At the end of last year, the conference “Russia-2024: Left Turn or National Disaster?” was held in Moscow. One of its organizers, a Russian opposition politician known for his radical-left views, Sergei Udaltsov, called the forum “a landmark event in the consolidation of left-patriotic forces” that may be significant for the 2024 presidential election. He also claimed that society was appealing for “the radicalization of left-patriotic rhetoric and practice” (Svpressa.ru, December 25, 2019).
Udaltsov is widely perceived as little more than a marginal politician. He actively participated in the liberal opposition rallies in 2011–2012, was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for the so-called “Bolotnaya case” in 2014, and was released on August 8, 2017. In March 2014, Udaltsov enthusiastically accepted the annexation of Crimea and called for Donbas secession, not hiding that his ultimate goal was the restoration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (Ekho Moskvy, March 23, 2014). Udaltsov also expressed similar thoughts upon his release, sharply opposing his former associates Alexei Navalny and Ilya Ponomarev (RBC, August 10, 2017).
Nevertheless, his expressed views are increasingly finding more sympathy among wider Russian society. As President Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating has continued to decline (Svoboda.org, May 25, 2019), polling data shows that the majority of Russians dissatisfied with their government’s policies do not hold liberal views but rather dream of reviving the “red project.” According to a survey released by the Levada Center in December of last year, the number of Russians nostalgic for the USSR is the highest it has been in the past ten years, reaching 66 percent. Moreover, the glorification of the Soviet Union is also growing among younger people (BBC News–Russian service, December 19, 2018). The year 2019 was also marked by the highest level of positive feelings for former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin since Levada Center’s polling began. According to an April survey, Russians’ favorable or neutral views toward the Soviet leader stood at 77 percent (Levada.ru, April 16, 2019).
In the absence of viable replacement for Putin, most such dissatisfied Russians do not yet participate in the protest movement; and only some have joined street actions organized by the “liberal” wing of the non-systemic opposition. As a result, a number of publicists have predicted the likelihood of a “revolution from above” to address the simmering widespread dissatisfaction in society. However, such a “revolution” may not be liberal, but rather neo-Soviet in nature, in which the government will have to sacrifice some of the corrupt elite officials, “system liberals” as well as the unpopular reforms they champion, all while maintaining Russia’s authoritarian system and aggressive foreign policy. And in light of today’s (January 15) resignation of the government headed by Dmitry Medvedev (TASS, January 15), such a proposed scenario takes on an even sharper relevance.
Importantly, the ideological justification for a neo-Soviet-style top-down “revolution” was being prepared for at least the past ten years. New Russian ideologists, such as Sergei Kurginyan and, in particular, State Duma deputy from United Russia Yevgeny Fedorov, have been actively promoting the conspiracy theory that today’s Russia is partially occupied by the United States. According to Fedorov, “American agents” were embedded at all levels of government in Moscow; they must be “identified and destroyed” (YouTube, August 7, 2014).
The actual implementation of such a scenario seemed almost impossible until recently. Throughout his time in power, President Putin had skillfully ensured a balance between the interests of different groups of oligarchs and security forces (siloviki). However, the discontent of the population continues to grow and now threatens to—sooner or later—spill out into the street. Moreover, the oligarchs themselves are less and less approving of the Kremlin’s bellicose foreign policy, which “imposed” Western sanctions on them (Novaya Gazeta, February 23, 2018). Considering these trends, the likelihood that the Kremlin’s siloviki clan will convince Putin to abandon some of the publicly hated and unreliable oligarchs in order to reduce popular discontent and raise his own rating looks increasingly likely. The replacement of Medvedev’s cabinet may, in fact, have been the first step in that direction.
At the same time, recent information points to the strengthening of the position of the radical security forces faction surrounding Putin. The well-known Russian analyst and publicist Andrei Piontkovsky cites evidence from “insider sources” who apparently state that a “mobilization party” has finally formed in Russia under the unspoken leadership of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the chair of Rossiya Bank, Yuri Kovalchuk (popularly known as “Putin’s banker”) (Svoboda.org, August 14, 2019). The unprecedented brutality that the security forces have been employing against protesters, especially last summer (see EDM, July 29, August 5, 8, 2019), may also point to the advance of this alleged “mobilization party.”
Even media outlets loyal to the Kremlin and reflecting the point of view of the military and special services are beginning to openly talk about the need for a successor to Putin, or at least the ruling United Russia party. Notably, two years ago, the website Military Review, close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, suggested the candidacy of above-mentioned far-left politician Sergei Udaltsov (Topwar.ru, June 29, 2018). At the same time, Nikolai Platoshkin, a former Russian diplomat who holds Communist views, claims to be the leader of the “red opposition” and does not hide his ambitions to “become the first person of the state” (Apral.ru, September 29, 2019).
If a “red perestroika” scenario is soon realized (led most likely by Putin), this will allow the Kremlin to “preempt” further street demonstrations by sacrificing “system liberals,” accusing them of all sins. The abandonment of the protest movement by people with pro-Soviet views will allow the Kremlin to further quash the liberal opposition into political obscurity, while additionally giving the “mobilization party” carte blanche to ratchet up tensions in foreign policy with the purported support “of the people.”
That said, such a scenario could pose significant risks for Putin and his regime: including possible new sanctions and defection to the West of yesterday’s comrades-in-arms, along with their capital and incriminating secrets. Additionally, the adoption of a more clearly neo- or pro-Soviet lean to Russian politics would rob the Kremlin of key channels of influence abroad associated with supporting extreme right-wing groups in the West and descendants of White Guard emigrants.
Consequently, the likelihood of the implementation of the scenario described above will be driven by the situation inside Russia and how the population reacts to the newly formed government. Putin and his siloviki backers could still decide on a “red coup” if they see it as the only chance to avoid a bloody popular rebellion. Much will naturally depend on whether the liberal opposition can win over the majority of dissatisfied Russians and thereby prevent the Kremlin from preempting further protests.