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On Saturday 7th October, Russian president Vladimir Putin turned 65, and to mark the occasion Alexei Navalny’s campaign organised protests in around 80 cities across Russia. Ahead of a protest rally in the week leading up to Putin’s big day, Navalny was sentenced to 20 days in prison for organising unsanctioned rallies and on 7th October his supporters were calling both for his release and for the resignation of President Vladimir Putin. More than 270 people were detained nationwide and police estimates say that there were at least 700 protestors in Moscow alone.

Alexei Navalny’s approval ratings and levels of support [are] demonstrating that you don’t necessarily need mass support to create change.

Now I’m not saying that there’s a revolution on the horizon and the turn out in Moscow and St Petersburg was in fact lower than at previous protests such as those in March and June. Furthermore, the outcome of the 2018 elections is still more or less decided. Putin will stand and most likely win. According to the independent Levada centre, at the beginning of September 83% of the Russian population supported Putin. However, what we can glean from the events on 7th October is that a battle for change is brewing. Alexei Navalny’s approval ratings and levels of support don’t come close to those of Vladimir Putin, but he is demonstrating that you don’t necessarily need mass support to create change. His ability to mobilise huge crowds and organise mass protests has led to a disruption in Russia of the status quo. Regardless of the popularity ratings, Navalny’s actions provoke a reaction and so he is indirectly affecting what goes on behind the Kremlin walls. Not only this, the crowds of protestors are evidence of that fact that there is a group in Russian society, who are willing not only to listen to what Navalny believes but to fight for it.

Alexei Navalny, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Politics may not be the safest topic to bring up in this country but what has become clear to me on speaking to Russians in light of the events on 7th October is that there is a growing divide between the old and the young in the Russian population. The older population, by and large, are full of praise for their strong and powerful leader. In fact, in the eyes of my elderly Russian neighbour, the man simply cannot be faulted. However, on speaking to the younger population, Mr President doesn’t receive quite such a glowing review. One young man I spoke to is so dissatisfied with where the country is going that he intends to move to Canada as soon as his savings allow. Similarly, I got chatting to a very friendly Russian lady in a café who was in Moscow visiting family. She moved to California at the age of eighteen and has no intention of moving back to Moscow any time soon. When I enquired as to her reason for moving she simply replied, “you have seen how this country is governed, why would I stay?” And what about those who are similarly dissatisfied but have no choice but to stay in Russia? Well, they were on the streets of major cities nationwide with banners and posters on 7th October.

Putin is keeping to a very conservative agenda. For example, he wants to ensure that the Russian Orthodox Church has a leading role in society, and this was demonstrated through the criminal case against Pussy Riot in 2012 and the “gay propaganda” law enacted four years ago. He turns his nose up at what we in the West believe to be normal human rights, arguing that they are a “destruction of traditional values”. However, it is this conservative agenda with which a growing number of the Russian population are becoming dissatisfied. There is a new generation coming through with a dwindling interest in preserving Russia’s traditional values. With the world becoming more interconnected than ever before they are more concerned about improving economic performance and relations with the West. While Putin is busy cutting ties and therefore looking more and more to the east for allies, many believe that Russia needs to work on firmly securing its place as a European nation, which it undoubtedly has the potential to be.

Putin is keeping to a very conservative agenda…He turns his nose up at what we in the West believe to be normal human rights, arguing that they are a “destruction of traditional values”.

The President’s birthday protests aren’t exactly going to go down in history and its not as though crowds are building to storm the Kremlin walls. But it’s these events that we need to analyse to gain a deeper understanding of the political situation in Russia. Yes, Putin’s hold on power is secure for now, but for how long can he ignore and suppress the battle for change that is brewing?

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