LONDON – Tens of thousands of anti-Putin protesters took to the streets last week, chanting “Russia will be free” as they demonstrated in major cities and medium-sized towns. Hundreds were arrested; some were beaten. Alexei Navalny, the organizer and now undisputed leader of street-level opposition, was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
These were the most widespread protests since Moscow put down the last lot in 2012 and passed tougher laws to stop them happening again. Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin won another presidential election, invaded Crimea and saw his approval rating soar above 80 percent in spite of a falling Russian economy.
The difference from those marches of five years ago is that they are directed more precisely at Putin in particular and corruption in general. Navalny has taken aim at Russian leadership before. Last September he circulated a drone-shot video showing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s vast, luxurious estate — allegedly a gift from an admiring oligarch. Medvedev’s approval ratings declined, but the allegations against the prime minister did not touch the president’s command of public trust. Now, however, Navalny — still little known beyond Moscow — has seen that the metropolitan young want a more powerful and visible target for their disillusionment — one who bears ultimate responsibility for the state of Russia.
Putin doesn’t get an 80 percent approval rating in the United States, but surprisingly his supporters extend beyond U.S. President Donald Trump. A recent Gallup poll found that almost a quarter of Americans surveyed approved of the Russian president.
One of these supporters, much in the news this month, is film director Oliver Stone. Stone’s four-part interview with Putin, shot over the past two years and airing in the U.S. this past week, has been criticized for being a homage more than a questioning. Stone’s appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show caused the audience to erupt in laughter when, asked what most surprised him about Putin, the director told his host “I think (he’s) devoted to his country and I’m amazed at his calmness, his courtesy — he never really said anything bad about anybody and, I mean, he’s been through a lot. He’s been insulted and abused — abused by the press, in the media.”
Most reviewers of the lengthy interviews agree with Colbert in highlighting the softball nature of Stone’s questions — though the final interview did show a more inquiring side as Stone pushed Putin on the hacking, attributed to Moscow, of the Democratic National Committee’s emails before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It wasn’t too forensic, but it seemed to make Putin uncomfortable.
It’s Stone who should be uncomfortable. A free and successful man in a democratic country with a strong civil society, he chose in his series to amplify Russian propaganda and to ignore the suppression of dissent, the choking of critical news media, the support for Ukraine secessionists trying to destabilize their country, Moscow’s enthusiastic efforts to win victory for the brutal regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, the kleptocratic nature of the Russian regime, Moscow’s funding of populist-nationalist parties in the European Union and what a Forbes writer describes as Putin’s success in showing “every budding autocrat in the region and beyond, how to roll back human rights and freedoms with impunity.”
Putin was trained by the KGB, which he joined in 1975, to dissemble — to play a part. He emerged, or has developed, into a master actor. Last week, he did one of his annual phone-ins, in which he described the demonstrations as “a provocation” by people who “only exploit problems.” He was calm, reassuring, even witty as he offered asylum to James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump over the investigation of Russia’s alleged election meddling. Putin also bragged about Russia’s minimal GDP growth after two years of recession.
It may be that Putin’s acting is no longer as convincing as it was. Russia, unlike China or Iran, does not possess a religious or secular ideology that legitimizes authoritarian rule. It has depended on growth, on the “return” of Russian-majority areas outside the borders, on — until three years ago — rising living standards and an end to major conflict in Chechnya, where Putin has sanctioned the brutal and anti-gay rule of the region’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Russia’s civil society is now more entrenched, more knowledgeable and more skeptical. It consists not of institutions like NGOs, but of a middle class that travels, goes online and talks without fear of the secret police. Many, especially the young, consider themselves European. Putin has granted enough freedom to keep that class quiescent. Last week’s protests raise the question of whether that will continue.
In London last week, I stood behind two young Russian women in the metro, overhearing their excited conversation about a lecture they had attended about Britain and Europe. I wondered whether this generation would see the questions which vex the West — the weakness of the European Union or the Trump presidency — as a sign of Western decadence. If they’d prefer the ordered universe the Russian media portrays, an order which has, among other freedoms, allowed them to travel and live abroad? Or would they see the many messy and politically fraught expressions of Western democratic societies, in which central issues are fought out in public, as preferable to the tightly managed politics and severely constricted civil society they have back home?
Russia’s protesters, many with no direct experience of the Soviet Union, now face that choice. As, in a more existential way, does Putin.
John Lloyd cofounded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.