Vladimir Putin launched the Ukrainian war at a time when the civil and social alternative to his rule was gaining strength. In November 2021, less than four months before the invasion, his electoral rating had dropped to 32 percent, its lowest since 2000 — promising huge electoral problems, especially ahead of the presidential contest in 2024.
Putin faces an opposition which stands against corruption, against repression, for the alternation of power, for the redistribution of wealth, and for local self-government. In particular, the regions demand real federalization: they often express dissatisfaction with Moscow, the power center where the proceeds of Siberian oil and the forests of the far east, as well as other national wealth, flow into the pockets of the elite.
Yet as sociologist Grigory Yudin insists, it isn’t just a matter of the capital against the rest of the country. Indeed, the attacks on Moscow from the regions are a projection: “Muscovites suffer from this violence no less than others, and nowhere is local government repressed as much as in the capital.”
Power Up Above
The curtailment of the rights of local government began back in the 1990s. In 1993, liberal reformers, represented by President Boris Yeltsin, came into conflict with the system of councils that was left over from revolutionary times and given a new lease of life during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. After the shelling of parliament (the Supreme Soviet) and its abolition, Yeltsin also abolished the council system at all levels, dissolving the Moscow Soviet and district councils. In place of the Moscow City Council, based on prerevolutionary models, the City Duma was established; it would be ten times smaller, and easily managed from city hall.
At the same time, the capital’s new mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a Yeltsin ally, began to build a new system of government in Moscow. He assumed the right to unilaterally appoint all subordinate leaders. Political scientist Alexander Kynev describes the main features of this model: “The vertical executive, the controlled party system, the merging of power and the management of key enterprises and business structures, the establishment of effective control over the most profitable and important areas . . . [and] systematic low turnout.” In the 2000s, this model became the norm for federal-level public policy. In Moscow, it reached a new level under mayor Sergey Sobyanin, appointed in 2010 by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Under the new mayor, Moscow soon became a showcase for urban modernization. Luzhkov had ruled as a local tsar; Sobyanin instead sought the cooler image of a liberal technocrat. In this key, the city government vaunted its interest in finding out Muscovites’ opinions via digital platforms — that is, so long as their opinion coincided with the intentions of city bosses. Authorities are establishing a Hyde Park for free meetings in Sokolniki Park, while also gradually criminalizing rallies in the city’s central squares; they test electronic voting, vaunted as the technology most suitable for a modern democracy, only to end up using it to steal votes.
Today’s Moscow is marked by gentrified industrial zones, widened sidewalks, the “hipster oases” of the center, ever-encroaching skyscrapers, and sprawling suburbs. The construction business is the main driver of the city’s economy — and also the main source of corruption. The Moscow authorities are tightly linked to several development companies. Giant new buildings, often without any social infrastructure, are being constructed in place of Soviet-era neighborhoods with carefully planned green areas. Among the clients of the construction business are members of the regional elite who invest in Moscow real estate. Huge amounts of money — more than is devoted to education — are also pumped into so-called landscaping, including the annual replacement of sidewalks, profitable to business but a scandal for Muscovites.
No wonder that issues of daily life and the development of the city have become the main causes for tensions between the authorities and society in Moscow. The manipulation of the mayor’s office, the repression of the most dangerous candidates, and mass meetings in their defense: this is the reality of Moscow politics in recent years.
A new round of struggle for local self-government began in Russia at the start of the 2010s. After the defeat of the movement for fair elections in 2011–12, some oppositionists were forced into local politics. Yet they were gradually joined by a new generation of activists for whom so-called small causes — protecting public gardens and historic buildings, campaigning against toxic landfills, and promoting differentiated garbage collection — were not tactical retreats but natural elements of public life that gradually became filled with big political significance.
All of this happened despite the depoliticization that struck Russian society as a result of the collapse of the democratic hopes of perestroika, the shelling of parliament, the First Chechen War, and the wider confluence of crime and politics. The prevailing view then was that politics was the work of people who were either infected with toxic ideologies or driven by their own self-seeking, and who openly ignored citizens’ real interests. The post-Soviet philistine is convinced that to solve any problem, one must rely either on one’s own strength or on ties of family and friendship. Paradoxically, the conviction that no one is capable of adequately defending their interests coincided with a certain intellectual — and even left-wing — critique of representation.
Some opposition activists thus came to the conclusion that local self-government offered the best opportunity to repoliticize society. It is not easy for people to believe in politics, but it is more realistic for them to fight to defend a square or a maternity hospital and then nominate their own deputy to the local council. And in today’s Russia, this is already quite a lot.
Municipal deputies’ real powers are minimal, mostly regarding major repair works, the improvement of the district, and the acceptance of reports by local officials. But the main benefit of an activist becoming a municipal deputy is that they can use their official status to communicate with officials, police officers, journalists, and the residents themselves, who trust an elected representative with a “piece of paper” more than an unknown activist. That is, it offers an extra level of protection.
District politics are also a space where the ideological differences that traditionally divide the opposition are somewhat neutralized. So-called liberals — i.e., supporters of Western-style capitalism — operate locally alongside pro-Soviet Muscovites. Even Putin supporters dissatisfied with local and city officials are sometimes drawn into activities that raise their political consciousness. Yet all this does not erase real programmatic differences; in Moscow, the technocratic agenda of liberal urbanism, promoted for years by one of the strongest opposition groups under the leadership of Maxim Katz, meets with an increasingly formalized left-wing alternative that instead calls for direct citizen participation in deciding local issues. When it comes to the arrangement of the common space, these left-wingers say that there is no “correct,” expert-determined choice, but only the interests of different people and groups. A democratic solution is born out of collective discussion. The ideologist of this agenda is municipal deputy and teacher Alexander Zamyatin, author of For Democracy, which has already become a textbook for municipal-level candidates and activists.
For democratic socialists, participation in neighborhood activism is an essential school of representation. Their voice is needed there also because part of the local activism inevitably takes place under the slogan “Not in my backyard.” Socialists, unpoisoned by xenophobia and armed with democratic values, can here offer a more inclusive agenda with a much greater social horizon. This also causes inevitable conflict with nationalists, who, even if opposed to Putin, cannot avoid falling into anti-migrant and other xenophobic rhetoric.
Finally, the local agenda enables the Left to move away from sterile, abstract discussions, favoring concrete responses while also serving as a school for new public-facing political leaders.
You Are the Movement
The main such school on the Left has been the municipal platform Vidvizheniye [“Nomination”; it also sounds like “You Are the Movement”], launched June 1 by Mikhail Lobanov and Alexander Zamyatin. Lobanov’s campaign for the 2021 State Duma as a candidate for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was the most successful opposition campaign and a historic breakthrough for a new generation of leftists in Russia. A university professor and trade unionist, Lobanov brought together local, university, and political activists from different groups and traditions, intellectuals, and people with managerial experience. His staff created an agenda understandable to most, which includes the topics of local self-government, ecology, and social inequality. Lobanov defeated his main rival — TV propagandist Yevgeny Popov — at the polls, only to miss out on the election due to the manipulation of the outcome through electronic voting. His campaign showed once again that elections are such a headache for the Russian authorities precisely because they open up possibilities for grassroots action that potentially go far beyond the boundaries of district-level administrations and polling stations.
In summer 2022, Lobanov spoke out against the war on Ukraine. After he hung a banner with the inscription “peace” on his balcony, he was arrested and held for fifteen days. But the real reason for the repression lies in the success of Vidvizheniye, which has become a major nonpartisan platform. The Moscow authorities perceive the municipal elections as a battle with the antiwar opposition — a battle which can in no case be lost. This is why a great deal of attention is paid to these elections for city hall, and why local deputies who oppose the war are being given heavy sentences. Alexei Gorinov, a municipal deputy who criticized the “special operation” in the council of deputies, got seven years in prison. Sergei Tsukasov, a municipal deputy who is another face of the democratic socialist opposition in Moscow, was withdrawn from the election and arrested on charges of “extremism.” Zamyatin was also withdrawn from the election on these same charges (for posting a video by oppositionist Alexei Navalny back in 2020). Other Vidvizheniye candidates are being withdrawn on various pretexts, fired by their employers and enduring various other kinds of pressure. Still, more than a hundred candidates have been registered.
Vidvizheniye mobilizes primarily young candidates and focuses not on ideological positioning so much as general democratic interests. In this way, it effectively overcomes the aforementioned split of the opposition into liberal and pro-Soviet. Putin, once promoted to power by the liberal-oligarchic lobby, still trusts the so-called system liberals to ensure the economic sustainability of his regime. At the same time, Putin offers a certain pro-Soviet sensibility, the image of a strong, paternalistic, “internationally respected” state standing up to the West. The case of democratic socialists seems like the opposite: they share with the liberals the idea of civil rights and freedoms, and with the supporters of Soviet socialism the idea of grassroots self-organization against a state unwilling or unable to redistribute wealth.
There is debate among the opposition as to whether it even makes sense to participate in municipal elections against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. “In the era of Bucha and Borodianka, it is supremely and politically pointless and immoral to think about any municipal elections. . . . Two categories of people are currently needed in Russia: human rights defenders and partisans,” says Roman Popkov, an opposition journalist and former supporter of Russian nationalist Eduard Limonov. But Zamyatin insists, “Our task is to give critical people the opportunity to self-organize, so that they feel their strength and understand that their position can be heard.”
The KPRF plays an important role in the war and election agenda. In recent years, competition with the supporters of Navalny — and sometimes even tactical interactions with them — has reenergized the party. Some local activists and deputies have become more militant at the grassroots level, seeking to build support by giving direct assistance to citizens rather than through the simple reproduction of a red-hued patriotic feeling.
Antiwar sentiments are quite common among such activists. Activists affiliated with the KPRF initiated an antiwar letter to party members and supporters, and according to Lobanov, more than half of the nine hundred KPRF candidates in municipal elections are against the war.
The Communist leadership does its best to suppress antiwar sentiments through various methods, from warnings to expulsions. For example, KPRF deputy Nina Belyaeva was expelled from the Voronezh region, and after a criminal case was launched, she was forced to leave the country.
For his part, KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov demands a continuation of the war and a march on Kyiv. Party MPs lobby for odious conservative laws, such as the “ban on LGBT propaganda” (currently such “propaganda” is prohibited only among minors). Indeed, in many ways, the KPRF is even more right-wing than pro-Putin party United Russia. This is unsurprising, considering how much it counts on the votes of those who feel that the “special operation” is too soft. Meanwhile the Kremlin’s clear goal is to keep the KPRF in its pro-Soviet, conservative niche, maintaining its support within the existing range (10–13 percent), and not allowing it to become the mouthpiece of those most dissatisfied with the Kremlin’s domestic policies.
The KPRF bosses and their Kremlin handlers have administrative resources and a repressive apparatus on their side. But time is working against them. Among young people and the poor — the groups whose support should logically be most important for the Communist Party — we find the greatest number of opponents of the special operation. Activists, including ones who initially supported the recognition of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, see that, under the cover of the special operation, the authorities consistently cut off all opportunities for grassroots protest for any reason.
A mass antiwar and anti-systemic movement can only grow out of an understanding that the war both hurts Russians’ vital interests and shuts down their opportunities to defend these same interests.
Sociologists from the Laboratory of Public Sociology have drawn attention to a paradox: municipal, small politics in Russia often turns out to be more “classist” than big square politics, because at the local level activists inevitably recognize the connection between economic oppression and political domination.
Democratic socialists are more aware than anyone else of the relationship between democratic rights and economic, class interests. In recent years, they have begun to successfully form their own alternative to both the Putin regime and its liberal and national Communist opposition.
Now they are forced to pursue (and perhaps radicalize) this agenda in an extreme situation, in which the authorities are trying to silence any and all outspoken opposition figures. But Vidvizheniye representatives insist that they are not giving up: “The arrest of public leaders does not break anything. There is no talk about demoralization. On the contrary, people have only been reinforced in the opinion that we are doing everything right.”