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Dissecting Russia’s winter of protest, five years on

Five years ago, thousands took to Russia’s streets to protest electoral fraud in what became a push against Putin’s status quo. Researchers discuss the significance of this moment and the movements it spawned.

14 December 2011: free elections protest in Moscow. CC misha maslennikov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 4 December 2011, Russia voted in nationwide legislative elections. But as the results came in over the next 24 hours, so did dozens, then hundreds of reports of fraudulent activities at polling stations. The next evening, several thousand people gathered at Moscow’s Chistye Prudy metro station for a meeting against electoral fraud. People present shouted “This is our city!” and “We will win!” in a call-and-response with opposition leaders, presenting the world with the first images of a distinctly different Russian protest. 

These demonstrations, as well as the public discussions that accompanied them, catalysed pre-existing opposition activity in Russia, giving birth to protest movements across the country — often city-focused, and with links to environmental and local-issues groups. Though the numbers of attendees were hotly debated, the mass protests and actions that emerged in Moscow (the March of the Millions) dominated the news for months before eventually faltering through inertia and state-targeted repression. On Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, the events of 6 May 2012, the inauguration of president Vladimir Putin, set off a chain of arrests, interrogations and jail sentences that continue to this day.

Five years on, the idea of an independent mass political protest in Russia seems a distant (if not entirely unthinkable) prospect. Reading social media and the slogans at recent protests, at least, it is unclear whether the hardening of anti-state sentiment suggests future activity on the scale of 2011-2013. Meanwhile, “social” protest, that is, protests directed at clear aims such as unpaid wages (at official measurements, 3.6 billion roubles), city planning conflicts or infrastructure problems are on the rise.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the “Russian winter” and the publication of Protest in Putin’s Russia, a new book by Mischa Gabowitsch, today we publish a researchers’ roundtable on Russian protest from those who have studied it in detail. To build sustainable movements that offer something more than the symbolic performance which has come to stereotype so many protests, we need more discussion about forms, efficacy and failures in activism.

We invite Petr Bizyukov (Center for Social and Labour Rights, Moscow), Grigory Okhotin (OVD-Info, an organisation that tracks political persecution in Russia), Tom Junes (Centre for Advanced Study, Sofia) and Oleg Zhuravlev (Public Sociology Laboratory) to discuss 2011 and its aftermath.

Electoral fraud in the December 2011 Duma election triggered the largest wave of protest that post-Soviet Russia has seen so far. With hindsight, what was the significance of the 2011-2013 protest cycle? What, if anything, do we not know about the fair-election protests? 

Tom Junes: First off, the significance of the 2011-2012 protests was that they happened. At the time, the protests reverberated among commentators as a sign that the Putin regime was in decline. Labour disputes and social protests did not get the same media exposure as the fair election protests. 

Yet the Putin regime did not crumble, but seemingly managed to strengthen itself. Secondly, the protests’ failure was significant. There are various problems and questions that arise from this for researchers of protest that can challenge notions about protests in particular during the so-called “global protest wave” since 2008.

Petr Bizyukov: The protests of 2011-2012 were, of course, a noticeable phenomenon, but it’s hardly worth considering them the most significant.

Even if you ignore the demonstrations of the late 1980s, including the miners’ strike in 1989-1990, then we could recall the “rail wars” of 1998, when coal miners blocked the Trans-Siberian railway or Russian pensioners’ demonstrations against the monetisation of benefits in 2004-2005. 

January 2005: pensioners block a tramline on Moscow Prospect in protest over the monetisation of benefits. Mikhail Medvinsky / WikiMediaCommons. Public Domain. These protests were both more numerous and more heated. The demonstrations of 2011-2012, particularly the initial protests, were more like a carnival — ironic slogans on placards, playful forms such as the human chain around Moscow’s Garden Ring. 

The carnival came to an end on 6 May 2012, after this the repressions started against the protest participants. Even at the final demonstrations, the atmosphere was dark, suppressed – I say that as a participant. The huge focus on the actions of 2011-2012 was connected to the fact that many researchers and journalists, including from the younger generation, took part.

The protests themselves were an attempt to correct the course of the neo-nomenklatura regime that has established itself in Russia. But, as it turned out, the carnivalesque protest was not enough

These protests were close to their heart, and they took part them as the first mass protests in their lives — this made a strong emotional impression on them. For the majority of the participants, this became a grand event – the likes of which they hadn’t seen or experienced previously.

The protests themselves were an attempt to correct the course of the neo-nomenklatura regime that has established itself in Russia. But, as it turned out, the carnivalesque protest was not enough. 

Grigory Okhotin: Russia’s 2011-2012 protests triggered the political reaction we see today — this is their most noticeable result. But at the same time they also spurred very important processes in Russian civil society. Not all results are visible to the untrained eye — the civic activism provoked by Bolotnaya Square is acquiring mostly non-institutional forms, and manifests itself in expressions of everyday citizenship. People have become significantly more active.

Oleg Zhuravlev: We still know little about the long-term causes of the protests. While we understand more or less well the role of the electoral violations themselves (in 2011 many people who became interested in politics and followed the recommendations of Alexey Navalny, Boris Nemtsov and others how to vote,  voted consciously (rather than just checking boxes on the ballot paper) for the first time in their life.

The very act of voting, thus, was a moral and political investment — that is why they were personally insulted by the fact that their votes had been stolen — but the analysis of long-running causes is still hypothetical.

10 December 2011: Moscow protest. CC BY 2.0 Sergei Norin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Political scientists argue that the crisis of legitimacy as well as the financial crisis of 2009 were among the main causes of the protests. They also mention the crucial role of the “castling” or “job swap”, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced his intention to enter presidential office again at United Russia’s Twelfth Party Congress. Finally, some analysts claim that United Russia’s party support was undermined by demographic changes in its electorate in 2007-2011.

Meanwhile, sociologists argue that the transformation of social structures whereby highly educated and well-to-do people became more numerous as well as the emergence of prestigious cultural elites (journalists, bloggers, writers who were among the speakers of “Bolotnaya”) contributed to mobilisation in 2011-2012 as these elites were becoming more and more politicised, and thus politicised their audiences in the lead-up to the protests. However, these arguments remain very speculative.

To my mind, the significance of the protests was the politicisation of previously apolitical people. This sounds very abstract, but we can see the very concrete forms of this politicisation. Our team has studied post-protest local activism since 2012. We found out that many protesters who were tired of big repetitive rallies wanted, on the one hand, to continue and reproduce the “fresh” experience of collective action, on the other hand, to channel it into more concrete, small and tangible forms.

The significance of the 2011-2012 protests was that they happened

Dozens of local activist group emerged from the protests. In many districts of Moscow and Petersburg, as well as Moscow and Leningrad regions, hundreds of people monitor municipal authorities (attending municipal assemblies and tracking various legislative bills pursued by municipal administrations), inform residents (by publishing leaflets and newspapers dealing with local problems, the work of local administrations and current political events), and improve their areas and public spaces (by pushing projects through municipal governments, defending threatened squares and parks and combating road expansion).

What is even more important is that the very “genre” of local activism (the dominant form of collective action in Russia before the protests of 2011-2012) was politicised after the “Bolotnaya” mobilisation. Indeed, our research shows that if before the protests of 2011-2012 local activists developed the ethic of “real deeds” as opposed to dirty and cynical “politics”, the new local activists who still believe in “real deeds” politicised this apolitical ethic. They do “real deeds” in a more strategic way, trying not only to solve local problems but to demonstrate to local people that collective action is efficient.

February 2012: a sign reading "Putin is alive" puns on a common term for "thieves and criminals" and the cult of Viktor Tsoi. Antony Dovgal / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Then, if before the protests local activists conceived their local areas in terms of familiar places and material objects which were damaged by the invasion of the authorities or business, now they consider their localities in terms of micro-level civil societies. One could say they integrated the image of “active citizens” they developed in the course of the “Bolotnaya” and their perception of their local areas.

Lastly, if within the “For fair elections” movement protesters perceived the central political conflict in abstract terms of good citizens and bad Putin, this image of conflict being re-grounded into local activism was concretised and politicised itself.

April 2011: a security guard stands watch over Khimki forest. CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel Bellinson / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Now local activists see that “those in power” are very concrete developers who cut their parks and demolish their houses under the shelter of local “United Russia” deputies. 

 What major developments do you see in protests in Russia since 2011? 

Grigory Okhotin: What are protests? Or, as is the custom for Russia’s columnists, what is “protest” in the singular?

The protests of 2011-2012 were devoted to a completely concrete theme — electoral violations — and they emerged at a completely concrete moment, during two election campaigns, State Duma election in December 2011 and presidential elections in March 2012.

These protests had concrete, positive consequences: i) a huge number of people became active and began to volunteer as election observers; ii) the number of violations on election day in the most rebellious regions was significantly reduced; iii) the process of improvement continues (that said, this doesn’t influence election results on the whole, as results depend largely on the turnout in republics such as Tatarstan, Dagestan and Chechnya).

To go out onto the street has become harder and more dangerous, but protests (in the plural) continue across Russia

Various protests, whether on the street or in different forms, happen in Russia every day. Several trace their history back to 2011, others - even earlier, and then there’s those that aren’t connected to the movement for fair elections at all.

That said, the very idea of protest activity has become far more complicated due to the political reaction that has set in as a result of 2011-2012. To go out onto the street has become harder and more dangerous, but protests (in the plural) continue across Russia. It couldn’t be any different: the state can no longer satisfy the growing needs of its citizens for a whole range of public services. 

Oleg Zhuravlev: For me, the main tendency is the decline of “oppositionist”, anti-Putin and anti-governmental protests. At the same time, socio-economic campaigns as well as local activism have become more visible.

Another important development is the emergence of the rallies, marches and other actions in support of Donbass insurgents. We haven’t seen many mass rallies, but this isn’t because these mobilisations are “fake” and top-down. Many people enlisted in volunteer battalions and went to Donbass. Many people donated. Generally speaking, what is interesting in my opinion is that, during the “Bolotnaya” movement, anti-Putin protesters were very intensively involved on the physical level, while articulation of political positions or ideological preferences were lacking. Within both pro-Donbass and pro-regime mobilisations, people are highly politicised in terms of strong positioning (the role of propaganda and television is one of the most important problems in regard to this type of politicisation), but we know little about the readiness of these people (except volunteer fighters) to engage in collective action in public.

With this background, two questions seem important: would it be possible to integrate socio-economic and political protests and campaigns within a moderate contentious politics? Can mobilisations in support of Donbass lead to the emergence of a patriotic anti-regime faction both in coalitions of political leaders and on the streets.? 

Petr Bizyukov: Protests in Russia since 2011 have shown the following: 

i) There are quite large social groups in Russia who do not approve of the current social construction of the state, and who disagree with its political course. 

ii) The vast majority of those “who don’t agree“ are not ready for real confrontation and struggle against the authorities. For them, it’s easier to adapt then fight

”The consequences of government cuts to culture, education and health” reads this display at a protest organised by Deystvie, Russia’s doctors‘ union, November 2015. Photo courtesy of medrabotnik.org.iii) The leaders of Russia’s opposition are self-centred and ambitious, they are practically incapable of compromise, and are governed by the principle of “either everything will be done my way, or I won’t take part in this“ 

iv) In the end, it was the authorities who made the main conclusions: public dissatisfaction was redirected into patriotic-military slogans and activity  (“We’re surrounded by enemies!“, “Crimea is ours!“ and so on), and those who don’t agree with Russia’s new “imperial discourse“ are suppressed by violence and intimidation, and declared “foreign agents“.

The regime initially withstood the challenge of the protests, but then morphed from the previous “managed democracy” format to a new form of personal rule around Vladimir Putin

Tom Junes: I would say that the major development since the end of Bolotnaya is not in the protest movements (though there have certainly been social and economic protests that are worth looking into since the “sanctions regime” was introduced), but in the shift of the nature of the regime.

The regime initially withstood the challenge of the protests, but then morphed from the previous “managed democracy” format to a new form of personal rule around Vladimir Putin. This impacts the power relations between society and elites if and when another major protest movement will arise.

Most major protest movements in post-Soviet Russia originated outside Moscow or at least had a strong provincial component. Even the fair election protests that started in December 2011 took place in almost every region of the country. Yet media attention, and even much academic study, has largely focused on Moscow and occasionally St Petersburg. 

What, if anything, can be gained from looking more closely at protest outside the capitals? Which non-Muscovite protest movements do you consider the most interesting at present?

Petr Bizyukov: I haven’t researched what happened in the regions in connection with the 2011 elections, but it seems to me that Moscow witnessed the main events. Even in St Petersburg the demonstrations weren’t as large-scale, and in the provinces we had largely meetings by small groups. For instance, in my hometown of Kemerovo in Siberia, there was only one attempt to hold a protest — around 10 people attended, and they were all detained instantly. In other cities, as far as I know, there were more mass actions, but all the same these were (some more successful, some less) attempts to imitate Moscow.

Loyal movements — patriotic, pro-government, religious and so on — demonstrate a lot of activity. Many people participate in these groups voluntarily and sincerely

Right now, opposition social movements are very weak after the targeted work of the state apparatus, police and organs of state security. Apart from Russia’s trade unions, which do preserve some organisational and protest potential, there’s the truck drivers, who are trying to protest against the system of payment for road usage, and the Monstration movement in Novosibirsk, which, in the spirit of youthful carnival, tries to speak out on current issues. There’s also a range of other local movements. 

Loyal movements — patriotic, pro-government, religious and so on — demonstrate a lot of activity. Many people participate in these groups voluntarily and sincerely. Moreover, these movements steal opposition issues, particularly if there’s no real political undercurrent to them — ecology, utilities and infrastructure problems.

Grigory Okhotin: The protests of 2011-2012 were largely concentrated in Moscow, and that has an understandable explanation — election observation in December 2011 was organised first and foremost in the capital.

A driver comes joins truckers in protest against the Platon system, Moscow Oblast. Photo: (c) Grigory Sysoev / VisualRIAN.Studying regional protest actions helps us to the whole range of Russia’s protest agenda and various protest practices. of course, the most interesting case in recent years is the truckers’ protest, which was not only extremely successful (the tariffs were cut), but at the current moment is being institutionalised, and is resorting to classic tools of civil society — for example, activists with the truckers’ movement have created a civic organisation called the Association of Truckers of Russia.

Tom Junes: This issue is somewhat paradoxical. When it comes to the Soviet Union (especially the late Soviet era and the Perestroika period), most historical reflection acknowledges the role of protest movements in the periphery interacting with inter-elite infighting in the “centre” in Moscow. Today the focus is mostly on Moscow or St Petersburg (most likely since media correspondents/researchers are present there), though ultimately this is not representative for the country as such.

I would argue that more attention should be paid to future protests in cities like Ekaterinburg if and when they arise. Another focus I would advocate is to look into possible nationalism-driven protests. Russia is the largest country on earth, yet still largely unknown to the outside world. Would it not be worth looking into regions like Yakutia (Sakha), Kalmykia or Buryatia? Subsequently, it would be worthwhile to explore how “provincial protests” interrelate or how they differ, and how they might impact the policy of the “centre” (Moscow/Kremlin/Putin regime).

Russian protesters, but also academics and journalists, have tended to take one of two positions on the prospects and importance of different kinds of protest.

Some believe that political protest against the regime by a civil society or opposition movement is ultimately the only kind that matters, and social protests that don't fit this model are mere expressions of a paternalistic mindset or not-in-my-backyard attitudes. Others hold that social protest on specific causes is more important and ultimately more political, as a change of political personnel is no guarantee of tangible improvements in people's everyday lives. What is your view? 

Grigory Okhotin: The division of protests into “social” and “political” is not done with clear criteria in mind, and this often clouds our understanding of civic process. According to OVD-Info’s observations, protest actors very often meet one another, learn forms of organisation from one another, create networks of solidarity and so on. That said, of course, in the Russian context, social protest — that is, a movement or group of activists that demand concrete changes on socio-economic issues — have significantly greater chances of success, but protests with purely political or global demands do not lead to real results. Nevertheless, I would tend not to divide these forms of protest and view both political and social demonstrations in the context of civic activity as a whole.

Petr Bizyukov: In my opinion, the majority of Russia’s opposition leaders are convinced that local protests don’t mean much, and that you have to raise high-level political demands instantly — freedom of speech, separation of powers, freedom of assembly and so on. In their opinion, it’s only by solving the big issues that will allow us to solve the more trivial and local problems.

However, they don’t take into account one important feature: people in Russia have a very narrow social horizon. They only see local and concrete problems — unpaid wages, a construction project that destroys the neighbouring park, the lack of hot water and so on. 

Other issues, issues that concern all of us, are outside the zone of realistic influence for most people

This isn’t because people in Russia are “short-sighted”, but because these are the limits of their influence.  By organising a strike at work, you can get your wages back (but not always); by going out to a meeting, you can stop illegal construction and save the park (unlikely, but still); by writing a collective letter to the mayor’s office, you can solve the issue of hot water provision (more likely than not). 

Other issues, issues that concern all of us, are outside the zone of realistic influence for most people. For example, many workers are aware that management steals, but they don’t get angry — they know that the managers can not only refute all accusations, but then get their cruel revenge later. It’s the same with elections: everyone knows about the falsification of results, but at the same time they also know that there’s practically no ways of proving it. This is why these problems are deemed unsolvable, and thus there’s no need to gain a deeper understanding of them, develop your own position or search for alternative ways to solve them.

February 2012, Moscow. Antony Dovgal / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This is precisely why Russia’s opposition leaders, who are focused on global issues, remain misunderstood — there’s no bridge to link the local needs of people with abstract principles. There’s no understanding of how the freedom of organisation is linked to wage arrears. The Moscow opposition leaders, in my opinion, are unfamiliar with the concrete problems that worry people, and are afraid of getting involved with their solution. After all, this could lead to their loss of leadership — they’re less competent at the lowest level, and they’d have to share influence with people coming up from the regions. 

Even Yabloko, Russia’s most consistent opposition party, has failed, for many years, to organise effective cooperation with trade unions. This is why the opposition leaders continue to focus on abstract problems, ignoring the private problems, becoming more isolated and cultivating political snobbism.

Oleg Zhuravlev: To my mind, the very opposition between political protests and social campaigns is the result of very specific Russian context. Indeed, local activism as well as social protests have been often depoliticised (that said, the protesters who opposed the monetisation of benefits in 2004-2005 demanded resignation of the government). At the same time, the “Bolotnaya” movement failed to articulate any concrete social, economic or other kind of demands. I believe that what is needed and what is lacked is integration of the two strategies. The politicisation of local activism I referred to above is a step in the right direction.  

Tom Junes: My view is that successful protest movements combine all of the above elements (as well as certain developments/conflicts/divisions among elites). Civil society as it is understood too often gets reduced to NGOs or middle class phenomena, yet labour protests and other protests caused by socio-economic grievances or, for instance, environmental concerns are equally important as a motive force for change.

When it comes to the relationship between protest mobilisation and political change, one sees that even with civic protests (where political or moral demands are put forward) which produce certain tangible results, there is a social or economic aspect that should not be ignored. For this reason, both researchers and activists should be aware of the various dimensions and causes for protest that could lead to collective mobilisation. 

What, for you, is the ultimate purpose of studying protest in Russia?

Grigory Okhotin: For me, it’s an intellectual curiosity that, given the right efforts, can aid our understanding of civic life in Russia, and, accordingly, the development of strategies for the present and the future.

The monitoring that OVD-Info carries out, for example, allows us to understand how legal processes work, how different ministries react to various actions by protesters — analysing our statistics fosters the development of both tactics for defending protesters’ rights, and proposals for reforms in the long term.

But, first and foremost, it’s my own intellectual curiosity — a matter of my own desire.

Petr Bizyukov: My research aims are defined by the programme of monitoring labour protests, which has been conducted since 2008: researching the dynamics of labour protests; the connection between labour protests and macroeconomic and macrosocial factors; studying territorial and branch structures of labour protest, motivations and forms that are used for protest expression; researching means of effective regulation of labour protest.

Russia’s authoritarian regime is trying to take control of all forms of civic activism. This is a necessary condition for regime preservation

Russia’s authoritarian regime is trying to take control of all forms of civic activism. This is a necessary condition for regime preservation, its representatives who embody it and their ability to use the country’s resources as they see fit, and for their own aims. Protest activity demonstrates how far Russian society can resist this pressure. By tracing the number of protests, their distribution and efficacy, we can evaluate how far society is able to develop freely. If society isn’t capable of protest, then it is doomed to degradation. That said, protest shouldn't become a means of destruction. You need to pay attention to who’s protesting, the reason that protest emerges, what kind of forms protest behaviour takes. 

The possibilities for solitary pickets in Russia have been shut down under new 2015 laws. Vladimir Ionov holds a sign 'Putin is everything to us, not counting Kadyrov' at the 'Change of power' meeting in Maryino, Moscow. CC styazshkin.livejournal.com.Protest should remain a form of dialogue, it shouldn’t turn into a means of destroying the other side. And for this, we need constant and in-depth monitoring of all forms of protest. 

Tom Junes: In general as a researcher of protest, it is worth studying protest movements in Russia for their own sake. But Russia is also the largest country in the world. It has a diverse population that straddles both Europe and Asia (and thus is open to various cultural influences) and also has a specific authoritarian system. Studying protest in Russia, apart from giving us insight into Russian society and politics, can put forward questions that are of interest in other regions, not only the European former Soviet republics like Ukraine or Belarus.

Oleg Zhuravlev: The aim of PS Lab research is to study how big and explosive political events that happen in the societies with weak civil society and authoritarian neopatrimonial states change these societies at different levels. Our question is how uprising such as Bolotnaya, Euromaidan or Antimaidan re-articulate social political and ideological conflicts and cleavages. 

Within these often abrupt and explosive protests, the very experience of association and public presence are as important as demands

At the same time we are interested in how these events change society, activism and politics at the micro level, that is why we study local activism. What is crucial for us is to compare Russian, Ukrainian and other post-soviet cases with protest movements in Africa, United States, Europe and so on. Indeed, Occupy and Indignados, Arab Spring or the uprising in Bosnia are somehow similar to post-Soviet protests of 2011-2014. At the same time, the discussion about local activism between politicisation and depoliticisation is what is now debatable in western social sciences.      

Has the study of protest in Russia produced new concepts that could enrich our understanding of protest elsewhere? How meaningful are comparisons with political protest elsewhere in the former Soviet Union (Euromaidan in Ukraine, 2013-2014), electoral protests in non-European countries (Y'en a marre, Senegal, 2011-12), or social protests in the west such as the southern European anti-austerity movement? What, if anything, can the study of protest in Putin's Russia teach us about global protest in the age of Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma?

Petr Bizyukov: In Russia, labour protests have a specific dynamic: there’s quite a lot of them (several hundred per year), but most of them (90%) are not linked to the legal norms which should regulate workplace conflicts. Russian labour protests happen outside of the framework of labour legislation.

There’s no accumulation of experience of solving conflicts, and the fact that somewhere workers have managed to achieve their demands does not mean whatsoever that someone else in an identical situation will win out too

This means that every protest emerges and ends as an individual case, without any connection to the legal and social context. This is why there’s such a high rate of repetition with single protests.

There’s no accumulation of experience of solving conflicts, and the fact that somewhere workers have managed to achieve their demands does not mean whatsoever that someone else in an identical situation will win out too. This is roughly what happens with Russia’s environmental movement, urbanist movement, rights defenders, disabled activists, women and others. nRussia’s experience is an illustration of how civic activism and civic movements are destroyed, how the connection between local interests and civic demands is cut.

That said, despite the targeted and effective destruction of independent civic movements in Russia, large-scale actions and protests continue to emerge — these are the current form of civic resistance.

Grigory Okhotin: Studying the Russian state’s reaction to protest contributes to our conceptualisation and formalisation of the concept of political repressions. This concept could be a good lens through which to research any protests in modernising states, which frequently have a monopoly on violence, the police, government, laws and judiciary - without any relation to the capability of these institutions.

Tom Junes: Studying protest in Russia can teach us more about how society reacts to, interacts with and contests authoritarian regimes. Since 1989, scholarly literature has tended to focus on the civil society and liberal democracy nexus, but it would be more productive to reinterpret the past quarter century as one of protest versus populism. In this sense, Putin’s Russia presents an interesting and intriguing case study through which comparisons can be made with other countries in the region and further around the globe.

In the near future, it is worth reflecting on the reality on the ground in the country that produced the Bolshevik Revolution and partially defined the so-called “short twentieth century”. In the 21st century, Russia is both more “western” than the Soviet Union, but also more open — it resembles other countries more than the Soviet Union ever did. So, from a global perspective, protest in Russia can help understand the mechanisms of protest in the non-western world as well. 

Oleg Zhuravlev: Russian protests of 2011-2012 are very specific. That is why I suppose that researchers, especially political philosophers, who unreasonably compare Russian protests with African, American and European ones, claiming that we have witnessed the one global wave of anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist protest, are wrong. 

However, there are some similarities between different protests and movements across the globe. I would say that Euromaidan, Occupy Wall Street, Russian “For fair elections” protests and Egyptian revolution share the feature I consider in terms of “eventfulness” and “authenticity”. By that I mean that within these often abrupt and explosive protests, the very experience of association and public presence are as important as demands. 

Mobilisation is not only a mean of articulating demands, but a goal in itself

In other words, mobilisation is not only a mean of articulating demands, but a goal in itself. It influenced the protesters’ identities and strategies. If when talking about the 2011-2012 protests, participants of the meetings used vague categories such as “nation”, “citizens” and so on to designate the subject of the protest, what is important here is that their goal is not to indicate a specific group, but to assert the community as such by using universal categories which include all members of society. 

The slogans of the Bolotnaya era, such as “Russia, stand up!”, do not articulate any specific identities or social interests, rather, this refers to a situational unity of all protesters, having suddenly come together at the meeting and feeling solidarity. It recalls what Sidney Tarrow (in his analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement) calls “we are here” identity. In this regard, one could say that Russian protests were similar to “populist” (in Laclau’s terms) Occupy or Indignados. Indeed, it was the influential faction within Occupy Wall Street that refused to put forward concrete demands, announcing instead that “We are the 99%”.  However, this “we” was full of concrete meaning: it referred to the non-privileged majority of Americans who suffered from the financial crisis of 2008.

To understand such differences between Russian and other “we are here” protests, we need to account for some specificities of Russian society which make it similar to its Ukrainian counterpart. Bolotnaya and Euromaidan were neither precisely “political” protests, nor were they “civil society” campaigns in terms of western liberal political theory.

The stigmatisation of both conventional and contentious politics together with the rejection of any ideological languages within both Russian and Ukrainian protests led to a situation whereby politicised people invented an anti-political “authentic” politics within which they did not only struggle against the state, but tended to keep distance from politics both as a realm and a set of institutions. Instead, they asserted the “pure” realm of eventful protest.

How can we move beyond symbolic performance as a dominant form of mass action? What is the link-up between "social" and "political" protests in Russia? Join in the comments online here. 



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