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Why These Protests Were Different

It's different this time. Young protesters in St. Petersburg.
It's different this time. Young protesters in St. Petersburg.

Revolution is not in the air. The regime is not about to fall. Aleksei Navalny is not about to storm the Kremlin. And 2017 is certainly not the new 1917.

But this weekend's protests, which drew tens of thousands to the streets across scores of Russian cities, were nevertheless markedly different than anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the past.

And they were different in ways that should make Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regime very nervous.

Here are my five takeaways about what was new about the March 26 protests, which took place exactly 17 years after Putin was first elected president.

1. Rebellion In The Hinterlands

In the past, Russian protests have been confined largely to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other large cities.

As a result, Vladimir Putin and his surrogates were able to claim -- not without merit -- that opposition to his rule was confined to a few privileged and spoiled malcontents among urban elites.

The "real" Russians in the provinces, on the other hand, still loved their leader. After the protests of 2011-2012, the Kremlin played this class-warfare trick masterfully.

But this weekend's demonstrations were truly national, taking place in an estimated 82 cities and towns across Russia.

If this provincial dissent continues to grow, it could be a deeply ominous sign for the Putin regime.

2. The Kids Are Alright

Marching down Moscow's central Tverskaya Ulitsa, a group of teenagers chanted "While you were stealing money, we were growing up!"

One of the most striking things about this weekend's demonstrations was the presence of so many people in their teens and twenties.

In one widely watched video, Gleb Tokmakov, a fifth grader in Tomsk, articulately and patiently explained to a crowd of adults why Russia needed systemic political reform and decried how politicized the nation's schools have become.

"If you refuse to doodle in support of the authorities, they might fail you," he said.

Another featured a 17-year-old in Perm explaining the connection between official corruption and declining living standards.

This is a generation that didn't live through the Soviet collapse or the deprivation of the 1990s. The only Russia they know is Putin's Russia.

This is the Putin generation. It also represents Russia's future.

And if the Kremlin is losing them, it doesn't bode well.

A young demonstrator is arrested by Russian riot police during an opposition rally in central Moscow on March 26.
A young demonstrator is arrested by Russian riot police during an opposition rally in central Moscow on March 26.

3. The Refrigerator's Revenge

Here's a quote that should send chills through the regime: "We do not want Syria, we want roads in Irkutsk."

For the past three years, the Kremlin has relied on military adventures in Ukraine and Syria, the illusion that Russia had become a superpower again, and a steady diet of patriotic propaganda on state media to bolster the regime's legitimacy.

And it worked. Even as the economy sank due to lower oil prices and Western sanctions, the television managed to trump the refrigerator in the battle for Russians' hearts and minds.

But these protests, which were sparked by a video produced by Aleksei Navalny exposing the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, seem to be an indication that the proverbial refrigerator is fighting back.

Russians, it appears, are not immune to the antiestablishment wave that has been sweeping the West in recent years.

And, as living standards fall, the issue of corruption has taken on a broad and deep resonance -- especially when people begin to connect it to their declining quality of life.

In good economic times, Russians are willing to put up with a kleptocratic elite. In bad economic times, not so much.

Past Russian protests were aimed primarily at political change. This one was driven by pocketbook issues.

And when people are protesting over pocketbook issues, they tend to be more persistent, more determined, and less fearful than those demonstrating for abstract political principles.

4. We Don't Need Your Permission To Protest!

When the opposition wanted to hold demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012, they negotiated with the authorities.

When they were told they could not demonstrate in the center of Moscow, they settled for less prime locations.

But when Navalny called this weekend's protests, he insisted on holding them in the center of Moscow and refused to consider alternatives.

And, although the protests in some cities did receive official permission, by defying the authorities in the capital in such a way, Navalny appears to have set an important precedent.

If Russians get the idea that they can take to the streets without getting permission first, this could turn out to be a significant precedent indeed.

5. We Don't Need No Leaders!

Navalny was arrested almost the minute he showed up at the demonstration in Moscow.

"Hey, I'm OK," he tweeted soon thereafter to his 1.84 million followers, adding that he was in a police station discussing his video accusing Medvedev of corruption. "Continue our peaceful walk. The weather is nice."

Navalny later tweeted: "Thank you all for your support but we don't need to change the agenda. Today we are discussing (and condemning) corruption, not my detention. So they detained me. It's no big deal."

And the rally continued without Navalny's presence.

This showed that, although the protests were Navalny's initiative, the authorities couldn't stop them by decapitating them.

And as a result, this turned out to be a protest of, for, and by ordinary people.

So these protests were indeed different than anything we've seen in Russia in recent memory.

But one thing that was the same was the regime's response: mass arrests, repression, and criminal cases.

There is little doubt that the Russian authorities can weather this tempest.

The Putin regime will certainly dig into its old bag of tricks to beat back this challenge.

But from the Kremlin, Russia must look like an entirely different country today.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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