Dispatch

Divide and Conquer

How the Kremlin schooled Russia's feuding democrats, again.

Eduard Limonov has long been a black sheep in Moscow's opposition circles. A louche, 67-year-old provocateur, he writes graphic paeans to anal sex in his novels and runs a fringe political party, the National Bolsheviks, whose ranks are stuffed with young'uns ready to brawl with the police and go to jail for it. So Limonov is generally avoided, or at least spoken ill of, by respectable Russian liberals.

Which is why, in July 2009, it was somewhat odd that Limonov, whose own politics are a combustible mix of old-school socialism, Russian nationalism, and anarchist street theater, approached the queen bee of Russian liberalism and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, 83-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Alexeyeva is the idealistic child of the Khrushchev thaw and a decorated veteran of the Soviet dissident movement who has been waging a steady, dignified human rights campaign for the last four decades. Alexeyeva has become the doyenne of today's opposition, which is why Limonov wanted her -- and her cloak of legitimacy -- on board.

Eduard Limonov has long been a black sheep in Moscow’s opposition circles. A louche, 67-year-old provocateur, he writes graphic paeans to anal sex in his novels and runs a fringe political party, the National Bolsheviks, whose ranks are stuffed with young’uns ready to brawl with the police and go to jail for it. So Limonov is generally avoided, or at least spoken ill of, by respectable Russian liberals.

Which is why, in July 2009, it was somewhat odd that Limonov, whose own politics are a combustible mix of old-school socialism, Russian nationalism, and anarchist street theater, approached the queen bee of Russian liberalism and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, 83-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Alexeyeva is the idealistic child of the Khrushchev thaw and a decorated veteran of the Soviet dissident movement who has been waging a steady, dignified human rights campaign for the last four decades. Alexeyeva has become the doyenne of today’s opposition, which is why Limonov wanted her — and her cloak of legitimacy — on board.

His proposal: defending Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly but has been all but ignored by Putin-era authorities who crack down on opposition rallies with trucks of beefy, steely special forces, arrests, and beatings. Limonov’s plan was simple: organize a gathering at Triumfalnaya Square, in the center of Moscow, on the 31st of every month (or at least those that have a 31st day). If they squashed that, too, it would be a clear and embarrassing sign to the rest of the world: The Kremlin has no use for the constitution, or the rule of law.

Limonov asked Alexeyeva to join with him and bring legitimacy to his movement. "I thought it was a good idea," Alexeyeva told me recently. "I liked it. And I said, ‘I’m ready.’" She was a little hesitant, though, as all her colleagues told her to stay away from Limonov, and she didn’t have such a high opinion of him herself. So Alexeyeva compromised: She could not attend the first meeting — she was away — but said she would attend the next one as an observer, to see whether it was something she could get behind. In July, she missed a crowd of 200 — labeled "the radical opposition" by the Russian media — turning out to protest, about a quarter of whom, including Limonov, were quickly and firmly rounded up. She didn’t miss much, though, as the same thing happened a month later, on Aug. 31. "I went and I was horrified by the number of special forces and by how they behaved toward citizens who were there totally peacefully." So Alexeyeva joined, and, slowly, attendance from the mainstream opposition grew. "People started coming only when Alexeyeva started going," says former energy minister turned opposition leader Vladimir Milov.

After a while, Strategy 31 became a staple of the liberal armory. As more and more banned protests were held, and as more and more people got rounded up, the differences between Alexeyeva’s camp of establishment, intelligentsia opposition and Limonov’s cult-of-personality and crew of ragamuffins seemed less prickly. They had a common enemy: Not a single official request to hold a protest on the 31st of the month was accepted by Moscow authorities. Ever. It became yet another one of the soothingly predictable events in the political life of the country: Alexeyeva and Limonov would file a request; the Moscow mayor’s office would say something along the lines of, "Sorry, it happens to be the exact time of the Winter Wonders Fair!"; Alexeyeva and Limonov would rail against the authorities and turn up anyway at Triumfalnaya on the evening of the 31st. Like clockwork, they and their supporters would be met by what seemed like a full division of special forces and police who would then round up a few dozen and cart them away in their scary-looking police buses. Once, a pro-Kremlin counterprotester even whacked Alexeyeva on the head.  

Then in mid-October of this year, a funny thing happened: The Kremlin allowed the protest. Just like that. Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove, explained the decision in a rare interview with a Moscow newspaper once allied with recently ousted Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. "If, in multimillion-person Moscow, 200 people want to gather only on the 31st, only on Triumfalnaya, and in such small numbers, let them gather," Surkov said, as if all this time and by some meteorological coincidence someone else had been blocking the 31-ers. And so, after some wrangling over the numbers — organizers asked to be allowed 1,500 attendees; the Kremlin countered with 200 — Surkov and President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, offered Alexeyeva a compromise: 800 protesters, 200 journalists (a flipping of the usual ratio at such events), in a specific part of the square, in a fenced-in area.

"I knew that area, and I knew it would hold more than 800 people," Alexeyeva said. "So I asked if they would guarantee the safety of everyone that came to the meeting [even if it was over 800 people], and Surkov turned to me and whispered, ‘Yes, Lyudmila Mikhailovna’" — using the deferential patronymic — "’we do.’"

So Alexeyeva agreed to the conditions. Limonov balked, and called the compromise "fucking rude." (Or, if you want the literal translation, "whoring.") He would not, he said, participate in the state-sanctioned protest, but would instead hold his own, right next to Alexeyeva’s. Which is exactly what happened on the evening of Oct. 31. Alexeyeva and more mainstream opposition leaders like former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Khimki forest defender Yevgenia Chirikova spoke to their crowd of up to 3,000. Limonov and his gang hovered on the periphery, agitating and throwing things, until the riot police violently broke up his little affair.

Limonov was thrice dragged by his hands and feet over to the legally sanctioned protest area. "My head nearly hit the pavement. You think that’s normal?" Limonov asked me. His gang was slowly squeezed back toward the police vans, and a few protesters were briefly detained.

The fragile coalition had been splintered, one half co-opted by the Kremlin, the other threatened and marginalized. In the days since the protest, Limonov has raged publicly against Alexeyeva for compromising with authorities, writing screed after fuming screed on his blog. In the media, he complained that Alexeyeva had usurped his "brand" and that "Strategy 31" was something he had "built for myself."

"I want respect," he told me. "I don’t think we should roll over and compromise. We want the right to have protests anywhere, anytime, with any amount of people. We don’t even have to apply for permission because it’s in the constitution." In December, he plans to protest the protest. Again.

"I don’t understand this, really," Alexeyeva told me, adding that no one disputes Limonov’s authorship of the so-called Strategy 31. "Any creator of a brand should be happy when his brand takes off. It would be like the composer of a Russian folk song complaining that his songs are being performed in Australia without attribution. He should be happy!"

Other opposition figures were less generous. "Oh, he can go to hell," Milov said of Limonov in an interview, adding that he has been skeptical of the Strategy 31 movement to begin with, partly because it’s a distraction from bigger goals such as fighting corruption, advocating for free and fair elections, and getting representation in the government. "It’s kindergarten," he said.

He also insists on the utility of government-approved protests, as they draw more people. "People are scared to get arrested and beaten," Milov said. "And it’s hard to judge people for this. They have jobs and families. It’s not fair to force them onto the barricades." He says that Strategy 31 "has done a lot of damage" to the cause of the opposition for this exact reason. "It took a lot of effort to convince people that our protests had been agreed to by the government," he says.

But whomever Strategy 31 belongs to, the Kremlin’s authorization of the protests amounts to a deft declawing of the movement — the point of which is to be allowed to freely demonstrate. Now they’re allowed to rally in Moscow (with permission, of course), and, in a handful of other Russian cities, the local authorities readily allow these "meetings." And the police, by all accounts, haven’t gotten too rough. So now what? Why have any more protests?

Alexeyeva says the war is not yet won: She still wants to eliminate the fences, remove limits on the number of protesters, and be allowed to march, rather than just stand in place waving flags. "When people are banned from gathering at Triumfalnaya, that’s easy to understand," says Milov, exasperated. "But when you want 1,500 approved instead of 800, or you want to walk, that’s a lot harder to explain."

But for now, the only clear winner is the Kremlin. "Surkov stole their thunder," says political analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "There are no simple, truthful statements that can be made about this situation. Did they allow a protest? Not quite. Did they ban it? Not quite. And when you have a fuzzy situation like this, it always plays in the Kremlin’s favor because you, the journalist, can’t write a lede about the Kremlin suppressing freedoms."

Alexeyeva, in the meantime, is happy that Limonov has splintered off. She will apply for a Dec. 31 protest, without him. She says his defection makes things easier for her and that there’s enough work to do in the fight for freedom of assembly in Russia to last her until the end of her life. And what of Limonov? "I’ve never said anything bad about him. He’s the one who says nasty things about me," she says. "I don’t get it. I don’t get what he is trying to do. I have too many things to do to sort out his psychological problems. If he behaves this badly, it means his mother didn’t raise him well."

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.