The Russian spring of the 1990s has passed. What happens now depends on the Opposition - and on us

Many Russians say that their country is returning to a Brezhnev-style era of stagnation. The question is not merely whether they're right, but what can be done about it

Related Topics

For years, Vladimir Putin largely ignored the internet. Most Russians received their news on Vremya, the main evening TV news show, which combines old-style propaganda with ultra-modern production techniques. It is slick and persuasive, if you are not inclined to look further.

But the growth of opposition activism, fuelled by social media and blogs, has forced Putin’s hand. Yesterday, a new law came into effect that will allow the Kremlin to close down sites and pages it disapproves of. It is just the start of a battle of attrition online.

Passed by the ever-obedient parliament in July, the legislation “on the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” will require any site deemed harmful to be added to a special register and blocked. The authorities are using justifiable concerns about child pornography as a catch-all device for political censorship.

For all the disapproval expressed in the West, Putin and his team are confident they are on safe terrain. They can legitimise their actions by citing a similar approach in the West. Concerted moves from governments around the world to clamp down on abuses on the web are manna from heaven for authoritarians.


Russia’s opposition is in despair. Reformers’ hopes had been pinned on Dmitry Medvedev, but after he handed back power to Putin in their mysterious deal of September 2011, politics has descended into torpor. The demonstrations that followed the parliamentary and presidential elections last winter have all but died away.

The best-known faces of protest, Pussy Riot, languish in jail. Figures of lesser charisma, but potentially greater importance, are similarly hounded. Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer turned critic, was expelled from parliament over claims that he had been making money from his position. Given that pretty much everyone in power is doing that, the charge was probably right, but also arbitrary and irrelevant. Alexei Navalny, the charismatic, web-savvy, self-styled leader of the protest movement, has kept a lower profile for the most part since being arrested on a number of occasions.

Many Russians say their country is returning to a Brezhnev-style era of stagnation. Nothing much happened then, although the jokes were good. Comparisons with Soviet times are misleading, however. Technology has transformed information. Real politics is now migrating online, with several outspoken sites and digital TV and radio stations in a game of cat and mouse with the authorities.

Last weekend, in the premises of the Red October former chocolate factory, the online station Dozhd TV (Rain TV) conducted an unlikely beauty parade. A succession of opposition figures, from environmentalist Evgeniya Chirikova to one-time It Girl, Kseniya Sobchak, to the aforementioned Navalny put themselves forward as leaders of an organising committee of the opposition. Just over 80,000 people – a tiny proportion of the overall population but still a significant start – took part in the online vote for a 45-strong committee. They will now have to bide their time for the big push; they might as well turn themselves into a proper machine. That will be easier said than done.

For several hours during the vote, the connection went down, amid speculation that this was a Kremlin-inspired cyber-attack. Meanwhile, the state media bombards the populace with negative stories about Putin’s critics, their “louche lifestyles”, their “corruption”, their “dodgy” financing from abroad. On one Saturday night show, the once-admirable, now-appalling NTV station had a late-night chat show in which the feisty female moderator harangued several opposition figures as they sat haplessly on stools.


Putin’s strategy is to isolate his critics in the minds of the narod, the ordinary people who do not inhabit the glitzy world of central Moscow or St Petersburg. As Vladimir Ryzhkov, an astute former MP, pointed out last week, the “key to Putin’s black PR campaign is to portray the opposition as radicals, anarchists or ultra-nationalists” who would destabilise Russia. The opposition, he said, would have to work “long and hard” to counter this, particularly in the regions.

They are not being helped by our actions back home. During a speech I gave recently at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow, to launch the Russian edition of my book, Freedom For Sale, the audience asked disconsolately about British Government plans to force service providers to keep all communications by every citizen (and the foreigners they deal with) for a year – just in case anyone may have committed an offence. I shared their frustrations. The Communications Data Bill, aka the “snoopers charter”, is not only bad and dangerous, but it will reinforce the ability of Putin, the Chinese and others to cry double standards any time their human rights record online is challenged in future.

In the early to mid-1990s, when I worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, the sudden dismantling of dictatorship gave rise to a brief Russian spring. Perhaps those hopes were naïve, and many mistakes were made. The situation now is more complicated. Putin has wrested all the levers of control back into his hands. How long he maintains that depends largely on the determination and skill of the opposition, but also on actions oversees. If we do not practise what we preach, we help perpetuate the worst instincts of the Russian state.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The rules were simple: before the results are announced, don’t mention the S-word

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Howard Jacobson has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the second time  

In praise of Howard Jacobson

Simon Kelner
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week