On Thursday, Mikhail Lobanov — a leftist politician, trade union activist, and prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s militarism — was arrested in Moscow. Police officers broke into the apartment of Mikhail and his wife, the sociologist Alexandra Zapolskaya, smashing through the door. During the search, Mikhail was beaten, and photos of him with his blood on the floor were shared across social media. On the same day, a trial was held: Mikhail was sentenced to fifteen days in jail for “disobedience toward police.”
Also on Thursday, the homes of several other activists in different cities around the country were raided. In Moscow, police broke into the home of the eighty-eight-year-old mother of Sergei Tsukasov, another left-wing democratic politician and former municipal deputy who is now out of the country. Like Lobanov, Tsukasov has many supporters in Moscow because of his years of grassroots work with communities in the city.
There is a danger that the detention of Mikhail Lobanov will last more than fifteen days. This summer, he already spent a similar period in jail for “discrediting the army” and “inciting hatred” against the government. He had written of the class basis of Putin’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine, which is taking the poorest segments of the population to war. He received another administrative penalty for displaying a banner “No to War” on his balcony.
Since then, the repression against oppositionists who do not want to emigrate has seriously intensified. This includes the recent conviction of Ilya Yashin, another prominent opposition figure, sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for “spreading fakes” (that is, for his coverage of the events in Bucha). Lobanov’s arrest on Thursday was preceded by a campaign against him in the pro-Kremlin media. Already in September, a video was released about members of his team with crazy “revelations;” and the day before his arrest, a major propaganda channel demanded that Lobanov be jailed for eight years “following Yashin,” or at least stripped of his teaching position at Moscow University.
While the information remains unconfirmed, according to the investigator the raid at Lobanov’s home (and likely others, too) is connected to the case against Ilya Ponomarev, a politician, businessman and former deputy in the State Duma. In March 2014, he was the only MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea, soon left Russia, and was placed by Russia on an international list of wanted suspects.
Today, Ponomarev is based in Ukraine, where he leads an active information campaign against Russian aggression and claims to be affiliated with the so-called Russian Legion (Russians fighting in the Ukrainian Armed Forces). Ponomarev also says that he is connected to partisans inside Russia engaged in sabotage on the railroad tracks (though these latter have denied any connection to the politician). This year, a case was opened against Ponomarev for “fakes” against the Russian army.
In reality, Lobanov has no relations with Ponomarev — a fact that the latter has already managed to state openly. Ponomarev’s deliberately provocative and conspiratorial style is the exact opposite of the Moscow-based socialist’s. Lobanov stands for open public politics, with the support of a team of like-minded people, full transparency, and reputation gained through years of honest activist work.
Lobanov has excelled in this kind of fight, mobilizing citizens in formally legitimate structures (student councils, trade unions, elections), which are in practice dominated by the ruling groups due to the mass depoliticization of Russian society. Only self-organization from below is able to reanimate and expand the democratic potential of these forums. The main challenge for Lobanov and the circle of activists and politicians associated with him lies in their ability to work in this field, opposing imperial, pro-war propaganda with a constructive, unifying agenda. It is this political style that appears to authorities and their special agencies as the most “radical” in contemporary Russia. Lobanov also actively supported Kirill Ukraintsev, the leader of the Courier trade union, who is serving a prison sentence for “violating the rules of assembly.” The union recently held a high-profile strike in various regions of the country.
At the Moscow level, this approach has achieved real breakthroughs. In September, the municipal project Vidvyzheniye (Nomination; or You Are the Movement), initiated by Lobanov and Alexander Zamyatin, ran ten of its own candidates in the district elections despite enormous opposition from the authorities. Candidates supported by Vidvyzheniye won twenty-three seats, with their community work serving as a rallying point for residents active at the local level.
Another possible reason for the latest round of repression is a possible second wave of mobilization for the army in the new year. In this case, the authorities may be trying to isolate those who could oppose the mobilization most articulately. This is especially true now that initiatives not associated with the traditional political opposition — primarily meaning the mothers and wives of men who have been called up to fight in Ukraine — are beginning to speak out against the mobilization.
These women had begun with demands for better conditions for the soldiers and against abuses in the mobilization process, searching for mobilized men who were counted as missing, and arguing for the men’s right to return home. But they eventually came to demands for peace, alongside the curtailment of nuclear threats and of the government’s militaristic rhetoric. These women are demanding direct dialogue. Instead of responding, the government creates fake, handheld women’s organizations. But it does not yet risk direct repression, which is fraught with the potential of feeding open mass discontent. Instead, it is targeting prominent opposition politicians and giving them huge prison sentences in order to intimidate the rest.
The harassment and beating of Lobanov, like many similar cases, points to an extremely dangerous aspect of the situation in Russia. By unleashing war in Ukraine, the Putin government has started a spiral of external and internal violence. If it tries to stop this spiral, it will mean admitting the correctness of the antiwar opposition and, most likely, being forced to sign a peace agreement on Ukrainian terms (that is, with the withdrawal of troops from the occupied territories).
But the government is also no longer able to successfully raise the degree of violence by its own means. Rather, it is forced to share its monopoly on violence with more motivated groups. This is why the dividing line between the state power structures and all kinds of private military and paramilitary formations, which have connections to certain groups or persons in power, is becoming less and less clear.
The most famous in this regard is the private military company Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was jailed in the Soviet Union for robbery, and then went into business and gradually gained the confidence of Putin. His soldiers are actively fighting in Ukraine, and his domestic political ambitions and open disagreements with the army and state top brass are growing. Analysts associate the figure of Prigozhin and his private armies with a possible turn toward an open fascist dictatorship.
In repressing politicians and activists for allegedly subversive, antisocial activities, the security services have themselves been quite successful in pursuing the “destruction” of Russian society.
We don’t know how far the internal confrontation and deliberately provoked chaos will go. But unlike the Putin administration itself, the mission of politicians and activists like Lobanov is not to “destroy” society but to restore it — on a new, democratic, and egalitarian basis.
Mikhail Lobanov wrote in September:
The nuclear blackmail of humanity was made possible precisely in a system where a few hold wealth and power, while everyone else humbly works for them, absorbed in everyday problems until their time comes to be called upon and die.
The collapse of a system that rests on blatant economic and political inequality will not be the end of history. And it will be up to you and me to see what happens next.
The inequalities that tear this world apart and lead to constant military adventures will be countered by solidarity and radical democracy.
The alternative to a far-right nationalist dictatorship based on overt violence is an internationalist project in the interests of all humanity.
Today, Mikhail needs maximum support from all left-wing and democratic forces, trade unions, environmental and human rights organizations, and everyone else concerned about the new trend of militarization and fascistization spreading across the globe.