The New Moral Resistance to Putin

Laying flowers in memory of slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Moscow, February 2024. Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters
Laying flowers in memory of slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Moscow, February 2024. Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters

On May 7, as Russian President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his fifth term in office, no one in Russia was prepared to protest. Given the country’s protracted and costly war in Ukraine, its creeping autocracy, and now this spring a major terrorist attack and widespread floods, outsiders may have wondered why people are not taking to the streets in large numbers and calling for an end to Putin’s rule. Are Russians simply unable to think and act for themselves?

The situation is more complicated than it appears. Yes, Russian society is in a state of conformist apathy, justifying the war to itself by borrowing words given to the public by the authorities; the political opposition is in exile, in jail, or dead. Yet over the past few months, a series of incidents have quietly shown that Russia does have a civil society—that is, communities of people who are prepared for peaceful resistance to the regime. Indeed, the dynamic between free-thinking Russians and the state is much as it was in the Soviet era of stagnation during the later decades of the Cold War.

In the 1960s, Soviet dissidents made themselves known. It was hardly noticed by the general public, but the history of resistance really began in those years. These writers, scientists, and activists were not trying to overthrow the Soviet regime; they were merely seeking to force the authorities to honor the rights and principles enshrined in the Soviet constitution. For a while, the authorities did not know how to respond, because this peaceful behavior did not qualify as “anti-Soviet activity”, and yet it could not go unpunished. But then they discovered they could criminalize these actions by changing the law. So began a new wave of repression that, after a few years, quashed nearly any independent expression of civil society. By 1972 the Soviet writer and dissident Lydia Chukovskaya could write in her diary, “There is no public life or activity in Russia: the state has gobbled it all up”.

To anyone who has experienced Putin’s Russia, the process that Chukovskaya described is familiar. Today, the status of Russian civil society has never looked more precarious. Since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, the state has relentlessly increased the number of laws criminalizing various forms of public expression—and with them, the number of prosecutions for antiwar activities. Anyone showing critical or nonconforming views might also face unofficial pressure and threats from the workplace or in public. Moreover, Putin is not content simply to revert to Soviet tactics to silence the public: he seeks to outdo them.

But as was the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this new wave of repression does not mean that dissent and civil society do not exist. Like their Soviet forerunners, independent thinkers in Putin’s Russia have learned to express themselves through other means, including and without any organization, and these were mostly solitary pickets, attending plays and concerts that obliquely criticize the current political situation, taking part in private discussions—talking in kitchens, as it was known in Soviet times—and watching anti-Putin broadcasts on YouTube. Just like their Soviet counterparts, today’s dissidents know that their victories are moral rather than political, but they are not going away. As Russia becomes ever more isolated and the psychological toll of maintaining normality amid a grinding war rises, Soviet-style repression may be the only thing keeping those segments of the population who are dissatisfied with the war from exploding into public outrage.

BRINGING UP THE BODIES

The fierce battle over the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s body to his mother, following his death in a Siberian prison in February, lasted nine days. Fearing protests, the authorities did not want to release the body. It became a moral battle—not only for the thousands of people who dared to openly pay tribute to Navalny but also for the millions who were horrified that the authorities were holding captive the remains of Putin’s biggest political rival, the man Putin hated most. It is strange and scary to think that getting back Navalny’s body was a victory for Russian civil society.

In Soviet times, too, the authorities feared unrest during the funerals of popular figures such as the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak in 1960 and the writer Ilya Ehrenburg in 1967. Sometimes, bodies were also detained in the interest of avoiding turbulence, even if the person in question was not so well known: after the 1980 death of Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the famous poet Osip Mandelstam, who had been persecuted for his lacerating criticism of Stalin and died in the gulag, the authorities briefly held on to the body, fearing that the liberal intelligentsia would turn the funeral into a rally.

Nonetheless, when the body was finally released and it was possible to have a burial, after sunset, the public was deeply moved. “Suddenly everyone—those who were right by the grave and those who were far away—lit candles, so many candles”, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s friend, the scholar Lyudmila Sergeyeva, wrote. Here is another parallel with Navalny: in his case, thousands of Russians lit candles at makeshift memorials for a man who embodied an alternative future for them. In the stifling darkness of the Putin dictatorship, the candles of civil society burn brighter.

A memorial to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and journalist Anna Politskovskaya, Moscow, March 2024. Reuters
A memorial to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and journalist Anna Politskovskaya, Moscow, March 2024. Reuters

Looking at today’s Russia, some might be tempted to argue that such forms of solidarity are senseless. But as the Soviet era shows, this misunderstands the intent. Acts of resistance, even if they have no practical result, show society that there are people who openly oppose state violence and injustice. Consider the seven dissidents who went to Moscow’s Red Square on August 25, 1968, to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

As Anatoly Yakobson, a human rights activist, historian, and literary critic, wrote at the time, “You cannot assess such actions using common political metrics where every action should yield a direct and measurable result, a material benefit. . . . It was a moral struggle”. By the late 1960s, the demonstrations on Pushkin Square that began during the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, writers who had been charged for publishing anti-Soviet books in the West, had become an annual event.

Today’s protesters have been just as dignified and restrained. They might not be clamoring at the barricades, yet there they are in the courts, receiving Kafkaesque sentences for nonexistent crimes; in the swelling ranks of victims of political persecution and extrajudicial reprisals; on the ballooning lists of state-designated “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations”. They have in droves signed their names in support of Boris Nadezhdin, the opposition candidate who tried to run for president this year on an antiwar platform but was disqualified a month before the election. And they are honoring Navalny at sites associated with other victims of state repression: the Solovetsky Stone on Lubyanka Square in Moscow; the Wall of Grief on Academician Sakharov Avenue; and the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, colloquially known as Nemtsov Bridge, where another man who might have become president, the liberal politician and Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, was killed nine years ago.

Moral resistance is done for oneself as much as for the public. It is important for one’s conscience, allowing one to set personal standards of moral behavior in immoral times. As Larisa Bogoraz, one of the seven dissidents of the 1968 Red Square protest, said in her final statement in court, “I faced a choice: to protest or to stay silent”. She elaborated on her decision: “To stay silent for me meant to lie”.

CONSTITUTIONAL PATRIOTS

In the Soviet Union, the rise of dissident culture was initially driven by the insight that the authorities were failing to respect the Soviet constitution and the basic rights enshrined in it. The demand that officials rectify their ways, first formulated in 1965 by the political activist Alexander Esenin-Volpin in response to the arrests of Sinyavsky and Daniel, marked the beginning of the movement.

In December of that year, Esenin-Volpin organized a meeting in Red Square calling for a “fair and open trial” of the two writers. More actions followed. The next year, dissidents staged a protest calling for adherence to the constitution, again in Pushkin Square. Then, in January 1967, after Soviet authorities arrested the poet Yuri Galanskov and his friends for publishing and distributing a samizdat journal, several more dissidents set up at the square. A year after that, the so-called Trial of the Four—the case against Galanskov and three other dissidents, Alexander Ginzburg, Alexey Dobrovolsky, and Vera Lashkova—sparked a further wave of petitions and protests. By calling on the regime to follow the letter of the Soviet constitution, these people laid the foundation for human rights activists in Russia today. Indeed, the appeal to adhere to the law can be made even more strongly now, since every day the state is trampling the rights and freedoms of the people that are guaranteed in the Russian constitution.

The Soviet state’s immediate response to the protests of the late 1960s, however, was to pass new laws making it easier to crack down on dissent. Although the Soviet Penal Code already included a famous provision against “anti-Soviet” activity, it did not have provisions that specifically applied to some dissident actions, so in 1966, two more articles were concocted: Article 190-1, prohibiting the spread of knowingly false statements that defame the Soviet state and social system, and Article 190-3, banning group actions that violate public order. In the early 1970s, prosecutors made particularly wide use of Article 190 to charge dissidents, and the quality of the judicial process gradually deteriorated. Whenever dissidents were being tried, otherwise competent judges disregarded arguments, laws, and even common sense.

Russian journalist Antonina Favorskaya in court on charges of extremism, Moscow, March 2024. Yulia Morozova / Reuters
Russian journalist Antonina Favorskaya in court on charges of extremism, Moscow, March 2024. Yulia Morozova / Reuters

The Putin regime has adopted the same approach. In the face of efforts by civil society to uphold basic constitutional rights, it has expanded the penal code to quash all forms of dissent, criminalizing any actions that can be related to “extremism” and “discrediting the armed forces”. Investigators, prosecutors, and judges have begun to behave like their counterparts from half a century ago. In 2022, there was a notable increase in the number of articles of the penal code dealing with political crimes. In 2023 and in the first months of this year, legislators switched their focus to enforcing restrictions that violate the “human and civil rights and freedoms” section of the constitution, including labeling individuals as “foreign agents”. The punishments now being meted out for these invented crimes are formidable: for instance, the authorities are confiscating property from alleged offenders at levels that surpass those of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, prosecutions on antiwar charges have steadily increased since the war began. By the end of 2022, according to the Russian human rights organization OVD-Info, 378 people had been charged; that number had reached 794 people by the end of 2023. This year, between January and April alone, 960 people were detained. By contrast, even in the early 1970s, when the Soviet repressive machine was at its peak, the number of convictions for political crimes was about 160 per year. If anything, the situation today is much harsher and more repressive, arbitrary, and chaotic than it was then.

Neither does this trend seem likely to end soon. Given the increasingly absurd pretexts the state is using for criminal prosecution and the resounding success of informers of all stripes, the judicial crackdown will continue to worsen. And this is apart from the alarming rise in extrajudicial repression: OVD-Info, for example, has documented such tactics as pressure in the workplace, threats, expulsion from universities and schools, destruction of property, censorship, and forced public apologies—a tactic introduced by the Kadyrov regime in Chechnya for any alleged misdemeanor against the government. There is also the continual risk of being branded a “foreign agent”, an “undesirable organization”, or an “extremist”, not to mention the authorities’ pervasive disregard for the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association, an approach that renders almost any public activity suspect.

REPUBLIC OF LETTERS

In the first years after Leonid Brezhnev came to power in 1964, repression against regime critics was comparatively mild. A number of people who were not prepared to directly confront the regime committed acts of moral resistance, such as writing open appeals to the government to advocate for a cause. A whole letter-writing movement emerged.

In February 1966, 25 writers, scholars, and cultural leaders, including many who were favored by the regime, sent a letter to Brezhnev urging him not to rehabilitate Stalin. Later that year, a group sent a letter in support of Sinyavsky and Daniel, but in that case, the signers faced serious problems at work. In 1968, leading scientists and scholars from Akademgorodok, the celebrated Soviet university town near Novosibirsk, in southwestern Siberia, signed a letter calling for the authorities to stop prosecuting the defendants in the Trial of the Four. Other podpisanty (petitioners), many of them writers and poets, also spoke out in defense of Ginzburg, Galanskov, Dobrovolsky, and Lahkova, which had consequences, although not the most serious ones: some had temporary problems with publications and references in the press. And in 1970, a letter was written in defense of the poet Alexander Tvardovsky and opposing the dismissal of the editorial board of Novy Mir (New World), the liberal journal he headed.

Another example of resistance was the legendary 1968 concert in Novosibirsk, just a few months after the Akademgorodok letter, by the famous poet and bard Alexander Galich. Performing before a large, young audience, Galich sang songs that were politically highly provocative, like his “Ode to Boris Pasternak”. Toward the end of one of them, a light exploded with a loud bang. “I thought someone shot at you”, the poet Yuri Kukin, another performer, told Galich. Galich responded, “I thought the first secretary of the obkom [regional committee of the Communist Party] shot himself”. After this incident, Galich was banned from performing, but his songs remained a crucial touchstone in educated Russian circles of the time. Listening to them—and after Galich’s emigration to Western Europe, to his broadcasts on Radio Liberty—became itself an act of resistance.

Galich referred to this phenomenon as “silent resistance”, a term that might be used today to describe the feelings and behavior of millions of antiwar and anti-Putin Russians. Although it is hard to find literal analogs to Galich’s songs, many Russians have become avid watchers of YouTube videos of opposition figures and analysts, concerts by opposition rappers, and singers who are more familiar to older generations of liberal intellectuals—all of whom play the role of a kind of collective Galich.

Soviet dissident writers Yuli Daniel (left) and Andrei Sinyavsky at the opening of their trial, Moscow, February 1966. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
Soviet dissident writers Yuli Daniel (left) and Andrei Sinyavsky at the opening of their trial, Moscow, February 1966. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

During the 1960s, information spread with impressive speed: something akin to social networks formed among the intelligentsia, a process that had already begun under Nikita Khrushchev but reached its full extent in the early Brezhnev years. Most important, these activities showed that a civil society existed. They might have been underground, but they were visible, audible, and palpable. They proved that members of the Soviet public had opinions of their own.

By the latter part of the decade, these activities made the regime fear civil society. In 1967, the death of the writer Ilya Ehrenburg provoked a large public outpouring, and the state restricted access to the cemetery where he was buried. In her diary that day, Chukovskaya wrote: “They didn’t let people into the cemetery; there was a police cordon [saying], ‘Cleaning day, no entry.’” In a later entry, she noted the state’s growing paranoia about the circulation of dissident materials and literature: “Apparently there’s a real fear of samizdat! This means public opinion has emerged”.

At the same time, the Communist Party leadership felt it was important for intellectuals to have a means to let off steam to prevent more widespread discontent. Indeed, a publication existed for precisely this purpose: Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Newspaper), which one of Brezhnev’s advisers is said to have described as “a sort of socialist Hyde Park”, a reference to Speaker’s Corner in London. As one of its former editors put it, the journal was “a lie of the highest quality: not for the masses, only for the intellectual reader”. It lied by drawing readers into current debates and creating the “illusion of democracy”, all the while distracting readers from what the editor called “the real problems of Soviet society”.

In Putin’s Russia, no such official outlet exists, another sign that the current regime is crueler than its Brezhnev-era counterpart. The Kremlin sees no need to allow the public to let off steam. As a result, today’s liberal intelligentsia watches Telegram channels and YouTube, the two independent platforms that have survived Moscow’s crackdown on social media—mainly because pro-Putin and pro-war voices rely on them—or they read media blocked by Putin’s regime via virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get around the censorship.

FREE THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

During the era of stagnation, as the Brezhnev years came to be called, the two most emblematic Soviet dissident intellectuals were the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Both released manifestos and publications and achieved extraordinary international renown. But they had two very different views of the present and future.

Solzhenitsyn’s position was summarized in an anthology of articles he published in 1974 under the title From Under the Rubble. In it, he presented a moderately conservative and nationalistic view of the problems of Russia and the world and criticized Western civilization. In this way, he made clear his differences with Sakharov. In “As Breathing and Consciousness Return”, Solzhenitsyn criticized Sakharov, analyzing the latter’s liberal views from a conservative perspective. “A large swath of educated society still stagnates on these positions”, Solzhenitsyn wrote, referring to Sakharov’s famous “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom”—a view of the world that was close to universalist, human rights, and liberal consciousness.

By contrast, Sakharov sought to enlighten the Soviet leadership, believing in its rationality and cooperativeness. In the early 1960s, when he called for a prohibition on nuclear testing because of its long-term negative impact on the environment, he elicited a harsh and emotionally charged reaction from Nikita Khrushchev, who was against the idea of such a treaty but came around to it, in what became the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Sakharov’s directness initially made Khrushchev’s successor, Brezhnev, respect him and carefully read everything that Sakharov wrote.

After 1968, however, instead of trying to convince the regime in Moscow, Sakharov started addressing those he believed were ready to hear him—the Soviet people and the outside world. He was right. His “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom”—his famous essay warning of the threat of nuclear weapons and arguing for the need to bring together the capitalist and communist systems—went on to reach some 20 million readers worldwide. When the essay was published in The New York Times, it was the last straw for the Soviet government, which banned Sakharov from all military work and later prevented him from leaving the country.

According to Sakharov, the obliteration of intellectual freedom by dictators in their efforts to maintain power resulted in the mental and moral degradation of society and was therefore self-destructive. He believed that scientific progress in itself could not bring happiness unless the state and its citizens upheld moral values. Criticizing the coy anti-Stalinism of his time, which concealed what he saw as a velvet re-Stalinization, Sakharov called for the authorities to declassify all security service archives (including those of the NKVD and KGB) and to undertake a “nationwide investigation” into the crimes of the Stalin-era regime. None of this took place, of course, and such steps are even more unimaginable in today’s environment, in which Putin’s Kremlin flaunts its Stalinist lineage.

In the end, the possibility of reform was less hopeful than Sakharov imagined. In disputing Sakharov’s position, Solzhenitsyn criticized the ideas of convergence and progress and what he called the “passive imitation of the West”. Most important, Solzhenitsyn argued that Sakharov overlooked “vital national forces in Russia”. As Solzhenitsyn posited, with some foresight, “Perhaps we should recognize that the evolution of our country from one form of authoritarianism to another would be the most natural, the smoothest, the least painful path of development for it to follow?”

KEEPING THE CANDLES LIT

As both the Soviet dissident era and the evolution of Putin’s Kremlin make clear, Russia’s entire modern history can be understood as swinging between cycles of de-Stalinization and re-Stalinization. It is no accident that the only places it made sense for Russians to light candles in Navalny’s honor were sites commemorating victims of earlier political repression.

This is why the Putin regime deemed it so crucial to destroy and annihilate Memorial, the organization dedicated to documenting Soviet and specifically Stalin-era crimes and commemorating their victims. This is also why Putin has found it necessary to rewrite history and destroy the memory of the state’s misdeeds. Putinists are not the heirs of the Great Victory of 1945—the Soviet people’s, not Stalin’s, triumph over Hitler in World War II—that they claim to be. They are the heirs of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1938 and of his ruthless crackdown on “rootless cosmopolitans” from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

Paying tribute to Navalny at the closed gates of Borisovskoye Cemetery, Moscow, March 2024. Reuters
Paying tribute to Navalny at the closed gates of Borisovskoye Cemetery, Moscow, March 2024. Reuters

Ordinary Russians today—that is, not civil society, but the masses who are afraid to think and to take responsibility for their country—do not care. They continue sitting in traffic and in restaurants, talking about anything except politics, mumbling to themselves the excuses for the inexcusable that they heard on television or read in the pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. This is the same general public that, in its bewilderment and fear, accepted the necessity for the “special operation” in Ukraine in 2022 and who believed that Navalny’s 2020 poisoning was staged, or perhaps a provocation by Western special services. This is what the Kremlin has been counting on: the total and all-consuming indifference of the man in the street.

There are, however, people in this apathetic crowd who are burning up on the inside with shame at what has happened to their beloved country, at the impenetrable indifference and docility of the others. These are the people who carried candles for Navalny, candles that have become the last weapons of civilized human beings. Sakharov and Navalny were very different people who lived in very different times. And they were punished by the regime in very different ways. But each became in his own era a moral authority for the thinking part of Russian society. And they have helped ensure that public opinion, however eviscerated, continues to exist, despite all attempts by the regime to gobble it up.

Andrei Kolesnikov is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

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