In the last weeks of January it was – almost – possible to believe that Russia was on the brink of a revolution. Now, it is not. The difference, and the reasons for the change, say much – about Russia, about unrealistic perceptions of Russia abroad, and about what could make for political change in Russia in the future.
On 17 January Alexei Navalny – variously described as an anti-corruption campaigner, opposition blogger, or the next president of Russia – took the courageous decision to return to his homeland after spending four months in Germany recuperating from what the German Foreign Ministry said was an assassination attempt. Given the announcement of new criminal charges against him as he was deciding when or whether to return, it is probably fair to say that the Kremlin would have preferred him to remain abroad.
Navalny called on his supporters to meet him at the airport, which they did in such numbers that the authorities diverted his plane to an airport on the other side of Moscow. He was duly arrested. A week later, people turned out on the streets of major Russian cities, from Vladivostok in the east to Kaliningrad in the west, to demand his freedom. They turned out the next weekend, too, though generally in fewer numbers. There was much chatter on social media of Russia having finally awoken from its political slumber, even of the Putin era nearing its end.
On 2 February Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in a penal colony for breaking parole conditions set before his medical evacuation to Germany. After a scrappy protest outside the prison, further street protests have now been called off – probably, his team says, until the spring.
Around now, Navalny will be embarking on the long journey – the stuff of so many Russian memoirs and novels – to whichever remote prison camp he has been assigned. But it is not that a revolution is over, it is rather that there was never a revolution remotely on the cards. Russia remains in the embrace of winter, in every sense.
Which leaves – or should leave – an urgent question. How was it possible for so many, largely in the Western world, to be seduced into believing that Navalny’s return and the protests that followed could herald imminent change in Russia?
Part of the answer lies in the misreading of Russia’s reality and the outlook from the Kremlin today. Vladimir Putin and his ruling team are a lot stronger than they might appear from outside. Putin’s popularity ratings may have declined in the past year, but only a little. They are still over 60 per cent. Much has been made of the fact that Navalny is the only Russian politician whose ratings have risen since the start of the year – but only from three per cent to five per cent.
Yes, parts of the population are unhappy with what has been for them a decline in living standards, but compared with the huge improvement in the quality of life for most Russians over the past two decades, it will take more than this to trigger a revolution.
The pandemic has not – so far, at least – destabilised the government or the political system. Although Russia’s handling of coronavirus has been patchy, it has not been catastrophic at the national level. Russia comes somewhere in the middle in international league tables of deaths per capita, and, as in many countries, misfortune has encouraged people to look to the leader.