June 24, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 394

On The Fate Of The Russian Opposition

June 24, 2022 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 394

On May 21, 2022, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius hosted an "Anti-War Forum," or­ganized by Russian opposition activists residing in the West. Clearly, opposition activists living in Russia could not come to the event (on April 11, Vladimir Kara-Murza, prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was detained in Moscow after he called the Russian government a regime of murderers).[1] Yet, instead of being a high-profile gathering of activists condemning the Kremlin's aggression, the Vilnius forum turned out to be just a boring meeting that can be remembered only for one initiative: the attempt to conceive "the passport of the 'Good Russian,'" which unleashed endless jokes among the participants and might be considered the worst idea ever put forward by Russian emigrees.

The main idea behind the initiative to create this "passport" was to build a network of Russians that would be able to confirm who is and is not a Putin supporter. Consequently, Western governments would be able to rely on this network to decide whether a Russian national could be granted a visa, a residence permit, or employment papers. However, it is worth noting that no government appeared to have an interest in such an initiative. Furthermore, the concept was not only poorly elaborated, it also spurred concerns that opposition leaders are trying to mastermind a sort of "government-in-exile," which would have some authority over their compatriots.

The visible wish of opposition leaders to proclaim themselves the representatives of a Russian "government in exile," provoked harsh criticism from activists present at the Vilnius forum, as well as from those following it online, and put into question the very possibility of organizing the opposition.

(Source: Valentin Egorshin / TASS)

The Russian Liberals' Failure

How did all this happen? Why do these people, many of whom had been ministers or State Duma deputies, now have no influence over Russian civil society and have gone into exile, leaving the country where they were a part of the ruling political class only a quarter of a century ago? To answer this question, we should retrace the history of the Russian liberal opposition from its very beginning back in the 1990s.[2]

I would argue that the Russian opposition encountered several systemic problems that almost completely prevented it from becoming a significant nationwide political force with a strong connection with the public or with a broad electoral base.

First and foremost, the failure of the liberals in Russia was a result of the USSR-Russia transition. After the fall of the Soviet Union, liberals succeeded in gaining leading positions in the first Russian government. This led to two main consequences: On the one hand, liberals became responsible for all the hardships Russian people endured during the 1990s, as well as for all the corruption and incompetence that emerged at that time; on the other hand, they became hostages to their loyalty to President Boris Yeltsin and his appointees.

It is worth noting that Yeltsin's people were present in the government and in the Kremlin administration till at least the mid-2000s. Yet, liberals were subject to restrictions in opposing Putin and his policies. I should remind the reader that, in 2003, the late Boris Nemtsov campaigned in the State Duma elections under the slogan "Кириенко вДуму, Путина впрезиденты! [[Sergey] Kirienko[3] to the Parliament, Putin to the Presidency!]"

By the time some liberals overcame their corporate solidarity, it was far too late: The state apparatus was already controlled by Putin, and the new political elite started to marginalize those who tried to call for the restoration of the short-lived Russian democracy. Already by 2008 it became clear that the Russian opposition had no chance of succeeding. As a matter of fact, while in neighboring Georgia or Ukraine the people went to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, changing the history of their nations, Russian liberals seemed almost completely incapacitated.

Missing The Opportunity To Support Medvedev's Calls For Reforms

The second important bifurcation point came after 2008, when Putin left the Kremlin and appointed his loyalist Dmitry Medvedev, as (interim) president. At that time, no one among the opposition leaders took Medvedev's calls for modernization and reforms seriously enough, partly because the new president was not "one of them" and came from a different political camp. Even the politics of "reset" and the calls for larger openness and democratization did not impress the liberals.

Until 2011, liberals not only did not voice their support for Medvedev's reform attempts but did not even consider him a "real president." Meanwhile, the young and ambitious Kremlin ruler was looking for broader support from both the business and public sectors, since he had seriously considered the option of firing then Prime Minister Putin and running for a second term in 2012.

Those who are familiar with Soviet history may recall the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika, when even the Soviet dissidents ignored the general secretary's reforms agenda for at least two years after he took power. However, in Medvedev's case, their lethargy lasted much longer. When the liberals gathered at Bolotnaya Square after the rigged parliamentary elections of 2011, it was far too late once again (even though they succeeded in forcing the incumbent president Medvedev to initiate a number of crucial political reforms concerning elections and human rights). However, in 2012, Putin returned to the Kremlin for good, and the liberal movement in Russia ended, and it was substituted for a while by the "anti-corruption" rallies or­ganized by an alternative charismatic leader, Alexei Navalny.[4]

Liberals Used Social Media Only For Self-Promotion

The third point that should be mentioned is the advent of social media in the early 2010s. while social media became so crucial in organizing widespread protests in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, in Russia something different happened. Russian liberals, among whom almost everybody thinks of themselves as the opposition's most credible leader, started to use the new media for glorifying themselves rather than for organizing an opposition. Radio stations like Echo of Moscow, TV outlets like Dozhd', and hundreds of blogs and YouTube channels were used primarily for collecting likes and followers for the most outstanding "maître à penser" (i.e., a person with around one million followers, even though the most popular public figures and journalists in Ukraine in those years had three to seven times more followers than any other Russian liberal).

While the pressure on the opposition grew, the "bla-bla-bla" on the Internet almost completely substituted any real political activity, as Russian liberal thinkers became deeply alienated from the basic interests of ordinary Russian people. The most vocal and charismatic leaders of the opposition were either killed (as Boris Nemtsov was in 2015) or jailed (as Alexei Navalny was in 2021), and the entire movement came to an end.

The "Emigrant Opposition" Cannot Play A Decisive Role In Russia

Furthermore, I would like to mention one more important turning point for Russian liberals that appeared after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine in 2014 and came with the general tightening of the political regime after 2012 (the events of 2020-2022 can be seen as a further development of the same trend). As the Russian opposition condemned the annexation of Crimea and Russia's romance with East Ukrainian separatists, its members were forced to take the side of Russia's geopolitical enemy, Ukraine, and to flee the country due to fear of political persecution. Both factors contributed to the new trend of moving abroad the struggle against Putin's regime. However, in this way, opposition forces have no chance at all to fight the Kremlin.

In the early 20th century, unlike the Bolsheviks, many Russian liberal emigrees left the country and in this way lost their status as Russian politicians or as public figures. For an ordinary Russian, to live abroad means to become dependent on foreign governments or on other forces presumably hostile to the motherland (and Putin's invention of the figure of "foreign agents" fits these feelings almost perfectly). Hence, no one believes that the "emigrant opposition" might someday play a decisive role in Russia. Some people – like Alexei Navalny or Vladimir Kara-Murza – realized this and returned to Russia, knowing that they would be jailed but that they needed to regain their status as Russian politicians. Many others opted for a more comfortable life abroad.

The Russian Opposition Abroad Outnumbers That In Russia

Recently, the characteristics and perspectives of the Russian opposition (which I would rather call a community of dissidents, rather than a political force or grouping) became very clear. First, the emigrant part of this crowd now outnumbers the domestic one, for I would say the first time ever, as a tens of thousands of dissenters took off and left Russia in the first days of Kremlin's war against Ukraine. This fact changes the overall situation very significantly since Russian citizens, and above of all those who will be hit by an upcoming economic crisis, will not be too willing to be lectured by those who did not share their hardships.

Secondly, the vast majority of anti-Putin Russian emigrees now share the call, as stated by Vladimir Lenin, for the "defeat of their own government in an imperialistic war," betting on Ukraine's victory over the Russian army, thinking that this is almost the only event that can bring the collapse of Putin's power. No matter how sound such hopes might be, they cannot be wholly shared by the majority of the Russian citizens, who are influenced by patriotic propaganda. Hence, Russian dissidents are considered traitors running against their own people.

Third, Russian opposition personalities who left Russia in recent months have found themselves following the same daily routine that they did when they were in Moscow: They listen to and watch the same radio stations, TV channels, and media outlets but in their Western version (e.g., Novaya Gazeta Europe and Dozhd TV, which are based in the Baltic region, and the "Living Needle," which substituted Echo of Moscow), with dozens of personal YouTube and Telegram channels, blogs and webpages emerging daily and driven by the same competition for an ever-shrinking circle of listeners or subscribers. The chances for a substantial dialogue with the Russian electorate are now almost non-existent.

It would be unjust not to mention those activists involved in investigative journalism or in studies of Russia's economic and political developments and forecasting the country's outlook.

Investigative journalists have a wide network of activists inside Russia who are helping them denounce and monitor Russian corruption, uncover the episodes of torture in Russian jails, or expose the scope and organization of Russian power networks and their connections. All these activities produce new information about the country, even if most of the Russian people remain uninformed, as happened in the case of Navalny's most famous YouTube revelations.

Experts on Russia's economic and politics focus on the analysis of trends and perspectives, as well as the social dynamics of the country. They will become an integral part of the Western academic community, since the interest in what has been called Kremlinology is on the rise. However, their studies cannot be called the political activity of an opposition in any possible sense.


The Kremlin's war in Ukraine produced not only enormous geopolitical rifts and contradictions, but also ended the history of the Russian liberal opposition in the form it had existed since the 1990s. The first generation of Russian liberals gave Russia to President Putin and his clique (even though many researchers and jour­nalists are still trying to find "systemic liberals" inside the Kremlin's corridors of power), and the second generation wasted both time and energy in creating illusionary communities without any organization or purpose.

Now, these people continue their everyday activities in exile but none of them should be called either politicians or opposition leaders, since they are only dissidents struggling for the current regime's destruction, which they cannot speed up.

Russia, of course, needs a liberal and pro-Western political force, which can transform the country. Russia's history often moves like a pendulum, and after a long "reactionary" and "autarchic" period, a "progressive" and "open" one will follow. However, this force will emerge only from much younger politicians and activists, who decided not to abandon their country and faced all the challenges and difficulties that the Russian people are enduring. Maybe, some elder and more experienced people will join this group as well, like the so called Sixtyers ("шестидесятники") who played an important role in the Perestroika. Yet, those who had proudly called themselves "liberals," during last 20 years, will never again play a significant role in Russia's future progress.


*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor


[1], June 11, 2022.

[2] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 340, In Russia, Liberal Thinking Is Alive But Liberal Politics Is Dead, by Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, December 1, 2021.

[3], accessed June 24, 2022.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1563, Alexey Navalny: Future President Or Prisoner For Life?, by Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, March 11, 2021.

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