By Anton Barbashin
Novosibirsk—Russia’s third largest city and the unofficial capital of Siberia—rarely makes international news. Apart from stories about Akademgorodok, a Soviet-built science city, sometimes called the “Silicon Forest,” the city was barely mentioned in the Western press until recently. But over the last few years, owing to the astonishing number of victories of radical conservative forces over political, cultural, and religious freedoms in the city, Novosibirsk has become known as the “conservative capital of Russia.”
In 2014 the so-called Orthodox activists, backed by the Orthodox Church, made city officials cancel the Marilyn Manson concert just a few days before the event was to go on, claiming that Manson propagated “nontraditional sexual relations” and “offend[ed] religious feelings.” In 2015 the same groups, along with the direct involvement of Church officials, protested the staging of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, claiming again the “offense of religious feelings.” In this case not only was the opera canceled but the Russian minister of culture sacked the theater’s director, fulfilling all of the demands of the religious groups. Since then these groups, along with Russia’s ultranationalist National Liberation Movement (NOD), led by Russian Parliament deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, have tightened their hold on the city, influencing in one way or another every political or cultural event in Novosibirsk. By undertaking high-profile actions on diverse fronts, from attacking antiwar rallies and interfering with Alexei Navalny’s party’s regional elections campaign to rallying against “profanity” during rock concerts and protesting contemporary arts exhibitions, this mixture of ultranationalists and religious radicals has become a sort of unfortunate hallmark of the city.
To those acquainted with the Russian laws on public protests , it is quite clear that this amount of regular protest activity is undeniably sanctioned by the city authorities, especially since most of the NOD and Orthodox activists’ rallies take place in the very center of the city, less than 100 meters from the mayor’s office.
Novosibirsk is definitely not an exception to the rule, as signs of the opposition are hardly welcomed anywhere in the country, and “conservative forces” seem to be the open favorites of the authorities no matter where they are located. The difference in Novosibirsk is in the scale and unprecedented number of mayoral decisions made at the request or demand of those forces. And there is a good explanation why Novosibirsk specifically has become an example of conservative dominance in politics and culture.
The weakest link
Though Novosibirsk is traditionally a city where it is difficult for the ruling party to win the vote, in the 2011 Duma elections, United Russia barely prevailed over the Communist Party, 33.8% to 30.3%, scoring one of the lowest results in the country. Moreover, in the mass protests that followed the rigged December elections, Novosibirsk was among the cities to hold regular antigovernment rallies, which drew an unprecedented number of protestors, especially if one considers the harsh conditions of a Siberian winter. Notably, Novosibirsk has long exhibited the cooperation of left and right, democratic and nationalist political forces, against the establishment. In the same 2011 elections in Novosibirsk’s satellite city, Berdsk, an opposition candidate won the mayoral seat.
This antigovernment wave not only stimulated general civic and political activity but fed the Novosibirsk-born pro-federalism rallies, characterized by such slogans as “Enough of feeding Moscow. Let’s show Moscow Siberia!,” and Artyom Loskutov’s public performance during the May 1 satirical-absurdist demonstrations known as Monstration. For a brief moment, it seemed that Novosibirsk might become one of the cities where the opposition might be able to gain strength and seize power, dethroning United Russia and everything it stood for.
And indeed, in the 2014 mayoral elections, the entire opposition gathered behind the Communist Anatoly Lokot, who won with 44% of vote.
Lokot has provided a full picture of how the regime operates. As soon as he became mayor he became the most loyal guardian of the regime that Novosibirsk has ever seen, bashing the very same Monstration he had promised to join. The demonstration has not been permitted to occur for the last two years, with its leader, Artyom Loskutov, detained by police for being physically present in the city. (Loskutov was forced to leave Novosibirsk and now lives in Moscow.) During the regional legislature election campaign of 2015, Lokot aggressively campaigned against the democratic opposition, claiming that the opposition was sponsored from abroad with the goal of staging a Maidan-type action in Novosibirsk and dismembering Russia. With Lokot in power, Orthodox activists and NOD functionaries became the dominant and highly aggressive force in the city.
It is no surprise, then, that none of the democratic parties have any chance in Novosibirsk in the upcoming Duma elections next Sunday. Judging by the polls, United Russia might actually do slightly better than in 2011 because of a significant loss of interest in the Communist Party as the “opposition” to the ruling bureaucracy.
Novosibirsk is a perfect example of how the empire strikes back—a city where the ruling party lost in 2011 and the opposition was dangerously coalescing, harnessing not only political capabilities but also broader civic support. Not only did the Kremlin destroy the idea that broad political opposition could lead to political victory, it eliminated the idea that liberal, anti-establishment, or simply culturally independent movements could strive to be equally protected by the law. A combination of repressive legislation, selective arrests and intimidations, and an overall conservative shift in national policy, on the one hand, and the lack of a long-term political vision, experience, and perseverance among the democratic forces on the other deprived the city of a unified defense against bigotry and ultranationalism.
The message coming out of Novosibirsk resembles the general message of the defeat of the 2011–2013 mass protests: the harder the antigovernment forces strike, the harder the government will strike back. The goal of Novosibirsk was to show that any hope for change is illusory, any mass activity and civic cooperation punishable by law. On streets where only a few years ago artists and progressive youth marched the ultranationalists and Orthodox activists now hold sway.
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