20 years under Putin: a timeline

In early March, a pro-Kremlin rally against the adoption of Russian orphans by foreigners took place in Moscow. According to the Interior Ministry, some 12,000 people participated in this event. However, such rallies have little to do with the expression of true public will: they are meticulously staged, and their participants receive monetary compensation. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses how and why the Russian government mobilizes crowds.



Organizing mass pro-regime rallies is a rather new tactic for the Kremlin: this strategy was tested for the first time in February 2012. Before then, the Kremlin relied on “professional organizations”—pro-regime youth movements, the ruling party, or nongovernmental organizations loyal to the Kremlin—to direct such events. Now, however, the administration has shifted toward a reliance on marginal organizations that no one has heard of and that supposedly personify the “people” expressing their support for Vladimir Putin.

Why did the Kremlin decide to change its tactics? There are at least three reasons. The first is the wave of protest activism that occurred from late 2011 to early 2012, which took the government by surprise. The spontaneous resentment of the “enraged urban middle class” against mass fraud during parliamentary elections, which was picked up by leaders of the nonsystemic opposition, forced the government to formulate an appropriate response.

The second reason is the replacement of the Kremlin’s domestic politics curator. Vladislav Surkov, the former Russian political demiurge and architect of Putin's regime, was fired from his position as the Kremlin’s first deputy chief-of-staff. This dismissal set off a mini-revolution within the Russian government: with Surkov’s departure, a whole era of political management has come to an end. Putin lost trust in his powerful manager with ideological ambitions. He liked neither Surkov’s increasing closeness to Dmitri Medvedev, nor his moderate reaction to the protests. Surkov suggested that at least a minimal liberalization of the political system was necessary to “let off steam.” Putin decided otherwise and replaced Surkov with Vyacheslav Volodin. Compared to the refined dreamer Surkov, Volodin has a reputation as a tough, pragmatic leader who prefers straightforward management methods to the complicated machinations of his predecessor. Surkov liked playing political games. Volodin prefers to “tighten the screws.”

The spontaneous resentment of the “enraged urban middle class” against mass fraud during parliamentary elections forced the government to formulate an appropriate response.

Finally, the third reason for the tactical shift is the change in political direction. Putin’s expected comeback to the Kremlin, combined with a certain political destabilization, resulted in a conservative wave. The first mass rallies, which took place in December 2011, confused the Kremlin. In January, when opinion polls showed an increase in the regime’s approval rating, the presidential administration decided to “suppress” the protest. The organization of mass rallies in support of the regime without the simultaneous expression of support for either United Russia or the Nashi movement has become one of the primary methods of exerting such “pressure.” The objective is to show to the opposition that not only United Russia, which by that time had been firmly labeled the “party of crooks and thieves,” but also “simple folk”—teachers, doctors, and workers—support Putin.

The Kremlin tested its new tactics on February 4, 2012, when a pro-Putin rally gathered what officials say was some 130,000 people on Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow. It should be noted that Nikolay Pomeschenko, who has become famous on the Internet thanks to his participation estimates for the December 2011 rallies, said that the maximum number of participants in the Poklonnaya Gora rally was 80,150 people.

A few critical elements serve as the basis for the Kremlin’s new tactics. The first element is their mass character: the Kremlin wants to show that the number of people who support the government far exceeds the number of people who oppose it. The second element is their depoliticized nature. The organizers of the February 4 rally distinctly avoided any references to United Russia. Voters tired of United Russia’s excessively aggressive and importunate campaign and Putin’s dominance of the media have become a political problem for the Kremlin. As a result, Russia’s Union of Afghan Veterans, the Russian Pensioners’ Union, the Congress of Russian Communities, and the Patriots of Russia Party were named as official organizers of the demonstration. The list of speakers, headed by Sergei Kurginyan, included the names of aggressively antiliberal figures ranging from Alexander Dugin to Alexander Prokhanov, who not only have no serious political influence, but are also decidedly marginal on the political scene. The Kremlin has continued to use these tactics; since February 4, 2012, theater director and radical anti-Americanist Kurginyan has become a new face of the regime in Russia. The third element of the Kremlin’s tactics is their organization of the “people” not around the government, but around a specific problem. For example, in the case of the Poklonnaya Gora rally, the initial objective of supporting Putin was replaced by the aim of confronting the “threat of an Orange Revolution.”

The March 2, 2013 demonstration was dedicated to children’s rights—not the rights of those who live in Russia (not many are interested in them nowadays), but the rights of children adopted by foreigners. This is an area in which Russia is trying to sting the United States as badly as possible. The organizers faced the problem of participation in this demonstration, because, as public polls show, the Russian public remains highly apolitical, and even those who do not see any alternative to Putin are not eager to go out into the cold with banners to support the government. The potential for pro-Kremlin street activity is rather low—and this may be the weakest point of the government’s strategy. Consequently, administrative resources are the only way to solve this problem. Ekaterina Vinokurova, a reporter for Gazeta.ru, wrote about the February 2012 rally on Poklonnaya Gora: “One could hear people in the crowd saying that they were thinking about joining the [opposition] demonstration on Bolotnaya Square instead of going home after the rally was over. Many criticized Putin, because of whom their employers threatened them with dismissal for the failure to go out in the cold.” Radio Liberty correspondent Irina Chevtaeva received 500 rubles for participating in a rally after finding an ad for the event on the Internet site Massovki.ru. No sooner had the Kremlin started to test its tactics for mobilizing the “simple folk” than a systemic problem became evident: an unexpectedly strong and semi-anonymous opposition from the rallies’ participants. Numerous opposition testimonies started to emerge on the Internet and in the media, including statements by teachers and local utilities employees that provided evidence of orders given to universities and big enterprises (such as Russian Post) to appear at rallies without fail. In exchange for their participation, certain workers were promised an advance of wages, and some students were promised an allowance.

However, the Kremlin was not too worried about the disclosure of paid participation or threats to deprive workers of bonuses or fail students who refused to participate: state-controlled national television channels provided the “necessary” news reports. In fact, the objective of such tactics is to create a propaganda product that can be distributed by state-controlled media to confront the opposition and “hypnotize” the populace.


Political analyst and theater director Sergei Kurginyan has become the public face of pro-regime rallies


The cynicism of the March 2 rally in Moscow was astonishing. First of all, a scandal broke out after it was revealed that “activists” were recruited through the aforementioned Internet site Massovki.ru, which is usually used to recruit people for crowd scenes in movies. Bloggers were the first ones to report the recruitment of rally participants, publishing pictures of job posts that appeared on free Internet sites. “Adequate people are required for a rally March 2 for not more than 2 hours, starting at 12:30 PM. Slavic appearance only. Payment at the end of the event 500–700 rubles,” said one ad. “Who wants to earn 400 rubles for 30 minutes? You only have to march from Kropotkinskaya to Pushkinskaya on March 2. . . . You will not have to carry any flags or anything else,” said another. “Slavic faces are being bought for 500–700 rubles. This is how they create an appearance of ‘people’s support’ of the scoundrels’ law,” Pavel Senko, Alexey Navalny’s colleague from Rospil, contended in response.

The government’s representatives called such reports a provocation. Marina Grineva, press secretary at the Prosecutor General’s Office, said that these reports were made on the “[US] State Department's order.” “[The authors of the reports] are getting paid by the US State Department, they are destroying the traditional family,” she declared. “[These reports are] a provocation by the opposition and our political opponents,” Irina Bergset, head of the Russian Mothers movement, the rally’s official organizer, told Kommersant. “It cannot but make us happy; it means that they are taking us seriously. . . . They are getting paid by the [U.S.] State Department, and in return they have been destroying the traditional family and the Russian demography for the last 30 years.” It may be important to note that Irina Bergset herself was deprived of parental rights toward her son: Norwegian authorities (the child’s father is Norwegian) decided that she was dangerous and inadequate because she had repeatedly accused her ex-husband of abusing their son, but no evidence had ever been found of such abuse.

As soon as the rally was over, a new scandal broke out. RosAgit activist Vadim Korovin posted on his Twitter account that he and 19 more people had brought a foreman “who had not paid them for the rally” to the Tverskoye police station. A “foreman” is the person responsible for recruiting crowd participants, directing their activity during a rally, and paying people for their participation when the rally is over. This time, however, according to Korovin, the participants had not been paid: “16 people are writing statements. The [relevant Criminal Code] article is ‘fraud’.” The Kremlin has tried to ignore these allegations, with the ruling party’s representatives again calling them a “provocation.” Nevertheless, many people eager to earn 500 rubles will now think twice before getting involved with the Kremlin’s foremen, who rarely mind cheating and keeping the money. There is a widely held impression that all the participants of this system of “populace” mobilization, from the highest to the lowest levels, are only trying to “snatch a piece of the pie” without caring about the rally's objective at all. This is how children become small change in big politics.

Several photographs from the rally have also caused a serious reaction. The pictures show several walk-through metal detectors bearing the VIP sign: a reliable passageway for respectable gentlemen. Obviously reflecting the participants’ real motivations, these photos make it clear that the regime’s representatives do not want to meet the people even during such rallies.

Orphans tortured in Russia are not within the area of responsibility of the children’s ombudsman: Putin’s favor cannot be gained by campaigns on their behalf.

The March 2 rally was organized by a number of marginal groups, among which was the Russian Mothers movement; the All Russia Parents Assembly; the Russian Children’s Fund; and the Little Bees, an interregional public movement to support Orthodox educational and social initiatives. The rally was called in response to reports about the death of Maxim Kuzmin, a little boy adopted from the Pskov region by a Texas couple. American investigators have already confirmed that the boy’s death was an accident, but Russian authorities continue to describe it as manslaughter. Now the Interior Ministry is launching efforts to bring the boy’s brother Kirill back to Russia. Kirill’s biological mother, Yulia Kuzmina, declared herself ready to take care of the boy. No sooner had she made this statement than reports of her incurable drunkenness, cohabitation with a rapist, and drunken brawls emerged.

The pro-Kremlin “organizers” keep saying “State Department” like a spell. An anti-American policy is being pursued aggressively and categorically. Insane “facts” were repeated during the March rally: one young woman reported the deaths of 200,000 Russian children adopted by foreigners. At the same time, there are no statistics on the mortality levels among adopted children in Russia. According to Novaya Gazeta, a review of data from the last 15 years shows that two to three dead babies and about the same number of abandoned infants are found every week in garbage bins or vacant lots in the Moscow region alone. There is no one to protect these children. Most do not even have names. When asked why he does not protect orphans’ rights in Russia, Pavel Astakhov, the official Russian children’s ombudsman and the regime’s key speaker on the “genocide of Russian children in the West,” answers that this is the business of regional custody authorities. It turns out that orphans tortured in Russia are not within the area of responsibility of the children’s ombudsman: Putin’s favor cannot be gained by campaigns on their behalf.

The Kremlin’s political strategists have become increasingly cynical, and the country is being divided into the passive conformist majority, which is ready to “gobble up” whatever the national television channels show, and the active minority, which is looking for alternative sources of information, first of all on the Internet. The Kremlin’s feelings of impunity and of total control of internal political processes can be deceptive. The main threat against the government is not actually the opposition. The real threat are those pragmatics and conformists who are ready to support the government by participating in a rally for 500 rubles, because tomorrow they will tear to pieces the same government if their checks are five kopecks short.