Divided They Stand: The state of Russia’s “Solidarity”

By Elizabeth Miles

“In 2010, we had only seven political parties,” explains Sergei Davidis. “It was one of the reasons why people came to protest in December of 2011. They began [to understand] that they have no choice.” A lawyer and sociologist, Davidis first organized protests in Moscow during the pro-democracy movements of the late 80s and early 90s. Today, he advocates for freedom of assembly and the human rights of political prisoners.

“I left Russia in the summer of 2012, when the police opened a case on me and started looking,” recalls Pável Elizárov, a participant in the Bolotnaya Square protests of May 2012. After receiving political asylum, Elizárov moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where he works as a programmer in an investment bank.

“It is not possible to achieve results through formal procedures,” says Ruslan Rudenko. Only 23 years old, Rudenko has already cycled through two parties. In February 2015, Rudenko resigned as a regional council member in Krasnoyarsk, the third largest city in Siberia, citing a feeling of powerlessness. His party has yet to be allowed registration by the Kremlin.

All three have one thing in common: their involvement in Solidarnost, a political group whose name translates to “Solidarity.” Solidarity was founded in 2008 by a coalition of politicians, left-wing activists, and human rights organizers, wary of President Vladimir Putin’s decades in power. On VKontakte, Europe’s most popular social network among Russian-speakers, Solidarnost has 4,573 members. Posts range from a charity event for political prisoners, to a “Crisis” march on March 1st, and a video clip on “Putin’s Economic Failure.”

Solidarity has never been an officially registered political party; instead, it labels itself as a “United Democratic Movement.” Rudenko attributes this name to a desire for operational freedom from bureaucracy and a local focus on street events and education. Denis Bilunov, leader of the Moscow branch since 2011, wrote in a news article on the website, “Solidarity is an organization not so much of leaders as it is one of citizen activists. Joining Solidarnost is primarily an ideological self-identification.” He considers the modern Russian to be an extreme individualist, disenchanted with group loyalties.

Yet Solidarity exists, unofficially, by drawing together those dissatisfied individuals. It operates throughout the entire Russian Federation, organized into regional offices that employ non-violent methods, such as rallying, picketing, and printing books, to advocate for political change. There’s also a more nebulous option labeled “The Black Book of Putinism.”

“We demand the resignation of Putin as president of the Russian Federation,” Solidarity’s Facebook description for a protest reads. “We are for the real fight against corruption… accountability to the people, for fair and free elections… We demand the immediate release of political prisoners and an end to harassment of citizens.” Despite the strident rhetoric, only 18 said they would attend the protest.

After 2008, Solidarity emerged as the main organization of democratic opposition, and its protests drew large crowds. Support for Solidarity reached its zenith in 2011, amidst a national wave of anti-government protest. Elizárov described the protests against alleged election fraud on December 5, 2011, which sparked dissident activity that continued into 2012, as a “landmark for Solidarnost.” On that day, Elizárov was arrested alongside Alexey Navalny, a prominent opposition activist. Navalny is now under house arrest, after nearly winning the mayorship of Moscow in September of 2013 on an anti-Putin platform.

But reform has led to a burst of competing anti-Putin groups. “Before, people who wanted to organize a political party had to have 45,000 members in 43 regions,” said Davidis. “It was impossible to achieve. You do not have so many active people, people are afraid.” A 2012 reform package amended the rule to only 500 members, leading to the emergence dozens of political parties. Rudenko believes that “now, in the oppositional movement, it’s all about Navalny and the Progress party.” Elizárov, though far removed from local protests, helped to organize the officially registered Republican Party of Russia—People’s Freedom Party, as he felt that to participate in elections, he needed to belong to a more formal organization. Davidis is now more active within the 5th of December party, named for the landmark protest. Though all three maintain links to Solidarity, Davidis believes it has faded as “the state slightly gave up,” allowing for an explosion of new parties.

Davidis found that many new activists, stirred by the protests of 2011, did not want to join the old opposition groups. Yet Solidarity remains influential as a coordinator of activity between different parties, as their leaders, veterans of dissent movements, have stayed involved.  And for the casual street picketer on VKontakte, Solidarity (occasionally) serves as an ideological call for action. Solidarnost has never claimed to be a party, with a platform and candidates. It’s more of a Choose Your Own Anti-Putin Adventure kind of thing.

Elizabeth Miles ’17 is a History major in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be reached at elizabeth.a.miles@yale.edu.

Above: On June 12, 2012, anti-government protestors in Moscow demonstrated in opposition to Vladimir Putin and his government (courtesy Flickr user Evgeniy Isaev).