In mid-December 2014, RosUznik – an organisation set up in 2011 to provide legal support to people arrested during protests – announced that it was shutting up shop. As the organisation explained on its website, there is no longer anyone to defend: ‘There are almost no administrative detentions at mass demonstrations, for two reasons – there are no mass demonstrations, and the overwhelming majority of potential demonstrators have no wish to be arrested.'
Since RosUznik made this announcement, Moscow has seen one mass demonstration. On 30 December, several thousand Muscovites came out on to Manezh Square in central Moscow to protest against the unjust verdict in the trial of Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The leading anti-corruption and opposition activist received a suspended sentence, and his brother – three and a half years in prison. The number of protesters on the Manezh, however, was small. While 30,000 people declared their intention to attend on Facebook, 3,000 (at the most optimistic assessment) actually attended and hundreds of people were detained. Two weeks later, a few dozen people attended another demonstration in support of the Navalny brothers on 15 January, while several hundred people appeared in support of the newly-founded AntiMaidan movement.
The founders of RosUznik are right. Civic political protest in Russia is finished.
The founders of RosUznik are right. Civic political protest in Russia is finished.
White flag for the white ribbon
As little as 18 months ago, one could still count hundreds of people in the Moscow metro who were prepared to demonstrate their involvement in political protest. No one wears the famous white ribbons anymore. The imitation of political activity on social networks has triumphed over real political activity, once and for all. Russians still turn out to defend their economic rights, but no one protests against the illegitimacy of parliament. Does anyone actually still remember that the Russian Duma is illegitimate? The war in Ukraine and the economic crisis, it seems, have completely eclipsed the political protest we saw in 2011-2012.
So, who are those people who took to the streets, and have now just as unexpectedly disappeared?
People lined the streets to protest allegedly falsified election results in 2011-2012. (c) Maria Pleshkova / Demotix.
Apparently, the former protesters aren’t sure themselves. The social composition of the failed 'snow revolution' has been variously described, but the terminological confusion that this created only goes to demonstrate the acute identity crisis of the protesters. Identification and self-identification were focused around two seemingly interchangeable terms: 'middle class' and 'creative class'. Members of the opposition themselves declared that the 2011-2012 protests were a movement of the creative class. Those who did not support the white ribbon wearers still talk of the opposition-minded in derogatory terms (kreakly – creatives) in the pro-Putin media and social networks.
The creative class
Just like the 19th century Russian intelligentsia’s love for Marxism, in the 2000s, Russians became obsessed with the theory of the creative class.
The Russian translation of Richard Florida's 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life appeared in 2005. This concept soon became a source of inspiration for people who believed Russia possessed 'a capacity for innovation' and 'a knowledge-based economy', as well as those who believed that progress would be possible without actually changing the political system. The phrase itself quickly became fashionable: ‘creative class’ became part of everyone’s vocabulary (whether you believed in it or not). Yet discussions on topics such as 'Is there a creative class in Russia?' demonstrated first and foremost that the participants had not read Florida.
There was, of course, no creative class in Russia, or certainly not the phenomenon that Florida was writing about.
There was, of course, no creative class in Russia, or certainly not the phenomenon that Florida was writing about. For Florida, a creative class could only emerge if certain conditions – the ‘Three T’s’ – were met: talent (a talented, well-educated, and qualified population), technology (technological infrastructure is essential for the support of business), and tolerance (a diverse community guided by the principle of 'live and let live').
Looking at Russia, the first two conditions seem doubtful at the very least. Moreover, most young Russians certainly weren’t, and aren’t, tolerant. A very small number of people turned out in summer 2013 to protest against the homophobic laws passed by the Russian State Duma, and the Moscow City government's establishment of deportation camps. If Muscovites do turn out, then it is in support of Alexei Navalny, a politician who has built his political programme (and popularity) on a consistent battle with corruption, and no less persistent xenophobia.
According to Florida, the creative class, as defined by him, will do all it can to shake off the conventions of traditional social structures and reach out for the ‘new’, however strange that ‘new’ may seem. But ,until recently, Russia’s supposed creative class was intent on enjoying the consumer delights of a flourishing economy, and trying to be fashionable.
The ‘creative’ label
Indeed, what made the term 'creative class' so popular in Russia was not its description of an apparently new social reality or values, but rather that it was easy to apply. Designers, advertising people, journalists, and internet businessmen liked the 'creative' label because it immediately cut the unfashionable (and aesthetically alien) 'creative intelligentsia' and 'uncreative' business out of this self-satisfied group. Though most of them were in full-time employment, they paid no attention to other representatives of other professions working for a wage. Demonstrating a phenomenal social narcissism, the group pointedly ignored any real political processes in the country. This position was an integral part of the social contract struck between Russian society and the authorities: the freedom of enterprise, consumption, creativity, and private life, in exchange for non-participation in politics.
‘Creatives’ have a vested interest in the continuing stability of the existing system.
‘Creatives’ thus have a vested interest in the continuing stability of the existing system. They have to protect their own position in order to shore up their fragile identity as special, well-heeled progressives, dictators of fashion to – as it seemed to them – the whole of society, but really only to themselves.
With a much-vaunted love for Apple gadgets, pointless 'innovation' and 'modernisation' mantras, the comic Dmitry Medvedev was an ideal president for those Russians who set so much store by their own special creativity. The August 2008 war with Georgia at the beginning of Medvedev's presidency went, naturally, completely unnoticed by the self-styled Russian creative class.
The failed 'snow revolution' of 2011-2012, which was spurred on by outrageous vote rigging during the parliamentary election and Vladimir Putin's nominal return to power, was not the rebellion of the 'creative class', but a more complex, organised social and political phenomenon. True, young media types, previously apolitical or loyal to the government, were very much part of the protests, expressing a hitherto unknown solidarity. But the group that defined itself as a community solely by a narrow selection of cultural markers and artistic sympathies could not figure out its own political interests.
It was not only government repression that brought the white ribbon protest to an end, but a lack of motivation. Of course, administrative pressure – formal and otherwise – also cut out the initial surge of enthusiasm. But most of the protesters were more interested in preserving their status than in change, which is why so few remember that the current Russian parliament, responsible for laws concerning adoption, civil society, and minority rights, is illegitimate. And why these social narcissists – who are so proud of their creativity – do not protest against the annexation of Crimea and the war Russia is waging in Ukraine.
A distant memory
Of course, Richard Florida continued to write following The Rise of the Creative Class. Two of his other works were translated into Russian, but they did not cause much of a stir. Nor will they.
Today, Florida's theories are as far away from Russia as the state of Florida itself.
Today, Florida's theories are as far away from Russia as the state of Florida itself. Russia's growing economic crisis is destroying the world, which those Russians who considered themselves the creative class called home. While before, media organisations dictated where we should eat and what we should read, now these organisations are cuddling up to the advertising market, or simply closing down. Incomes and salaries are falling off. The Central Asian migrant workers so beloved of Alexei Navalny supporters are leaving Russia. The economic crisis is developing hand in hand with mass censorship and a previously unseen level of political reaction.
'I'm a girl and I don't want any crisis – I want oil at $120 a barrel,' wrote a Moscow blogger who works in advertising in December 2014. Irony cannot hide the true values at stake here: hydrocarbon prosperity, the purchasing power of the rouble, and free access to Western goods. Creative class or no, the question remains as to whether educated city-dwellers in Russia, will find a platform that will enable them to identify their true values, and organise themselves as a political force.
Standfirst image: White Ribbon via Pete riches / Demotix. CC