Some notes about protests in Russia in 2021

Dmitry Rudenkin,
Associate Professor,
Ural Federal University,
Yekaterinburg, Russia

The period between January and April 2021 was a time of remarkable protests in Russian cities. Detention and imprisonment of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny who returned to the country in the beginning of January, stimulated a whole series of protest actions.

The context of the emergence of these actions indicated that they could potentially contribute to a massive protest mobilization in Russian society and prepare the foundation for complex changes in its political process. Large-scale protests in different Russian cities in 2017-2019 demonstrated, that many of contemporary Russians are ready to join protest activities if they do not like the authorities’ decisions. And Navalny’s public positioning in the past few years has been based on emphasizing his image as the main and uncontested leader of the protest movement in Russia. Given these circumstances, it was quite realistic to expect that the prospect of his imprisonment could become an important symbolic trigger capable of stimulating a massive protest mobilization in Russian society.

However, if the imprisonment of Navalny really stimulated growing of irritation among contemporary Russians, only a few of them converted this feeling into a desire to participate in protest actions. Even though the rallies and processions organized by Navalny’s supporters turned out to be relatively regular and lasted almost three months, their organizers did not manage to make them truly massive. Even optimistic unofficial assessments confirm that the number of participants of these actions reached only 250-300 thousand people, distributed among dozens of cities. Besides, the political effects of these actions turned out to be negligible: Navalny was sent to prison, his organization was recognized as extremist, and many of his supporters were forced to leave the country.

The lack of mass support for these actions looked rather unexpected and stimulated numerous discussions both in Russia and abroad. However, a deliberated look at the logic of trends of development of Russian society in previous years allows to understand, that this lack of support was predictable.

In this context, it is worth paying attention to three fundamental circumstances.

First, it is important to consider that protest-minded Russian population is a complex and heterogeneous community of people, and not all segments of this community sympathize with Navalny. Even though Navalny is used to positioning himself as a key figure in the Russian protest movement, not all supporters of this movement are ready to perceive him as such. Therefore, the call to participate in actions due to the detention of Navalny initially had a rather limited potential in Russian society, and not all protest-minded people were ready to react to it.

Secondly, it is important to note, that many important protest actions in Russian society in recent years were clearly connected with the problems of daily life of residents of specific territories. This was evident from the protests in Yekaterinburg, the basis for which was created by the desire of the authorities to build a church on the site of the park. This was also seen during the conflict in Shiyes in Arkhangelsk oblast: people began to protest the construction of a landfill. The same logic can be traced in a series of protest against the renovation program for the housing stock in Moscow. The imprisonment of Navalny is clearly perceived by many in Russia as unfair, but nevertheless it has no direct relation to the everyday problems of specific people. Therefore, it is predictable that the real number of people willing to protest against it was fewer, then the organizers expected.

Thirdly, it is important to remember, that the protests that took place in Russia at the beginning of 2021 took place after the completion of large-scale rallies following the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. The protest actions in Minsk turned out to be numerous and prolonged, but unsuccessful: after their completion, the Lukashenka regime retained its positions. The unsuccessful end of rallies in Belarus largely set the context for the perception of protest actions in modern Russia. In fact it showed that even massive protest actions do not guarantee the achievement of a meaningful result.

Taken together, all these circumstances largely explain why the protest actions that took place in Russian society at the beginning of 2021 did not lead to a large-scale test mobilization of the population. The personality of Alexei Navalny turned out to be too contradictory to rally the disparate layers of disgruntled Russians. The lack of a direct link between his imprisonment and the specific everyday problems of Russians has deprived many of the incentive to participate in actions aimed at protecting him. And the observation of the ineffectiveness of the protest actions in Belarus contributed to the spread of skepticism in the Russian society in relation to such actions.


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