole system is being openly questioned and people are beginning to make demands that Russian capitalism cannot accept. There is for the first time in 20 years an awakening of the intelligentsia and youth. Music, poetry and comedy have changed dramatically within the last year. With the help of the Internet many people broke the wall of censorship, and there is a striving for art to achieve its true goal – to open the eyes of the masses and inspire more and more people to take control of their lives.
This new consciousness that is in the process of formation is penetrating every part of society. Military forces are beginning to understand who they really serve; Anatoly Ermolin, a veteran of the special police squad published this appeal to his colleagues in the protests:
“Very soon, through your helmet visor, you will see those for whom you became the servant of our motherland. These will be the faces of the people, very similar to your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, good friends and neighbours in the stairwell.
“...continue to serve your people, even when the politicians and their subordinated security ministers set you tasks of an obviously repressive nature.”
This is nothing but a clear call to defy the orders of the state and to defend the working and impoverished masses against the state and the ruling class. In the light of the Arab Revolution, we know how important it is for the revolution to split the army on class lines so that the rank-and-file come over to defend the masses against the state.
These events are playing a decisive role in the rediscovery of a strong voice of the working people in the coming years. The revolutionary Marxists can take the advice from Valetsky, though we are pursuing radically different aims:
Building civil society [i.e. the labour movement] is a large, complex and tedious work, but if you want a better society, roll up your sleeves and get started!