A revolution in Russia is possible

anti-war protest Russia

First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

In mid-February, two very bad pieces of news arrived just three days apart that would have a serious impact on the Russian political landscape. First, an appeals court upped the sentence of the left-wing intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky — a 600,000-rouble fine (approximately 6,000 euro) suddenly became a five-year prison sentence, and the academic was sent straight from the courtroom to jail. On the following Friday, the world was shaken by the news of Alexei Navalny’s unexpected death in a penal colony in the Arctic Circle. Perhaps in the future, these two events will be understood as the beginning of yet another level and scale of the Kremlin’s repression of Russian society.

It is important to realize that both news events, and the possible reactions to them (or lack thereof) are closely linked to the prospects of ending the war in Ukraine. I will try to briefly explain and show why we need to carefully avoid reproducing the narratives that are manufactured and planted by the Kremlin in these cases.

The first thing we should understand and accept is that the war in Ukraine can only truly end once there has been profound political change in Russia. Making costly and unjust concessions to Putin at the expense of the interests of Ukraine and other countries cannot buy real peace from the Kremlin but only a brief pause before renewed military aggression.

The second thing to understand, without which the first only leads to undue despair, is that a revolution or profound political change is indeed possible in Russia in the medium term. There are three fundamental preconditions for this:

  • The dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s domestic policies and with the vulnerable position of many people at all levels of Russian society, except a small percentage of the most affluent.
  • The presence of a sufficiently large number of people with experience in independent or even oppositional activities — these are the future activists of a broad popular movement who will change the country, removing the current leadership that has seized wealth and power. I would like to note that a lot of the people with experience in political participation are from younger generations, and in this demographic left-wing and democratic views are the most widespread.
  • A series of mistakes and crimes by the Russian authorities, the first of which was the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, which make political crises in Russia almost inevitable. Prigozhin’s mutiny was the first instance.

There is nothing the regime or anyone else can do about the first preconditions, namely mass dissatisfaction with life in Russia and Putin’s domestic policies. Russia is dominated by one of the world’s most radical liberal-conservative regimes. Market ideology, blatant economic inequality, the precarious and vulnerable position of the majority, and the staggering luxury of the minority are the basis of this regime, and one which it will not abandon, even when standing on the edge of the abyss. They will not “share” with the people.

The Kremlin can, however, work with the second and third preconditions. The active part of society, which has experience in collective cooperation, has to be intimidated and demoralized. Fabricated criminal cases, such as the Kagarlitsky case and Navalny’s political assassination, serve this purpose. Sometimes European officials and politicians also unwittingly act as Putin’s allies in the demoralization of the active part of Russian society when they, for one reason or another, make life difficult for political activists who have fled repression or military mobilization by closing off escape routes for those who may be targeted in the future.

To avoid political crises, the Kremlin seeks allies, willing or unwilling, in Europe and the US. Whether misguided or outright corrupt, they are supposed to convince their citizens and the authorities to make unjust concessions to Putin that will allow him to get out of his otherwise hopeless situation, catch his breath, and continue his military aggression with renewed vigour.

How does Russia’s multi-layered propaganda deal with issues that are inconvenient for the Kremlin? Whether it is the passenger flight MH17 that was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, or Navalny’s assassination, or the criminal prosecution of the journalist Kagarlitsky or the mathematician Azat Miftakhov, it begins with several “alternative facts” being offered at once through a variety of channels (from the official state media to supposedly ‘independent’ writers). One alternative fact may be publicly debunked, but people will not want to deal with debunking a whole slew of artificially planted narratives. Ultimately, people are simply left with the feeling that there are many explanations and different opinions, and that “we will never know the real truth”.

Among the standard explanations used by the Kremlin to divert attention are narratives based on the principle of cui bono looking for the guilty among those who benefit from the situation. The downing of MH17 by pro-Putin forces benefits the Ukrainian authorities, so the Kremlin plants the version that Kyiv did it. Navalny’s assassination leads to a wave of criticism of Putin from the global community, it therefore benefits the governments of the US and Western Europe and NATO, which the Kremlin presents within Russia as its opponents. So, it was them who carried out the assassination through their secret agents. In other high-profile political cases, such as Kagarlitsky or Miftakhov, it is often suggested that the defendant is in fact guilty of other crimes, yet for some reason they are not being tried for them, but rather for the fabricated case.

Therefore, it is always important to monitor the Kremlin’s narratives that accompany its political repression and crimes. When these narratives are followed and unconsciously reproduced by political and social groups around the world, it contributes to the demoralization of Russian civil society and helps Putin avoid political crises. This means it works against the prospect of revolution or profound political change in Russia, which is the only way to peacefully, permanently, and justly end the conflict in Ukraine.

I wish to end by reiterating a few facts and simple truths.

The left-wing intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky is set to spend five years in jail for no reason. He was cautious and did nothing to threaten anyone. It is just that he is a well-known figure and publicly opposed to the war. The very fact that in a fabricated case of “justifying terrorism” in December 2023, a Russian court gave him a fine rather than sentencing him to several years in prison is, the best evidence of his innocence. Now the sentence has been reviewed and Boris has been sent to prison simply because he did not want to leave Russia, which he has every right not to do.

An attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny was already carried out on Putin’s orders in August 2020. Over the past few years, the Kremlin and security forces have been doing everything possible to gradually isolate Alexei from his family, his lawyers, and the world. Now the Kremlin is covering up the traces of what happened and made the family wait nine days before they could receive his body.

If the Russian authorities had not wanted Navalny’s death and were not to blame, they would have acted differently. Alexei would have lived in excellent conditions all these years, trusted and independent doctors would have been allowed to see him, and an international team would have been working from the very beginning to determine the cause of death. We know that it was a political assassination of a key political opponent.

I urge everyone to consider their positions and actions regarding the events in Russia in relation to how they may impact Russian civil society and the Kremlin’s chances of avoiding future crises. I call for the widest possible solidarity campaigns with all anti-war and other political prisoners. The projects of Russian activists and the activists themselves should be supported. This is not very difficult, and it is far less costly in comparison to the amounts spent on “security” budgets.

There are no ethical dilemmas here. However, it will be an important contribution to the cause of revolution in Russia, and thus peace in Ukraine and Europe.

Michael Lobanov is a left-wing politician and trade unionist, whose election campaign made him famous across Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine. After a year of harassment, arrests, raids, police beatings, and dismissal from his university post, he was forced to leave the country in the summer of 2023. Translated by Charlotte Bull and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.