Imprisoned in Penal Colony No. 2 outside Moscow, Alexey Navalny had spent 24 days on a hunger strike before Russian authorities granted his request to be seen by civilian doctors on Friday. Although it is not clear that public pressure forced the government’s hand, the Kremlin’s concession followed protests in 23 Russian cities and several foreign capitals, in which thousands of people demanded Navalny’s release.
But that turnout was dramatically smaller compared to January, when over 100,000 took to the streets after the opposition leader was arrested on return to his native country from Germany, where he had been recovering from Novichok poisoning. While some 1,700 attendees were arrested on Wednesday, including at least 10 journalists, the police response was more restrained than during previous banned protests.
Despite Friday’s rare bit of good news, the movement’s momentum appears to be flagging. For all the international outpouring of support following his heroic return to Russia after a near-fatal poisoning, the 116 million views of his video exposé of “Putin’s palace,” and all the cruelty with which the state has treated him and his supporters, only 4 percent of Russians say they are prepared to trust him, according to a March study by the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster (Putin’s trust rating stood at 31 percent).
Protest organizers even fell short of the 500,000 online signatures they originally sought in order to hold the rallies (which in the end went ahead regardless). As the liberal journalist Andrey Loshak lamented, “400,000 people in a population of 146 million is a rounding error. What dictator would listen to a third of a percent?”
Certainly, the climate of fear has had a chilling effect. The government is currently preparing legislation to classify Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and network of regional headquarters as an extremist organisation on par with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. But the low numbers of active Navalny supporters cannot simply be attributed to increased levels of state repression.
“While outside of Russia, there are widespread assumptions that Navalny is being embraced at home as the leader of the Russian opposition,” wrote Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent article, “only about 20 percent of the population is sympathetic toward him. It appears that Navalny may have overestimated the readiness of ordinary people to support him.”
To make things worse, vocal US and European advocacy for Navalny has enabled Putin to denounce him—with some success—as a foreign import with a core base limited to Western powers and their fellow travelers among the Russian liberal intelligentsia, who are portrayed as elitist, Moscow-centric, and detached from reality. However well-meaning, the international spotlight on Navalny as Russia’s last hope for democracy has played into the hands of the Kremlin, which hopes that by silencing just one voice it can wipe out the current wave of dissent.
Yet away from the headlines, thousands of ordinary people—community activists, charity volunteers, and city council members—are proving that narrative wrong. Through incrementalism rather than high-stakes political standoffs, they show that Navalny’s fate, intensely important from a human and political point of view, does not define Russia’s democratic future.
Russia’s “civil resistance is much broader than Navalny’s movement,” Baunov’s Carnegie colleague Andrei Kolesnikov told me in an email. According to Kolesnikov, the biggest political threats to the Kremlin “have nothing to do with Navalny.” Although Navalny remains the country’s biggest lightning rod for the politically disaffected, Putin is more afraid of unrest over economic, environmental, and social issues, such as rising food prices, waste disposal, and pension and benefit cuts.
This appears to be borne out in the contrast between the government’s hard-line on Navalny and its conciliatory response to apolitical protests by local residents and environmental groups. These included campaigns against the creation of a landfill in the White Sea town of Arkhangelsk and a limestone mining project in the Southern Urals that threatened a mountain considered sacred by indigenous groups. Faced with those spontaneous demonstrations, the authorities quickly backed down.
For some, the relentless focus on political confrontation between the regime and the opposition is a poor guide to Russia’s democratic development. “We need to be looking beyond Navalny and protests,” says Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, an American community activist who has lived near Novosibirsk since 1992. “Of course they are significant but you can’t equate them with civil society.”
Although direct political engagement remains stubbornly low in Russia—Navalny’s slogan is “the fight between good and indifference”—no less important but all too often overlooked forms of civic engagement are becoming increasingly popular.
Thinkers from Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have identified voluntary groups and associations as the lifeblood of democracy. And in Lindemann-Komarova’s view, what is keeping the prospect of democracy alive in Russia today is not outspoken dissidents like Navalny but rather a patchwork of people practicing local politics with a small “p.”
“People assume that there is no civil society in Russia, that Putin killed it,” Lindemann-Komarova told me. “But civil society has never been more vibrant, stronger, and more diverse than now.” She describes a boom in volunteering, environmentalism, and community organizing over local issues such as park upkeep, land use, and animal welfare. Few of those involved belong to Western-style NGOs or self-identify with the opposition. Yet by working together they are building the social trust, agency, and stakeholder citizenship on which any genuine democracy depends.
One reason why such activity has yet to translate into political gains is that Russian civil society started from such a low base, according to Maria Snegovaya, a post-doctoral fellow at Virginia Tech focused on new approaches to research on politics and society in Russia and Eastern Europe.
“Unlike in Poland or the Baltic states,” says Snegovaya, “civil society did not play a significant role in Russia’s transition from communism.” It is the great irony of 20th century Russia that even democracy was largely imposed from above. Gorbachev’s perestroika was designed in the Kremlin and mainly supported by the intelligentsia class. Under Boris Yeltsin, another member of the old Soviet establishment, democracy devolved into a Hobbesian free-for-all that lacked legitimacy, benefited the few, and never put down deep roots. That in turn made it easy for Putin to dismantle it a decade later.
In the absence of a robust culture of bottom-up civic engagement, Navalny—should he ever win power—risks becoming another Yeltsin: a ruler whose narrow base belied his democratic pretensions and made him dependent on oligarchs and Western support.
Promisingly, Snegovaya has observed growing signs of organic self-organization and active citizenship that can sustain a truly democratic leadership. It is particularly apparent at the local level and among young people of the so-called Putin Generation. She co-led an empirical study of civic engagement among Russian youth run by the Center for European Policy Analysis in collaboration with the Levada Center, in the fall of 2019. Among its findings is that while young people are no more likely to vote or attend protests than their older cohorts, those aged 16 to 20 are four times more likely to have worked as a volunteer than those aged 30 to 34.
Though Russia’s Gen-Z may not be substantially more politicized or even socially liberal relative to its predecessors, it stands out in important ways. “The new generation is less paternalistic, less apathetic—trends that we didn’t see in previous generations, including millennials,” says Snegovaya.
Another area in which grassroots democracy is taking hold is local politics. While the national stage is all but closed for anyone outside of United Russia or long-co-opted legacy opposition parties such as the Communists and the ultra-right Liberal Democrats, city councils and even regional parliaments still allow independent participation.
Independent and Green Party deputies make up one-fifth of the Novosibirsk City Council. Among them is outspoken Navalny supporter Sergey Boyko, who came second in the 2019 mayoral race with nearly 20 percent of the vote. His YouTube channel, which features sardonic commentary on United Russia’s mismanagement of the city, has over 23,000 subscribers.
In a recent video criticizing the mayor’s plan to spend thousands of dollars on a vanity TV project, Boyko asked, “What would you rather fund, the mayor’s TV channel, or repairing the roads? Maybe I’m the crazy one, maybe you all are thinking, ‘who needs roads and pavements, we just want to sit at home and watch the mayor’s TV channel’!”
The council also includes Natalia Pinus, an independent who is not aligned with Navalny and adopts a more conciliatory, practical approach to local problems. She has campaigned against the sale of prime municipal land to politically connected businesspeople, named and shamed large-scale debtors whose proximity to power has allowed them to avoid repayment, and supported an initiative to build an animal shelter for stray dogs. These issues cut across ideological lines and appeal to people of all political stripes.
“When we talk about the non-systemic opposition we usually only hear about the Navalny style of very muscular, take-no-prisoners form of politics,” says Lindemann-Komarova. “I think that’s very important, but there are others who have a different strategy and a different approach.” The fact that a significant but medium-sized city like Novosibirsk has room for both underscores the diversity and growing maturity of Russia’s local politics.
Over the past decade, there has also been an explosion in NGOs, bringing their number in line with that in Poland and Ukraine. Among them are groups providing free legal aid to political detainees such as Apologia Protesta, and those like OVD Info that track arrests and abuses by the security services.
But even this proliferation of citizen groups does not reflect the true levels of community engagement: Many organizations deliberately shun the NGO label to avoid scrutiny from a government that views NGOs as tools of Western influence. And whereas previously a lot of funding came from established or foreign donors, citizen crowdfunding increasingly provides a base of domestic support, with the added bonus of being impervious to restrictive new laws that classify any organization receiving funds from abroad as a “foreign agent.”
On the one hand, a change of guard in the Kremlin remains as remote as ever. Russia has an aging population of which young people comprise less than a fifth. And Navalny’s life continues to hang in the balance. Yet looking at her data, Snegovaya does not lose heart. “It took the Israelites 40 years to wander through the desert. Modern Russia has only been around for three decades,” she said. “You can’t kill the trend, you can’t kill progress.”