Russia: uncertain revolutions and future question marks
Giovanna De Maio 9 November 2017

While Moscow was getting ready for a fairly low-key hundredth anniversary celebration of the Bolshevik uprising, another revolution resonated in the anti-Putin activist circles.

Vyacheslav Maltsev, the leader of the group ‘Artpodgotovka’ (literally ‘artillery preparation’), has been predicting a revolution in Russia on November 5th 2017 since 2013. He urged his supporters to occupy Russian squares and force president Vladimir Putin to resign. Artpodgotovka was banned and branded as a terrorist organization about a month ago, Maltsev was arrested in absentia and is now in exile in Paris.

The response of Russian authorities was as predictable as it was quick. More than 400 people have been arrested all over the country and accused of disobeying officers, violating laws on public assemblies and of disorderly conduct with potential terrorist intentions.

Despite its small scale, the Artpodgotovka phenomenon is interesting because it reflects the identity-building process that Russia has struggled to complete follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. The convergence between Artpodgotovka and the protests promoted by blogger Aleksey Navalny indicate that the thought of a Russia without Putin is no longer just an absurd taboo.

What is Artpodgotovka

Artpodgotovka is not a political movement and its scope is not easy to understand. Its YouTube channel – created by Maltsev in 2012 – counts 140,000 subscribers, its Vkontakte page (Russian Facebook) has 34,000 and its Telegram has 3,000.

Thanks to the popularity he has achieved on the web, Maltsev managed to win the federal primaries of the liberal-democratic and reformist party ‘Parnas’ in May 2016 without managing to reach the Duma as the party obtained only 0.7% votes. Maltsev has always espoused right-wing political ideas and, prior to creating Artpodgotovka, he served as deputy in Saratov’s Duma. He also helped setting up the local branch of United Russia, president Putin’s party in 2001, regretting this choice a few years later.

Artpodgotovka’s activists also sympathized with Navalny’s campaign. Maltsev himself was detained for 15 days during the anti-corruption rallies in March and June last year, whereas Aleksey Politikov – another activist – was condemned to two years in prison for attacking a policeman during the rallies in March.

A new identity

Artpodgotovka and Navalny supporters are part of a bigger debate about Russian, post-Soviet identity.

Their conception of Russia necessarily requires the cutting of the umbilical cord between the country and its president.

The goal of Artpodgotovka – as stated in its homepage – is to impeach Putin and establish a true democracy. Its long-term program combines anti-corruption policies that are similar to those proposed by Navalny as well as a peaceful international projection of Russia, including a peace treaty with Ukraine.

President Putin has long been working on establishing an ideological bond between patriotism and loyalty to the regime, the survival of which being the main driver of Russian domestic and foreign policy.

Especially since 2011, with the outbreak of Bolotnaya protests, the Kremlin has started adopting very strict measures aimed at limiting the activity of the NGOs (the famous law on foreign agents) and at controlling the most popular websites.

It is no coincidence that the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution was not remembered beyond a few museum exhibitions and academic conferences. The Russian revolution is a binding factor that recalls a glorious past whilst simultaneously supporting the myth of people being able to destabilize a century-old power; this has proven to be very uncomfortable for the Kremlin.

Despite what is said to be believed on the surface, the Ukraine crisis has also given a voice to some criticism towards Putin. On the one hand, Dugin, Prokhanov, Malofeev, the Izborsk Club and the traditionalist intellectuals that sympathize with the European far right would like to see an even more aggressive foreign policy. On the other hand, the weak and unstable reformers are looking for support in a politically indifferent society leveraging on a populist narrative, on the fight against corruption and the damages produced by the sanctions.

Speaking about change is obviously still premature. However it is true that, if the Kremlin has taken time and effort to repress a small scale movement such as the Artpodgotovka, it may be that Putin’s institutional boulder fears a gradual erosion by the cold drips of dissent.

Credit: Maxim Zmeyev / AFP