With Alexey Navalny rotting in a prison cell and his national anti-corruption movement now banned in Russia, political analysts have been busy penning obituaries for the country’s civics as we know it. The authorities have hardly concealed their hostility toward Navalny and his supporters, but this recent escalation has nevertheless prompted questions about the Kremlin’s timing and reasoning for such drastic repressions. In an essay for Meduza, sociologist Konstantin Gaaze argues that the crackdown on Navalny’s movement is both a calculated campaign and a fit of rage against a political competitor who overcame incredible odds to outperform the Putin administration.
Beginning on June 9, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation (both of which the Justice Ministry previously designated as “foreign agents”), and Alexey Navalny’s nationwide network of campaign offices are designated as “extremist” groups and banned in Russia. They join the ranks of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist paramilitary movement Right Sector, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, and the terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The government has already adopted a law that bans anyone who worked with or even associated themselves with “extremist organizations” from running for a seat in the State Duma (for now, this applies only to the current election cycle). Registered political parties won’t recruit any politicians from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, and Russia’s federal censor will block the “SmartVote” strategic voting initiative’s website.
The ban is a purely technical matter. Yes, groups like the Federal Security Service have closed the case on this foreign influence network threatening Russian politics, while others like the Putin administration are nodding wisely and preparing to organize this fall’s campaign season. It’s all happening in “stealth mode”; there will be elections, more or less, but they needn’t distract the public from work or private life. There’s simply no one left (in bureaucratic thinking, at least, there’s definitely no one left) to cause a distraction — after all, those problematic organizations are all illegal now.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the Navalny movement. And it’s not the end of Russia’s “non-systemic” opposition, either, though it’s more correct now to call it the “radical” opposition. It’s not even the end of the SmartVote initiative, which is a cloud service, not a legal entity or a beauty pageant like Miss Universe; the authorities can’t simply remove every candidate endorsed by SmartVote. If participating voters have learned anything from the ban on the Navalny movement, it’s that casting a ballot in Russia’s elections has nothing to do with tackling political issues or acquiring political representation. Voting actually hurts the authorities. Rock the vote, as they say. With or without those extremists at the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Does this mean nothing has really changed? Some people filed their paperwork and called it a day, while others went their own way? Not quite. Banning the Navalny movement has another, less than pragmatic purpose. The simplest thing to say here is that the authorities apparently finished off the country’s last pockets of independent politics, but that would be too broad, too declarative, and ultimately inaccurate.
Imagine a big organization that employs a bunch of serious people, all dressed in suits and ties. Now picture a garage startup. They’re both doing the same thing, managing the same challenges. The startup is managing well. The demand for each new product is strong, though not exactly massive, and it’s winning a significant market share, especially on premium goods. Meanwhile, despite all its money, power, and scale, the big company is doing the same thing, over and over, and it’s falling behind. Consumers don’t need its products, its services are lousy, and nothing’s fun anymore.
But the big company doesn’t buy out its competitor. And it doesn’t try to learn from it, either, like the Japanese businesses that caught up to American corporations. Instead, it burns down these long-haired freaks’ garage, plants illegal drugs in their pockets, bribes the cops to beat them extra hard at the precinct, and pays off a judge to give them more time behind bars. This is exactly what happened when the Russian authorities banned the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Besides the tactical aim of blocking political candidacy for Lyubov Sobol and other Navalny associates who haven’t yet fled abroad, there is also a sense of jealousy and resentment — a lot of jealousy and a ton of resentment.
Each campaign season, we, the almighty Kremlin, shake down the oligarchs for money and pump up the nation’s budget. We go looking for voters and come up with a majority, every time. We raise pensions and salaries, fix the roads, and stage rallies. We give, and we give, and we give. Getting results is all that matters. And then these freeloaders come along with some kind of wizardry that gets people to bring them money willingly, to print out their banners, and to attend their rallies — all with a smile on their faces. And they’ve managed it with two politically active generations in a row.
The politics of mass movements with their membership, dues, hierarchy, and administrative machinery died long ago. This process didn’t start in Russia. In her 2003 book, “Diminished Democracy,” sociologist Theda Skocpol attributed the decline of mass movements in the U.S. to the explosion of professionally managed organizations that could bypass America’s older membership federations and mediate directly between the state and society. The Anti-Corruption Foundation was an organization like this, capable of organizing educated people’s enthusiasm, hopes, and anger. Twice, during election protests in 2011 and between 2017 and 2019, this audience found itself outside the so-called “Putin majority.” Navalny’s foundation became a refuge for Russians who reject the president’s personality cult and the Kremlin’s militarism and meddling.
Neither Putin nor Navalny is the first to practice this brand of politics that adapts to the changing winds, but Navalny managed it better than Putin, and his people were able to create self-sustaining forms of mass political participation. Navalny campaigned smarter and more efficiently than all the Kremlin’s spin doctors combined. It’s not his fault, after all, that this apparatus from a bygone political era is still hanging on. And now the Kremlin’s managers, dying of jealousy, have succeeded in equating terrorists and a doomsday sect to a winning political gambit by a blogger from LiveJournal.
Nobody knows what will become of politics in the 21st century. Maybe it will go digital together with the state, abandoning the real world to naked violence. Perhaps some form of community politics will return. Or maybe we’ll see a revival of mass mobilization that’s both celebratory and potentially revolutionary. We can’t be sure.
But there’s something mysterious and intractable about politics — something that can’t be decoded by analysts, simulated, or bought and sold. Politics is the closest thing in human endeavor to myth. It’s closer than literature or even cinema. And myths aren’t made from cloud services and campaigning gimmicks; they’re made from big and imposing words. Weakness and strength. Heroism and sacrifice. Death and victory. Gods and the people who challenge them.
Even before the state broke his campaign capacity and his successful infrastructure, Alexey Navalny was already well on his way down a new path. This hardly means he’s destined to triumph from prison, but it does mean Navalny no longer needs what’s been taken from him. He’s working with something else now: politics as myth. And he’s betting his life.
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Translation by Kevin Rothrock