The Week In Russia: Flowers On The Grave

By: - April 2, 2024

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I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead.

The Kremlin will cast the March 15-17 election as a powerful popular endorsement of President Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine. The long lines of citizens who came out to support a would-be rival and to pay their respects at the funeral of Putin’s most prominent opponent tell a different story.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

War And Power

Russia may have the upper hand right now in its war on Ukraine, and its attacks continue to kill civilians almost daily, but in some ways it has already lost, analysts say. Its forces failed to subjugate the country in the weeks following the full-scale invasion of February 2022, and that goal — Putin’s overarching aim — seems further from reach today than it was before the onslaught.

The overall outcome of the presidential election is in far less doubt than that of the war: Putin will win, and the official numbers — both turnout and the percentage of votes claimed by the incumbent — are likely to enable the Kremlin to cast the noncompetitive contest as proof of almost monolithic support for Putin and the war.

He has made clear that’s his goal: “We must affirm our unity and our determination to move forward,” he said in an address to the nation on the eve of the three-day election.

But efforts to portray Putin and the war as natural and necessary facts of life, phenomena to which there was never any alternative, was punctured plainly and publicly by crowds of Russian citizens in the weeks ahead of the election.

First, in January, long lines formed as Russians turned out at locations nationwide to help politician and former lawmaker Boris Nadezhdin, a critic of the war, gather enough signatures to get his name on the presidential ballot and challenge Putin.

Nadezhdin submitted the signatures on January 31. Eight days later, the Central Election Commission refused to put him on the ballot, ruling that thousands of the signatures were invalid — a claim the would-be candidate rejected.

Barred From The Ballot

On February 15, the Supreme Court did what was widely expected: It rejected two appeals that Nadezhdin filed in a bid to challenge the election commission’s ruling.

One day later, Russian penitentiary authorities announced that jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, Putin’s most formidable foe for a decade, had died at an Arctic prison known as Polar Wolf.

Relatives and some supporters contend that Navalny was killed at Putin’s behest. In 2020, he had barely survived a poisoning — with a weapons-grade nerve agent apparently smeared on his underwear in a Siberian hotel room — that he blamed on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Like the far less prominent Nadezhdin, Navalny had also been barred from a presidential ballot. The election commission refused to register him as a candidate in 2018, citing a criminal conviction that he and his backers assert was falsified in part for that precise purpose: to keep him out of electoral politics.

Since at least 2011, when he helped lead big, peaceful protests sparked in part by Putin’s decision to return to the presidency after four years in the No. 2 post as prime minister, Navalny had been a major thorn in the Kremlin’s side, due both to his reports on alleged corruption and his political activity.

Ahead of the 2018 election, Navalny established a nationwide network of campaign offices that continued to operate after he was barred from the ballot but were declared extremist and outlawed by the state, along with his Anti-Corruption Foundation, in June 2021 — five months after he was arrested upon his return to Russia following treatment in Germany for the poisoning.

Navalny received about 27 percent of the vote in a 2013 election for Moscow mayor, and it’s unclear how big a chunk of the electorate he could have attracted in a presidential election. That’s clearly something the Kremlin decided it did not want to find out: Navalny and other protest leaders led chants of “Russia without Putin”; instead, it’s now a Russia without Navalny.

‘We Need To Say Goodbye’

Elections, including the current vote, are by design devoid of actual competition.

“Although Putin would likely win a fair election in 2024, an unmanaged election would foster genuine political contestation and criticism of the president, which the Kremlin had long been keeping off-limits,” political analysts Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman wrote in a March 13 article in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs.

“Meaningful criticism would open the door to another possibility: namely, that Putin’s edicts may not reflect the united will of the Russian people and that he may not be destined to rule Russia in perpetuity,” they wrote.

For many Russians, Navalny also represented that possibility.

Nowhere was that clearer than at his funeral on March 1. In the face of a large police presence and amid a sweeping state clampdown on dissent that has intensified since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of people lined up outside the church where his funeral was held in the southeastern Moscow neighborhood where Navalny’s family lived before his poisoning.

“We need to say goodbye to a man who symbolizes freedom,” one man at the scene said in footage published by The Moscow Times.

When Navalny’s coffin was taken to a nearby cemetery, the mourners walked calmly across a bridge over the Moskva River and filed past his resting place after initially being barred from entering. Russians continued to come to the cemetery in substantial numbers in the following days, and a growing pile of flowers soon covered his grave.

That’s it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to [email protected].


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