Russia’s war with its own people

    RUSSIA / Two films look into the appeal and threat of Western favorite Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
    Catch 2012, People Who Differ (Putin Forever? Chapter 2)
    Country: Russia

    «We do not live in a state, but in the imitation of a state,» Moscow journalist and LGBT activist Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, says towards the end of Yevgeny Mitta’s powerful short film Catch 2012.

    «It takes a lot of money to maintain the illusion, but behind the curtain there is nothing,» she says, her pale blue eyes limpid pools of sadness. «That is why everything shall come crashing down sooner or later…[and] when it all comes down it will come down with a bang. It will be quick and frightening.»

    There is likely much truth in her statement, though to judge by the heavy-handed Kremlin response to recent events – the thousands that took to the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg, and towns and cities across Russia starting on January 23rd (even in the Siberian city of Yakutsk in temperatures of -50C) – that implosion remains a distant prospect.

    Berlin – Moscow

    For those unfamiliar with the background to this month’s dramatic return from Berlin to Moscow of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, where he had been recuperating after being exposed to Novichok while on the campaign trail in Tomsk, Siberia last August, Kirill Nenashev’s People Who Differ is a studious history of the 2018 presidential elections, seen through the prism of a regional office of Navalny’s anti-corruption organization in Yaroslavl.

    The drama of Navalny’s return mid-January – the scheduled Berlin-Moscow flight onboard budget airline Podeda (which means ‘victory’ in Russia), its diversion from one Moscow airport to another – when he was immediately arrested for parole violations during his enforced stay in Germany (much of the time in an induced coma) has been headline news.

    The farcical – and legally questionable remand hearing held in a suburban Moscow police station – where Navalny live-streamed a call to his supporters to come out on the streets the following Saturday, all have been grist to 24/7 rolling news coverage.

    that implosion remains a distant prospect.

    Why so threatening?

    The size of those protests – an estimated 40,000 in Moscow alone, according to sources more reliable than the city’s police department (which put the numbers at a tenth of that) – and the numbers of arrests (more than 3,500), plus the violence of the police response took many by surprise. Shocking images of bloodied young protestors and a particularly nasty video of a policeman kicking a woman in the stomach, have been beamed around the world.

    The violence of the crackdown begs the question, why Navalny, a lawyer turned corruption campaigner with no previous political or governmental experience, so threatens the Kremlin?

    Neither of these two films answers that question, but they do go a long way to revealing the fertile soil from which Navalny’s activism – and his support among the young and intelligentsia – spring.

    In Catch 2012 ¬- the better (and shorter) of the two films, Mitta alternates powerful footage of a wave of protests in 2012 that galvanized the opposition. Beginning in December 2011 with a «White Ribbon» movement that brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary people out on the streets of Moscow, clashes between activists fed up with a dozen years of Putin rule (or his shill, Dmitry Medvedev, who served a seat-warming single term as president) heated up. Mitta dedicates the film’s first 11 minutes to the Bolotnaya Square protest of May 2012, remarkable for its violence at the time. He then segues via interviews with participants such as Alexi Polikhovich, a correspondent for OVD Info, an opposition site that maintains real-time updates of the numbers arrested at street protests, who served three and half years in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer at Bolotnaya.

    Mitta’s film maintains tension and focus by looking beyond the solely political dimensions of the opposition movement. Polikhovich talks of his time in prison – the way one survives in a viciously caste-based system; the fact that most «ordinary» convicts are Putin supporters and other fascinating details – but Mitta moves beyond this to wider cultural questions: why did the Kremlin feel it necessary to shut down a spontaneous camp established in Moscow’s central Chistye Prudi park later in May 2012? For eight days people young and old debated in the warm spring air, talked about art and culture and what it meant to be Russian in Putin’s Russia.

    Mitta’s film maintains tension and focus by looking beyond the solely political dimensions of the opposition movement.

    Famous characters put in an appearance – here’s Boris Nemstov (three years before his death at the hands of assassins a stone’s throw from the Kremlin walls); there’s Boris Groys, a distinguished German professor of Slavonic Studies – as we begin to understand the connections between Soviet repression of independent art (although not mentioned, I could not help but think of the infamous destruction by KGB bulldozers of the non-conformist art exhibition in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park in 1974) and Putin’s terror of anything resembling freedom in a nation he has worked so hard to make compliant for his kleptocracy.

    As one political commentator, Ilya Budraitskis remarks: «There are many people who simply want to discuss alternatives; who want to discuss the future of the government.» Later, he adds, that the Moscow spring of 2012 was but a glimpse of an earlier, more resonant spring (of 1968 – by which he presumably means Prague), crushed before it even had time to breathe.

    His analysis of the reasons why Russians – particularly the young – are beginning to suffocate at Putin’s regime clocks up its second decade – the concentration of power in the hands of the 1%, the dedication of the political apparatus to serving the interests of the ruling elite, could equally well apply to the situation in the US, the UK, Germany, or other Western countries. And like the Novaya Gazetta reporter, he too predicts that «the appearance of this spectre will return to haunt Russia.»

    Nenashev’s over-long study of Navalny’s provincial supporters (it could easily have lost 15 or 20 minutes and not suffered) fails to explain why the energetic efforts of the mostly young activists will ever amount to much, although it does have a good line in attempting to link Navalny to earlier, more powerful opposition lineage – with a lengthy digression into efforts to maintain a memorial plaque on the home of Boris Nemtsov, a man who in death has only assumed ever more charismatic proportions in Russia. Nemtsov was a real politician; flamboyant and larger than life, and yet one who could endear himself to a wide range of people. Navalny, at heart a single issue campaigner and something of a nationalist may be beloved of Western liberals but is unlikely ever to command side support in a country where few people have even heard of him. (Though admittedly that may be because state TV does not cover his activities and Putin never even mentions him by name, such is his disdain for him.)

    People Who Differ may be a reliable visual source for students of Russian politics – and does offer some juicy insights into the cynicism of Potemkin opposition figures such as Russian «It Girl» Ksenia Sobchak (who was allowed onto the 2018 Presidential election ballot, unlike Navalny) – but is too pedestrian to excite much interest in anyone outside of Russophile circles. Catch 2012 is a much more accessible and gripping tale, told with economy and panache by a director who knows how to engage his audience.

    «the appearance of this spectre will return to haunt Russia.»


    And as for why Putin’s regime so fears Navalny? Perhaps it is no fear, but its close cousin, loathing that really explains it. Navalny has made it personal with Putin – his latest stunt, exposing the detail, expense and floor plan of Putin’s sumptuous Black Sea hideaway (which probably means the ever security-conscious modern-day tsar can now no longer even go there) is likely to have really angered him. Never a man to overlook anything so petty as a personal insult, the violent police crackdown on January 23rd likely had the greenlight from the very top of Russia’s «power vertical».

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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