The Ghosts of Protests Past

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The Specters of Past Protests Haunt the Khabarovsk Uprising — and the Kremlin

As protests swell in Khabarovsk in Russia’s far east, the specter of miners’ strikes three decades ago in the Kuznetsky Basin should not be far from Vladimir Putin’s mind. The stoppages started in the summer of 1989, quickly spread across the Siberian mining region and beyond, and became a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A combination of latent anti-Moscow sentiment and growing discontent with the Kremlin’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has made Russia’s far-flung regions combustible. The revolt in Khabarovsk was sparked by the arrest on July 9 of Sergei Furgal, the region’s popular elected governor. The fast-growing protests have been streamed nationwide on a widely viewed YouTube channel and now threaten to spread to other regions. A new poll from the independent Levada Center released on July 28 showed that 45% of Russians supported the Khabarovsk protests while just 17% opposed.

“A match can be tossed into the Far Eastern haystack by almost any region,” Ilya Grashchenkov, director of the Center for Regional Policy Development, told Rosbalt. He added that the protests could easily spread across Siberia and the Russian Far East, where discontent with federal authorities in Moscow runs high. Sergei Levchenko, the former governor of the Irkutsk region, has described the growing unrest in Siberian and the Far East as “a revolutionary situation.”

In a blog post for Ekho Moskvy, human rights lawyer Aleksei Zlatkin wrote that the demonstrations in Khabarovsk look less “like Bolotnaya,” the anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-12 in Moscow, and more like “Novocherkassk in the USSR” in 1962.

In that June 1962 crackdown, workers at the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Factory demonstrated against increased production quotas and increased dairy and meat prices. The Red Army and KGB opened fire, killing 26 people and wounding 87. In the aftermath, more than 200 were arrested and seven sentenced to death. In both cases, he wrote, “deceived people, outraged by official falsehoods” took to the streets “despite the lack of any prospects” for success.

The main difference between Novocherkassk and Khabarovsk, Zlatkin added, is that unlike the Soviet leaders in 1962, the Russian authorities are “not at all eager to justify themselves before the whole world for shooting demonstrators and killing people.” Instead, the Kremlin is beginning to “tighten the screws everywhere” to prevent any potential contagion.

Comparisons should be drawn cautiously. The Novocherkassk uprising was prompted by specific workplace grievances, took place at the peak of Soviet power, and was brutally crushed. The miners’ strikes of 1989 took place during the relative openness of the perestroika period, were sparked by poor working conditions that resonated with laborers across the Soviet Union, and quickly spread to other regions and industries.

But a sign of the Khaborovsk protests’ significance is that the central authorities are already preparing to demonize participants. Mikhail Degtyarev, the Kremlin-appointed acting governor, told reporters that foreign citizens had flown into the region to organize the protests. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov endorsed and amplified this narrative, saying the Khabarovsk demonstrations are “fertile ground for different quasi- or pseudo-oppositionists, special troublemakers, and so on.”

Veteran Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti suggested in a recent op-ed that the Khabarovsk protests are indicative of the “decline of Putinism.” They are also a test of how far an exhausted regime will go to keep its power.

July 30, 2020