Plus ça change… Just like three years ago on March 26, 2017, the protest “Freedom to Navalny!” tomorrow is to start on Pushkin Square (see above) and march down the central Tverskaya Boulevard down to Manezh Square, which is right next to the Kremlin.
I attended that prior protest (as an informal observer, not a participants – though the distinction would have been theoretical had I been arrested), and confirmed for myself that the police estimate of ~7,500 was accurate:
The regime loyalist I was with estimated there were about 5,000 protesters. A guy with a Ukrainian flag lapel badge whom I asked for his opinion said 10,000. Taking the average estimate from supporters and detractors was a good strategy for estimating crowd size in 2011-12, and coincidentally enough, the resulting figure of 7,500 coincided exactly with the police estimate of 7,000-8,000 protesters. This is not altogether bad, thought quite insubstantial in a city of 12 million.
To be sure, this was an unsanctioned protest, and as I pointed out earlier, a lot of the risk-averse office plankton who form the bulk of Navalny’s support don’t turn up to such protests. They don’t want to run the risk of getting arrested, not when it could impact on their employment. Still, this is about 3x fewer participants than in the last big protest of the 2012 wave, which was also unsanctioned, the farcical “March of the Millions” of May 6 to which about 25,000 turned up.
Will there be more or fewer people now?
Certainly the events preceding this are much more dramatic – the poisoning of Navalny, direct accusations that this was attempted murder on Putler’s part, Navalny’s return to Russia on a sealed airplane, and a corruption investigation now targeting Putin himself (as opposed to his underlings). Certainly it is my impression from Le Reddit that Western normies, buoyed by the removal of Bad Orange Man, are expecting great things from this.
But in the world of reality, as opposed to wishful rhetoric, the best historical guide to how many people will come to these things is banally how many people say they will come on social media.
Here are the results for Moscow, which is ultimately the only part of the country that counts so far as “color revolution” risk is concerned.
Bolotnaya Protest in 2011 (the first one):
- 33,000 on Facebook and 18,600 on VK said they’d come. (A further 10,000 and 27,000, respectively, said they are interested and/or might come).
- Actual attendance: ~60,000 (~120% of expressed intent across the two platforms)
“Он нам не Димон” protest (2017, March):
- The historical pages indicate 5,000 on Facebook (3,900 interested) and 7,100 on VK (2,500 interested).
- Actual attendance: ~7,500 (~60%).
Constitution Day protest (2017, June):
- 4,000 on Facebook (4,000 interested)
- Actual attendance: Couple of thousands? (hard to say as he intentionally “crashed” a concurrent history festival in the center of Moscow)
Today, on the eve of “Freedom to Navalny!”:
- 5,300 say they’re going on Facebook (9,700 interested) and 13,300 on VK (4,400 interested).
- Actual attendance: ?
Naively extrapolating, this means that we should expect something like 20,000*60% or 120% = 12,000-24,000 people to turn up. There are, of course, divergences from this model that may favor greater turnout, lesser turnout, or have unclear effects.
Factors expected to decrease turnout:
- The penalties for unsanctioned protests have been progressively stepped up over the past few years, increasing their costs for normies with jobs or at university. Incidentally, this also has the effect of age shifting protests towards young people and, increasingly, schoolchildren.
- The most important difference is that the 2011 protest was legally sanctioned, which is not the case in either the 2017 one or nowso we should really privilege the ratio from 2017 as opposed to the one from 2011.
- There are more Russians on social media – especially Facebook – now than in 2011, though this is partially balanced out by zoomers migrating to strange new platforms.
Factors expected to increase turnout:
- The YouTube video about Putin’s palaces had already gotten about 3x the pageviews that the hit video on Dmitry Medvedev got in 2017 at the time of the protests (~60 million vs. ~20 million), suggesting greater public interest. However, this effect should be diluted by greater Russian familiarity with Navalny’s YouTube in 2021 (quintupling in subscriber numbers to 5 million), the highly dramatic events surrounding this “expose” of Putin’s corruption, and – especially – the much greater foreign interest expressed in it (it has been prominent on /r/worldnews for many days now).
- Putin’s approval rating was 80% in 2017, versus 65% today (which is far closer to his approval rating in 2011-12, when it neared 60%). Conversely, though, whereas discontent was strongly concentrated in Moscow a decade ago, today it is more dispersed. In fact, with 1,000 prospective attendees on Facebook and 8,300 on VK, almost as many people (~75%) say they will turn up in Saint-Petersburg despite that city having just ~40% of Moscow’s population. (Rage over massive electoral falsifications was the primary driving force of the 2011-12 protest wave in Moscow).
- Russian zoomers are much more oppositionist now than in 2017 (to say nothing of 2011), but they don’t hang out on Facebook or VK, but on newer platforms – most notably, TikTok. As such, attendance figures on boomer (>30 years) social media may not be capturing the protest potential in the youngest cohorts, who are also by far the most oppositionist.
Factors that have a neutral or unknown effect on turnout:
- Coronavirus continues to rage in Russia, but there are no significant lockdowns and children are imminently returning to schools. So I don’t expect this to have a major effect.
- Although Moscow was hit by a major cold speed the past week (-20C), the next few days are going to be much warmer, even sliding into positive territory. So weather won’t have an effect either.
- Personal observation: Many of the same people from my “Friends” who attended in 2017 are attending now, though sample is very low – it’s not like I have many Navalnycore acquaintances. Notably, one zoomer liberal who attended in 2017 has drifted in a nationalist direction since then, and will not attend now.
Probably the factors that increase turnout are somewhat stronger than those that decrease, so if I had to pick a number, I’d say 15,000 as opposed to 5,000 will turn up.
Either way, it’s safe to say that it will still be much fewer than during the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12. I also expect it to be even more loaded towards students and especially schoolchildren even relative to 2017.
But, needless to say, this is not “color revolution” territory.
Lukashenko survived in the aftermath of a completely falsified election with an approval rating of just 30% and with protests of 250,000 in a country with fewer people than Moscow.
Putin retains an approval rating of 65% in a country where half the population says that Navalny was either poisoned by Western intelligence services or was faking the entire thing vs. just 15% who believe it was Putin’s regime.
To get a color revolution I have always maintained that you need a split within the elites. A few thousand schoolchildren surrounded by throngs of foreign journalists aren’t going to get that ball rolling.