Winning political change in Russia

Wednesday July 15 2020



By Jonathan Power

Change is absolutely necessary in Russia, but how to bring it about? One doesn’t have to be a prejudiced Western ideologue to point this out. As the weekend’s demonstrations in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk underline there are a good number of people, mainly young, who feel the political system, as is presently organised, doesn’t give them the chance to express their feelings.

Even more illuminating are the concerns of the 34 percent of Moscow voters who voted against the new constitution. Despite it having many good things in it- like indexing pensions- it gives President Vladimir Putin the chance to stay in power until he’s in his eighties. That is not democracy in the Greek meaning of the word.

Fortunately for America, President Donald Trump would have to leave the White House in four and a half years’ time even if he wins a second term in November’s election. That is democracy, even though it is a seriously flawed one, captured in part by the big money of rich donors together with the Republican gerrymandering of voting districts plus the unfair weight given to less-densely populated states (mostly Republican) in the Senate plus the conservative bias of the press’s coverage.

Winding the clock back- not very far, just to the 1960s, blacks didn’t have the vote in the south. Nei-ther could they sit in a coffee bar or restaurant unless it was segregated. Thanks to Martin Luther King’s non-violent matches and confrontations, together with his uplifting oratory, the America had never heard before, pro-found changes were made. Ex-president Jimmy Carter said that without the black vote organised by Martin Luther King’s chief lieu-tenant, Andrew Young, he would never have won. Neither would Joe Biden be where he is today without the disciplined black voting block in North Carolina during the primaries.

Non-violence can worked against the British in India under the leader-ship of Gandhi. It could work in Russia today. Indeed, it works already on a small scale. Dissident journalists have been freed after public protests. Assassins of dissidents have similarly been arrested and sentenced after non-violent lobbying and pushing by protestors. Today I wouldn’t be surprised if the demonstrators in Khabarovsk don’t win what they want- the rein-statement of their governor.

Violent revolution would be counterproductive in Russia - the outcome would be less democratic than the government is today, as the French found out after their revolution in the late eighteenth century.


 A model in today’s Russia would be the “Shies” ecological movement which came into existence in reaction to attempts to send garbage and rubbish from Moscow and other cities to a massive new waste centre in Arkhangel’sk. The protest has coalesced into a network of opposition and ecological groups spread across three regions and has prompted defections from the Kremlin’s United Russia Party.

 There was also in 2011-2012 the white ribbon movement with its joyful, peaceful, tenor. It demonstrated that Putin can be pushed to engage in negotiations with a democratic opposition movement when it can muster substantial public support.

A lot depends on the intelligentsia becoming united in the call for change. So far it appears it has lost its capacity to produce a moral voice on the scale of Tolstoy. His greatest novel “War and Peace” was a hymn to non-violence. Or on the scale of Pasternak who won the Nobel Prize for literature (his novel Doctor Zhivago is a magnum ode to peace), Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago) or Sakharov (the creator of the Russian H-bomb and born-again human rights leader).


 Not only that, the pro-democracy movements of today are largely factions and dominated by a single leader. These leaders are not particularly tolerant of political pluralism. This is beginning to improve, but is limited to municipal council and regional election coalitions. It has not become a national-level practice.


There needs to be cooperation with moderate socialists and some of the other opposition parties (but not the Nationalists and Communists) which have a small number of Duma deputies but more representation in municipal elections, as with Yabloko in St Petersburg. They have a chance of building a broader regime- trans-formation coalition.

According to a poll in May, 28 percent of the Russian population expressed a willingness to participate in street demonstrations.


 For 17 years Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the Inter-national Herald Tribune/New York Times