During the last Duma elections in December 2007 I was an election observer on behalf of the Communists. In the days before the voting I went to the homes of old people not strong enough to make the trip to the polling station. Some of them would tell me their life stories, and why they were voting for United Russia or the Communists (KPRF); others would ask for advice on who to vote for, which I declined to give. During the actual voting I counted the number of people who cast ballots. I counted around eight hundred; so did the other observers, give or take. But the head of our election committee, a woman in her fifties from United Russia, left without giving us a chance to sign the protocols, and when we looked at the official results a few days later the total was closer to a thousand. It would be hard to imagine that the extra two hundred weren’t for United Russia. I filed a complaint with the Communists; I was ready to go to court, tell the truth etc. They kept putting me off. Eventually I stopped calling. They’d made their peace with it – presumably by trading their loss of votes (the KPRF usually does better than reported) for some kind of later consideration, and maybe cash – and I would have to make mine. There was some online discussion, some thought of taking to the streets, but eventually things died down.

It’s hard to say what’s changed in the four years since then. On the surface, very little: the same group of people in charge, the same outward signs of wealth in the big cities, the same disintegration and death in the countryside. The parties were all the same; even the candidates were all the same. But in the weeks before the election, you could sense something happening in the chat forums and Facebook feeds, and on the street. In November some students, inspired in part by the US Occupy movement, disrupted the 300th-anniversary celebrations at Moscow State University to protest against the university’s unionisation policies; they were rounded up by the police on their own campus. Also in November, some colleagues of mine from the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) in St Petersburg staged a prank: one of them dressed up in United Russia paraphernalia; the others approached him as he stood on a pedestrian bridge and tossed him over into the water. The pranksters filmed the event and posted it on YouTube, and soon the news bulletins were reporting ‘the election season’s first attack on a political activist’. (This in a country where several dozen activists have been beaten, jailed and killed in the past five years without being mentioned at all, let alone on a news bulletin.) At midnight on the night of 4 December, after the voting closed, a few activists from the RSD and a couple of dozen anarchists and anti-fascists marched through the centre of Moscow with a banner that said ‘You’ve been fucked.’ A few people got arrested, then released. It was nothing out of the ordinary.

The next morning there were videos on YouTube; website headlines; people coming out into the street. More arrests. Days later, the largest anti-government protest since 1991. There can be no denying that it was the liberals who led the first protests. Having been frozen out of the official political process for almost a decade, they were the most focused of any political group on the question of fake election results. These were people who had achieved a level of material comfort – cars, apartments, vacations abroad. They believed they had earned the right to be treated in a certain way, only to find that the authorities treated them like they treated everyone else. Why, they asked themselves, if they were so great and successful, did the police, and the FSB, and this Putin person treat them like shit? These people have led the way. But it’s important to keep in mind that the base of unrest is much wider.

Was the left prepared? No, but we were less unprepared than we would have been a couple of years ago. For the past five years I’ve been a member of the socialist movement Vperyod. We began as a small Trotskyist-internationalist group, and we’ve remained a small Trotskyist-internationalist group, though slightly less small than we were. We organised protests – against the privatisation of education; against neo-fascist art; against capitalists and capitalism, obviously – and took part in monthly teach-ins (‘street universities’) in outdoor spaces in Moscow and St Petersburg. A year ago, there were smaller Vperyod groups in Saratov, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Yaroslavl and Stary Oskol. In March last year we joined forces with the Socialist Resistance and a few other leftist groups to become the Russian Socialist Movement. The goal is to unite everyone who’s ‘to the left of the KPRF’ into a serious and independent force to compete with and eventually supplant the Kremlin-friendly Communists.

The immediate question is Navalny. The liberals have fallen hard for him. He is young, good-looking, well-dressed – and sure of himself, fully formed, convincing. The liberals are aware of his nationalism, but they’ve decided to turn a blind eye to it. When, in interviews, they ask him about his nationalist beliefs, they do so gingerly, as if they’re afraid he’ll say something really horrible. And when Navalny gives them a stock response – a soft and civilised response – they change the subject, relieved. But this is exactly where the conversation about nationalism begins, where the question of separating moderate nationalism from Nazism must be raised. ‘The nationalists are regular guys,’ Navalny says: a few Nazis here and there, but mostly reasonable Russian patriots who want to live in a normal country. Yet I’d estimate that the vast majority of the ‘regular guys’ Navalny is bringing into the protest movement, vouching in the process for their basic decency, are or were until very recently involved with groups that carried out street violence against Central Asians and Caucasians: assaults, stabbings, murders.

So that’s Navalny. But an independent and ideologically lucid Navalny nonetheless represents a step forward in the political life of our country, and he describes, as it were, the field of action in which the left must now operate. The new class of whom he is the favoured representative wants to keep going to work at the same magazines, the same banks, and so on; it wants to keep driving the same cars, albeit on better roads; it wants to hold onto its wealth; and it wants to gain political representation. You can analyse the cult of Navalny among liberals in various ways, but in the end it comes down to a wish to be left alone. The enemies of the liberals have a bad leader (Putin); we will work to elect a good leader (Navalny) and then go back to our private activities, and everything will be fine. Whereas our argument has always been that nothing will change here unless we are willing to change the way we live.

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