Last week, I spent some time writing about the Decembrists – a group of disgruntled army officers who launched a failed coup in December 1825 in an attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. The Decembrists were divided into two groups – the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The former were considered more moderate, and came up with a plan for a constitutional monarchy. The latter, by contrast, plotted to murder the entire Royal family and institute a republic.
The leader of the Southern Society was an officer named Pavel Pestel, who wrote a sort of draft constitution for his proposed republic, in which everyone was to be equal before the law, citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, and the country would have a parliament elected by universal franchise. It all sounded very democratic. Except that Pestel made it clear that all of that stuff would have to wait for at least ten years. In the meantime, Russia would be run by a dictatorship. Who was to be the dictator? Pestel didn’t say, but many of his colleagues felt that it was obvious that he had himself in mind. According to his biographer, Pestel alienated many others in the movement by ‘the perceived Napoleonic scale of his personal ambitions.’
The idea of the wannabe Napoleon lurking behind a democratic façade was making headlines again this week, with the publication of an article by the leader of the liberal Russian party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky. In this Yavlinsky denounced opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was recently jailed after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from poisoning.
After making some unsavoury comments about the Putin ‘regime’, Yavlinsky condemned Navalny’s tactic of endless street protests, saying that they couldn’t possibly overthrow the government and would only lead to more repression. He then cited at length the late liberal writer Valeriia Novodvorskaia, who called Navalny ‘the future leader of the mindless mob, with a Nazi inclination.’ ‘If the masses follow Navalny’, Yavlinsky quoted Novodvorskaia as saying, ‘fascism awaits the country.’ Yavlinksy made it clear that he agreed. ‘There is nothing positive in Navalny’s pretensions to participate in Russian politics,’ he wrote.
Yavlinsky’s suspicions of Navalny aren’t unique among Russian liberals. I get the impression that a lot of them don’t like him very much. But Russian oppositionists have long taken the view that the only real enemy is the state, and so you shouldn’t attack others who are with you in wanting to overthrow it. Consequently, it didn’t take long for people to start laying into Yavlinsky for having dared to break this taboo. Most notably, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg Evgeny Roizman declared that it would now be impossible for him to ally with the Yabloko party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Russian liberals are divided enough as it is, with several parties competing for what is already a small share of the vote. Rather than uniting the opposition, it would seem that Navalny’s return to Russia has served to split them into even smaller fragments.
This is not what was meant to have happened. For weeks, Western media was crowing that something had fundamentally changed in Russia, and that the demonstrations against Navalny’s arrest which took place in cities across the country were a sign of a new mood of discontent that was bound to lead to an accelerating wave of protest. Navalny, it was said, had galvanised the Russian population against the government.
Yet after two weekends of demonstrations, last week Navalny’s deputy Leonid Volkov called them off. That was it – the great wave of protests lasted all of two weekends. All things told, it can only be deemed a failure.
Volkov then made things worse by declaring that he was embarking on a new strategy, namely to mobilize Western states to impose more and more sanctions on Russia. If he’d wanted to endorse the Kremlin’s claim that Navalny and his team are in the pay of the West, Volkov couldn’t have found a better way.
Meanwhile, Navalny dug his own grave a bit more this past week in an appearance in court to face charges that he had slandered a World War Two veteran. If you don’t want to be convicted of slander, one might imagine that you would avoid insulting the person you are accused of slandering in court. You might, but not if you’re Alexei Navalny, who took the opportunity to accuse the veteran of being a ‘puppet’. Putting aside the validity of the court process, one can see that this wasn’t the wisest thing to do. There aren’t many war veterans left alive, and those that are have a sort of holy image that is wrapped up in Russians’ sense of patriotic pride of the victory over Nazi Germany. You insult that at your peril. Needless to say, the Russian media were all over the story, painting Navalny as treacherous and unpatriotic, and disrespectful of Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle versus fascism.
If something like the modern press had existed two hundred years ago, one can imagine how they would have covered the Decembrist revolt: ‘Regime in trouble’; ‘Failed coup marks first step in campaign of protest’; ‘Arrest of Pestel further undermines Tsar’s legitimacy’. And so on. Yet Nicholas I lived on as Tsar for another 30 years, and it took another 50 years on top of that before another serious attempt to overthrow the regime took place. Of course, history never exactly repeats itself, but for now it looks very much as if the Navalny revolution has shot its bolt.