By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
For years, a pact of loyalty in exchange for roubles fostered the growth of a largely apolitical middle class in Russia. On Saturday, that middle class turned against their creator. They are, however, some way off uniting behind a single opposition candidate, write Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov.
Last Saturday, for the first time this century, we witnessed a new Russian middle class not in the cafes or family restaurants where they usually spend their weekends, but on the square with placards and slogans. Of course, the crowd on Bolotnaya Square also included radical anarchists, human rights campaigners and journalists – all those people who have attended demonstrations and dissenters’ marches over the years (usually no more than a couple of thousand of them and that’s on a good day). But this time they simply disappeared in the mass of completely new faces, most of whom were out on the square for the first time in their lives. The rest of them had probably forgotten when the last time was that they had been part of a protest rally.
It was absolutely natural for the opposition to experience an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm, convinced it had acquired a new voter base which shares its views and the way to do battle with the government. These expectations are, however, unlikely to come to anything.
What we saw in Bolotnaya Square was the Moscow middle class, made up of people who are well-off, mostly educated, spend a lot of time on the internet and own a Mazda, Ford or Nissan which they bought on hire purchase. Many of them will be paying off a mortgage on a flat somewhere outside Moscow. They are pleasant and non-aggressive, more like people at a cinema or a hypermarket than inspired revolutionaries, and it’s the first time that they have shown any interest in politics en masse.
In the 00s they were active in the economic sphere, but had almost no presence at all in the areas of culture or politics. The pact Putin offered them when he came to power was simple: the opportunity to make money in exchange for no interest in politics. The middle class stuck to this pact absolutely. In 1998, when prices tumbled after the crisis, and 1999, when there were explosions in apartment blocks, people were scared. They themselves brought up the subject of Pinochet and abandoning democratic and liberal freedoms, if ‘they result in such chaos’.
For many years Putin stuck to his side of this unspoken pact. In just over 10 years, the middle class has grown and become appreciably richer, accustomed to foreign seaside and skiing holidays. It was to protect their interests that the low rate of income tax (13%) was set.
The middle class has now broken the pact by turning out on to the square and it’s obvious that their interest in politics was not only because of the vote rigging at the election. It was sparked in September, when Putin announced that he wished to become president: they signed up en masse to be observers at the election and it’s their conclusions that produced the telling picture of manipulation at the polling stations.
Putin has, in other words, unexpectedly lost his main support base among the economically active members of the population.
At the beginning of the 00s, many of our friends who came to Bolotnaya Square were prepared to consider Putin an adequate solution to a complicated situation. Most of them were not fazed by ‘United Russia’ exploiting its government role during the election, in direct contravention of the Constitution. They thought that this would not affect business or a professional corporate career and that those who found it unacceptable were losers who had never found their place in life. Even passive interest in politics, as demonstrated by reading the newspapers, dropped off and the favourite TV programme of the middle classes was Leonid Parfyonov’s Namedni [‘The Other Day’], which conceals political news under a facile veneer of entertainment.
This resulted in a total lack of any culture of political discussion among the middle classes. Russia has never had the tradition of political discussions in cafes (in the USSR all those discussions took place around the kitchen table). In the 00s a huge number of cafes opened, but they never became a place for debate.
The middle class, having switched on to politics, rushed to exchange its views in the social networks. Facebook became much more important than Twitter: these days it’s not just a means of mobilisation, but also a platform for interaction and a source of news. In addition, the decline of a political culture has resulted in a loss of interest (and trust) in traditional media outlets, government or opposition.
So today the suspicious middle class is only prepared to accept the simplest solutions to complex problems. This is one of the reasons why Aleksei Navalny is so popular: he is a master of the simple answer – the middle class is suffering because of the endless theft and robbery a) because government officials are corrupt, and b) because they have decided to ‘feed’ the North Caucasus.
The lack of trust and of any experience of political discussion are also the main reasons why the people who came to Bolotnaya Square are not particularly keen on supporting opposition leaders e.g PARNAS leader Boris Nemtsov, the National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov or Evgeniya Chirikova, defender of Khimki Forest.
Discussions on websites calling for honest elections are full of suspicions directed at these figures. The middle class is scared by Limonov, who is uncompromising, and by the good-looking, glamorous Nemtsov who held a government post in the 90s. But they are also suspicious of Chirikova, who is one of them, middle class. What is striking is that even Navalny, who thought up the description of ‘United Russia’ as the party of thieves and swindlers, is regarded as someone who might involve people in dangerous and incomprehensible games. ‘Don’t let Nemtsov or Navalny have the microphone unless you are convinced that they will express their ideas, rather than simply shouting. Give it to Parfyonov,’ as Svetlana Shapovalyants writes on the Big City [Bolshoi gorod] forum. The word politician is still regarded as a dirty word
In his article ‘Refresh this page’ Yury Saprykin, for many years publisher of Afisha, the middle classes’ most popular listings and lifestyle magazine, best described the mood of the masses on the square: ‘There is one piece of news, which will not please the fringe politicians. The people who came to the meeting were not there for you. It was the first time you’d seen them, you don’t know who they are or what they think and you have nothing to talk to them about or, apparently, to offer them.’ Among the names he lists as having received the support of the crowd are the popular thriller writer Boris Akunin and the TV presenter Leonid Parfyonov. Typically, Boris Akunin in his speech called only for the restitution of Muscovites’ right to elect their mayor and for a re-run of the election in the capital. But these people are not politicians and don’t want to be.
One thing is clear: the middle classes are calling for new leaders, but for the moment have no candidates to propose. People are outraged by the falsifications at the election, but don’t know who they would elect or what their political demands are. At the same time they don’t trust the unsanctioned opposition, which has made enormous efforts over the years to convince society that street protests are a possibility. During previous crises the Kremlin could always count on oligarch support, not only financial, but intellectual too. It was the intellectuals, at the behest of the oligarchs, who helped Yeltsin to victory in 1996 and Putin in 1999. The oligarchs, held at arms’ length by Putin, are in no hurry to help him.
On top of that, during the last 25 years there have always been elite groups who considered that reforms could be put in place much more effectively if they worked with the authorities, rather than the backward, badly-educated populace, and for this reason supported the Kremlin’s toughest political decisions.
But now that Medvedev has renounced his presidential ambitions, there are many fewer of these groups. After all, for the elites the significance of Putin’s return to the Kremlin is that there will be no re-allocation of government positions and no new jobs, so there’s no reason to offer any support.
This article originally was published at openDemocracy.