Listen to this article
There were still thick crusts of dirty snow piled up on the edges of the pavement outside Krasnopresnenskaya, a Metro station in central Moscow, on Tuesday. Beside this reminder of a long winter stood four young men and women holding bright green balloons. “Spring is coming!” said one of them, while handing out leaflets to passers-by.
The four, along with similar groups of activists elsewhere, are trying to mobilise their compatriots to come out in Moscow, and a handful of other Russian cities, on Sunday to protest against President Vladimir Putin in what they are calling an “anti-crisis march”.
“After years of siphoning off the oil revenues, the current regime has led the country to a standstill and into complete bankruptcy,” the leaflets say. “Putin and his government cannot lift the country out of crisis and must leave.”
A few passersby took the leaflets; most ignored them. Three years after 100,000 took part in opposition rallies across Russia, the movement is splintered: some leaders are jailed, others are in exile while several have switched sides.
With the economy heading into recession, conventional wisdom would suggest that Mr Putin — whose support ratings were catapulted to over 80 per cent by his annexation of Crimea a year ago and have stayed at record highs ever since — might face political trouble.
That was the thinking behind the sanctions with which the west has been trying to punish the Russian leader for his Crimea grab. The theory goes that if the oligarchs, whom Mr Putin has kept loyal, were threatened with financial losses, they would start leaning on him to change course. Equally if the public started feeling economic pain, it would also turn against the president.
But the Russian leader has overturned such assumptions. A constant drumbeat of propaganda has portrayed the crisis as a fight for Russia’s survival — and the vast majority of the population has rallied around Mr Putin.
The economic pain has very clearly set in, although only partly as a result of the sanctions. More significant has been the plummeting price of oil, which together with gas accounts for three-quarters of Russia’s exports and more than half of its budget revenues.
Following the collapse of the rouble by more than 40 per cent against the dollar over the past year, consumer prices are soaring, a problem made worse by the government’s decision in August to ban a wide range of food products from Polish apples to French cheese in retaliation against western sanctions.
The authorities are forcing everyone to tighten their belts, freezing public sector salaries and laying off doctors and nurses, while private companies are cutting production and workers.
The government has said inflation might peak around 15 per cent this summer, and the economy is likely to contract by about 5 per cent. “It’s the biggest crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister.
Opposition activists hope to tap into the anger they believe economic hardship will eventually trigger.
Boris Nemtsov, a veteran liberal opposition politician who briefly served as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, says stagnant wages and soaring inflation topped the agenda when he met with residents of Yaroslavl, a town northeast of Moscow, last week. “They believed that the embargo on imported foods is America’s fault, and they were surprised when I told them no, that was not Obama, it was Putin,” he says. “This is what we need to make people aware of: the crisis, that’s Putin.”
But nobody is under any illusions that grumbling over Russia’s economic woes will bring about swift political change.
“It hasn’t got to the point yet where economic hardship can have an impact on mass opinion,” says Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition member of parliament.
According to the independent Centre for Social and Labour Rights in Moscow, the number of protests over lay-offs and wages has risen sharply in the past year. But observers believe these will remain limited to towns overly dependent on single employers, and this local isolation will allow the government to deal with it. Economists in Moscow believe that only a further slide in the oil price below $50 and continued sanctions could plunge Russia into a catastrophic financial crisis next year which would significantly alter the situation.
Sunday’s rally is not seen as a test for how Mr Putin’s opponents can exploit the economic crisis, but rather a tiny first step for an opposition reduced to a shadow of its former self. In 2011 and 2012, members of the Moscow middle class mounted a real challenge to Mr Putin when they rallied around Alexei Navalny, the lawyer and anti-corruption blogger.
But the movement has since fallen apart. “It is a problem that many activists are abroad, in prison or under house arrest. It weakens the movement,” says Pavel Elizarov, an opposition leader who sought political asylum in Lisbon after the government crushed the 2012 protests. “But for sure it’s better to live abroad than to be in prison.”
Those left behind are trying to rebuild. “Three years ago, we were an opposition. Now we are no more than dissidents,” says Mr Nemtsov. “The task is to organise a real opposition again.”
Organisers say a turnout of 20,000 on Sunday — less than one-fifth of the crowds at the peak of the 2011 protests — would be a “very decent success”.
Nina Zavrieva, a 28-year-old tech entrepreneur, says she will attend, if only to reassure herself that there are still like-minded people in Moscow. “In a way it’s like group therapy,” she says.
The opposition is trying to create a platform for a long-term movement.
“The regime has generated a lot of fear. The usual pictures from protests in Russia have been dark ones, with police officers dressed like astronauts and beating people,” says Leonid Volkov, one of the rally organisers and a member of Mr Navalny’s Progress party. “We have to return peaceful rallies to politics as a regular tool.”
The odds are stacked against them. Mr Navalny himself was jailed for 15 days last week for handing out leaflets advertising Sunday’s protest. He will not be released until March 4, robbing the rally of its main draw.
Last month, police raided both the offices of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the homes of leading staff. “I think they are going to launch some criminal case against us, accusing us of having misused the donations because we paid our staff a salary,” says Roman Rubanov, one of Mr Navalny’s key associates at the foundation.
Even if the opposition can get back on its feet, it is faced with a huge challenge: to broaden its appeal beyond the Moscow middle class and find allies.
“The opposition movement has to understand why 85 per cent [of the people] are still in favour of the ruling party,” says Ms Zavrieva. “Once they understand the problems of the masses, and manage to work with a greater group of people — not just the 5-10 per cent — then something big is going to happen. At this point the opposition is a little bit in a world of its own.”
Mr Gudkov exemplifies this disconnect. He half dismisses the need to engage the wider population. “If, roughly speaking, 60 per cent of the population supports Putin, only 5 per cent are active supporters. The other 55 per cent are zombified TV watchers who will never decide any sort of politics,” he argues. “You show them a different picture [on the TV] tomorrow, and they’ll think differently.”
Making new allies
Not everyone is as cynical. Mr Navalny’s campaigners realise that while his focus on social media allowed him to build support despite being barred from state television, it also prevented him from reaching Russians over a certain age and outside the capital who do not use those media. To address that, Mr Rubanov and his colleagues are working on what they call Russia’s first political tabloid, an eight-page, monthly pamphlet to publish the dirt Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign digs up about the men and women who run the country.
Mr Navalny has also started to co-operate with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who moved to Switzerland when Mr Putin released him from prison in late 2013 after 10 years behind bars, and who has since proposed himself as an alternative president.
The opposition will eventually face the question of how a change of power can be brought about. Opposition politicians reject the possibility of a revolution, but some opponents of Mr Putin hope for a palace coup, while others ponder about how the president could be persuaded to step down.
Mr Gudkov suggests that Alexei Kudrin, a widely respected former economic adviser to Mr Putin, could discuss with officials in western governments the idea that the Russian leader and some members of his closest circle be offered retirement abroad with a promise to be left alone — an arrangement dismissed as impossible by western diplomats in Moscow.
Other politicians are discussing the matter in more realistic terms. “Putin’s rating will not stay at above 80 per cent forever. It will start coming down, very gradually,” says Mr Nemtsov. “And once it does, the fear will diminish, too, and at some point some big business will start supporting and financing us.”
Such scenarios are long in the future. They anticipate Mr Putin serving another six-year term after the present one ends in 2018. At that point the constitution, which allows no more than two consecutive presidential terms, would force him to step aside. Says Mr Nemtsov: “We are talking about 2024.”
This article has been corrected to make it clear that Dmitry Gudkov said Alexei Kudrin should hold discussions with western officials about offering the Russian leadership retirement abroad, not that such discussions had taken place.
New wave: The faces of the Russian opposition
Young, square-jawed and chiselled, Dmitry Gudkov rose to prominence on the back of the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Square protests and the reputation of his father, Gennady Gudkov, a well-respected and long-serving Duma deputy who was kicked out of parliament in 2012 after leading the Moscow street demonstrations.
The younger Mr Gudkov, now 35, is a graduate of Moscow State University’s journalism department. He honed his political skills in his twenties, working for political youth groups and on his father’s campaigns.
He was elected as a Duma deputy in 2011 and is now one of the lone opposition voices left in the 450-seat parliament after his colleague, Ilya Ponomarev, was forced to flee under pressure from Russian prosecutors last year.
While her brother, billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, was the one to challenge Vladimir Putin in the 2012 presidential campaign, it was Irina Prokhorova who emerged as the election’s breakout star. On the eve of the vote, Ms Prokhorova dismantled her opponent, the pro-Kremlin film director Nikita Mikhalkov, in a television debate, raising calls that she, and not her brother, should be the anointed challenger to Mr Putin.
Since then, Ms Prokhorova, 58, has become a more visible face of the opposition. She now hosts her own radio and television programmes and has been one of the loudest critics of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, stepping down as chairwoman of her brother’s party, Civil Platform, after coming out against the annexation of Crimea.
The former editor of Lenta.ru, Russia’s most widely read independent news site, Galina Timchenko has now become one of the leading Russian opposition voices abroad. Ms Timchenko, 52, had been in charge of Lenta’s editorial content since the site was founded in 1999, and under her direction the portal flourished into one of the most popular and profitable independent news sites with 20m readers at the end of 2013. In early 2014, the site’s billionaire owner Alexander Mamut suddenly announced that Ms Timchenko had been fired, giving no reason for the dismissal.
It was the latest example of a new and more intensified crackdown on Russian media. But last autumn Ms Timchenko gathered some of Lenta’s former writers and launched a new Latvia-based internet portal called Meduza.
One of the main leaders of the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Square protests, Sergei Udaltsov was put under house arrest in February 2013 on claims that he incited a riot between protesters and police in May 2012. While human rights organisations have decried the case as politically motivated, a court handed Mr Udaltsov and a fellow opposition protester four-and-a-half year prison sentences for “inciting public disorder” last July. He is now in a Moscow holding cell waiting to appeal against his conviction.
The grandson of a Bolshevik and an avowed leftist, Mr Udaltsov, 38, is one of several members of the anti-Putin opposition who supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In a blog post last year, Mr Udaltsov wrote: “As a patriot, I believe that the destruction of the USSR was a great mistake and crime, and thus see the annexation of Crimea as a small but important step towards the revival of the Soviet Union.”
Get alerts on Moscow when a new story is published