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The Russian Opposition: Bloodied But Unbowed

How much does a new, pro-Ukraine declaration from the anti-Putin, pro-liberalism forces matter?
May 3, 2023
The Russian Opposition: Bloodied But Unbowed
Russian opposition figure and Moscow city councillor Ilya Yashin, charged with "discrediting" the Russian army fighting in Ukraine, gestures inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at the Tverskoy district court in Moscow on November 23, 2022. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the question of regime change in Russia—and of the role of the Russian opposition in this hypothetical process—has acquired a special urgency. But the Russian liberal opposition generally gets little respect except for a handful of brave individuals who are now behind bars for challenging the regime: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin. The only way an opposition figure can avoid sharing their fate is to remain abroad—but the activists outside Russia are widely viewed as an ineffective, consumed by internecine squabbles, and unwilling to fully confront the reality of Russia’s crimes against Ukraine (or perhaps even harboring a residue of imperialist Russian attitudes, a suspicion widely shared by Ukrainian patriots).

On April 30, leading members of the Russian opposition issued a statement intended to overcome these perceptions and mark a turning point in opposition activism. But is it a genuinely effective step?

The “Declaration of Russian Democratic Forces,” posted on and open to new signatories (of whom there are currently some 16,000, though it’s hard to say how many are citizens of the Russian Federation), consists of these five points:

  1. The war against Ukraine is criminal. Russian troops must be withdrawn from all occupied territories. The internationally recognized borders of Russia must be restored; war criminals must be brought to justice and the victims of aggression must be compensated.
  1. Putin’s regime is illegitimate and criminal. Therefore, it must be liquidated. We see Russia as a country in which the individual freedoms and rights are guaranteed, in which the usurpation of state power is eliminated.
  1. The implementation of imperial policy within Russia and abroad is unacceptable.
  1. Political prisoners in Russia and prisoners of war must be released, forcibly displaced persons must be allowed to return home, and abducted Ukrainian children must be returned to Ukraine.
  1. We express our solidarity with those Russians who, despite the brutal repressions, have the courage to speak up from anti-Putin and anti-war positions, and with those tens of millions who refuse to participate in the crimes of the Putin’s regime.

Three of these five points directly address the war and are meant to answer criticisms of the Russian opposition as insufficiently anti-imperialist and insufficiently supportive of Ukraine as the victim of aggression by the Putin regime. The declaration not only condemns the war and calls for the complete withdrawal of Russian troops but endorses the prosecution of war criminals, the payment of reparations, and the return of abducted Ukrainian children. (While the reference to “the internationally recognized borders of Russia,” rather than Ukraine, has raised some eyebrows, the language clearly implies that not only the occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine but Crimea must be restored to Ukraine.)

At least one prominent Ukrainian political figure—activist, media personality, and former Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, who has been highly skeptical of Russian liberals in the past—was impressed. Arestovych had surprisingly warm words for the declaration in a May 1 appearance on the YouTube show of one of its signers, lawyer and politician Mark Feygin:

There is a view that the Russian liberal ends where the Ukrainian question begins—scratch him, and so on. But the declaration you’ve created is a natural antithesis to this narrative, to this myth. It condemns [the war] clearly and unequivocally. It calls for the withdrawal of all troops, which is the goal of Ukrainian state policy.

Arestovych praised the “very strong positive qualities” of the declaration—including its focus on the wrongs done to Ukraine and the need to repair them—as an antidote to fears (which he himself had voiced in the past) that a post-Putin liberal government could be “even worse” because it could build a more modernized, more efficient, and more superficially Western-style imperial machine.

Of course, it would be naïve to expect the declaration to magically resolve tensions between the Russian opposition and Ukrainian patriots who are disinclined to listen to “good Russians” when their children are being killed by Russian missiles. Indeed, even as the declaration was made public, one of its first ten signatories, expatriate Russian journalist and satirist Viktor Shenderovich, found himself in the middle of a controversy when he criticized rhetoric from the Ukrainian side collectively referring to Russians as “orcs” or as a “nation of slaves.” (You may have encountered such language on Twitter or Reddit.) While Shenderovich stressed that blanket hatred toward Russians was understandable coming from Ukrainians who had suffered in the war, he also referred to some of those rhetorical excesses as “Nazi outbursts”—an infelicitous choice of language to say the least, since it can be easily twisted to support the Kremlin’s false narrative of rampant Nazism in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian commenters on the Internet quickly seized on Shenderovich’s words as yet another “masks off” moment for a Russian liberal.

Nor will the declaration, which has a clause pledging to “refrain from public conflicts in the democratic and anti-war movements,” put an end to the opposition’s internecine squabbling. Even the declaration itself became a locus of conflict: While it was spearheaded by exiled Russian businessman and opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Open Russia Foundation, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation conspicuously refrained from participation because of an ongoing feud between Team Navalny and Team Khodorkovsky. The proximate cause of the feud is that Khodorkovsky’s media project, Popular Politics, recently hired an émigré political strategist—a now-penitent ex-government official—who had been involved in the persecution of an Anti-Corruption Foundation activist. Such conflicts probably reflect a bigger problem of jockeying for power between rival opposition groups.

So does the declaration, and the opposition, amount to anything more than chatter? Feygin, who was a member of the Russian State Duma in better days (specifically, from 1993 to 1996), believes that the opportunities are there. Both in his discussion with Arestovych and on his solo stream the next day in which he focused on the Russian opposition in exile, Feygin pointed out that the Russian revolution of 1917 was a precedent for émigré opposition leaders—specifically, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks—taking power when the country collapsed into chaos. Obviously, one hopes that things will work out better the second time around, if there is one.

The circumstances are at least somewhat promising. The war in Ukraine may not have sparked mass protests in Russia, but it is certainly creating instability. The veneer of normality in Russia is wearing thin. Fear of Ukrainian strikes is causing cancellations of Russia’s hallowed Victory Day parades on May 9; the accompanying “Immortal Regiment” processions in which people carry portraits of dead war heroes in their families have been canceled ostensibly for security reasons, but perhaps because of concerns that too many photos of soldiers killed in Ukraine will make for unwelcome optics. Explosions attributed to antiwar subversives, including train derailments, are becoming common. The economic damage from the war and the sanctions is making itself felt. Rumblings of discontent in the elites are surfacing as well: for the second time in two months, a leaked recording of a phone conversation shows high-level Russian businessmen bemoaning the war, cursing the Putin regime (“Russia is in the clutches of a bunch of assholes”), and predicting disaster (“It ends in hell”).

In his solo stream, Feygin quoted—“with a certain amount of sarcasm,” he stressed—Lenin’s thesis about “the transition from imperialist war to civil war” and the subsequent seizure of power by the opposition. Unfortunately, if an actual civil war were to happen, a thuggish war hawk like Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin would be a far more likely beneficiary than Khodorkovsky or fellow declaration signer Garry Kasparov.

But there are other, more optimistic scenarios, such as a soft coup within the elites and the transfer of power to people who are interested in liberalization and rapprochement with the West. A united and effective liberal opposition may be able to take advantage of such a moment, not only to spread its message in Russia but to wield some influence in a post-Putin regime. (In an April 30 video, Khodorkovsky explicitly stated that such a position of influence in a new government should be the opposition’s goal.) Of course, at present, the Russian opposition has some ways to go before it becomes united or effective. But the declaration may prove an essential first step.

On Feygin’s show, Arestovych took the view that it’s an important step for Ukraine, too: “We understand very well that Russia isn’t going anywhere and we are doomed to be neighbors until the heat death of the universe or the Second Coming. So Putin comes and goes, but the Russian people remain and we have to build a relationship.” This may not be a very enthusiastic olive branch to the Russian opposition, but it’s probably the best one can expect in the midst of a Russia-Ukraine war.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.