How Putin Tried and Failed To Crush Dissent in Russia

Anti Putin Protest Russia
Opposition activists and supporters take part in an anti-Putin protest in Saint Petersburg, Russia on September 15, 2012. The poster depicting Putin reads: "What have you elected is the rising prices and poverty!" OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/GettyImages

Rossiya bez Putina!” came the chant. Then again, louder now, as if the tens of thousands of protesters had convinced themselves the first time around that such a thing might actually be attainable. “Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!”

The words floated high into the Russian capital’s frigid winter skies. The slogan would, a speaker promised as demonstrators stamped their feet to keep warm, be audible in the nearby Kremlin. Especially if the protesters turned towards its elaborate towers, still topped by Soviet-era ruby-red stars, and shouted the rallying cry once more.

Up until that exact moment, the possibility of a Russia without Vladimir Putin in charge had appeared about as probable as a Moscow winter without snow. Or, perhaps, a Russia without the engrained, high-level corruption that had seen the country slide to the very lower reaches of Transparency International’s global corruption index, sharing 143rd place out of 182 nations with Nigeria.

But, on 10 December 2011, at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, less than a week after what had looked like a blatant case of mass vote-rigging to secure Putin’s United Russia party an unlikely parliamentary majority, nothing was unthinkable anymore. Moscow’s richest and most educated residents—the so-called “creative class”—were suddenly out on the streets in an unprecedented show of discontent.

“To fight for your rights is easy and pleasant. There is nothing to be afraid of,” said Alexei Navalny, the opposition’s de facto leader, in a message passed out of a Moscow detention facility. “Every one of us has the most powerful and only weapon we need—a sense of our own worthiness.”

Could Putin hear them? I wondered. Could he hear the disparate gathering of liberals, nationalists and leftists? The humiliated and the insulted? And, if he could, what did he feel? Fear? Shock? Or, perhaps, scorn? While large-scale dissent was a new thing for modern Russia, Putin could still boast of approval ratings that were the envy of any Western leader. He also possessed an incomparable control over national television channels, the main source of news for the vast majority of Russians.

I looked around the square at the families, the pensioners, the young men and women flush with the excitement of participation in a genuinely historic moment. “I never thought I’d see this,” a veteran activist told me, the words pouring from her. “In the past, a few hundred people turned up to protest rallies, but just look at how many there are here now. A lot of people have come to a demonstration for the first time—and not the last.”

***

The mass anti-Putin protests that began in Moscow that winter afternoon confounded analysts and inspired Kremlin critics, both of whom had believed that the ex-KGB officer’s long stranglehold over political life meant such a thing was all but impossible. As crowds wearing the white ribbons that quickly became the symbol of the protest movement filled the streets of the Russian capital, Putin’s foes could have been forgiven for believing that their arch-nemesis’s days were numbered. The Kremlin seemed initially uncertain how to respond to the mass protests, alternately threatening and making half-hearted proposals on political reform. “It appeared back then to many people that victory was just around the corner,” recalled Sergei Udaltsov, a fiery, shaven-headed leftist leader who “symbolically” tore up a Putin portrait to ecstatic applause at a rally in Moscow.

It would not be quite so easy to get rid of the man himself. “Do we love Russia?” Putin yelled at a rare presidential election campaign rally in south Moscow in the spring of 2012, jabbing his finger into the driving sleet. “Of course we do,” he continued, after the cries of “da” had faded away. “And there are tens of millions of people like us all across Russia.

“The battle for Russia goes on!” Putin told the crowd, many of them bussed in en masse from the country’s conservative heartland, as his speech came to an end, his hand reaching up then swiftly down as if to snatch victory from the chill Moscow air. “And we will triumph!”

Inevitably, within weeks of Putin’s controversial return to the Kremlin in May 2012, the long-expected clampdown began. “They ruined my big day,” Putin was reported to have said of the protesters who had marred his inauguration for a third presidential term. “Now I’m going to ruin their lives.”

First, a series of laws designed to make open dissent harder and more dangerous was fast-tracked through a compliant parliament. Next, Putin and his allies in the increasingly powerful Investigative Committee—an FBI-style law-enforcement agency answerable only to the president—systematically set about neutralizing the protest leaders and their most vocal supporters through a combination of smear campaigns, politically motivated criminal charges, and darkly absurd show trials.

“No 1937!” chanted protesters, a reference to the year that saw the peak of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror, as the first opposition figures were jailed or charged. For many, the analogy was insulting to the millions of victims of Stalin’s purges: after all for now at least—no one was being shot in the back of the head or sent to the frozen north to be worked to death. But for Russia’s modern-day dissidents, as they languished in grimy pre-trial detention centres or served time in remote penal colonies, there could be little doubt that the Kremlin had regained a taste for political repression.

It was an appetite that swelled to new, monstrous proportions when neighboring Ukraine erupted with revolutionary fervor in late 2013, and an unlikely combination of liberals, nationalists, and leftists, as well as hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” people united to drive the country’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power. Fearful that this passion for protest could spread to Russia, Putin escalated his war on dissent.

In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Putin lashed out at his detractors, denouncing them as a “fifth column’ and “national traitors,” the latter insult a term he had borrowed from Adolf Hitler. Once marginal nationalist groups gained a new prominence. Less than a week after tens of thousands of Kremlin supporters had marched through central Moscow calling for the “destruction” of the opposition, Boris Nemtsov, one of the anti-Putin movement’s most recognizable figures, was gunned down in front of the Kremlin walls. For many in the opposition who had seen out the first wave of Putin’s fightback, Nemtsov’s death was the signal to flee Russia, while they still could.

9781780745244 Journalist and Moscow resident Marc Bennetts examines how Putin crushed Russia's brave new protest movement in this compelling book. Dan Mogford

Even before Nemtsov’s brutal murder, there had been a wave of emigration among those opposed to Putin’s long rule. The official statistics were startling: the number of disenchanted Russians who left their country for foreign shores in the two years following Putin’s 2012 return to the Kremlin was some five times higher than in the two before he began his controversial third presidential term. And that was according to official figures. Experts said the real number may have been much higher.

Those leaving were some of Russia’s best and brightest. In an opinion poll published in mid-2014 by Moscow’s Levada Centre pollster, one in every four Russians with a higher education indicated they were seeking to emigrate. The figure rose to nearly one in three among those who described themselves as “well-off”. Of those respondents planning to move abroad, 31 percent said they wanted to provide a “worthy and hopeful future” for their children. But unlike past brain drains in modern Russia, which were more about economics, the reasons behind this exodus had more to do with politics than money.

The list of talented Russians who have fled their country since Putin returned to the Kremlin makes for lengthy and depressing reading. While the exit of opposition-friendly activists and journalists is unlikely to cost Putin too many sleepless nights, there are others leaving with them whom Russia can ill afford to lose, from scientists to economists to talented young graduates. “The brain drain is significant and symptomatic,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank.

Among the first to flee in the aftermath of Putin’s return to the Kremlin was Sergei Guriev, a highly regarded, US-educated economist who had once advised the presidential administration. Guriev abruptly left Russia for France in May 2013, after investigators had questioned him over a report he had written for the Kremlin’s human-rights council on charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-oil tycoon unexpectedly freed by Putin ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Guriev, whose report concluded that the charges against the tycoon should be dropped, denied allegations he had received money from Khodorkovsky or anyone connected to him. But his real crime, he and many others believed, was making a symbolic donation of some $300 to opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption fund. Fearing imminent arrest, the middle-aged, bespectacled economist jumped on the next available flight to Paris, where his wife and children had been living for the past three years.

“I have been informed that there is a list of friends of Navalny and there is a special operation against those people and I am on the list,” Guriev told me by telephone once he was safe in France. “I have done nothing wrong and I do not want to live in fear.”

Guriev was no rabble-rousing protest leader, no radical activist calling for Putin’s overthrow. He was a well-respected professor who had earned international recognition for his work as rector of Moscow’s New Economic School. He was, in short, the kind of person Russia badly needed. His sudden departure, one blogger wrote, triggered “a sense of imminent catastrophe.”

Another of those to book their tickets on the modern-day version of “the philosophers’ steamboat”—the name given to the exodus of educated Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution—is Pavel Durov, the founder of the successful VKontakte social network website, often described as Russia’s Facebook. In a statement explaining his departure, Durov said he had been forced out of the company over his refusal to co-operate with the security services, and that his company was now under the “full control” of Kremlin-friendly figures.

Leonid Bershidsky, a well-known journalist who was the founding editor of Russia’s top business daily, Vedomosti, as well as the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes, is one more who has cut his losses. “The Kremlin doesn’t care because it doesn’t consider the likes of me Russia’s best and brightest,” he told me by email after his departure to Germany in the summer of 2014. “To them, we’re the traitors, the fifth column.”

“[I] try to count how many friends and colleagues have left Russia already, and stop counting when I run out of fingers on both hands,” wrote Moscow-based human-rights worker Tanya Lokshina in May 2015, in an article that read as an obituary for the brief flowering of Russian civil society. “Some left because they could no longer do their work. Some feared for their lives or the lives of their loved ones. This exodus is a loss for Russia. These people were in fact Russia’s future, the future stolen from the Russian society by the powers that be.”

But the Kremlin has been unable to entirely crush dissent. “Wake up Russia!” read a flyer at a demonstration in Moscow in early 2012, and, for many, those unprecedented protests were life-changing events, transforming thousands of once-apathetic Russians into active opponents of Putin’s rule. Backing down when the going got tough was simply not an option

Their struggle has taken on an undisguised moral element. Modern-day examples of the Communist-era inakomyslyashchie—literally, “those who think differently”—these men and women are no longer simply pushing political programmes: many are unaffiliated with any of Russia’s beleaguered and often outlawed opposition parties. Instead, by their willingness to speak out, to risk dismissal from their workplaces, or arrest, or beatings, or worse, they are simply refusing, in the famous words of the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to “live a lie.” Their bravery rarely makes the news, either in Russia or the West. They are Russia’s near-anonymous, modern-day dissidents, possessed of a quiet resolve to build a fairer future for their troubled homeland.

They are people like Mark Galperin, a 47-year-old anti-Putin activist who is facing up to five years behind bars after being one of the first to be charged under Putin’s new draconian laws on public protest. “We are engaged in a struggle. It’s our task to bring about regime change,” he told me, when we met in a central Moscow café one afternoon in the spring of 2015. “It is the minority who always make history.” Aside from criminal charges, Galperin and his fellow activists face frequent harassment, and even assault, from state-sponsored activists emboldened by Putin’s attacks on the opposition. “These pro-Kremlin groups will not stick their necks out for Putin when push comes to shove,” Galperin said. “But opposition activists risk their freedom, their lives every day.”

They are people like Ruslan Leviyev, a former police investigator from the Siberian city of Surgut, who left the force after becoming disgusted by the “culture of corruption” he had witnessed, and moved to Moscow in 2009. Inspired, like so many others, by the anti-Putin protests of 2011–12, Leviyev, a tattooed 29-year-old, is now one of the country’s top “social media dissidents”. Armed only with a computer, and aided by a team of five anonymous internet assistants, Leviyev scours social media in search of evidence of Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine. His quest frequently takes him offline: Leviyev has travelled to towns and villages across Russia in search of graves of soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine. “Sometimes when I explain to the family members of dead soldiers that it’s wrong that we are sending young men to die in an illegal war, and that Putin disowns them when they perish, I can make a connection. They start to understand,” he told me, when I questioned him as to his motives for his arduous and dangerous work. Under a new law signed into force by Putin in May 2015 that makes all deaths of Russian soldiers during “special operations” a state secret, Leviyev and his fellow activists could now face up to seven years behind bars. But the activist refuses to be frightened off. “I’m determined to carry on. I’m ready for prison. I’ll get through it, if it comes to it,” he told me, as we spoke opposite a freshly painted portrait of the Soviet military commander Marshal Zhukov in central Moscow. “All this hysterical propaganda has resulted in a degradation of society. We have to put an end to this as soon as possible. Otherwise things will only get a lot worse.”

They are people like Denis Bakholdin, a 33-year-old financial expert, whom I first met ahead of the anti-war protest in Moscow in March 2014. He was standing near Red Square, in his hands a sign urging people to attend the upcoming rally. It was rush-hour, and it didn’t take long before he attracted the attention of passers-by. “Only a bastard would go on that!” yelled a middle-aged man, his face flushed with rage, after reading the sign, which was painted in the colours of both the Russian and Ukrainian flags. “We don’t need a Maidan here!” Shortly after, a swarm of pro-Kremlin youth activists surrounded Bakholdin and his dozen or so fellow protesters. “Traitors!” they chanted, before police officers moved in to break up the gathering.

Bakholdin is a rank-and-file protester who says he has no interest in a career in politics. A quietly spoken, studious man, he has paid a high price for his public opposition to Putin’s rule. Shortly before that afternoon’s protest, he had been dismissed from his well-paid job at a privately owned Moscow bank. The reason? His refusal to promise he would cease his frequent attendance at opposition rallies. The vice-president of the bank, it turned out, was a member of Putin’s United Russia party, and had ordered management to “tame” Bakholdin, or get rid of him. “I told them straight out that I was opposed to Putin, and that what I do in my own time is my own business,” Bakholdin told me. His defiance means he is unlikely to find work any time soon: Bank management wrote in his work book—the document that all Russians are obliged by law to present to employers—that he had “violated work discipline on multiple occasions.” He is now surviving on his rapidly dwindling savings.

I suggested that Bakholdin would perhaps be wise to consider following the well-beaten path out of Russia for a few years. If not until Putin leaves office, then at least until the searing hatred for those who dare to dissent has cooled. He smiled, as if humouring me. “I’ve thought a lot about leaving Russia, and trying to start a new life in Europe.” He shrugged. “I’ve seen how much better things are there. But, look, if your neighbour has better wallpaper and nicer furniture, you don’t just move into their apartment. You try to improve your own home, right?” He paused. “So that’s exactly what I plan to do here.”

This is an adapted extract from “I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives”: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition by Marc Bennetts (Oneworld Publications, 2016). Available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Follow Marc Bennetts on Twitter @marcbennetts1