Seeking a Politics of Solidarity in Putin’s Russia

In a Country Where Nothing Changes, a 23-Year-Old Finds Hope Outside the Electoral System

Russia’s young voters have spent their whole lives under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Journalist Shura Gulyaeva reflects on her personal politics and those who have fought for a better future. The late Alexei Navalny, center, in 2017. Courtesy of AP Photo/Evgeny Feldman, File.

In 2013, when I was 13, one of the oldest comedy TV programs in Russia released a sketch in which a group of musicians performed a version of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” satirizing the country.

The lyrics went: “The roads in this country are like cars in this country. Like the salaries, the football, the communal services, and, of course, the cinema …” When Freddie Mercury sang “God knows,” it was twisted to sound like the Russian equivalent of “shit.”

As the audience laughed, another actor approached the band to tell them to stop singing the song because “respected people are sitting in the hall.” He added, “Be grateful that at least Putin is not.” One of the musicians exclaimed, in shock, “What? Putin is not?”— a common Russian sentence construction that can either mean something isn’t present, or that it does not exist at all. “I told you!” he said. “He doesn’t exist.” The audience burst out with laughter.

My mom and I saw the sketch on TV when it came out. We loved it. When she took me to school by car and “I Want to Break Free” played on the radio, we loudly sang “our” version.

The following year, 2014, Russia invaded Donbass.

I do not remember much about my feelings about the invasion back then. I was a teenager concerned with two things: my weight and final exams. But even so, I could sense clearly that a younger version of myself who had laughed at silly jokes about Putin was gone.

The only political mood I could count on then was the anticipation of change. After there were large-scale protests against election fraud at the Kremlin’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012, the adults around me repeated again and again, “We just need to wait a little more.” They believed that a future of democracy and free elections was near.

But it wasn’t. Even before I became old enough to really recognize myself as part of the political process, the patience became sticky and suffocating. Now, it’s hard for me to believe that a 13-year-old me laughed at opposition jokes about Putin on the main state TV channel. I want to tell her, even though it would be upsetting, “Remember how people would point out that you had spent your whole life under Putin, as though it were hilarious? Well, I have news — I’m 23 now, and it’s not funny anymore.”

I started to see the reality of things in 2018, when activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny was banned from participating in the presidential race. A famous photo of Navalny and his team walking through the center of Moscow to register for the elections will forever remain in my memories. Nikolskaya Street, where the photo was taken, is always bright and filled with tourists. I often walked there alone during my first year at university, when I didn’t know anybody in Moscow yet and needed to feel crowds around me.

It was meaningful to me that Navalny was trying to participate in the election as an opposition candidate the same year I finished high school and started my bachelor’s degree. At the time, it seemed like new futures were stretching out ahead for both me and my country.

Instead, it was a lesson that my childhood was over. That was the last year when Navalny’s participation in the presidential elections could at least be imagined or contemplated.

Growing up in Russia under Putin, I learned that you can’t wait for politics.

I finally realized that changes would not come through electoral politics during the September 2021 municipal elections, when Russian cities elected their local deputies. One of the most prominent politicians was Mikhail Lobanov, an opposition candidate with a leftist agenda and a young team. In his district, Lobanov was ahead of his pro-government competitor by 12,000 votes. But then, Russian authorities introduced “electronic voting,” which opened up the possibility of fraud on an even larger scale than the ballot stuffing protested back in 2012.

According to the results of the electronic vote—which were announced at the very end—Lobanov’s rival received 20,000 votes out of nowhere, to win by several percentage points. Independent media published lengthy articles about mass falsifications.

It was those municipal elections—small in the scope of the country—that secured absolute control for Putin. From then on, voting results could literally be drawn on a computer screen.

It’s 2024 now. Navalny is dead, and Russia is engaged in a large-scale war in Ukraine. Russian state media insist that the government was not behind his death because “it would be unprofitable for Putin to kill Navalny in prison before the presidential elections”— as though voters actually affect the elections’ outcome. None of the opposition candidates condemning the war in Ukraine were allowed to participate in this year’s presidential elections.

None of this was a surprise. But it makes me angry that I’m not surprised by anything.

Instead of the optimism of 10 years ago, I feel meaninglessness. And I’m not alone. When I interviewed 18-year-olds who will vote for the first time in 2024, they said things like, “I am sure that my vote will not change anything, we all know the result,” and “There can be only one outcome of the elections.” For them, hoping for change feels irrational and forbidden, but still desired — like wanting to eat delicious fruit that gives you an allergic reaction.

Still, when the anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin tried to become a presidential candidate this year, thousands of people in different cities stood in line in the cold to sign for his nomination. They didn’t necessarily support him as an individual but wanted to express their opposition to the war through legal means. A huge campaign collected more than 100,000 signatures, even though many people participating knew that the outcome would be the authorities rejecting Nadezhdin’s candidacy.

What was all their work for? Was it meaningless?

I think a lot about the conversations that people in those lines may have had. I remember how I used to go to the court hearings of political prisoners in Russia—not only to show solidarity but also because people who gathered near the courts became friends. The hearings were spaces of political communication, even if they had no real power or purpose.

Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said that “meaninglessness shouldn’t lead us to give away all subjectivity to others.” These words resonate with me. In the face of Russia’s anti-democratic acts and governance, I feel an urge to dissolve my voice because my vote means nothing. But that would be wrong.

For many Russians, the tedious wait for change has proven too frustrating. When nothing changes we gradually lose our political drive, deciding that our actions are meaningless.

But politics is not just what appears in history textbooks—key events and major actors. Growing up in Russia under Putin, I learned that you can’t wait for politics. Now I think my main political actions happen when I interact with other people, and when I care about other people. That could be outside the courts, at rallies, and in the living room with my friends when we argue about colonialism in Russian regions. It’s also when I comfort my mom, because she feels lonely in Russia and hates to see the pro-war posters on the streets of our city.

Over the weekend, the opposition conducted a “Noon against Putin” campaign. It asked people to come to polling stations at a specific time — 12 p.m.— to either spoil their ballot or choose any candidate other than Putin. The main value of the campaign was to give people the opportunity to see others who hold similar beliefs and anger. To feel solidarity and their own agency.

I think this is especially important for 18-year-old voters who have no illusions about a democratic future and who, like me, have spent their childhood under Putin. I once wanted to warn my younger self that nothing would change. Now, I think it’s better to say that waiting for change isn’t the main point. It’s also about forging relationships that turn into like-minded community. Perhaps, in doing so, we will create bonds on which to build new political hopes and democratic futures.


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