At a time​ when relations between Russia and the West are at such a low ebb, it can be easy to forget exactly how much the two sides agree on. This is especially true in the realm of economic policy, where for years now the Putin government has been implementing its own version of austerity, designed to slim down Russia’s social welfare apparatus still further. The Russian term for it is ‘optimisation’, and the latest stage of the campaign was last summer’s drastic pension reform. The plan was steadily to raise the retirement age for both men and women, from 60 and 55 respectively to 65 and 63. The Kremlin knew this would be an unpopular move, hence the timing: the measure was announced on 14 June, the day the World Cup kicked off in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, presumably in the hope that the football would distract the population from what they were doing.

Still, what happened next must have come as a surprise: starting in mid-June, demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across the country, from Murmansk to Kamchatka, including mass meetings in Moscow that drew thousands of people. These were the largest expressions of popular discontent in Russia since the 2011-12 protests against electoral fraud and Putin’s return to the presidency. Like those earlier gatherings, in the end last summer’s demonstrations failed in their stated goal: the pension reform was approved in September. But the way the protests unfolded, and the way the government responded to them, help explain two of the chief enigmas about contemporary Russia: why the opposition doesn’t pose much threat to Putin’s rule, and why displays of discontent are, even so, likely to keep occurring.

As soon as the pension reform was announced it met with opposition: an overwhelming 89 per cent were against, according to independent polls carried out in late June. More worrying for Putin, it immediately wiped several points from his approval ratings, which between May and July dropped from 79 to 67 per cent. True, this was still high compared to most other world leaders, but the patriotic boost he received after the annexation of Crimea, which had kept his figures at around 80 per cent since early 2014, was erased overnight.

It isn’t hard to understand why the pension reform was so unpopular. A little less than a third of Russia’s population are pensioners, some 46 million people. Of these, a solid majority are women. Even for children born today, average life expectancy for men in Russia is 66 years, compared to 77 for women, which is why raising the male retirement age in particular was seen as unjust. In many regions – generally the poorer, remote fringes of the country – the figure for men is considerably lower, barely scraping 62 in Irkutsk, and an appalling 58 in Tuva. If current trends hold, many Russian men won’t even make it to the new retirement age.

There was, even before the events of last year, already a question as to whether the existing pension was adequate. According to official figures, the average monthly pension works out at 13,342 roubles, roughly £150, but this varies significantly by region. Moscow pensions are slightly more generous, for example, reflecting the capital’s higher cost of living; so are those in the Arctic, where the climate is harsher and basic goods more expensive. Payments also vary according to previous job and salary. Ex-politicians do best, but even then there’s a range: retired Duma deputies apparently get around £700 a month, while Mikhail Gorbachev gets £3600. But the pension most Russian pensioners get doesn’t cover their day to day needs. It provides a minimal income which people have to supplement by turning to relatives or somehow getting extra money by other means – which is why more than a fifth of Russian pensioners still work. (The IMF had the gall to cite this as an argument in favour of raising the pension age: those old folks clearly love working!)

Official propaganda about the virtues of later retirement didn’t help matters. On 18 July, Elena Yampolskaya, a United Russia Duma deputy from Chelyabinsk, praised the measure as offering an opportunity to ‘leave one’s comfort zone’ – as if living one’s final years in poverty were some kind of opportunity for personal development. The pension reform wasn’t dreamed up in a self-help seminar, though. It followed earlier efforts to reshape the Russian pension system in line with Western norms. As long ago as the mid-1990s, IMF and World Bank officials had pressed the Yeltsin government to make changes, but at the time – mired in an ugly war in Chechnya, his popularity in the single digits – Yeltsin couldn’t oblige them. In 2002, Putin overhauled the system into its present form. Since then, Russian pensions have consisted of three components: a basic, universal state pension; a pay-as-you-go labour pension funded by payroll taxes; and individual pension fund accounts, which are either managed by the state pension fund or (less often) by private fund managers.

Similar reforms were enacted across most of the former communist bloc in the 1990s. In many cases, the reforms were also accompanied by increases in the retirement age (in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan and Latvia in 1996, and in Hungary in 1998). In 2004, the Putin government made further changes to bring the system into line with the prevailing economic orthodoxy, doing away with a range of in-kind benefits and replacing them with cash payments. That winter, there was a nationwide wave of protests by pensioners: the first real demonstration of popular discontent that Putin had had to deal with. Though he pressed ahead nevertheless, it was enough to put him off raising the pension age for a while. In September 2005, he promised live on television that ‘while I am president, no such decision will be taken.’

Last year, the moment had evidently arrived. Three days after Putin’s victory in the presidential election in March, his former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin published an article laying out the strategic tasks facing the new administration. Structural changes were required, he wrote, and time was of the essence: ‘unpopular measures’ would have to be carried out within the next two years to stand any chance of success. (Kudrin described this as not so much a window of opportunity as a fortochka: the small ventilation pane in the upper corner of Russian windows that is designed to allow fresh air in but keep the sub-zero cold out.) In May, an IMF mission to Russia praised the Putin government’s ‘strong macroeconomic policy framework’, but like Kudrin insisted that ‘the focus has to shift to structural reforms to boost productivity and the supply of labour and capital.’ Any increases in spending on health, education and infrastructure, however, ‘should be done without compromising the credibility of the new fiscal rule’. One way of gaining ‘fiscal space’, the IMF helpfully suggested, would be through ‘parametric pension reform’ – in other words, making fewer people eligible to claim one.

Over the week following 14 June, a few hundred people turned out to protest in half a dozen cities from Pskov to Astrakhan to Novosibirsk. (Narod protiv Povysheniia Pensionnogo Vozrasta, or ‘The People against the Raising of the Pension Age’, the cumbersomely named umbrella organisation for the protests, compiled attendance estimates for every anti-pension reform event held after that.) A bigger wave of demonstrations took place on 1 July, in more than forty cities across the country, including turnouts of a few thousand in cities deep in the interior, such as Omsk and Chelyabinsk, while smaller gatherings cropped up in places as far-flung as Arkhangelsk in the Arctic and Khabarovsk in the far east. The World Cup had an effect on the geography of the protests: many early meetings planned in the major cities of European Russia were refused official permits for the duration of the tournament.

But there was also the fact that it was a long time before Putin said anything about the reform, either for or against. His silence suggested that perhaps the reform as first proposed was a trial balloon – or an opening bid in a negotiation with Russian society, the question then being what kind of concessions the government might make. This impression was strengthened by Putin’s first public statement about it, on 20 July – more than a month after the reform was announced. As so often, he painted himself as a kind of neutral arbiter, saying that no final decision had been made, and that he would ‘need to hear all opinions and points of view on this issue’. Might the government be forced to compromise, or even cancel the reform?

On the last weekend of July, the biggest demonstrations yet were held across the country, with thousands congregating in larger cities such as Ekaterinburg and Kazan. In Moscow, I went to a miting on Sakharov Avenue on 28 July – there were at least ten thousand people there. It had been organised by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), and their supporters dominated the gathering numerically; red banners with hammers and sickles were held aloft by hundreds of locals as well as comrades bussed in from the surrounding provinces. But a lot of other groups were present too. As with the 2011-12 anti-Putin demonstrations, last summer’s protests often involved an incongruous spread of political tendencies. There were delegates from the Labour Federation of Russia, as well as scatterings of small socialist and anarchist groups (in an admirable display of non-sectarianism, one of the former lent the latter a plastic pole so they could hoist their black and red flag). A large crowd of monarchist-nationalists appeared behind us waving the black, yellow and white tricolour of the Romanov dynasty, some of them in early modern costume for good measure. One of the socialists I was with realised that this wasn’t perhaps the ideal backdrop for their banner to be photographed against, so we pivoted and stood side-on to the demonstration instead. As always, there were a few pensioners carrying pictures of Stalin; more weirdly, ahead of me I also saw some people holding a green banner bearing a portrait of Gaddafi.

The KPRF organisers had obtained all the necessary permits for the demonstration, and the mood, on that bright summer’s day, was far from insurrectionary. It wasn’t anger that predominated so much as disbelief, both at the harshness of the proposed measure and the cynicism of its timing. One irate speaker denounced it as ‘ne pensionnaia reforma, a pensionnaia afyora’ – ‘not a pension reform, but a pension fraud’. At times the focus of the discontent seemed to shift: another speaker denounced the property developers and construction firms busily transforming Moscow, making it unaffordable for locals. There were occasional signs that the organisers hadn’t quite grasped the substance of the issue: both Gennady Zyuganov, the KPRF leader, and Sergei Udaltsov, head of the small socialist organisation Left Front, gave rambling speeches referring to the sacrifices Russia’s elderly citizens had made during the Second World War – perhaps forgetting that the reform would mainly affect men born after 1958 and women born after 1963.

Despite the broad public consensus against the reform, it soon became clear that Russia’s opposition movements would not be united in their efforts to stop it. There were some notable absences from the 28 July demonstration: A Just Russia, the main pseudo-oppositional party represented in the Duma after the KPRF, didn’t take part, and the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny encouraged his supporters to attend a different demonstration, organised by the tiny Libertarian party and held the next day in exactly the same place as the KPRF protest. Several more times over the course of the summer, the various groups organised separate demonstrations, fragmenting and dispersing the protests, and reducing their impact.

On 2 September, the KPRF and A Just Russia again put on separate protests in Moscow. This time I went to A Just Russia’s, held on Suvorov Square, in front of the former Red Army Theatre, a hyper-Stalinist colonnaded building in the shape of a star. A much smaller affair than the 28 July meeting, this was again ideologically diverse: there were trade unionists, social-liberals from the Yabloko party, socialists, anarchists, the leader of a women’s organisation from Kazan. But the bulk of the crowd consisted of people holding A Just Russia’s yellow flag or wearing high-vis vests bearing the party’s initials, ‘SR’. Many of the protesters were current pensioners, rather than the middle-aged people who will be most immediately affected by the reform. They didn’t seem to be particularly interested in the speeches or slogans, and I later found out that many of them had been paid to be there: I saw lines of them on the pavement waiting to get their few hundred roubles; apparently there’s a website you can visit to find out which protests pay best. Still, there were fiery speeches by union representatives and by a young socialist from Rzhevsk. This being a Russian demonstration, it ended with a poem, read by its Smolensk-based author, satirically suggesting a way for the populace to help ease the pressure on the state budget (‘Umri do pensii, tovarishch,’ it ran – ‘Die before getting your pension, comrade’).

By channelling anger at the pension reform into separate, officially sanctioned demonstrations, Russia’s state-approved opposition parties – the KPRF and A Just Russia – were sucking all the energy and momentum out of it. Was this part of some cynical design, or were they simply incapable of operating in any other way? In Russia’s imitation democracy, it can sometimes be hard to tell where a hollow performance of opposition ends and a genuine lack of political acumen begins. Navalny and his supporters were much more combative in their approach. Since the spring of 2017, they have periodically staged unsanctioned protests – sometimes slangily referred to as nesanktsy – organised over social media and by word of mouth, more like flashmobs than the KPRF’s pre-approved mitingi. Their main focus has been opposition to Putin and the corruption of Russian officials. In March 2017, for example, there were demonstrations to accompany the release of a documentary about Dmitri Medvedev’s personal fortune, made by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. In May last year, Navalny led protests against Putin’s inauguration, and was jailed for thirty days. (He later tweeted about the surprising improvements the Russian authorities had made to prison food ahead of the World Cup – maybe hoping to impress any foreign football fans they arrested.)

From mid-June onwards, Navalny’s protests started targeting the pension reform. This could have been awkward, since his own Progress Party had itself, in its 2014 manifesto, advocated raising the retirement age. But in the months prior Navalny had made something of a feint to the left, dropping several of his more stridently neoliberal views, including the idea of raising the retirement age. Was this a real shift in his thinking, or was it opportunism, a reaction to the unpopularity of such views among the broader Russian electorate? It’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to say whether Navalny’s unwillingness to join forces with other parties is based more on an understandable aversion to being drawn into the deadening embrace of the pseudo-opposition, or on an overriding need to maintain his distinctive political ‘brand’. (Of course, the two are by no means mutually exclusive.) Either way, in late August, he called for a national day of protest against the pension reform – not on 2 September, when the KPRF and A Just Russia had planned their actions, but on 9 September, to coincide with nationwide regional and local elections, including the mayoral race in Moscow.

To no one’s surprise, Moscow’s current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, was re-elected with 70 per cent of the vote; elsewhere, although there were one or two minor surprises, Putin’s United Russia party maintained its hold on almost all the country’s regional and local assemblies. But the authorities in Moscow weren’t taking any chances: 9 September also happened to be when they had decided to mark the 871st anniversary of the city’s founding – there’s nothing like a nice round number to whip up enthusiasm – and the centre of town had been taken over by a bewildering array of attractions. There were multiple stages taking up the lower reaches of Tverskaya Street, and a series of folkloric ensembles performing all along Okhotnyi Riad. As if that wasn’t enough, in front of the Bolshoi Theatre a man on a motorbike rode in an endless loop inside a spherical steel cage while women dressed as ballerinas perched on chandeliers suspended over the main thoroughfare. It was a delirious spectacle, trying so hard to distract the commoners that it ended up drawing attention to the sheer effort entailed. Meanwhile, on Pushkin Square nearby, the Navalny-led protest took place. A group of protesters climbed onto the base of Pushkin’s statue, holding handmade placards and chanting anti-Putin slogans. Surrounding the monument, a large crowd of people looked on, some holding placards and joining in the chants, some simply curious: this was the passive component of the protest, a group of people who quickly dissociated themselves when it became clear the police were going to move in. The sides of the square were lined by cops in riot gear, their black helmets with black visors making them look like sinister bikers; though the friend I tagged along with referred to them more charmingly as ‘cosmonauts’.

For the protesters in Moscow, the upside of its being a holiday was that the police were unlikely to wade in as forcefully as usual. When the crowd dispersed and went to join the city’s anniversary festivities, most of them were let through; in the end around 48 people were arrested. In St Petersburg there were more than six hundred arrests, and close to two hundred in Ekaterinburg; in all, around 1200 people were detained at protest actions across the country. These are large numbers, considering the small scale of most demonstrations in Russia. But the most striking thing about the Navalny supporters who take part in nesanktsy is their demographic profile: they are predominantly very young, often teenagers – and it was clear that pension reform wasn’t their main concern. They have grown up knowing nothing but Putin and United Russia, and these are the objects of their anger. For them, communism isn’t even a distant memory. When they chant ‘liustratsiia’ – borrowing the term ‘lustration’ from the post-communist purges of Eastern Europe – they don’t mean they want to disbar former communists from office, they mean that they see the current regime as a contemporary equivalent to communist rule. Another of their recurrent chants speaks for itself: ‘Doloi tsaria!’ – ‘Down with the tsar!’

But by the time the 9 September protests took place, the battle over pension reform was already over. On 29 August, Putin had made his second major intervention on the question, giving a televised address in which he set out a series of adjustments. The retirement age would still be raised to 65 for men, but would now – a touch of chivalry? – be only 60 for women, instead of the planned 63. A few other measures were added to soften the blow slightly: tax benefits, increases in pension amounts in rural areas and for those close to retirement age, a lower retirement age for women with three or more children. But this wasn’t much of a retreat, if it was a retreat at all. It was clear, too, that this was Putin’s final decision, and there was a spreading sense of inevitability that the measures would now be adopted in this form. Indeed, on 27 September, the Duma passed the pension reform bill by a crushing 332 votes to 83.

The whole process seemed to illustrate the weakness of the opposition, its inability to unite even when presented with an issue on which 89 per cent of Russian society was against the government. One of the reasons for this failure is that some of the apparent opposition came from parties that are a functional part of the Putin-led system. By the end of the summer, it seemed as if their role was simply to participate in a charade, in which the government first floated a harsh version of the reform, then sat back to watch Russian society’s response, before finally settling on a marginally less harsh reform under the pretence it was making a reasonable compromise.

For all that, the protests weren’t futile. In a political system with no genuine electoral competition, in which the permitted parties have only the most tenuous relationship to popular opinion, the parliament is a total nullity as an arena for meaningful debate. The battle over Russia’s political direction isn’t being – can’t be – fought in the Duma, but more diffusely, in the country at large: the Kremlin devises policies and signals them to the public, which then responds, mostly with indifference or acquiescence, but very occasionally with anger. So far, the Putin government has had little difficulty in getting its way. But the lack of a party system that represents anything like the full range of public opinion means it is more likely to be caught unawares by sudden outbursts of discontent. The government’s agenda over the coming years – the ‘unpopular measures’ Kudrin was advocating – seems likely to create plenty of flare-ups in various sections of Russian society. The question then will be whether the system’s rigidity turns out to be its weakness.

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