Anti-Putin Opposition: The Path of Symbolic Victories and Real Defeats
April 2, 2024
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst
Journalist Sergei Shelin writes that opponents of the regime have been playing by the Kremlin’s rules for decades. He says they are fixated on elections – which have long turned into a pointless ritual – while they lack a positive agenda.
Kira Yarmysh (left), the former press secretary of Alexei Navalny, and Yulia Navalnaya in line to vote at the Russian embassy in Berlin. Source: Wiki Commons
The so-called presidential election, in which Putin received 87% of the vote, did not turn out the triumph that had been expected. The idea that official voting results in Russia are falsified has ceased to be a subject of controversy and is now generally accepted. Meanwhile, those who are against the war and the dictatorship managed to take advantage of the “election” to declare their position.

There are more of ‘them’ than the regime admits

One of the ruler’s “challengers,” Vladislav Davankov, spoke out, albeit in vague terms, in favor of ending the war with Ukraine. Therefore, voting for Davankov, along with damaging ballots, became a way for Russians to protest. And even do it publicly – thanks to the “Noon against Putin” campaign. At 12:00 on March 17, silent queues formed outside many polling stations in Russia’s megacities.

The idea for this action had been put forward by a St Petersburg activist who had been forced to leave Russia to avoid criminal prosecution. Later, almost all opposition movements, whose activists had also emigrated after the start of the war in the face of persecution, pledged solidarity.

Opponents of the war turned out to be much more numerous than the regime admits. Reports from individual independent observers, who were nevertheless present at some polling stations, indicate massive fraud. But there are also results that give an idea of what the actual balance of votes could have been. For example, at a fairly typical polling station in St Petersburg, 74% of voters voted for Putin – including those who were clearly ordered to do so by their bosses – while 20% voted against him (including those who supported Davankov or ruined their ballot).

Thus, even now in Russia there remains an oppositional minority representing approximately 10-20% of the population. In an ExtremeScan survey conducted on election day, the total share of antiwar voters (i.e., for Davankov and ruined ballots) was estimated at 19% (note that this estimate was based not only on direct responses but also on the analysis of interviews that were cut short by respondents).

This is not the only potential opposition in today’s Russia. A Russian Field study conducted in early February unearthed a layer of militarists and imperialists no less numerous. The reason for their dissatisfaction with the regime, however, is the Kremlin’s supposed insufficiently aggressive conduct of the war. Yet they lack the will or ability to unite, so for now they are part of the conformist majority obeying the autocrat.
Though the regime does not literally reproduce the Soviet system, it is clearly acquiring totalitarian features. Its open opponents have been expelled or arrested. Criticism of the ruler or army is a criminal offense. Participation in ideological rituals has become mandatory for tens of millions of Russians, from schoolchildren and college students to state employees and people in show business.

Public denunciations have become commonplace. Expressions of solidarity with those persecuted by the state, as well as attempts to maintain professional or organizational autonomy, are aggressively suppressed. Under these conditions, that 10-20% who took the risk of expressing their rejection of the Putin system by voting against Putin should be seen as a considerable segment of the population.
But today no one knows how to translate oppositional feelings into any kind of action inside Russia.
There is not even a generally accepted understanding of what that action might be. And this lack of understanding, bordering on bewilderment, is especially visible now among the anti-Putin activists who have been squeezed out of Russia.

Weak logic and narrow agenda

Even in the run-up to the “presidential election,” the position of many oppositional activists looked illogical, if not downright strange. One example was the call for Russian citizens in free countries to take part in this ritual - as if they had no other way to express solidarity with like-minded people in Russia and the successful political experience of Alexei Navalny and other oppositional activists at the end 2010s had been forgotten.

Prominent exiles who turned out to vote at Russian consulates, having called on Western governments before and after the vote to recognize the election as illegitimate, looked baffling.

Perhaps due to doubts about the wisdom of that, only a small share of anti-Putin Russians living abroad voted. Outside Russia, only 90,000 voted for Davankov or ruined their ballots, i.e. no more than 10–15% of those who left Russia after the attack on Ukraine and did not return (approximately 1.0–1.2 million left over these two years, with, according to various estimates, 15–40% of them returning).

Meanwhile, the recommendation of Alexei Navalny’s supporters to download a smartphone app that would randomly select any of Putin’s three dummy challengers went completely unheeded. After their leader died (or most likely was killed) in a prison well above the Arctic Circle on February 16, the call to turn voting in Putin’s election into a game rang hollow and did not inspire ordinary voters.

It does not seem to occur to anti-Putin activists that elections are just one of the regime’s many political instruments. But the opposition’s lack of a positive agenda and fixation on elections are nothing new - they have roots in the pre-Putin era. And it would be unfair to blame only the activists themselves for this.
Boris Yeltsin campaigning during the March 1991 referendum on creating the office of president of Russia, still within the Soviet Union. March 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
A history of failures

In the memory of Russians alive today, power changed hands only once through elections, and even then it was on a de facto basis, not de jure: in June 1991, Boris Yeltsin was freely elected president of Russia, then still part of the Soviet Union, while the head of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, as a result of Yeltsin’s election turned into figure No. 2. All subsequent votes were rather manipulated and never led to a change at the top.

Such was the four-part national referendum on trust in Yeltsin and his policies in April 1993, which went down in history as the “yes-yes-no-yes” referendum. Such was the presidential election of 1996, when the incumbent Yeltsin beat the Communist Gennady Zyuganov.

Zyuganov and his party were neither democrats nor liberals, and if he had won, Putin’s current policies would have been implemented much earlier. But in 1996, what was fundamentally important was the predetermination of the election’s outcome. The incumbent president ultimately won more votes, but all the actions of the regime in the months leading up to the election indicated that Yeltsin had no intention of giving up power, no matter the result. The highest political figure now played by different rules.
Regional elections – to elect governors or local legislatures – were still competitive for several years, but that too came to an end. For example, back then Communists often came to power as “oppositional” governors in competitive elections, which, however, each time turned out to be the last without a predetermined result – the previously elected representatives of the people either stayed in office until they were completely worn out or were replaced by appointees of the Kremlin, with the next election only formalizing that replacement.

All this seemingly should have pushed liberal and democratic critics of the Yeltsin regime to look for other forms of action. Even though by the end of the 1990s elections promised them only moral but not real success, it was then that a fixation on elections took hold among this milieu. The political history of the Russian opposition has since become a story of unsuccessful participation in successive elections with the obligatory (and also always unsuccessful) contestation of their results.

Reasons and justifications

There are two factors that, in my view, explain this desire to participate in elections no matter what – a “generational” one and a “national” one.

Oppositional activists still largely consist of representatives of the democratic wave of the late 1980s and those who experienced its degeneration in the early 1990s. Having experienced the crisis of these years, they became fearful of the masses, who they saw as conservative, pro-imperial and seemingly incapable of accepting the “correct” ideas. From this fear flowed the idea that “the people” should be manipulated. Therefore, the kind of elections that have emerged in Russia are quite natural to them, if not in terms of results, then in style. In addition, the leadership of these parties and groups in the 1990s and 2000s, when they were still more or less “systemic” (part of the system), were replenished with self-confident young people who generally had the skillset of elected PR specialists, rather than politicians.

It is less clear why the anti-Putinists of the most recent make, who have real experience of civil activism and seem to have no fear of “the people,” also profess the same cult of elections. Though not all of them and not always.

The second and apparently more important reason for the fixation on elections was and remains the weakness of signals received from below.
Russian society is not structured – there are no organic organizations expressing local interests, while these collective interests themselves are poorly understood by people.
Alexei Navalny campaigning as a candidate for mayor of Moscow, August 2013. Source: Wiki Commons
For that reason, there is virtually no long-term agenda – social, regional, separatist, environmental (no matter the strength of individual flareups). Accordingly, most oppositionists do not have one either. Popular protests over accumulated problems are sometimes very intense, but they are always local and rarely last long.

Moral victories and their result

Several options for oppositional “elective” politics were tested throughout the first – pre-war – period of Putin’s rule. By the end of it, everything had been tried.
The opposition did not really try to contest the presidential elections in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Meanwhile, gubernatorial elections were canceled in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Critics of the regime therefore focused on local elections and campaigns to elect representatives at all levels. These efforts yielded a certain number of seats, but never gave critics of the regime a majority anywhere.

The opposition turned into an annex to the Kremlin’s political machine. The reaction to this from 2005 was “dissent marches” (marshi nesoglasnykh) - demonstrations organized by non-systemic or less systemic groups, which united in 2011-13. The mass, albeit rather naive, protests against the falsified 2011 Duma election (the victims of this falsification were parties that were impeccably Kremlin-approved and completely loyal to the regime) shook the country and forced the authorities to retreat a little.

The 2012 presidential election was the least manipulated in the Putin era (the ruler won 63.6% of the vote). In addition, gubernatorial elections were restored, but with restrictions designed to weed out candidates who were not controlled by the Kremlin. The culmination of this period was the Moscow mayoral election of 2013, in which Alexei Navalny received 27% of the vote.

This series of moral victories by the opposition was not reinforced by any real successes, however. In all “election” conflicts without exception the authorities got their way. And the so-called systemic parliamentary parties, in whose defense Muscovites had taken to the streets, got rid of individual opposition-minded deputies and began to churn out repressive laws at such a pace that their recent defenders nicknamed the Duma “the mad printer.”

Nevertheless, until the end of 2013, the regime continued to lose popularity, which proved very painful for it. Attempts by the authorities to go on the ideological offensive had long been unsuccessful. But the annexation of Crimea, followed by the first invasion of eastern Ukraine, transformed Russia in a matter of weeks. A wave of great-power jubilation washed everything away, including the opposition’s momentum.

Only a few of the anti-Putinists decided to swim against this wave. Still, almost the entire opposition began to prepare for the next “single voting day,” i.e., for elections at all levels, which the regime now combined and held annually on one Sunday in September.

I will quote my article published in the summer of 2014:

Imagine that a group of actors was called to perform a play. They go on stage, recite familiar monologues and unexpectedly discover that there are no spectators. The hall is empty. But not entirely. Some people are hurriedly replacing the old entourage and turning the place into a club for militaristic/patriotic song and dance. The entrance is already crowded with patrons of the new establishment. It’s awkward for everyone, but especially for the artists. What should they do? Leave and slam the door? Finish the play? If the 2014 elections have any kind of plot, it is this... Russian public opinion is now completely immersed in passions over the split with Ukraine. This means that if the elections were not a sham, then the war in eastern Ukraine would become the key issue. It is clear where the majority is. But if at least some of the candidates who call themselves critics of the system openly entered the campaign with a position opposed to the official one, this would prevent the elections from turning into a Soviet-style festival of obedience. However, oppositional activists, with just a few exceptions, have turned out entirely incapable of doing that. They had long been accustomed to worrying about other things – complying with the constantly changing electoral rules, diligently following the increasingly intricate steps that were prescribed from above – and little by little they learned to see the meaning of their existence in adapting to the boss’s latest demand...

It seemed that oppositional activity in Russia had been killed. However, as we learned three years later, that was not for forever.

It’s alive
Alexei Navalny’s unique political talent allowed him to see how to wake up oppositional sentiments without getting into an argument with the Kremlin over the Ukraine issue, which was its trump card.
Demonstration in Khabarovsk in support of Sergei Furgal. August 2020.
Source: Wiki Commons
The tactic was exposing the greed of the regime’s top officials. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) had been established back in 2011, but mass rallies and marches timed to coincide with its latest revelations began only in 2017, when the imperial dope had slightly worn off.

The most famous of the 150-some investigations, about “Putin’s palace,” tallied an unprecedented 131 million views; however, it was released at the beginning of 2021, when the regime had already taken off the brakes and was moving at full speed toward a big war, isolation and unabashed repression. But before that, Russia did see a short surge of mass opposition, the most meaningful in all the decades of post-Soviet autocracy in Russia.

In the fall of 2018, Sergei Furgal was elected governor of Khabarovsk Region, having been nominated as a dummy candidate but unexpectedly (including for himself) defeating the incumbent, who everyone was fed up with. Almost immediately after this, Navalny launched his “Smart Voting” project, hoping to make such successes widespread and turn the entire system of formal elections on its head. He was putting forward one initiative after another, and some turned out to be viable.

Amid the obvious dissatisfaction at the grassroots, Navalny’s plans not to focus only on elections, but also to expand the agenda, create strongholds locally, rely on a wide circle of supporters, formulate at least a rough social policy – this was clearly a more serious threat to the regime than the usual oppositional activities.

That is precisely why the autocracy cast off all restraints. In the summer of 2020, Furgal, who had become a popular governor, was removed and arrested, while a little later the first attempt was made to assassinate Navalny. The rules for interacting with Putin’s system that had been established over two decades immediately went out the door.

The authorities now responded to peaceful protests with wholesale repression, while all oppositional organizations were destroyed and, after February 24, 2022, anti-Putin activists had to choose between emigration and prison. Antiwar Russians were left without structures, without a local agenda and, since February 16, 2024, without a generally recognized leader.


The democratic opposition has now been set back not only by the totalitarian mutation of the regime, but also by its own long-time inability to formulate a meaningful strategy. Instead of doing that, it obeyed its basic instinct and went back to spinning its electoral hamster wheel. This clearly does not correspond to the new reality. Oppositional sentiments in Russia are not dead and could intensify. But if anti-Putin activists continue to play with the regime where and when it wants, new activists will need to be found.
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