Russian Opposition: Stripping of Illusions

Photo: Representatives of the real Russian opposition are beginning to publicly support the armed struggle against the Putin regime. Co-founder of the "Free Russia Forum," Ivan Tyutrin (centre), at the frontline command post of the Freedom of Russia Legion in the Bakhmut direction (Ukraine). Source: "Freedom of Russia" Legion.

Photo: Representatives of the real Russian opposition are beginning to publicly support the armed struggle against the Putin regime. Co-founder of the “Free Russia Forum,” Ivan Tyutrin (centre), at the frontline command post of the Freedom of Russia Legion in the Bakhmut direction (Ukraine). Source: “Freedom of Russia” Legion.

The upcoming inauguration of Vladimir Putin and the death of Alexei Navalny during Putin’s re-election reignite the question: what is the state of the Russian opposition? Does it even exist? Is it capable of steering Russia away from autocracy and the attempts to resurrect the Soviet empire?

The condition of the Russian opposition hardly presents it as a real counterbalance to the Putin regime. At best, its role seems to be that of sherpas and translators after Putinism’s defeat. Yet, this assessment hardly satisfies Putin’s public opponents.

However, there is no other assessment at the moment. There is little to no observable opposition activity within Russia. Organised or visible opposition within the country is practically non-existent. It does not participate in elections or in parliament, and what foreign observers are shown seems more like a facade.

Nevertheless, some form of opposition does exist. But if we draw military parallels, the “generals,” “officers,” and most “soldiers” of the Russian opposition mainly reside outside of Russia. Among those who remain in Russia, the most prominent and charismatic figure was Alexei Navalny, and his death was perceived as an execution in the civilized world.

Essentially, this horrific incident is seen as a sacred sacrifice, intended to demonstrate to the Russian citizens that Putin is capable of dealing with his enemies. As if there were any doubts after the deaths of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov. Putin delivered his presidential address, essentially standing on Navalny’s coffin. Two more prominent political prisoners, Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, are serving lengthy prison terms, with Kara-Murza having been poisoned with strong substances twice.

The “Anti-Corruption Foundation,” founded by Navalny, continues to expose the machinations of the Russian government and has launched Maria Pevchikh’s video project “Traitors,” which tells a rather specific version of events in Russia’s 1990s. The emergence of this product suggests that the chances of consolidating the Russian opposition after the death of its most charismatic representative are slim. While Yulia Navalnaya, who was handed the banner of the fight against Putin after her husband’s death, may lack experience, she does not lack financial and media resources.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been abroad for over 10 years, having spent several years sewing gloves in prison before that. The co-owner of Yukos actively criticizes the government, participates in public events of Putin’s opponents, but is unlikely to be elected president of Russia. A similar situation exists with Garry Kasparov’s “Free Russia Forum,” whose fame among Western elites far exceeds his popularity among Russians.

The most effective part of the Russian opposition remains its representatives united in the units such as the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and the Siberian Battalion. Their numbers do not exceed a few hundred (for reference – there are more Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces), and politically associated with them is former Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, who allegedly obtained Ukrainian citizenship in 2019. However, it was the actions of Russian volunteers in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces that forced Putin to personally comment on the situation in the Kursk and Belgorod regions.

So, perhaps a political wing of the Russian opposition could form abroad in the near future?

Recall that in September 2022, Putin announced a limited mobilization, after which nearly 700,000 Russian citizens quickly left for bordering states – Georgia, Armenia, Turkey. Some ended up in the Balkans or went even further.

However, one should not indulge in euphoria regarding emigrants and their prospects as future participants in the opposition movement, even abroad. It is difficult to imagine that border guards subordinate to the FSB, as in Soviet times, have released a significant mass of people purely out of humanitarian considerations, although emigrants accounted for only 0.5% of Russia’s total population. Relocants find it cramped in Georgia and Armenia, where the national languages are not very similar to Russian, there are not too many of them in the Balkans and in Turkey. However, in the South Caucasus, it is worth paying close attention to Russian citizens, who may unexpectedly become a factor in hybrid influence.

Indeed, foreign Russians could become a certain factor in shaping the host countries’ tougher stance towards Putin’s regime. But no, they do not play such a role yet. Moreover, almost without exception, they currently demonstrate overtly conscious or at least subconscious attempts to detach the Putin regime from the fact of broad popular support for the idea of aggressive restoration of the Soviet empire.

Twenty years of active brainwashing of Russians is a fact, as is the result of this brainwashing. Even Navalny, whom many respect for his sacrifice, remained an imperialist in his views until the very last day. It’s enough to recall his position on the (non)return of annexed Crimea. 

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