The free city of Moscow: reflections on Russia’s protest movement

It is easy to write off the events of the last few months as a predictable prelude to bureaucratic revanchism. But the unanticipated protest movement also brought about a significant change, writes Alexei Levinson. This was the sense that Russians can now become members of an internalised free society. They are unlikely to give up this feeling any time soon. 

Moscow has witnessed an unprecedented number of protest rallies in recent months. The trend began on 4/5 December, when several thousand protesters responded to reports of vote rigging in the Duma parliamentary elections, and were met with a brutal response from the police. Five days later came a sanctioned rally on Bolotnaya Square, attended by tens of thousands of Moscow. This rally passed peacefully and without any trouble or arrests. Then, two weeks later, on 24 December, nearly twice as many people participated in a march in Sakharov Boulevard. This was followed by two events on the Garden Ring Road [Sadovoye koltso] that skirts the centre of Moscow. The first saw protesters driving slowly around the Ring, cheered on by people walking on the pavements; the second saw a pedestrian ‘ring’ cheered on by the cars passing by. There were other protest rallies, including some held on extremely cold February days. Others still were organised by the authorities themselves. Although these were no less well attended, it was clear participation was largely coordinated from above. 

A break from history? 

If we are to think about the rallies as revolution, they were certainly a failure.  As an uprising, too, they were a disappointment. The December rallies adopted a series of radical resolutions including one that demanded the results of the Duma election be annulled. Clearly, these demands haven't been met. The rallies  that followed the March presidential election put forward demands that Putin not to take up the post of President. Unsurprisingly, these demands haven't been met either. The government-controlled media have claimed a total victory for Putin and over the opposition.

History should perhaps have taught us not to expect anything different. The entire history of Eastern Europe provides only tragic examples: of democratic outbursts followed by protracted and gloomy periods of triumphant state bureaucracy, of bureaucracies that then stay in power for a long time, dark and inflexible, oppressing its own people and trying to intimidate others. Things usually ends badly, as in the Crimean War or the war in Afghanistan, leaving the country completely exhausted.  

But even if recent events do evoke analogies of this kind, there was something unique about them, beginning with some details that are untypical of rebellions and revolutions.  Anyone wishing to present the events of the past few months as a plot secretly instigated by Western intelligence services ought to take note of the unusual openness on the part of the organisers and activists. Meetings of the rally organisers were broadcast online. Information on the funding of the rally movement was published in real time. This is not how a band of plotters behaves. 

‘The entire history of Eastern Europe provides only tragic examples of democratic outbursts followed by protracted and gloomy periods of triumphant state bureaucracy. But there was something unique about [the events], beginning with some details that are untypical of rebellions and revolutions.’

It actually made me think that it would be great if our parliament behaved in this way. The participants weren't at all like-minded, representing instead a great range of opinions and interests. Yet they managed to reach an agreement. A real novelty for Russia. Just as encouraging was the completely new style of leadership that developed. 

There were some in Russia who lamented the absence of a genuine leader among rally organisers; others even suggested that the failure to identify such a leader led to the failure of the movement (revolution or uprising). Of course, it is very difficult to imagine Russian society either indifferent (or entirely enamoured) by a leader. Yet the people who attended the meetings managed perfectly well without idols and figures of supreme authority. The figures of authority were hardly universal. Some went for the writer Boris Akunin, others for nationalist Vladimir Tor, some for left radical Sergei Udaltsov, others for ex-deputy PM Boris Nemtsov. Basically, we understood the most appropriate form of self-management in this kind of situation is a parliament. 

What was significant in the rallies themselves? That ‘non-system' politicians addressed the masses was undoubtedly a remarkable new development. However, many observers noted - whether in surprise, dissatisfaction, irony or mockery - there was another important change. A significant number of participants had come 'just to be there'. For many, indeed, to hear the speakers was less important than to take a look at other people, read the slogans on the banners, or just to spend some time surrounded by people who were strangers but who felt the way they did. And it is precisely the appearance of this type of participant that supports the claim that what we have witnessed is an entirely new kind of community and communication.  

That strange feeling: solidarity

The processes and phenomena on display in Moscow were most evident in the two events on the Garden Ring (which weren't really rallies in the strict sense of the word). It was all new in Moscow: you hadn’t see it in [Kyiv's] Maydan Square nor on [Cairo’s] Tahrir Square. It was an expression of a new urban community that had emerged over the two previous rallies at Bolotnaya and Sakharov. What united people at those previous rallies was a general indignation directed at the same target. By the time of the Garden Ring rallies, however, this negative solidarity had been transformed into a positive one. People driving around the Ring and those standing on the pavements holding banners mocking the Putinesque weren't really interested in Putin but rather in their fellow citizens who came out onto the streets to cheer them.

It is this, and obviously not any funding from the State Department, that explains why so many people took part in the marches and rallies. It wouldn't be inaccurate to claim that a great many people came just to spend time together, that many of them just joined everyone else, that they came because others had come, too. It would also be true to say that the carnival and fancy-dress party atmosphere, the merriness itself was more important than the original cause. It is also worth noting the deliberately unaggressive character of the merriness that prevailed during the festivities. The jokes on the banners were pointed but they remained jokes. And while the public sometimes responded in unison to the speakers' super-radical demands, it never got carried away by their rabble-rousing. Sensing this, many of the speakers tried to sound as radical as possible but they were unable to change the overall mood of the crowd. 

‘By the time of the Garden Ring rallies negative solidarity had been transformed into a positive one. People driving around the Ring and those standing on the pavements holding banners mocking the Putinesque weren't really interested in Putin but rather in their fellow citizens who came out onto the streets to cheer them’

After all, for the majority of those present the unfair election was only a pretext for attending the city-wide event that was as social in character as it was political. The protests attracted huge crowds precisely because for a large number of citizens it was really important and enjoyable to spend some time in the company of others. It was undoubtedly a celebration of solidarity. Its very existence or rather, the amazing and inspiring fact of its emergence, was intoxicating. Instead of perceiving themselves as individuals, people started to see themselves as a part of a larger whole. And what made them whole was the visible and tangible expression of the fact that so many people wished for the same thing -- and rejected the same thing.   

That is why the equally well-attended rallies organised by the authorities in response were of no lasting significance for the city. Rather than free Muscovite citizens, they were comprised either of unfree city dwellers who followed instructions from above, or of people who do not live in Moscow and were bussed there from other cities. These people didn't show themselves to one another. They didn't need one another at all. The authorities needed them to show them off on TV, to all the other non-friends and to demonstrate how many serfs they can round up against free citizens.   

‘Bolotnaya’: the gamechanger

The chronicle of Russian democracy is very brief, and counted in years, or even in months (from February to October 1917, from August 1991 to August 1993). We have no tradition of free cities, except perhaps for the brief existence of the medieval Slavic democracies of the Novgorod and Pskov Republics many centuries ago. If Russia had heard of freedom, it was only a freedom for the aristocracy and later for the peasants. City dwellers and cities have not been known as subjects of freedom. Contacts did exist with the free Hanseatic cities but regardless of the twists of history, these cities have remained for us an alien reality. Our social tradition has had no real experience of city freedoms or city liberties, yet it has experienced it extremely acutely as a dream and temptation.  In other words, it was always perceived it in terms of utopia.

‘It was only on Bolotnaya Square on December 10 that people first discovered a feeling of solidarity. Not incidentally has ‘Bolotnaya’ entered into the Russian language as a nominal expression, describing a specific type of communion, a specific political and, more importantly, social reality.’

The free city, hitherto a utopian ideal, had thus suddenly descended from heaven onto our pavеments. We had created it ourselves, joining hands in a circle around the Garden Ring road. The magic power of rings and circles emanated from the people standing together, and from the cars circling around with white ribbons.  As I've said before, this was the power of solidarity.

This phenomenon is quite well known in social psychology and relatively easy to recreate, given a gathering of people with shared interests or shared emotional experience. But what happened in Moscow was a little more complex from the point of view of sociology. It was actually only on Bolotnaya Square on December 10 that people first discovered a feeling of solidarity. Not incidentally has ‘Bolotnaya’ entered into the Russian language as a nominal expression, describing a specific type of communion, a specific political and, more importantly, social reality. The Bolotnaya communion, which lasted two or three hours, turned into a powerful social aggregation. Not only did it imprint itself in the memory of the participants and observers;   it appears that it has also managed to generate its normative order, its own patterns of behaviour, its own language. People who came to Sakharov Boulevard two weeks later already knew a lot -- what to wear, how to behave and feel and what style was appropriate for the slogans.  Clear rules of preventive and friendly relations to one another as well as respectful treatment of the surrounding police force were established straight away, completely out of character with the usual manners and habits of Muscovites. All this generated the ethos of Bolotnaya, which was then applied at rallies at other venues as a ready-made standard. 

These rules, as well as the feelings that inspired them, were limited to the hour. We have witnessed phenomena that were grand in their scale and ephemeral in their duration. Nevertheless, I would compare these social ephemera to a city, something that, by its very nature, is lasting and historical. It is too early to tell when the force of such from above will next fall on the pavements of Moscow or other Russian cities. But Muscovites will carry this force, this membership in a society of freedom, in themselves in a hidden form. They will never surrender it to anyone. 

About the author

Alexei Levinson is sociologist and senior researcher at the Levada Center, Russia's leading polling organisation, Moscow