If you thought Russia’s presidential election was going to be held in March 2018, you were wrong. The voting began today.
In an authoritarian system, elections aren’t about who wins or loses on election day. Modern dictators spend the short years between election cycles fighting battles over their legitimacy – hounding potential opponents, reining in the media, burnishing their public image – as though every day could be their last, for the simple reason that, when elections aren’t truly competitive, every day could be their last. To boost his chances of surviving from one election to another, an autocrat must always look able not only to win an at the ballot box each and every day, but to do so convincingly. Otherwise, the almost magical belief in infallibility and invincibility that sustains their rule can evaporate in an instant.
That’s why what happened in Russia today is so important. Some 60,000 people came out into the streets not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in dozens of cities right across the country. Ostensibly, they came out to protest corruption, spurred on both by Alexey Navalny’s investigation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and by Medvedev’s decision to ignore that investigation. In reality, however, they came for Putin, and they declared their votes.
If the protesters pulled no punches, neither did the state. In Moscow alone, between 700 and 1,000 were arrested, including Navalny. The leader of the Moscow branch of Navalny’s Party of Progress, Nikolay Lyaskin, was left with a concussion. The police were somewhat less than picky, detaining minors and Western journalists, as well. But the clearest signal was sent by the decision to raid the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and to arrest its entire staff, and to charge one of its leaders, Leonid Volkov, with inciting extremism.
On the surface, none of this seems to make sense. Why go so hard against Navalny and his supporters, when they pose no electoral threat? Why use truncheons to defend the honor of a prime minister nobody likes? More vexingly, if upwards of 80% of Russians support Putin, how do we explain all of these people who very clearly don’t?
The answer to the last question holds the key to the other two. Upwards of 80% of Russians tell pollsters on a regular basis that they support Putin not because they’re lying or they’re afraid, but because, at the time they were asked the question, they didn’t believe that what happened today was possible. A Russia in which a group of volunteers can put together an investigation of a leading politician that brings tens of thousands of people into the streets all across the country – and in so doing lends credence to a possible presidential campaign – is not the country in which 80% of Russians thought they were living. They thought they were living in a country where there were no alternatives, and thus no choices to be made, a country in which society could not be pushed to act on its own behalf, in which solidarity extends no further than rhetoric.
Imagination matters in politics. When dealing with the past and the present, we can hope to rely on fact (though we too rarely succeed in doing so). The future, however, is always imagined. What happened today demonstrated the imagination watershed in Russia, between those who cannot imagine a future much better than today, and those who can. That’s why the Kremlin went hard at Navalny and the protesters today: to restore the confidence of the unimaginative.
If the Kremlin pays attention to Facebook – and I imagine that it does – then they may have noticed something written by the writer and linguist Gasan Gusejnov after returning from the protests in Moscow:
“Not a single familiar face,” he said. Contrast that to the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12, or the peace march of 2014, or the marches in memory of Boris Nemtsov, when everyone was surrounded by friends. That friends should share a common imagination is not surprising; indeed, it’s to be expected. What was exciting to today’s protesters – and what must be frightening to the Kremlin – is how easily imagination might slip the bonds of friendship and spread, like a virus, through the population. How easily imagination infects a crowd, a city, a country. And how ineffective the vaccines.
That’s why so many people are in jail, and why a media blackout was enforced so broadly that the news of the protests didn’t even register in the Yandex aggregator. That’s why the Kremlin had to go for the jugular with Navalny’s organization. And that’s why it is loath to sacrifice Medvedev. The dormant imaginations of the 80% must not be roused.
But for the Kremlin, the medicine may yet prove more harmful than the disease. In going so hard against today’s protests – and in pressing the case against Navalny and his comrades in the days, weeks and months to come – the Kremlin sends the message that victory next March is not, in fact, in hand. In admitting to its own sense of vulnerability, the Kremlin does more than embolden its detractors: it dismays its allies. In pushing so mightily against a future that seems so hard to imagine, the Kremlin makes the task of imagination easier.
I do not know whether this is the game that Navalny et al have sought to play from the beginning. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that, figuring an electoral victory next March to be impossible, Navalny set out to beat Putin long before the election is ever held, to draw him into a fight in the streets, where the odds might be a bit more even. Likewise, I cannot know whether Putin himself has decided to try to slay his dragons in advance. But regardless of intent, this is the game both sides are now playing. Unusually for Russian politics, the outcome is uncertain.