MOSCOW – Just a few months ago, it seemed that Russians had fully surrendered to the Kremlin’s “soft despotism.” The jailing or silencing of opponents across Russia had produced a pervasive feeling not of fear, but of despondency – the sense that words and actions simply do not matter, and that speaking and mobilizing are therefore useless. But recent protests suggest that Russians still have some fight left in them.
To be sure, Russian Kremlin-backed “patriots” remain a potent force for denouncing President Vladimir Putin’s critics. At the May 9 Victory Day celebration, commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, more than a million people throughout the country marched, holding portraits of Stalin and the fallen in all Russian wars, including the current one in Ukraine.
The so-called Immortal Regiment march, once a wonderful civic initiative, has been taken over by the Kremlin for profit and propaganda: it is a display of national unity, in which the state provides, for a fee, items like portrait-holders and ribbons. When one woman dissented, holding a sign about stopping all wars, the crowd carried out their Kremlin-inspired patriotic duty, shouting in anger, “You are embarrassing our war president.”
As Alexis de Tocqueville once warned, a state doesn’t need to be fully totalitarian to experience tyranny. “The majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion,” and “undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.” This “tyranny of the majority” doesn’t need gulags to be effective.
Yet, just a week after that Victory Day march, the minority stood up. Almost 30,000 people protested in Moscow against the Kremlin’s demolition of the so-called khrushchevki, the roughly 8,000 five-story apartment blocks constructed in Moscow under my grandfather Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership in the 1950s.
In a country where Stalin is often deified, seeing Khrushchev held up as a hero for once was heartwarming. People carried signs adorned with his colorful language, “Ya vam pokazhu kuzkinu mat, restovratory khrenovy” (I’ll make you eat dirt, you freaking renovators).
The khrushchevki’s purpose was to foster personal privacy. It was Stalinist urban practice to compel as many as 30 people to share rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen in just one apartment. With the 1950s reform, families were freed from communal living: they not only got their own kitchens and bathrooms; they were able to live without fear that their private words, spoken in their own homes, would be overheard and reported to the KGB.
Khrushchev hoped that the modest buildings would simply tide people over until the 1980s, when, he predicted, true proletarian luxury would arrive. But, contrary to his expectations, communism collapsed altogether, and the khrushchevki remained, having patiently withstood Russia’s winters, political and meteorological.
In fact, the khrushchevki have been a symbol of a freer Russia for a half-century. Some are, no doubt, dilapidated and in need of replacement. But some require only renovation. A Dutch remodeling of a gray slab from that era just received a major architecture prize.
But the Kremlin has its own plans. The khruschevki cover hundreds of square miles of valuable urban land – real estate that can be more profitable for the state and its functionaries if it is covered with hotels and business centers.
Ordinary Russians’ efforts to protect their private property are similar to the protests of the early 2010s. At that time, political opposition was weak and diffuse, yet there were many public initiatives pursuing non-political goals, which inevitably led to confrontation with the Kremlin-imposed order.
From motorists to volunteer ecologists, opposition groups seemed narrow. But they showed that private interests could attract greater interest than political pursuits. And their opposition to specific government policies led to the massive political protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
To counter the rising resistance, Putin turned to patriotic nationalism, which reached its apotheosis with the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The approach seemed to work. Protests faded, as their leaders were smeared, discredited, and silenced. One protest leader, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered in 2015. Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster turned dissident, went into exile. Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption lawyer and the best-known remaining opposition leader, has faced everything from fake lawsuits to “patriots” spraying him with toxic chemicals.
But, even before the khrushchevki protests, there were signs that dissent had not fully been quelled. In March, tens of thousands of mainly young people, led by Navalny, took to the streets to protest the alleged acquisition of untold (and undeserved) riches by Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and current prime minister. Putin, while corrupt, remains popular and powerful. But who is Medvedev to amass riches at the people’s expense?
Of course, the goal of the March protests – like the recent khrushchevki demonstrations – was not to bring down the regime. Rather, the people wanted to be heard. And, with both surges of protest, the Kremlin authorities have been put on notice.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the Russian authorities, who have forced ever-obedient Russians to move for centuries – from villages to cities, back to villages, to gulags, to khrushchevki – have rushed to provide further guarantees to the khrushchevki’s tenants. That means more time to agree on an acceptable replacement or ensure more housing alternatives from which to choose. Even Russia’s Ministry of Justice is now speaking out on behalf of the citizens.
Yet the people are not satisfied. Another protest march is scheduled for the end of May. And, with political parties and human-rights organizations already on board, it promises to be even larger than the last one.
Putin now has two choices: to suppress dissent as he did before 2012, and stake his popularity on another big conquest – say, the seizure of Kyiv – or to give the people what they want, revising the khrushchevki demolition plan to respect property rights. With Putin surely hoping that next year’s presidential election will be more orderly than the 2012 vote, the better choice may well be to listen, for once, to the people. If nothing else, it will be cheaper than fighting a war.