Because the 31st article of the Russian constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly, the Russian opposition has taken to gathering by the statue of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky on Triumphalnaya Ploshchad in the center of Moscow every time a month has a 31st day. A routine has developed: Every 31st, the Moscow city government withholds permission for the assembly, claiming they’ve already scheduled something for that time. (On Jan. 31, it was “Winter Delights.”) Every time, the opposition — about a hundred aged liberals still clinging to the hopes of the early Yeltsin era — gather anyway. And every time, the police and, occasionally, the special forces show up and arrest people, some of whom happen to be famous opposition figures who know how to get in touch with the press and make the mayorality look rather foolish. (On Dec. 31, for instance, the police made a splash of international proportions by arresting 82 year-old human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. In January, they ran the second she screamed. “I guess there was an order not to let the old lady die, lest there be an international scandal,” she said.)
Apart from provoking the cops into arresting old ladies, however, the protesters don’t have much to show for their 31st-article gatherings, which are replicated in a few other places across the country. Partly, this is the opposition’s fault. To say that they don’t have a coherent or realistic platform or a leader would severely understate the matter. They have been so marginalized by the state that, in the best traditions of Russian political opposition, they have taken to utopian squabbling — the Communists with the nationalists, the liberals with the Kremlin drop-outs — while United Russia keeps consolidating power through hard-headed yet sophisticated pragmatism.
But it’s also due to the fact that, marginalized and tiny as the protests are, most Russians don’t even know they exist.
Take this weekend. On Saturday, the day before January’s 31st-article protests, more than 10,000 people gathered for a demonstration in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a little island of Russia wedged on the Baltic Sea coast between Poland and Lithuania. In a country where 50 to 100 people count as a major opposition protest, this is not only huge, it’s unprecedented. By contrast, the biggest protest in contiguous Russia in recent memory, those in Vladivostok at the height of the financial crisis in December 2008, drew only 1,000 people. The event organizers claim up to 12,000 protesters, but even with 10,000 people and cars spread across a parking lot spanning three hectares, the protests were unusual.
This was true not just because of the scale but because of the content. Originally, the smattering of opposition groups gathered to protest a hike in the transportation tax and import duties on cars. Cars and pensions remain perhaps the only reason Russians will take to the streets — when the Kaliningrad government raised transport taxes last year, thousands protested — so it was a surprise to many when the target became the government itself. People showed up with banners demanding the return of the direct election of governors, something the Kremlin shelved in 2004, ostensibly to fight terrorism. Some banners expressed the wish to see United Russia either tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet. Another banner read, “You’ve gotten fat, stolen a lot, now how about doing some time?” According to the organizers, over 5,000 people signed a petition demanding not only the cancellation of the transport tax, but the abdication of the local governor, his entire government, and even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Nor was this an isolated provincial event. Members of officially sanctioned parties came, with many Moscow politicians flying in just to make a showing: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was there, as was the liberal Yabloko, the Patriots of Russia, and the right-wing nationalist LDPR. “How much do you have to torture the people of Kaliningrad for me to see all these parties gathered at one meeting?” asked liberal Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov from the grandstand as the crowed cheered. (The protests, an apparent shock to the Kremlin, seemed to have been coordinated with the Moscow opposition.)
It was the biggest Russian protest since the chaos of the early 1990s — but if, like most Russians, you got most of your news from television, you wouldn’t have even known about it.
“Russian television didn’t cover this at all,” said a very offended Ilya Yashin, a young and up-and-coming Solidarity politician who flew to Kaliningrad with Nemtsov. “At all.”
Relatively few Russians read newspapers anymore, and, according to one estimate, only 2 million people — less than 1.5 percent — listen to the opposition Ekho Moskvy radio station or read the essentially free press online, where the Kaliningrad protests were thoroughly covered. The figures are even more dire the farther you get from Moscow.
Television is the media that matters and, for that reason, as has been widely reported, it is owned by the state outright or through government-friendly companies. And not only do the heads of the various TV channels meet regularly with Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin ideologist, the rank and file of the TV stations are already well-trained in the art of self-censorship.
“If it’s about the transportation tax, that’s one thing,” said a reporter for NTV, a state-owned channel, who had not even heard that anything had happened in Kaliningrad before he received a phone call from Foreign Policy. “If it’s against the government, that’s material for the dust bin. Even softer themes don’t go through.”
Only two television channels, REN-TV and its subsidiary, St. Petersburg’s Channel 5, made mention of the event, the latter as a 30-second read-through about a protest by “thousands of car owners.” REN-TV, which portrayed the protest as one focused more on living conditions, still managed to show a lot, including a man saying the government was lying. With an audience four-to-five times smaller than those of the main federal channels, REN-TV is allowed to be more critical of the state, thereby doing double-duty as steam valve and window dressing.
Everywhere else there was silence, which to some observers seemed like unnecessary caution. When car owners in Valdivostok protested against the import duties on Japanese cars at the end of 2008, Russian television was also silent. But that was at the beginning of the economic crisis, which, many speculated at the time, could have toppled the Putin government. “Now that the crisis has more or less stabilized,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, “the government feels much more confident; it can act much more rationally.” Moreover, the opposition is still in disarray and without any real chance of bringing down the Kremlin, or even nipping at its heels. “If you look at the polls, you see a full readiness to adjust” to life under the current system, Lipman says. “You can’t say that the people are ripening and the movement will grow and grow. In this situation, you don’t need to lie — it’s just how you shape the story.”
But inside the media the habit to filter and self-censor is so strong that any such story is instinctively suppressed. “This wasn’t just a few people gathering on Triumphalnaya,” says Arina Borodino, who writes about television for Kommersant, the most widely-read Russian daily. “They sent in the regional governor, the United Russia representative, the state prosecutor. The government takes this very seriously, and you want them to show it on TV?”
And so the Kaliningrad protests, with its thousands of discontented activists, its football fields of parked cars, will pass by unnoticed.
“There was no way for society to find out about this,” Yashin, the Solidarity politician, says. “And society has gotten used to this. They see TV as entertainment, as educational; as anything other than a source of information.”
He’s right. However small the revolution, if it’s not televised, it doesn’t even exist.
The Revolution Will Definitely Not Be Televised [Foreign Policy]