24 Jan 2012

Russia under Putin: a burning desire for change

With six weeks to go until Russia’s elections, Jonathan Rugman goes behind the scenes with three opposition groups in St Petersburg to explore whether Russia is preparing for its own Arab Spring.

In the past few weeks, Russia has been roiled by the biggest street protests in 20 years.

For most of that time this vast country has been run by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy who now stands accused of rigging last month’s elections to stay in power even longer.

Video has emerged of votes stuffed into boxes long before the polls even opened, and officials have been caught on camera busily trying to change the result.

Mr Putin’s home town is St Petersburg, where the mood is turning against him. People chanted on the streets last month: “Give power to the people!”

The 1917 Revolution began here. So could this be the launchpad for Russia’s version of the Arab Spring? Channel 4 News has been given access to three groups in the vanguard of anti-Putin protests.


The group Voina is the most notorious and secretive of St Petersburg’s revolutionaries. Its members are currently in hiding, and there is an international warrant out for their arrest.

On new year’s eve they set fire to a police transporter, claiming this was their gift for all political prisoners.

They have also turned over police cars in protest, and say their aim is to create works of art which humiliate the authorities and inspire dissent.

I don’t believe in peaceful protest because I don’t believe peaceful protest is possible in Russia. Oleg Vorotnikov

The three ringleaders live by stealing food and clothing, and they are constantly on the lookout for the police. Two of them were imprisoned for three months last year, until the British graffiti artist Banksy posted £80,000 bail.

They are bringing up a two-year-old child here, and even he has to sleep in a cardboard box to keep warm.

Putin will stay cosy in his position of absolute power, they say, unless they escalate their protests.

“I don’t believe in peaceful protest, because I don’t believe peaceful protest is possible in Russia,” said Oleg Vorotnikov. “If you just use legal methods, like the organisers of the big demonstrations propose, then you won’t be able to stand up to the state.”

The Bolsheviks

Andrei Dmitriev is trying to protest legally in Russia’s second city. He is a Bolshevik revolutionary, an admirer of Josef Stalin, and he wants to return Russia to a Soviet-style economy.

Andrei and his fellow Bolsheviks meet in this cafe every month. They have campaigned against capitalism for years, and they are now riding the wave of Vladimir Putin’s growing unpopularity for all its worth.

“We have reached a critical mass, and the most dangerous thing for those in power – and what will bury them – is that this is a mass of educated and urban people,” said Mr Dmitriev. “This regime will be destroyed and we will get a completely different political situation in the country.”

We have reached a critical mass, and the most dangerous thing for those in power – and what will bury them – is that this is a mass of educated and urban people. Andrei Dmitriev

Andrei’s flat in the suburbs has been raided by police, who have ordered him not to leave the city. His party has been banned, and he faces three years in jail if found guilty of promoting extremism.

He says that Vladimir Putin, once seen as Russia’s strongman, is now its tyrannical czar, and that if he rigs presidential elections in March he will face a Russian version of the Arab Spring.

“I think his desire to reign will not lead to any good,” said Mr Dmitriev. “There will be a very powerful civil protest movement in March, more than in December. This is a chance to change the fate of the country.”

The Anarchists

Filip Kostenko describes himself as an anarchist, and he has been on hunger strike for the past 15 days in a police cell.

Last month he was arrested at this demonstration against election fraud. It was non violent but illegal nevertheless. Even hapless photographers were whisked away by police. And Filip was detained for 15 days.

Today that sentence supposedly ends, but instead of freeing him police have taken him back to court. A fortnight on hunger strike has disorientated him and he has not been told what the latest charge against him is.

Today is the beginning of a revolution – and we will be victorious. Filip Kostenko

“I was arrested at a demonstration against vote-rigging at Gostinyi Dvor, and was sentenced to 15 days in the Zakharovsky police cells,” said Mr Kostenko, “and after I was released they brought me here, obviously to fabricate another case against me.”

The judge sentenced Filip to another 15 days. It turns out his crime is swearing in public, which is illegal, but Filip’s friends say this is often used as a pretext for jailing critics of Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Fifteen days for swearing may be revenge for an incident last year, when activists occupied the Aurora – the cruiser which fired the first shots of the Russian Revolution and one of the Soviet Union’s holiest relics. They unfurled the Jolly Roger from the mast and claimed that crooks had taken over Russia.

And while Filip was not on board, he was certainly there.

“Today is the beginning of a revolution and we will be victorious,” he said on local TV.

So what unites these Russian revolutionaries? Well, its not really a belief in western-style democracy – more a burning desire for change.

For the very first time Vladimir Putin seems vulnerable and they know it. In St Petersburg you get no sense of an Arab spring like momentum forcing Putin from power.

Not yet. But 2012 could be his enemies’ year.