BERLIN — The choice of venue was meant to symbolize unity, but in the end, the differences could hardly have been greater.
When the 50 or so members of the Russian opposition met in November at the Jablonna Palace outside Warsaw, where the Polish opposition once began the so-called roundtable discussions that eventually led to the fall of communism, tensions boiled over about how to change the course of Russia.
According to interviews with observers at the congress, ideas were as varied as drafting a new Russian constitution to planning deadly attacks against President Vladimir Putin and his entourage in the Kremlin. But a host of prominent Russian opposition activists avoided the Jablonna Palace meeting altogether — a sign of just how divided the Russian opposition is and how far it is from achieving its goal of overturning Putin, even as he pursues a catastrophic war in Ukraine.
“It is as always,” Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and one of Russia’s top security experts, who has written extensively about the inner workings of the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, said last month. “Russians in exile never have been capable of forming an opposition force. There is infighting, distrust and no clear agenda.”
On one end of the spectrum sits Aleksey Baranovsky, a lawyer and close associate of Ilya Ponomaryov, a Jablonna organizer.
“Armed opposition is the only option the Russian people have today,” Baranovsky told the gathering in November, according to Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest Polish daily newspaper.
He then argued that Russians who come into possession of weapons and take part in the fight against the Putin system and kill its henchmen should be treated as prisoners of war with the right to amnesty if they are captured.
Hearing such radical appeals to action, several of the 50 or so Putin critics present seemed to feel uneasy.
Instead of killing Putin, they would rather see him on trial at the international tribunal in The Hague.
Leonid Gozman, the head of the Russian liberal-conservative movement Union of Right Forces, decided against participating in Jablonna.
“Whatever the resolutions of the Congress, its work will be understood as a call to arms,” he said in November on Polish Gazeta Wyborcza — a podcast of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, which is now banned. “And I am not ready for this.”
In a sign of the damaging lack of unity among the Russian opposition, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-chess-champion-turned dissident Garry Kasparov and, most important, members of the team of the imprisoned resistance icon Alexei Navalny decided to skip Jablonna.
“Russian elites are often selfish,” said Stefan Meister, the program director at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “They don’t get along with each other. A unifying leader is nowhere to be seen.”
Counting on the opposition would be naive, he said.
“If at all, change will come from within the system, not from the opposition,” he said.
A system that might decide at some point that Putin is no longer the right man. Or maybe not.
Scattered across Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Berlin and London, the opposition is obviously divided. But within Russia, it is crippled.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Russian system is more repressive today than at any other time in the post-Soviet era.
Thousands of Putin critics are behind bars. The internet is under strict control of Roskomnadzor, the state watchdog that controls all content.
Russian protesters march into second weekFeb. 1, 202101:16
Foreign organizations are labeled “foreign agents,” if they are not banned outright. The authorities crack down on critics in the media, harass peaceful protesters and engage in smear campaigns against independent groups.
Pressing the wrong “like” button on social media, retweeting a critical commentary or making a negative remark about the military can put a person behind bars — often for many years.
In fact, many of the potential opposition leaders are already locked away — Navalny being the most powerful. He is serving time in Penal Colony No. 2 east of Moscow.
In March, Navalny, 46, was given a nine-year jail term after he was found guilty of fraud. New charges were added last fall accusing him of propagating extremism and calling for terrorism. All told, it could earn him around 30 years in prison.
Close Navalny associates, like his lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, and former campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, are trying to keep up the fight from abroad, producing a stream of YouTube videos, posting images and tweeting tons of messages.
“Before the war, the prevailing thinking was: You can’t be an opposition leader if you are outside Russia,’” said Soldatov, the security expert. “Today, I believe that’s wrong.”
With the internet and social media, there are ways to make yourself heard — even in a sealed-off country like Russia. Not only for Navalny, this realization would come too late.
The same applies to Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin. Kara-Murza, 41, is the deputy chairman of Open Russia, a nongovernmental organization founded by Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch, that promotes civil society and democracy in Russia.
While Khodorkovsky served a 10-year prison sentence and now lives in the United Kingdom, Kara-Murza rots in a Moscow prison and faces 20 years or more for treason and other charges.
In April, Kara-Murza was accused of spreading false information about the Russian army, which carries a prison sentence of three to 10 years. The basis for the indictment was a speech Kara-Mursa gave in the Arizona Legislature shortly after the war began, in which he spoke about Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Later last year, new charges were filed — this time for collaborating with an “undesirable organization” at a 2021 conference of the Sakharov Center in Moscow.
Yashin, 39, is the latest prominent figure to be sentenced to a long prison term. He was a close associate of former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015.
In December, a Moscow court found Yashin guilty of “spreading false information” about the armed forces when he spoke about the killings in Bucha, Ukraine. The sentence: eight years and six months.
Before his arrest in June, Yashin was considered one of the few remaining opposition politicians who could reach a large audience. However, he has long been a thorn in the government’s side, especially after he played a key role in the so-called Bolotnaya protests of 2011-13. At the time, many Russians took to the streets to criticize the allegedly rigged elections to the state Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Andrei Kolesnikov is one of the few opposition activists still in Russia who does not hold back with his opinion about Russia under Putin. For many years, Kolesnikov, 57, a journalist, worked for the renowned daily Izvestia.
His outlook is gloomy.
“In Russia, the opposition is completely destroyed,” he said by email. “What is not understood in the West is that Russia has a strictly authoritarian military-police regime with totalitarian elements. What’s left of the remaining opposition leaders in Russia, they are now all in prison.”
Only very few like Kolesnikov still enjoy a tiny bit of freedom. Another one is Yulia Galyamina. Even though Galyamina, the former liberal municipal deputy of the Timiryazevsky district in Moscow, was jailed for 30 days last year after she organized a rally against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she continues to work as a political activist.
Just two days before the attack against Ukraine, Galyamina, 49, and others announced the formation of the feminist movement Soft Power.
In October they were even able to gather a group of women in St. Petersburg and hold its first feminist conference. Although they were watched by police, nothing happened.
“We did everything very quietly and with no advance announcements. We wanted to minimize the risks for everyone,” Galyamina said in a telephone interview. “We are only trying to reclaim a piece of the freedom we used to have.”
How much longer will even that be possible?
“The margins are shrinking every day,” said Meister, of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Every day, what is possible is redefined.”
An event like the one by Galyamina may have been possible last fall, but now it may no longer be, he said. “The system is not yet so totalitarian that it controls every niche, but it is increasingly trying to do so.”
Whereas in the past the Kremlin allowed at least a few liberal voices and media to claim that there was freedom in Russia, it does not anymore.
“For Moscow it is no longer important to embody a certain image toward the West,” Meister said. “They no longer have to put on a sham democratic cloak. They have left that behind.”