Jan Jak is a quiet café in central Moscow, located on its picturesque Boulevard Ring. It has a bright red storefront, a few tiny tables, and a very nice waitress named Julia, who always remembered your name. When I passed it every day on my way to school, I could never imagine it getting stormed by a SWAT team. But that’s exactly what happened in May of 2012.
On May 7th, 2012, about 300 protesters marched through the boulevard ring to protest the inauguration of Vladimir Putin. Jan Jak, the quiet tiny café with the red storefront, was stormed by the OMON, the Russian equivalent of SWAT. The armed policemen broke down the unlocked door, and began arresting everyone inside the café, including journalists with identification.
The use of brute force, and the arrests of the café patrons showcased the government’s conviction that the café was a think tank for civil unrest, or in other words, a meeting ground for the anti-Kremlin opposition. The government has since harassed the tiny café, by destroying the bright red storefront, and closing the establishment down regularly for “Health inspections”. However, this harassment has brought attention to the small opposition of many Russians across the country. And they didn’t care for it.
Many Americans are baffled by Putin’s high approval ratings. People around the world are confused as to why Russians prefer a dictator to a democracy. However, what many don’t realize is that many Russians find Putin and his party much more appealing than what the anti-Kremlin coalition has to offer.
The current anti-Kremlin movement has no chance of getting elected, even if elections were fair. It has nothing to do with their platform, and everything to do with what they are.
Café’s have a long-standing history of being the locales of insurgent meetups. From the Paris Commune, to the Bolshevik Revolution, cafés have been a breeding ground for revolutionary discourse and thought. However, those cafés were largely for the bourgeoisie, and/ or working class. The cafes which serve as Moscow’s opposition haunts, places such as Mayak, Jan Jak, Les Enfants de Paradis, are closer to upper middle class than anything. The average tab at Jean Jacques alone would run up to 50 dollars. These meeting places pride themselves on having an air of Bohemia, and an exorbitant tab. However, when leaders of the opposition call for an end to corruption, while sipping on a 50 dollar glass of wine, they demonstrate to the rest of Russia that the opposition is in fact no better than the oligarchs.
As Miriam Elder of the Guardian has noted back in 2012, the opposition lives in its own little world, far apart from the rest of the country. They have their own newspapers, tv stations, forms of communication, hang outs, all of which are inaccessible to the average Moscovite, let alone Russian. They are concentrated in a specific geographic location, namely Moscow’s Garden ring neighborhood. And they are exclusionary based on finances and race.
The main TV station “Dojd”, which is one of the few anti-Kremlin channels still in operation, costs an average of 33 dollars a month to watch. However, in a country where the median monthly wage is lower than 50 dollars, few people can afford a subscription to a news channel, and few people see the point.
The owner of the channel, Ksenia Sobchak, is a wealthy heiress who has recently become one of the main leaders of the opposition. While she has strained to change her public image since the getting involved in politics, many Russians still associate her with her reality tv persona — the extremely spoiled and bratty “Russian Paris Hilton”. The reality shows, namely “Blonde in Chocolate” and “House 2”, brought her insurmountable riches, and also, prohibited the country from ever taking her seriously. To the average Russian, she is still someone who makes fun of the poor, and treats staff with verbal abuse. Not only can the public not relate to her, people also do not see the need to hear her voice, or her tv channel.
The print media does little better in connecting with the general public. Most anti-Kremlin newspapers either originated on the web, or moved there in recent years, which has increased accessibility. However, the magazines, such as Slon, Snob, Grani, and Bolshoi Gorod commit the same mistake as Sobchak. While Grani is officially blocked within the Russian Federation, Snob and Bolshoi Gorod promote liberal views to already liberal upper middle class Moscovites. The most popular newspaper, Bolshoi Gorod, literally translates as “Big City”. The paper rarely touches on topics that do not relate to Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
In the years following the 2012 inauguration of Putin, the opposition has made strides to reach out to the public using Twitter, with relative success. However, the problem of leadership quickly became evident within the movement. Aleksei Navalniy, the de facto leader of the opposition, has long struggled with his privileged background, and past racist remarks. While he does promote fair and free elections, Navalniy also supported the war with Georgia in 2008, and has made derogatory remarks against Georgians living in Russia. His behavior has earned him the descriptions of being both Russia’s best hope for a democracy, and as Russia’s best hope for a civil war. While calling for liberalization, fair elections, and freedom of speech, Navalniy also participates in the Russian March-a march that unites nationalists of varying degrees. In a country with over a 160 different ethnic groups, a liberal, but nationalistic leader is akin to a ticking time bomb.
Khodorkovskiy is another candidate to head the anti-Kremlin movement. However, despite being a political prisoner, he himself is a known oligarch.
The current opposition in Russia has little to no appeal to the general Russian public. Behind the liberal front, the movement is wrought with allegations of racism, and corruption, while its leaders wax poetically about the need for democracy in expensive cafes of downtown Moscow. With their big city attitudes, bohemian cafés, and nationalistic undertones, the leaders of the opposition alienate the Russian people, who see no reason to trust big city yuppies over the hard working man that government channels make Putin out to be. Few Russians can unite behind a movement that cannot unite itself. And s long as the anti-Kremlin movement excludes all non-white and low income Russians, Putin will remain the better choice for the majority of Russians. The only hope for a Russian democracy lies in an opposition that reflects the diverse economic and ethnic background of the Russian people.