Russia's post-election protests: a "no" to nihilism

Is the country finally starting to believe in something?

They used to gather in the good times, too - but they were far fewer in number, disunited, and easily dispersed.

Riot policemen, bussed in from the provinces, smirked about Saturday overtime payments as they waited to take their shields and shove the "ones who don't agree" off the streets. It did not usually take long. In those days of the boom which reached its height between 2006 and 2008, there did not seem to be many people who did not agree. At least, they were few who could be bothered to come onto the streets to say so.

For most people agreed that Vladimir Putin was good news. The chaos and instability of the immediate post-Soviet period were gone. There was food in the shops. There were mobile phones in pockets, and package holidays to Phuket and Sharm-el-Shekih.

The "democrats" - young protégés of Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin - were gone from the political scene: more good news. After all, what had they done except assist in bringing the country to its knees, while creating Russia's special brand of bandit capitalism?

That's why the events since Russia's parliamentary elections on December 4th are significant: more people are starting to disagree. And that makes Mr Putin's planned return to the Presidency in March next year more interesting. If you talk to senior Russian officials in private, as I frequently did during my most recent posting to Moscow, as BBC correspondent from 2006-2009, they quickly drop their public pretence that the country has free elections.

One commentator with close ties to the Kremlin explained to me during Russia's last election cycle, from 2007-2008, that there was no choice but to control the voting. "Otherwise," he warned, "we would have a parliament full of Communists and Fascists."

Instead, the opposition alleges, there is a parliament full of "swindlers and thieves". It is less full of them than it was a month ago, because the party so described, United Russia - a vehicle largely invented to support Mr Putin in whatever he should see fit to do - saw its share of the vote dramatically reduced. This seems especially remarkable if the poll was rigged.

The phrase "swindlers and thieves" was popularized by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and politician, who is currently serving a 15 day jail sentence for his part in demonstrations demanding the elections be re-run. I saw Mr Navalny speak at Chatham House when he visited London in September. I asked him then if he was worried for his safety. He replied that his new fame made him harder to threaten; and wondered if Russia's political establishment would consider him more dangerous in jail. They seem to have taken that risk.

Mr Putin still has a good deal of support. Frustration - rather than common cause - unites those who oppose him. This is not a simple case of a young generation demanding change. As Maxim Trudolyubov pointed out in last week's International Herald Tribune, the judge who sent Mr Navalny down was 26 years old. These are not pro-western demonstrations. The flags flapping in the snow-bearing winter winds reveal Communists and Russian nationalists among the ranks of the new dissenters - people who reproach the west for its supposed ideological inspiration of the excesses of Russia's loathed oligarchs.

In the twenty years of its existence, modern Russia has been plagued by nihilism - a fact frequently acknowledged even by President Dmitry Medvedev. The big ideas of history - faith, tsar, and fatherland; Marx, Engels, Lenin - all went, and were not replaced. Cynicism and despair filled the vacuum, allowing the growth of the corruption which has made Russia what it is today.

The most significant element to the protests is their expression of belief in a principle: fair elections. If that continues, the perhaps, two decades after it cast aside communism, Russia may finally start to believe in something. If that happens, this really could come to be seen as a seminal moment.

James Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University. He first worked as a journalist in Russia in 1991, and has covered all the main news stories of the post-Soviet era, most recently as BBC Moscow correspondent from 2006-2009. His book, "Reporting Conflict", is due to be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan

 

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.