Romantics Learn to Use Their Fists
Welcome to my English-language blog. Here I will tell the story of my efforts to bring democracy and civil society to my country, Russia. The following essay was originally published on Robert Amsterdam’s blog.
In the political street battles that have swept the streets of Russia’s cities, black-and-white flags with a menacing stylized fist on them are becoming an ever more frequent sight. These banners are always unfurled at the forefront, always right in the thick of things. These are my brothers-in-arms, the activists of the Russian «Oborona», who are rushing into the fray, ready to fight to defend their freedom and the truth from a power that is trampling on these ideals.
«Oborona» [which means “Defense” in Russian—Trans.] is made up of young romantics, current and recent college students who grew up in the brief period of liberty under Yeltsin. Unlike the majority of their peers, they did not agree to trade in their freedom for the economic well-being that to one or another degree came together with Vladimir Putin. But they are not naïve idealists and dreamers any more – these romantics have learned how to use their fists. They conduct rallies, stand up to the OMON on the streets, and publish literature unavailable in Russia about non-violent resistance. The members of «Oborona» have come a long way already and have learned a great deal. But the road ahead is long.
«Oborona» appeared in 2005, when the supporters of several democratic youth organizations, their spirits kindled by the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, decided to join forces. Some of them had actually been at Kiev’s Maidan, others had seen the struggle of the Belarusian opposition against Lukashenka, still others had been following the Rose Revolution in Georgia. The «Orange» success compelled the young patriots to believe in the possibility of victory in their own country as well. They just needed to get together and work out a plan of action. And that was how what has today become the largest movement of youth for democracy independent of parties and politicians was born.
«Oborona» armed itself with the principles of non-violent resistance that had once brought Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Viktor Yushchenko to victory. Chosen as an emblem was a stylized fist, which had already gained fame in Serbia (where it was used by «Otpor»), Georgie («Kmara» had a fist in a slightly altered form), and Ukraine (where it was the symbol of the «Orange» information portal «Maidan»). We knew that this would elicit shock and rage among the governing structures, who were swearing then that “there will be no Orange Revolution in Russia”. But «Oborona» decided to throw out a challenge both to the power and to public opinion, steeped in apathy and fear.
The challenge was accepted. In the past two years, hundreds of «Oborona» activists have been arrested, dozens of its events dispersed, the police has thrown us out of its own headquarters, while employees of the FSB meet with «Oborona» members on an almost daily basis, trying to intimidate them or recruit them to their side. But the police system has not been able to cope with this small, yet cohesive and dedicated group. From a handful of Moscow students, «Oborona» has now transformed into a serious force, which both its opponents in power and opposition politicians can not ignore.
«Oborona» always emphasizes that it does not support any parties or any candidates, nor does it have any intention to come to power. Its objective, as was officially announced in February of this year, is a “non-violent and truly people’s” revolution, which will lead to the downfall of the authoritarian regime. From the opposition «Oborona» demands only one thing – that it unite and advance a single candidate for president.
«Oborona» is well-known in other post-Soviet countries, too. The Ukrainians shared their experience of the Orange Revolution with us, while the Georgians recall that this movement was one of the few that chose to speak out against Putin’s anti-Georgian campaign last year. After «Oborona» had participated in protests against the falsification of the presidential elections in Belarus, a.k.a. the Jeans Revolution, a small nucleus of this movement even appeared there, while Alexander Lukashenka called these young people “cold-blooded thugs” [otmorozki] and prohibited them entry into the country. However, the main battlefield for «Oborona» has always been, and remains, Russia.
«Oborona» was one of the first to refuse to play by the tacit rules of Russian politics: not to criticize the president personally and not to touch upon topics that are sore points for him. Then, at the beginning of the year 2005 it made no sense whatsoever for the Russian opposition, which was represented by three old parties – SPS, Yabloko and the KPRF – to set themselves directly against the Kremlin. For the party functionaries, who saw politics as horse-trading for places in the Duma, real battle with Putin seemed suicidal: after all, this would mean losing the support of the administrative resource and turning all the might of the state’s machinery of propaganda and repression against them. Therefore, the parties engaged, at best, in criticizing “individual shortcomings” or certain officials, studiously avoiding any mention of the president in a negative context. Remaining on the taboo list were the topic of Chechnya, corruption in Putin’s inner circle, and the series of terrorist acts in the autumn of 1999 that had brought him to power.
All of which meant that the hard-hitting and undiplomatic words of «Oborona» about how we’re “sick and tired” of Putin, and we’re starting to fight against the system built up by him, sounded all the more shocking. The conspiracy of silence had been broken. The indecisiveness and flip-flopping of the old democratic leaders became patently obvious and compelled them to make a clear choice as to whose side they were really on. To a large extent thanks specifically to the youth, an “extra-systemic opposition” appeared in Russia, the voices of those who did not agree began to speak out more boldly. For the first time in many years, the Kremlin’s opponents were able to set the agenda themselves. By the way, the members of «Oborona» do not particularly like to talk about their successes and achievements; we are more interested in the future.
By the way, since we are speaking about the future of Russia, «Oborona» members have the most varied notions on the subject. The majority consists of pro-Western oriented liberals who originally came from the ranks of SPS and «Yabloko», but coexisting with them in «Oborona» is everybody from conservatives to social democrats. This may seem incomprehensible in the West, but in the conditions of today’s Russia, such alliances are perfectly natural: after all, before you can choose among various doctrines, you first need to win the right to choose in the first place. This is why the situation demands a unification of the most disparate forces, and other questions get put on the back burner.
Right now, «Oborona» sees its main task as not allowing the implementation of «Operation Successor» – that is, the determination of the name of the new president personally by Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. A large-scale campaign will take off in the autumn, having as its goal to deprive the potential successor of the support of the young generation. After this, the youth will need to be mobilized for battle, this time with the Kremlin and its system – and in this manner together with the other opposition forces to attain a regime change.
This plan is as simple to describe as it is complicated to implement. Nobody has ever done anything like this in Russia till now. All reforms and changes in our country were either implemented from above and that’s where they stopped, or were associated with armed uprisings and bloodshed. «Oborona» itself is faced with a grandiose task – to attain the departure of an authoritarian regime once and for all and without a single shot being fired. «Oborona» members are dedicated and ready to do whatever it takes, but the main question is – will they have enough strength to hold out until victory? The overwhelming majority of young people continue to look upon politics with indifference or aversion, and only a few believe in the possibility that anything can be changed. And by the way, «Oborona» has shown time and again that it is capable of refuting any skeptical predictions.
Time will tell.