Russia: Violence Plunges Opposition into Debate About Tactics

Yesterday, the Russian opposition's mass protests against Vladimir Putin for the first time produced mass violence. Dozens of protesters and police officers alike reported injuries, with several on each side requiring hospitalization.

The countless aspects and minutia of Moscow's “Million Man March” (which attracted about a tenth of that many people, according to the very highest estimates) are already the subject of immeasurable debate, which generally orbits the question of responsibility for the fighting. Why did yesterday's rally at Bolotnaia Square, the site of two previous peaceful demonstrations, end with blood spilled and Muscovites brawling?

Clashes between police and demonstrators in Moscow, Russia. (6 May 2012) Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLAEV, copyright © Demotix.

Clashes between police and demonstrators in Moscow, Russia. (6 May 2012) Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLAEV, copyright © Demotix.

One of the most important sticking points in the interpretation of events has been organizer Sergei Udaltsov's decision to conduct a sit-in outside the Square, which some call a provocation and others believe to have been a necessary response to police force.

Journalist and popular blogger Oleg Kashin published an article [ru] hours after the violence, endorsing the sit-in, and thanking Udaltsov and Aleksei Navalny (who also participated) for injecting the protest movement with new energy. In the article, Kashin compared the opposition's situation to that of the protagonist of the 1994 Russian film “Burnt by the Sun“, where a naive Soviet general is betrayed by Stalinism and arrested by the secret police.

The hero of that movie had behaved as though the state was just, right up until he had his face bashed in by a NKVD agent. By abandoning the usual moderate speakers of past demonstrations, Kashin argues that the “Million Man March” succeeded in revealing the true nature of today's Russian authorities:

Но что знаю точно — что если бы это был митинг, как в марте на Пушкинской или на Новом Арбате, мне было бы за него стыдно, хоть я к нему и не имел никакого отношения. Но Удальцов, Навальный и прочие сели на асфальт, и, благодаря этому, мне теперь стыдно за то, что меня не было рядом с ними.

But I know for certain that, if [the usual speakers] had been at the rally (like they were in March at Pushkin Square or at Novyi Arbat), then I'd be ashamed for them, even though I wasn't involved. But Udaltsov, Navalny, and others sat on the pavement, and because of that I'm ashamed because I wasn't out there beside them.

Kashin's attitude, the embrace of more confrontational tactics, is shared by many, including perennial dissident and controversial figure Eduard Limonov, who declared [ru] in his LiveJournal relievedly, “At last the protest [movement] has radicalized,” concluding, “After what happened today, there's no longer any doubt (in case anyone still had some) that a Revolution is underway in Russia.”

Oppositionist blogger and favorite of Navalny's, Vladislav Naganov, exceeded his own typically alarmist tone when he titled his most recent blog post [ru], “This Is War,” comparing yesterday's clashes to the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941.

In a comment [ru] on the website, typically oppositionist Elena Panfilova, the director of Transparency International Russia, challenged demonstration leaders’ version of events, claiming that the sit-in was clearly planned in advance, and not in response to police restricting access into Bolotnaia Square:

[…] немаленькой группы людей, был план продемонстрировать свою силу, показать, что они могут делать все, что считают нужным. […] Я пришла как наблюдатель от Общественной палаты и увидела, как огромное количество людей, пройдя всю Якиманку, поворачивает на Болотную. И на повороте стало видно, что организованные колонны остановились посредине моста и не сворачивают. Их обтекали справа и слева “неорганизованные”, а они стояли. В этот момент стало ясно, что у стоящих людей есть план: продемонстрировать силу протестного движения […].

[…] it was a small group's plan to demonstrate their own strength and show that they can do everything they think necessary. […] I was there as an observer from the Public Chamber, and I saw the large number of people coming down Yakimanka Street and turning down Bolotnaia. At the intersection, it became clear that organized columns of people had stopped in the middle of the [Malyi Kamennyi] Bridge and weren't turning off. To the right and the left, ‘unorganized’ [protesters] were walking around them, but these columns of people just stood there. At this moment, it became clear that those standing had a plan: demonstrate the strength of the protest movement […].

“They deceived people!” Panfilova explained, criticizing the rally's organizers for deliberately staging a scene that would flood the crowd with “adrenaline.”

Russian celebrity and recent oppositionist figure Ksenia Sobchak also weighed in on the sit-in, despite not attending yesterday's rally. “I'll say openly,” she wrote [ru] in her blog, “why I decided not to go: because I knew in advance that the main objective would be standing on the bridge, charging the police lines, and conducting a sit-in.”

Echoing Panfilova's critique, Sobchak affirmed her commitment to peaceful resistance and gradual “perestroika,” rejecting the radicalization of protest tactics.

The events of Moscow's “Million Man March,” which clearly divide oppositionists and pro-Kremlin activists, will also exacerbate the internal frictions among the anti-Putin protesters. That prominent figures are openly contesting the merit of more confrontational methods is proof of the opposition's commitment to transparent discussion, but fissures this ‘radicalization’ is already aggravating could prove more weakening than empowering.

Ksenia Sobchak, for her part, maintains hope in the salvation powers of the Internet, writing on LiveJournal, “Please, Mother of God, send Putin a computer — it's the last chance we've got.”

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