On Valentine’s Day, February 14, in below-freezing temperatures and under grey and white skies, supporters of jailed anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny left their homes armed with candles and flashlights and gathered across dozens of Russian cities at 8:00 p.m. This wasn’t an angry mob wielding bludgeons and torches. They were not striking out to storm the jail and free the man who has become the face of a growing anti-corruption movement throughout Russia. Rather, they were grouping together to rally, and for the first time since these rallies, protests, and demonstrations began this year, there were no mass arrests.

Russian people went out into the courtyards and streets, lit flashlights, and posted photos on social networks with the tag #loveisstronger. The tag quickly reached the top of Russian Twitter: about 20 thousand publications. On Instagram, the number of posts with this tag was about 8,000. According to OVD-Info, only 12 people were detained in Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Kazan.

On the eve of this flashlight vigil in support of Navalny, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor, began sending demands out to publications to remove materials about the rally. The notifications, in particular, were received by the editorial offices of the Tomsk edition of TV-2, the Saratov edition of Svobodnye Novosti, and Open Media. Later, it became known that Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the Spektr publication because of the mention of the rally seeing in it “calls for participation in mass events held in violation of the established order.”

Even before the rallies started, “Chains of Solidarity” had been lined up in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with people forming human chains. In Moscow, close to 300 people came to Arbat to demonstrate solidarity with Yulia Navalnaya, female political prisoners, and everyone who “spend their days in courts, police buses, and special detention centers.” In St. Petersburg — where the rally was called “The Feminist Chain of Solidarity” — about 70 people lined up on the Voskresenskaya embankment of the Neva in a show of support for political prisoners. They read Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem and laid flowers at the monument to the victims of political repression. No arrests were reported. 

In the center of Kazan, a rally was held “against detentions and repressions and changes in electoral legislation.” Local authorities had approved a rally of up to 200 people (about 100 more people did not get into the rally and stood behind a police fence). The rally itself took place without incidents, but after its completion, the police detained nine activists without explanation. 

The authorities responded to these flashlight rallies with their own flashlight gathering for a veteran who, according to the prosecution, Navalny had slandered. Participants of the action posted a photo of veteran Ignat Artemenko with the caption “I / We Ignat” and the tags #protectveterans and #yamyignatartemenko. Such posts, in particular, were actively published by pro-government politicians and activists, state publications, regional administrations, and budgetary institutions. 

Russian Protests
Russian police secure a square during a unauthorized rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow. (Kammersant)

The Power or Futility of Protests?

“When arbitrariness and lawlessness have put on your uniforms and pretend to be the law, it is the duty of every honest person not to obey you and fight you with all his might.”

–Alexei Navalny, in a speech made at the Moscow City Court, February 21, 2021

Why do people protest? What is their purpose, and do they ever succeed? According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, over 230 significant anti-government protests have erupted worldwide since 2017. The largest of them were the “Hong Kong autonomy protests” that began in April 2019, with two million people at peak size, and lasted 16 months. The United States has seen its own spike in protests since May 2020, called “Police brutality protests” that at times swelled to more than a million participants.

Smaller than these are the protests in Russia, one of which resulted in 5,000 people being detained, and the more recent #LoveIsStrongerThanFear showing the solidarity of the Russian people. These protests and rallies have been part of the “Alexei Navalny arrest protests.” At their height, they attracted more than 100,000 people taking to the streets and squares across the Russian Federation in response to Navalny’s arrest. 

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Protesting is an activity of social movements. A “protest cycle” refers to the rise and fall of this activity. Noted political science professor Sidney Tarrow put forth this idea in his book Power in Movement in which he characterizes protests as having “intensified interactions between challengers and authorities which can end in reform, repression and sometimes revolution.” The “cycles” happen any time there is an opening in political opportunity, creating an incentive for collective action. 

On January 31, rallies took place across Russia to protests against the January 17 detention of Alexei Navalny, referring to the day he stepped off the plane in Moscow from Berlin. These protests were a stark contrast to the ones that occurred on February 14. A record number of detentions in the history of Russian protests soon followed. Several people were dragged, unconscious, into paddy wagons and buses. Among the detainees were more than 80 journalists from various publications. The wife of Nalvany, Yulia Navalna, was also arrested.

To disperse and arrest the protesters, security forces used gas, stun guns, rubber truncheons, and threatened with firearms. At the same time, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation denies the use of gas and calls the aiming of weapons justified. According to government estimates, more than 5,100 people were detained (about 1,500 in Moscow and more than 1,100 in St. Petersburg). 

Russian Protests
A protester pushed face-down into the snow in Moscow. Максим Шеметов / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In photos taken during the January 31 protests, protesters are seen marching in a line with their hands on their heads, police alongside them like drill instructors in all-black tactical body armor, and brandishing sinister-looking black batons. Black face masks and reflective helmet visors shield most of their faces. This was in contrast to the exasperated and downcast arrestees. These adjectives describe many of the feelings permeating the protesters’ collective action: Frustration, disappointment, but simultaneously hope for the future, especially for September’s upcoming parliamentary elections which Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation is looking to challenge.

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Russian Protests
Russian police restraining protesters in Moscow. Максим Шеметов / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Other photos showed protesters pinned down, arms restrained behind their backs by police, faces buried in muddy slush and snow, voices suppressed. One person has blood streaming down the left side of his face, another is being placed onto a stretcher, and a third braces for a baton strike across his back with his body reflexively tensing.

Another portrays a young man, his blue surgical mask pulled down, arm-in-arm with other protesters, screaming at a line of riot police. He is defiant and there is a questioning quality to his anger. Why are we being oppressed and arrested? How can this level of corruption still exist? In one video, riot police sprint to form a line enveloping a crowd of protesters, shields raised should-to-shoulder, evoking the heavy hand of Russian police fear and intimidation. Another video shows a group of protesters chanting like barking dogs at a cadre of police backpedaling in retreat.

Protesters and police square off in Moscow. Максим Шеметов / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

These photos and videos depict some of the largest and most widespread mass protests and arrests, in the Russian Federation since 2011. At the time, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and their ruling United Russia party were being opposed by Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption social movement that called United Russia a “party of crooks and thieves.” Navalny was arrested in 2011 as well, along with other protesters gathered in Moscow to demonstrate against alleged parliamentary election fraud. He spent 15 days in jail for “defying a government official.” A major difference in the protests this year versus those of the past has been the increasing trend of the use of social media, both for posting photos and videos and for organizing the events themselves. With that has come more censorship of social media that has led to Putin’s falling approval rating. 

It seems now that Putin and Navalny are poised as the antagonist and protagonist in this unfolding story of Russia’s future. Both have achieved something of a “too big to cancel” status. Putin, 68-years old and ruler of Russia since 2000, has held such a firm grip on Russia that Navalny’s survival and the protests against his arrest are noteworthy threats to him. And yet he simply ignores Navalny, refusing to speak his name publicly.

Navalny, 44-years old and already popular with the younger generation of Russians defied death after he was exposed to the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. He fell into a coma, was evacuated to Berlin for treatment, and then not only woke up but returned home to Moscow to continue his anti-corruption crusade. This led to his immediate arrest for the prior embezzlement charges largely believed to be politically motivated by Putin. Navalny has since utilized his court appearances to openly mock and show contempt for the court, Putin, and the United Russia party.

In a speech on February 2 in the Moscow City Court, Navalny, in reference to the old charges against him of which he was found not guilty but are now being used to keep him in jail, taunted the judge by asking him whether he has ever opened a single textbook on criminal law. Further into his speech, he addressed his attempted assassination and his arrest:

“[…] Someone really wanted me not to take a single step across the territory of our country, returning as a free person. So that from the moment I crossed the border, I would be a prisoner. And we know who. We know why this happened. The reason for this is the hatred and fear of one person living in the bunker. Because I inflicted a mortal offense on him by the fact that I survived after they tried to kill me on his orders.”

“And no matter how much he pretends to be a great geopolitician, a great world leader, his main grievance towards me now is that he will go down in history precisely as a poisoner. You know, there was Alexander the Liberator or Yaroslav the Wise, and we will have Vladimir the Poisoner Trusov. This is how he will go down in history,” he concluded.

Andrii Tsybulskyi, a Ukrainian army veteran who once fought the Russians and now lives in Ukraine, interviewed Ukrainian political expert, Ph.D. Yuriy Oliynyk, who assessed the events in Russia and their impact on neighboring countries in the following way:

“Protests in the Russian Federation indicate the mood of the population. The poisoning and detention of Oleksiy Navalny became a catalyst in this situation. It is difficult to predict how events will develop in the Russian Federation, but in the coming years, anti-government sentiment will become stronger. Today’s protests are the first stage in the redistribution of forces in Russian politics. Obviously, the Kremlin has a certain group of people interested in this. If we talk about the theoretical possibility of the opposition (led by Navalny) to come to power in Russia, it will not affect the situation in neighboring countries and the war in Ukraine, for example. There may be some easing of rhetoric and slower imperial pressure on neighboring countries, but we can’t talk about a radical change in the vector of Russia’s political ambitions.”

Tsybulskyi is unsure about the protests’ ability to create changes in the government. “Here only elections will be able to show the mood of the population. It is difficult to say about the protests. Putin will definitely not give in and will involve security forces in dispersing the protests. In my opinion, for the protests to be successful, people should go out not only once a week, but almost every day. And the people must be ready for more radical action.”

For example, Oliynyk continued, during protests in Belarus against election fraud, people took to the streets daily, striking entire factories and businesses. The Lukashenko government forcibly dispersed and intimidated the people. Instead, people stressed that the protest were peaceful. They failed to accumulate available strength and in fact lost to the dictatorial president. As a result, everything has calmed down. At the same time, in Georgia in 2003-2004, the Velvet Revolution was able to win peacefully. Then the opposition, led by Mikheil Saakashvili, managed to come to power. All this happened without bloodshed, probably because the then-Georgian government was more democratic. 

And in Ukraine there two examples of victorious revolutions. Both times the protests were continuous, with people on the streets around the clock. The Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 was able to peacefully win the presidential election for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. The Revolution of Dignity from 2013-2014 also won, but at a great price. The protests began peacefully, but very quickly the security forces tried to disperse the Maidan protest. That led to the deaths of 107 activists and 16 policemen. President Yanukovych fled to Russia, was impeached, and his government dissolved.

There was also the Brick Revolution in Moldova in 2009. Protesters seized government buildings demanding that the election results be re-calculated. In the end, they achieved their goal, but the re-calculation confirmed the victory of the pro-government candidate. Therefore, returning to the situation in Russia, I think that:

  • Putin will actively use force to disperse protests, as well as use administrative resources to falsify elections.
  • Putin will actively speculate in the information space, saying that a revolution cannot be allowed in Russia, otherwise it will be the same as in Ukraine or Belarus.
  • The pressure of the international community should not be limited to phrases about concern for the situation, but it should move to action with sanctions and other measures. Only this will affect the Putin government and its tough stance.
  • It is important to understand that even with the attention of the international media turned to Russia, Putin and his government are ready to stand their ground and they have enough resources to ignore the position of the international community.

Navalny’s imprisonment is politically motivated – yes, I agree with this meaning. And [in my opinion] Navalny will remain in prison either until a change of government in Russia or until Russian citizens are able to take hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets and put civilian pressure on Putin’s government.

Russian protests
Youth protesting in Moscow. Дмитрий Серебряков / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The Youth Revolt in Protests

The younger generation — the Millennials and the Gen-Z’ers who come next — are perhaps the key that will unlock the door to change for Russia. These protests are being organized, promoted, and recorded by tech- and social media-savvy young Russians. Navalny himself grew in popularity through the use of LiveJournal to author his blog. Combined with poor employment rates, stagnating income, dismal economy, pandemic fatigue, the continued consolidation of power and money into the hands and pockets of Russian billionaires, and the parliamentary elections in September, it is no surprise that this protest cycle is seeing such a turnout of young urban, educated, and middle-class professionals. In his February 2 speech in court, Navalny laid it out:

“This is how it works: one is imprisoned to frighten millions. We have 20 million people below the poverty line, we have tens of millions living without the slightest prospects. In our country, tens of millions of people belong to those whom we talk about every day: life in Moscow is even more or less, and if you drive away 100 kilometers, there are generally full seams. And in our country the whole country lives in this complete seam, not having the slightest prospects, receiving 20 thousand rubles. And they are all silent, and they are trying to shut them up with just such show trials.”

These young Russians were hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis, were powerless against political corruption in the 2012 presidential election, discouraged by and distrustful of their government. And they are now seeing that cycle repeat with an economy hurting from the pandemic, elections on the horizon, and Navalny in jail. Those who were not even teenagers during the 2011-2013 protests against alleged election fraud are now more than old enough to vote. And this time, they can galvanize the population by coordinating and joining the protests using Facebook groups instead of flyers with names like “Saturday at the Square,” TikTok videos instead of state-controlled television lies, and Twitter and Instagram to post updates, messages, and stories. They are mobilized, connected, and united against authoritarian rule, and now they have a martyr in Navalny to rally around. The United Russia party can lose control of the narrative if the people take control. These protests may not get the people they want into positions of power, but they are getting a lot of the world’s attention, and that is another kind of power.

About the youth, Andriy Tsybulskyi offered his opinion:

“Navalny is supported mainly by the younger generation, which is far from the Soviet Union and sees how people live in more economically developed countries and where there is no strict censorship of criticism of government actions or expression of their opinions. Youth feels more freely, that’s why they want to really have a choice. It is worth noting that the Putin government influences the traditional media, which are primarily targeted at the older generation and the rural population. Instead, young people and residents of large cities prefer alternative information channels (online publications, YouTube, Telegram channels, etc.).”

Russian Protests
Russian police restraining a protester in Moscow. Петр Ковалев / ТАСС / Scanpix / LETA

What Good Are Protests?

Protests are a reminder that change is uncomfortable because protests themselves are uncomfortable for the people on the streets, who are beaten or dragged through the snow, hauled onto buses, and detained. But protests can also cause discomfort for the ruling class. In his February 2 speech in court, Navalny ended with:

“There are many good things in Russia now. And the best thing is the very people who are not afraid, do not lower their eyes, do not look at the table, and will never give our country to a bunch of corrupt officials who have decided to exchange our Motherland for their palaces, vineyards, and aquadiskotheques.”

Writing for The Atlantic in June 2020 about the Black Lives Matter movement in her article Do Protests Even Work? associate professor at UNC, Zeynep Tufekci, posits, “In the short term, protests can work to the degree that they can scare authorities into changing their behavior. Protests are signals: ‘We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.’ But for that to work, the ‘We won’t put up with it’ part has to be credible.” She later states that protesters must be willing to take serious risks for their cause to let authorities know that their actions will be opposed.

Tsybulskyi agrees, saying, “Protesters must understand that for a real victory they need more people to go to every rally, because when hundreds of thousands or millions take to the streets, Putin will not be able to ignore their opinion.”

Sidney Tarrow wrote in Power in Movement that even defeated or suppressed movements leave some kind of residue behind. Social movements and the activity they engage in, such as protests, whether successful or failed, are cumulative in the long term, leading to new protest cycles. So, while these protests could fizzle out and lose steam by the September elections, or be broken up, discouraged, and dispersed long before the next presidential election, they will at least lead to the next protest cycle by the memory they will leave in their vapor trail. 

Tufekci, though, seems more hopeful about the power of protests, in the United States, at least. She emphasizes that the legitimacy of a government is the bedrock and source of their power, not their ability to repress and silence protesters. This is truest in democracies, from which Russia seems to be slipping away. If the United Russia party slides closer to an authoritarian regime, will its legitimacy continue to be questioned more strongly by the Russian people, by other countries, or the U.S? Tufekci ends with the following: “Do protests work? Yes, but not simply because some people march in the streets. Protests work because they direct attention toward an injustice and can change people’s minds, a slow but profoundly powerful process.” 

Contributing reporting by Andriy Tsybulskiy.

This article was originally published on February 27th, 2021.