Russia has been in the news a lot lately, but not for what’s been happening inside the country itself. That changed over the past several days as demonstrators turned out in numerous Russian cities to protest government corruption, the largest such protests in years. Aleksei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who has had numerous run-ins with Vladimir Putin’s regime, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for resisting arrest. (Navalny has already been barred from challenging Putin’s hold on the presidency in “elections” scheduled for 2018.)
To discuss what these protests mean for Russia’s future, I spoke by telephone with Oliver Carroll, the managing editor of the Moscow Times, a newspaper that has had its own run-ins with Putin. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the surprising form the Russian opposition is taking, the Kremlin’s concern over its own image, and whether Putin is as popular as he appears.
Isaac Chotiner: Did the size of the protests surprise you?
Oliver Carroll: Given the fact that perhaps two-thirds of the meetings were unsanctioned—every demonstration in Russia has to go through a process of being agreed to by authorities, that being one of the changes in the law which happened in Putin’s second term—and given that anybody going therefore automatically faced the possibility of arrest and a 15-day jail sentence, the fact that so many turned out obviously took everyone by surprise. And from what I hear it took the Kremlin by surprise as well. The rumors coming out on the day were that if there was a large crowd then there weren’t going to be any arrests because it would seem unsightly. I don’t know whether that was a red herring or whether, during the day, as more and more people turned out, a decision was made saying, “We need to show who’s boss here and crack down.”
Were there aspects of the protests that particularly struck you?
It’s not so much the numbers—and the numbers are certainly impressive, an estimate upwards of 60,000 across Russia. But what is most interesting is that all across the country, from deep Siberia, the Far East, places like Dagestan which are basically police states, saw turnout.*
The other thing that is surprising to people is the makeup of the demonstrations. Previous demonstrations, such as those in 2011, were mostly made up of middle-class, well-to-do people, people who traveled extensively abroad and saw what was happening in Europe. Now you are looking at teenagers, kids from 13 upwards, and a sizeable proportion in their teens and 20s. It’s a cohort which really the Kremlin wasn’t too interested in. This isn’t something that the Kremlin really thought it needed to deal with but I think now you will see a lot of policies. It’s difficult because you can’t exactly come down with draconian policies on kids. That has really bad optics. But there will a response, you can be sure.
Do you think it might come in the form of a crackdown on social media?
There already is, to a certain extent, a crackdown on social media. What’s usually claimed is “extremism.” For example, if Navalny is labeled an “extremist,” if anyone retweets him then they could fall under the magnifying glass. But I’d be reluctant to say there will be a total clampdown on social media. The Russian authorities are usually quite aware of how things look. They will look to find a solution cleverer then you are expecting, but I don’t know what that will be.
Where do young people get their news in Russia, generally speaking?
Many young people have been quite enthused by Navalny. He’s got messages brilliantly [targeted] to them. Demonstrations were called for at the back of a video Navalny made basically proving corruption within Prime Minister Medvedev’s entourage and from the prime minister. They are the YouTube generation.
So do you see corruption as the main spark of this outpouring?
It’s too early to say. According to some in Moscow, this was not so much an anti-Putin demonstration but an anti-Medvedev demonstration. Medvedev is this kind of comic figure who everyone likes to laugh at, and the fact that Navalny was able to show that he was able to get things like yachts, but also had a predilection for buying sneakers on the internet, was part of Navalny’s attractiveness to these kids. Navalny is an incredibly resourceful and funny guy with real political astuteness.
But to answer your question, there was a debate about why they were out. Among the poor and in certain rural cities, things are very down, with economic breakdown and so on. Medvedev is seen as the guy who answers for this. Putin, on the other hand, is the cool foreign policy guy who is in charge of the army and showing the world who’s boss. So there is a question of whether the kids were coming out against Putin. There is a certain cult of Putin, and I would imagine some of those who came out were still supporting Putin.
Do people in Russia not know that Putin is far and away the most powerful person?
Not exactly. The kids are basically internet kids, and I don’t know if they are following the state media line that Putin is returning Russia to a great power. That was the line state media used Sunday and Monday. For the majority of people who only get their media from television, which is still the main place for people to get their information, they still have this image of Putin as being hard up, someone who America is attacking and the West is attacking. And we are suffering because of sanctions. Many people also take up political identities as a necessary crutch to live in the system which they are living in. At the moment, Putin has official approval at 87 percent. And that’s because there is no other choice, and when a man with a clipboard comes up and asks who you are supporting, many people will support Putin because there is no alternative, and what’s the point of putting yourself in danger.
I think the reaction of the authorities this weekend shows that, deep down, they think their support is more brittle than they are making out. The one thing that this protest has is a leader, which previous ones didn’t have. Navalny was never able to develop into a full opposition leader; now he’s definitely the only person. Everyone else has been put into prison or killed. He’s the only one left.
This begs the question of why they haven’t killed Navalny or sent him away permanently to prison.
I asked him this question and his answer seemed fairly persuasive to me, in that first of all he emerged at a time—a more vegetarian time, around 2009, when Medvedev was in power—and by the time he became a figure of real importance, already his support was too big and doing something like that would be a blow to the Kremlin’s legitimacy. Even in an authoritarian system like Russia, they are very concerned about their legitimacy. That was one of the reasons they were thinking about allowing Navalny to run, although I think that’s now out of the question.
But I do think he is in danger. At the same time, if something were to happen to him it would be obvious who was behind it. And that obviously has legitimacy issues for them. We don’t know how things will develop. If Navalny manages to develop his political message, he becomes a big danger to the Kremlin and they understand that. The last time he was allowed a free run was in 2013 when he was basically given a run for Moscow mayor. They thought they could control it, control access to media, and run a PR campaign against them. But Navalny surprised everyone and got 27 percent against a Putin loyalist. He is incredibly adept on television and the best in the country in terms of his investigations.
The criticism I have always heard of the opposition and Navalny is that he can’t appeal to non–middle-class people outside of Moscow. Do the locations of these demonstrations make you think that has changed?
To run for the presidency you need signatures from all areas of the Russian Federation, and that requires organizational skills because many of these areas are completely under the control of the Kremlin. By doing this he has pulled the presidential gun a year early. He realized he won’t be able to run, and these are his elections and his chance to show the rest of Russia and Putin that he could win. He did a tour of Russia this month. He’s managed to show that he can do it. Everyone is very upbeat and hopeful, but at the same time we have been here before. Prior to the 2008 election there were marches that came to nothing and before the 2012 elections you had protests that were pretty violently put down. The Kremlin has an awful lot of tools in its toolbox and it has barely used them.
Does Navalny have a proactive message that is more than anti-corruption? Some of his deeply problematic stances have been criticized here because he is also seen as an anti-immigrant nationalist.
I think his message has slightly changed. Before, he was making common cause with nationalists, which gave him a natural appeal. His nationalism is slightly exaggerated. It’s certainly there, a Russian nationalism. As a colleague said to me, in America he would be a Republican. Some of his statements have been pretty outrageous. But he has toned that down. It’s an anti-corruption and rule of law message now.
What’s important, I suppose, is that for Russians, rule of law and anti-corruption go well but only to a point. They want to have heroes and antiheroes. That’s important to understand. Navalny has managed to create that. They have a superhero in Navalny and someone they can make fun of in Medvedev. It’s a cynical and weary society.
*Update, March 30, 2017: This sentence has been updated to include a missing phrase that had cut out in the original recording of the conversation.