Surely Vladimir Putin’s grip on power won’t last forever? We meet the activists preparing for Russia’s future.
In a sparse office in St Petersburg, Sergei Kuzin, a pro-democracy activist, is introducing prospective opposition candidates for upcoming council elections to the gritty reality of running for public office in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “Going door to door, from building to building and holding meetings with voters in courtyards,” he says. “These are your most effective tactics.” He outlines the many dirty tricks – from bussing in voters to ballot-box stuffing – employed by pro-government election officials. As he speaks, a dozen earnest would-be councillors, most in their twenties or early thirties, scribble down notes.
Kuzin is a member of Open Russia. His election-campaign advice is part of its bid to lay the groundwork for democratic reforms when Putin’s long grip on power comes to an end. The organisation – financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled former oil tycoon and bitter Kremlin critic – has about 1,500 members, ranging from lawyers to students, and offices across Russia.
Aside from delivering lectures on grassroots campaigning, which is still seen as specialist knowledge in the country, Open Russia helps first-time candidates navigate the torturous bureaucracy that prevents some from even getting on the ballot. The firm doesn’t fund campaigns but it does provide lawyers and PR specialists, and offers advice on how prospective candidates can manage their finances. A vetting procedure roots out those whose views are incompatible with Open Russia’s pro-democracy policies. “We won’t work with anyone who supports the current authorities, or admires Stalin,” says Kuzin bluntly.
Despite the emphasis on training candidates for elections, Open Russia is under no illusions that Putin, nor his ruling United Russia party, can be removed from office via the ballot box. Opposition candidates can sometimes pull off notable victories at low-level polls (some won key council seats in central Moscow in 2017, for example). Such success, however, is all but impossible at more tightly controlled elections for regional or national posts. So why bother taking part? “Even when you cannot win you can still learn,” says Vladimir Kara-Murza, Open Russia’s vice-chairman. A leading advocate for international sanctions against Russian officials guilty of corruption and human-rights abuses, Kara-Murza has survived two poisonings that he suspects were revenge for his political activities. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and and has lived between Moscow and Washington for several years; he was even a pallbearer at the funeral of US senator John McCain, an outspoken Putin critic.
“The most important aspect of our work is to help educate the new generation of activists in Russia,” says Kara-Murza. “They are the ones who will face the task of building a new system of government after the collapse of the Putin regime. These so-called elections offer a training ground for them to gain the experience and the skills that they will use once things change in our country.”
The Kremlin, predictably, is unimpressed. Open Russia has been placed on the government’s list of “undesirable” organisations, a move that has left its members vulnerable to criminal prosecution. Open Russia activists have been targeted in the past but this year, as Putin’s ratings have hit historic lows and public anger soars over the poverty that affects a quarter of the population, there has been a crackdown against the movement. In recent months police have raided the homes of Open Russia activists across the country; in at least one case officers were reportedly armed with assault rifles. Open Russia activist Anastasia Shevchenko, 39, is facing up to six years in prison after being charged with involvement in the movement’s activities; the single mother of two children is currently under house arrest. Natalia Gryaznevich, Open Russia’s press secretary, says that scores of members could now face criminal charges. But, she insists, it will continue to take the fight to the Kremlin.
“This is a new level of political repression,” says Andrei Pivovarov, Open Russia’s chairman. An economist and former small-business owner, he now devotes his time to politics. “In the past investigators would often make up fraud charges and the like to target opposition figures,” he says. “But Shevchenko is being accused of simply being a member of our organisation.” According to prosecutors, Shevchenko’s offences include organising Open Russia’s election-campaign lectures, overseeing political debates, posting on Facebook about the movement and taking part in peaceful anti-Putin protests.
“As Putin’s ratings fall he is turning to even more repressive methods – and the security services are gaining a greater influence,” says Khodorkovsky. Once Russia’s richest man, he has lived in London since 2016. He launched Open Russia two years earlier, shortly after being released from prison, where he spent 10 years for tax evasion and theft. The charges were widely seen as the Kremlin’s revenge for his funding of opposition parties and accusations that government officials were corrupt. He was freed early as part of Putin’s bid to polish Russia’s tarnished image ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Despite his work, Khodorkovsky isn’t a homeland hero. For many Russians the billionaire former businessman will always be linked with the “bandit capitalism” of the 1990s, when living standards plummeted and crime rocketed. Others now see him as a committed Kremlin foe who has suffered for his political convictions; he was recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International when he was in prison. The former oligarch is open-eyed about his reputation. “I’m not planning to stand for public office so I don’t need to be popular,” he says. “Lots of people don’t like me but lots of people also believe in me as a person who is capable of resolving problems in a crisis.”
Of more concern, Khodorkovsky insists, is Open Russia’s work, which aims to force a seismic shift in the mentality of ordinary Russians. Removing Putin is not Open Russia’s end goal. “Russian society often thinks, ‘This tsar is bad; we’ll choose another tsar instead – and that’s the end of our work,’” he says. “The task of our movement is to convince people that, if you want to live in a normal country, you need to engage in civic work every day: elect your political representatives, keep track of them, make sure that they reflect your point of view and defend their stances with all the means available to you. This is the hardest thing for us today.”
Back in St Petersburg, Kuzin is fielding questions about the finer points of Russian election law. None of the prospective candidates, it emerges, has any political experience. “They don’t really have any idea yet about what this is all about,” says Kuzin. “But that’s OK: that’s what we are here for.”
How the death of an activist’s daughter prompted protests.
The arrest of Open Russia activist Anastasia Shevchenko in January was a signal that the Kremlin’s stance on the pro-democracy group was becoming more aggressive. While Anastasia, a single mother, was under house arrest, her teenage daughter Alina died in hospital after developing lung problems. Investigators initially refused to allow Anastasia to visit Alina in hospital, only relenting once the 17-year-old was placed in intensive care.
As a response, in February protesters took to the streets in cities across Russia to show support for Anastasia. As they marched they wore black hearts that were passed out on the day, designed by an opposition activist as a symbol of solidarity with the jailed mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly, authorities did not respond well: seven protesters were arrested in St Petersburg and two more were detained in Moscow.
Throughout his presidential tenure, Vladimir Putin has overseen a sustained attack on protest and dissent. We recall some of his efforts to quell the influence of activists and demonstrators since he regained power in 2012, including accusing punk musicians of blasphemy, labelling his opponents “national traitors” during an address on live television and facing claims of torture in remote penal colonies.
More than 400 protesters are arrested in Moscow after clashes break out at a demonstration against Putin’s return to the presidency for a controversial third term. The Kremlin’s own human-rights council says that riot police provoked the violence but Putin’s spokesman says that protesters should have had “their livers smeared on the asphalt”. Putin reportedly tells aides: “They ruined my big day – now I’m going to ruin their lives.”
Under a new law approved by Putin, scores of human-rights groups and other non-governmental organisations that receive funding from abroad and “engage in politics” are classified by the government as “foreign agents”, a term associated with espionage by most Russians. Police later raid the offices of Amnesty International, global corruption watchdog Transparency International and Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human-rights organisations.
Three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band, are jailed for two years over a protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral against the Russian Orthodox Church’s description of Putin as a “miracle of God”. Patriarch Kirill, a key Kremlin ally, says that the protest amounts to blasphemy. Two of the Pussy Riot activists are sent to notorious penal colonies far from Moscow to serve their sentences, while one of them is released on appeal.
Alexei Navalny, a leading Kremlin critic, is jailed for five years on fraud charges that he says are politically motivated. In an unprecedented legal twist, the sentence is suspended the next day after a mass opposition protest outside the Russian parliament. Navalny’s younger brother Oleg is later jailed for three-and-a-half years on embezzlement charges. Navalny accuses the Kremlin of taking his brother “hostage”.
Putin calls opposition activists “national traitors” during a televised speech devoted to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. State media launches a massive propaganda campaign to smear Kremlin critics as a “fifth column” in the pay of western intelligence services. Hardline pro-Kremlin activists step up the harassment of opposition figures, while the faces of some of the most prominent “national traitors” are featured on a huge banner hung from a building in Moscow.
Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front opposition movement, is jailed for four-and-a-half years on disputed charges of plotting riots in Moscow. State television claims that a grainy video shows Udaltsov discussing a plan to seize power with a Georgian politician. A Left Front activist later says that he was tortured by Russian security-service officers in Ukraine into confessing the plot.
Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Putin critic, is shot dead near the Kremlin just days before an anti-government protest in Moscow. Five Chechen men are later jailed for his murder. Zaur Dadayev, the gunman, is a former high-ranking soldier in a battalion commanded by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-installed leader of Chechnya. Kadyrov praises Dadayev as a “true patriot”. Investigators say that they have been unable to determine who actually ordered Nemtsov’s assassination.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is charged with organising the 1998 murder of the mayor of a Siberian oil town and his bodyguard. Russia issues an international warrant for his arrest. Khodorkovsky denies the allegations, which he says are politically motivated. The charges come less than 48 hours after the Open Russia founder publicly says that a peaceful revolution to topple Putin is “inevitable and necessary”.
Ildar Dadin, a well-known opposition activist, alleges that he was tortured by prison guards at a remote penal colony. Dadin, who was jailed for two-and-a-half years over a series of peaceful protests, says he was hung up by his handcuffed wrists, beaten and threatened with rape. He accuses prison guards of forcing him to shout, “Putin is our president!”
Putin approves a law that allows courts to jail people for 15 days for “disrespecting” the Russian authorities online. Critics liken it to Soviet-era legislation used to target political dissidents. The law comes after Putin’s trust rating slumps to 33 per cent – his lowest level for 13 years – over a wildly unpopular increase in the national retirement age.
More than 1,600 people, including Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, are arrested during nationwide protests on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a fourth presidential term. More than 150 minors are among those detained by police. Navalny is barred from standing against Putin despite running a year-long election campaign and signing up more than 200,000 volunteers.