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

Share
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.

Despair

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.

Frustration

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

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game