Russians Are Angry, but Putin’s Foes Struggle to Seize the Moment


MOSCOW — This should be the moment for Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most visible opposition leader.

Many Russians are enraged with the Kremlin over its botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. President Vladimir V. Putin’s approval rating, at 59 percent, is at its lowest ebb since 1999, when he was a lowly prime minister.

At the same time, Mr. Navalny’s audience for his YouTube livestreaming channel tripled as the virus took hold. But whether Mr. Navalny can capitalize on the opportunity remains to be seen.

As Russia fights the coronavirus, the country’s beleaguered opposition, too, finds itself on the back foot. Its proven approach to effecting change — mass street protest — will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Navalny and his colleagues are left working from home, pumping out video clips, petitions and social media posts to try to channel the anger of Russians wondering why Mr. Putin has not done more to help them during the biggest domestic crisis of his tenure.

ImageAleksei A. Navalny, center, in Moscow in February with other opposition figures including, from left, Ivan Zhdanov and Lyubov Sobol.
Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“This is the most important thing happening in people’s lives,” Mr. Navalny said, referring to the authorities’ virus-related measures. “In every Moscow apartment, in every Russian apartment, even if they never talked about politics before, they’re talking about this.”

The discontent may be hidden behind apartment walls, but it is increasingly palpable. Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist at Kosygin State University in Moscow, worked with a team to conduct 235 telephone interviews with a cross-section of Russians in May. She said she encountered far more, and far more intense, invective toward the Kremlin than in focus groups she had conducted in years past.

“We are entering a rather acute phase of public discontent,” said Mikhail Dmitriev, an economist and public-opinion expert who reviewed Ms. Nikolskaya’s findings. “If the level of aggressiveness in society remains this high, it will influence people’s political behavior after the quarantine measures are removed.”

Mr. Navalny, a 43-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption activist, has needled Mr. Putin as corrupt and incompetent for more than a decade, dubbing him the head of “a party of crooks and thieves.” He maintains a nationwide network of branch offices and has honed a punchy, populist and sometimes nationalist rhetoric that reaches millions of social-media followers well beyond the urban middle class.

Along the way he has spent stints in jail and under house arrest, and the authorities have raided his offices and frozen his bank accounts. But the Kremlin has continued to let him operate, perhaps fearing that tougher action would only raise his popularity and standing.

Mr. Dmitriev says the coronavirus crisis is a singular moment in Russia’s political history, because the lockdown gave people lots of free time to stew over their sudden economic dislocation.


Credit…Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik, via Reuters

As bars, malls and parks closed, Mr. Navalny — forced to broadcast from a makeshift studio in his living room — saw his online audience spike. His “Navalny Live” YouTube channel reached 10.6 million unique viewers in April, double the total in January and triple the total in April 2019, according to Google data that his team provided to The New York Times. Eighty-two percent of the April 2020 viewers were inside Russia.

“You get the feeling that Putin always got lucky, and now he’s unlucky, and things aren’t going according to the Kremlin’s plan,” said Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “There is a window of opportunity opening up.”

Mr. Navalny says the Kremlin is losing the support of Russians who had backed Mr. Putin as their guarantor of order and stability. In confrontations over Ukraine and Syria, Mr. Putin cut the figure of a tough, determined leader.

But when a major crisis hit at home — the country’s total of 387,623 coronavirus infections is the third-highest in the world — Mr. Putin appeared to waffle. He issued confusing edicts, delegated key decisions to regional governors and struggled for weeks to get local officials to pay out bonuses he promised to medical workers.

“Just like that, the emperor turned out to have no clothes,” Mr. Navalny said. “Those who sought and hoped for some kind of order saw totally colossal chaos, a lack of help and utter craziness.”

More than 4,000 Russians have already died of the coronavirus — a number widely seen as an undercount — and even state-run media have carried images of lines of ambulances and full hospitals in Moscow and elsewhere.


Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But Mr. Navalny says his most powerful message is an economic one: the idea that for all of Russia’s natural-resource wealth, Mr. Putin is continuing to pad the pockets of those close to him while failing to support the millions of self-employed Russians and service workers who have seen their incomes dry up.

“The officials’ real approach is: ‘Sure, people don’t have any money, but no one has died of hunger,’” Mr. Navalny told the viewers of his live broadcast on Thursday. He went on, sarcastically: “Of course no one has died! Spring is here, it’s berry season, and before this there was birch sap. You need to drink a substantial amount of birch sap to be satiated, but still.”

Russians who work for the government or major companies have been somewhat insulated from the crisis, since they have continued to receive their salaries during the lockdown. But for others, the Kremlin has provided only a meager safety net. There have been no blanket payments like the $1,200 stimulus checks in the United States, only targeted ones like $140 for families with children aged 3 to 15.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

Elena Lerman, a 34-year-old makeup artist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, said she and her friends in the beauty industry watched each of Mr. Putin’s addresses to the nation in March and April, hoping in vain to hear about relief measures that might compensate them for their shuttered studios and salons.

“It was utter disillusionment,” Ms. Lerman said in a telephone interview. “It confirmed that regular people can only depend on themselves and on those close to them.”

Ms. Lerman tried to make ends meet by offering makeup lessons online. Eventually, she joined her colleagues in quietly returning to work, despite the lockdown.

“It was either die of the coronavirus or die of hunger,” she said.

Ms. Lerman said she now followed politics more closely than she used to and could imagine taking part in protests in the future. But she said she was skeptical of Mr. Navalny, explaining, “I no longer understand who tells the truth.”


Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Shedding light on Mr. Navalny’s far-from-universal appeal, the YouTube statistics provided by his team show that 76 percent of his April viewers were men, and more than half were between the ages of 25 and 44. Harnessing the anger of people like Ms. Lerman will be the biggest task for Mr. Navalny and other activists in the months to come.

The most high-profile focus: Mr. Putin is widely expected to reschedule a referendum on constitutional amendments allowing him to serve as president until 2036 — a vote postponed from April because of the virus — for sometime this summer. And regional elections will take place across the country on Sept. 13.

But the pandemic gives the Kremlin new tools to stifle dissent. Mail-in and online voting, cast as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus, will make it harder for activists to monitor elections. In Moscow this week, the police cited the capital’s continuing coronavirus lockdown to detain journalists staging one-person protests, which are typically allowed.

“Of course the Kremlin is incredibly happy that it’s impossible to hold large-scale opposition protests,” said Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny associate who helped spark rallies in Moscow last summer when she was barred from running in local elections. “We are adjusting to this reality — we can’t change it and invent this vaccine — and we have to use the tools that we have.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here