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Putin’s regimes

Five years ago today, the first mass demonstration of Russia's 2011-2013 protest cycle took place. To mark this, we publish an excerpt from Protest in Putin's Russia, a new book that digs into the details of civic action and regime transformation in the Putin era. 

lead Russian protesters with white ribbons, a symbol of protest, gather together during a rally against alleged vote rigging at Bolotnaya Square. (c) Alexander Zemlianichenko AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Earlier this week, we published a researchers' roundtable to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2011-2013 protest cycle. To introduce the excerpt of Protest in Putin's Russia, please find Mischa Gabowitsch's response to that discussion below. Click here to read the excerpt directly.

The roundtable discussion that oDR organized to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2011-2013 protest wave is a welcome occasion to look back at that period, but also to revisit some of the misunderstandings that still surround that protest cycle.

There is a certain narrative about the protests that glosses over much of the available evidence, yet has solidified to the point of being almost unshakeable: namely, that we are talking of a “winter of protest” that lasted only two or three months (“the 2011-2012 protests”) and was mostly or exclusively limited to a Muscovite middle (or “creative”) class. In my book, I have tried to analyse the emergence of that perspective and show how the initial focus on events in Moscow and the availability of ever more data about protest in the capital created a vicious circle that made this narrative almost self-fulfilling. Even serious protest researchers continue to be affected by it, as some of the responses to openDemocracy’s questions show. Thus I would like to start by looking at some of these misunderstandings and how they contribute to cementing dichotomies that I believe inhibit our understanding of protest in Russia: in particular, those between political and social protest, and between resistance/opposition and loyalist movements. Finally, I will offer a few thoughts on the global relevance of Russian protest. 

Many first-time protesters in the capital were unaware of previous protest waves, or simplistically dismissed them as stemming from paternalistic attitudes and therefore uninteresting

I agree with Petr Bizyukov’s point that the 2011-13 fair elections protests in Moscow were blown out of proportion by Muscovite journalists and cultural figures. Many first-time protesters in the capital were unaware of previous protest waves, or simplistically dismissed them as stemming from paternalistic attitudes and therefore uninteresting. It is very important to point this out again and again, since many authors persist in this dismissive attitude towards protests that they misunderstand as “merely” social and therefore apolitical.

However, it is equally important not to err on the side of facile hipster-bashing. Yes, the rail wars of the 1990s and the 2005 protests against monetization were larger than is sometimes assumed, as were the regional movements in the Far East and Kaliningrad in 2008-2009. Yet it does seem certain that the 2011-2013 protests were even more extensive (even though determining participant figures is always an extremely tricky issue, and the standard journalistic method of triangulating from police and organisers’ statements is worthless). Their geography was certainly impressive: contrary to what is often assumed (even by enlightened observers such as Grigory Okhotin in the roundtable discussion), elections-related protests took place in all but three of Russia’s regions as early as December 2011. Observers whose sample is largely limited to Moscow and St Petersburg often point out, as Bizyukov does, that “even in Saint Petersburg the demonstrations weren’t as large scale” as in Moscow. This assumes that the number of protesters is always proportional to a city’s or region’s population, yet there is some evidence that this was not the case during the 2011-2013 protest cycle, with some regions more active than others.

A case in point: Bizyukov states that there was only one small demonstration in his home city of Kemerovo during the 2011-13 protest wave. However, even though Kemerovo was certainly not a hot spot unlike some other West Siberian cities and the protests there were indeed small, my own PEPS database does document five election-related protest events in Kemerovo: on 10 December 2011, and 24 December, 4 February and 26 February and 5 March 2012. Individual protesters from Kemerovo also seem to have participated in interregional protests, such as the March of Millions in Moscow on 6 May 2012 and the March of Regions in Omsk on 4 November that year. And while it is true, as Bizyukov writes, that many regional protest events were meetings of relatively small groups, such gatherings could still have a considerable effect on local protest dynamics, as my fieldwork in Chelyabinsk made me realize.

This does not in any way invalidate Bizyukov’s more general point. Quite the contrary: I would stress the importance of his observation that opposition leaders (and, let me add, some of their supporters) dismiss local, narrowly focused protest, and often remain unfamiliar with local problems that matter most to regular protesters — and, conversely, those protesters often have little patience for the general principles advocated by opposition activists.

I would add that these conflicting perspectives do not simply affect protesters and oppositionists themselves. They have also shaped the ways in which academic researchers (not to mention journalists) have approached protest in Russia: depending on their own view of the purpose of protest and familiarity or contacts with certain groups of protesters, sociologists and political scientists have tended to shine a spotlight on one type of protest and belittle the other.

It is unsurprising that Petr Bizyukov, Russia’s foremost researcher of labour protests, would not know about some of the fair-elections demonstrations in Kemerovo, as the people involved were very different from those typically engaged in strikes. Conversely, political scientists interested in “civil society” and systemic outcomes have tended to adopt the perspective of opposition parties or associations and use data compiled by such groups. Yet traditional labour protesters make bad informants about anti-Putin protesters, and vice-versa: opposition activists are often so uninterested in single-issue grassroots protests that they do not even bother to find out about them. In many Russian cities, different groups of activists are simply unaware of each other’s existence. Oleg Zhuravlev and Grigory Okhotin rightly suggest that the 2011-2013 protest cycle began to change that relationship, but it is far from fully transformed.

Thus the distinction between “political” and “social” protests, which Okhotin and Zhuravlev usefully criticise and contextualise, has divided not only protesters but also those who observe them. The two splits have mutually reinforced each other: researchers (and journalists) are always at risk of adopting their informants’ views, while protesters in turn are strongly affected by the ways in which the media (and sometimes academics) represent them. Very few demonstrators in 2011-2013 described themselves as “middle class” until they came to adopt the prevalent media narrative. Conversely, many provincial protesters experienced disillusionment and lost self-confidence when they saw that the Moscow media, and self-proclaimed opposition leaders, largely ignored them.

Thus I agree with Oleg Zhuravlev that overcoming the distinction between “political” and “social” protest in Russia is an important task, although I would add that it is as much a cognitive task as a practical one. Grassroots protesters and opposition activists, but also social scientists and journalists, need to realize that there are different political grammars: different ways of marrying local concerns and collective action.

There is another distinction that needs to be questioned: that between opposition movements and loyalist ones. There is no doubt that pure-form opposition groups exist, as do movements that have little purpose beyond supporting the current political regime. However, these two types in no way cover the entire spectrum of civic activity in Russia. My point is not simply that some areas of activity are sufficiently apolitical and therefore safe to be pursued within state-sponsored institutions, as Petr Bizyukov points out. Rather, I would argue that much civic activity cuts across the presumably rigid state-society divide and does not neatly fit into top-down or bottom-up models either.

There are often surprising similarities between patriotic, pro-regime mobilization and opposition activism. Comparative studies of pro- and anti-Putin demonstrations have shown this, as have analyses of the neoliberal discourse of self-reliance and self-improvement that can be encountered at patriotic youth camps and in liberal talk shows alike. Similarly, there are surprising structural similarities between liberal, nationalist and commemorative movements. We need to go beyond the common assumption that activities sponsored or supported by the state are by that token inauthentic, or that civic initiatives taken up by the state cannot have profound effects on society. The massive success of initiatives such as the Immortal Regiment, which has transformed the Russian commemorative repertoire, is a case in point.

The Russian case is particularly instructive in demonstrating how populism can hijack protest causes

I would like to end by saying a few words about the global relevance of protest in Russia, a topic on which participants in the roundtable were rather cautious and modest. Until very recently, those of us who study Russian society were often relegated to a niche, viewed with a benevolent yet somewhat patronising eye. Yet the current wave of nationalist populism in the West creates an intense feeling of déjà-vu among those familiar with developments in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. There are lessons to be learned from those developments, not least from the dynamics of protest in Russia. Indeed they can help us understand the phenomenon of populism itself. This is often misunderstood as a desire for simplicity in a complex world; a rebellion of the common people against the elites, or of emotions against rationality. Yet none of these explanations are very illuminating. Instead, we can think of populism as an attempt to monopolise the meaning of objects that inspire intense and shared yet diverse attachments: from monuments to nations, and from family histories to events inscribed in collective memory.

The Russian case is particularly instructive in demonstrating how populism can hijack protest causes. Russian protesters have typically been wary of articulating their demands in terms of general principles and civil society. Instead, they have often rallied around shared common-place objects. Thus they might come out in defence of a particular forest, dear to different people for different reasons and now threatened with destruction (rather than championing the general principle of environmental protection). Or they might express their concerns through allusions to well-known literary or movie characters, rather than as clear-cut legal demands.

Perhaps most saliently, references to what is known as the Great Patriotic War have structured political discourse of virtually all stripes. The meaning of these references can differ depending on who you ask, and yet precisely for that reason they allow very different people to gather around shared symbols, bridging ideological differences. Yet such objects are precisely what the state apparatus, when wielded as a tool of populism, can most easily control: by manipulating symbols that many people hold dear and giving them a single, fixed meaning. In Russia, family memories of the Second World War differ widely, though most people are intensely invested in those memories; yet the state alone has the resources to inscribe these diverse memories in its own cult of the war.

Similarly, in an increasing number of countries today, diverse concerns, anxieties and frustrations are bundled by populists under single headings: every Trump supporter may have a different idea of what might make America great again, but their shared attachment to American greatness as a symbol for their diverse causes gives the populist leader enough leverage to be attractive to a variety of constituencies. Just as with the British anti-EU vote, this dynamic is not unlike the ways in which the Russian state has excelled, again and again, at hijacking protest by monopolising the meaning of its symbols. Thus, despite the seeming weakness of protest in Russia, there is much to be learned from studying it.

To mark the first mass protest on 10 December 2011, we present an abridged excerpt from Chapter Two of Mischa Gabowitsch's new book Protest in Putin's Russia below. 

What is a regime?

Many of those who joined the demonstrations had lived all or most of their adult lives under Putin’s rule. The protest wave was anti-Putin, but it was also in crucial ways a Putin-era protest. The very way in which participants focused their message was profoundly shaped by Putin’s earlier policies. The political regime that they rebelled against was not some alien authoritarian structure imposed on a society faced with a choice between enduring or resisting it. It shared many traits with Russian society as a whole, and could not have survived as long as it did without being rooted in it. Yet beyond the effects of the political regime on protest, there were broader societal developments whose effects were no less profound.

A less politics-centred understanding of the term ‘regime’ helps understand these effects. Applied to Russia, the concept is usually understood as synonymous with the political system. Political scientists have expended a great deal of energy on trying to come up with a pithy abstract formula to describe that system and define the president’s role in it. Many of the epithets they have proposed – including authoritarian or semi-authoritarian, personalistic, corporatist, neo-feudal, neo-patrimonial or prebendalist – do capture important aspects of how governance works (or fails to work) in Russia. What they have in common is that they describe, not a specific set of policies, but the relationship between different parts of the polity. 

Yet what is true of formal political structures can also be applied to other dimensions of social life. As used across a variety of social science contexts, the notion of regime designates the ways in which the different parts of a whole relate to each other, and indeed the ways in which the whole can be broken up into legitimately identifiable parts. Examples include ethnicity regimes  (how, and to what purpose, does the state define ethnic identities, and what counts as an ethnicity?), emotional regimes (what kinds of emotions can be legitimately expressed, and what are the appropriate forms and settings for their expression?), and the regimes of engagement discussed in the previous chapter (do we engage with the world as choice-making individuals, as people arguing about the common good, as persons already invested in multiple places that we share with others, or as curious explorers?). In these and other cases, ‘regime’ refers not only to the ways in which the different parts of the whole are articulated, but also to the ways in which this articulation is policed. Just like a political regime will deploy armed men to sanction challenges to its institutions, so an emotional regime might deploy ridicule and reprimand to police the display of emotions deemed unacceptable or out of place.

These mechanisms are no less precise, effective and wide-ranging – indeed no less political – than those associated with narrowly understood political regimes, yet they are often relegated to the status of a vague undifferentiated ‘culture’ that acts as background noise to politics. In order to understand the structure of protest in Russia, however, we need to be attentive to a variety of regimes that govern it.

Thus, in this chapter, I propose to look at three regimes and their effects on protest: the political regime with its effects on political communication, the regime of the self and the individual, and the emotional regime. None of these should be thought of as immutable, or as expressing some exotic Russian peculiarity. It is important to grasp the dynamics of each regime – regime change, if you will – if we want to gain a richer understanding of Russian protest.

Cynicism and neo-liberal regimes of the self 

Russian society has often been analysed using metaphors that stress isolation and dissociation. It is variously described as atomized, fragmented, hyper-individualist, (almost) bereft of social institutions or as an archipelago of disconnected islands, resulting in an inability to engage in coordinated collective action. This is sometimes seen as a specific feature of the post-Soviet condition. Yet strikingly similar descriptions were offered by observers of the late Soviet Union. 

These representations need to be taken seriously. Yet at the same time, images of society as a mass of atomized individuals are problematic in several respects.

Like Putin’s Petersburg network, regional elites are also organized according to the principle of personal loyalty, migrating between formal institutions

Firstly, the atomization metaphor ignores the extremely close yet informal ties that often exist within small circles or family and friends in Russia, maintained by intense everyday contact and providing not just emotional support but also social protection and a wide range of resources. Thus, as a first approximation, it would be more accurate to call Russian society molecularized rather than atomized. 

Attention to informal ties reveals parallels between everyday life in Russia and the behaviour of the political elites. Alena Ledeneva famously analysed the ways in which personal connections were used by virtually everyone in the late Soviet Union and then in 1990s Russia to procure scarce resources, a practice known as blat. She then went on to study informal practices that govern relationships within the political elite. They included ‘black’ and ‘grey PR’ and kompromat – manipulating public opinion by leaking and spreading compromising information about adversaries and rivals and, in the new market economy, the principle of krysha (‘roof’) – former or active members of the state security apparatus providing mafia-style protection.

Most importantly, politics is dominated by the same tightly-knit loyalty networks that dominate everyday life, trumping formal institutions. Putin’s inner circles of collaborators can be traced to the earliest stages of his career in the secret service and a dacha cooperative he famously co-founded in 1996. Like Putin’s Petersburg network, regional elites are also organized according to the principle of personal loyalty, migrating between formal institutions.

The Soviet welfare state was dismantled, state control over cultural production simultaneously disappeared, and while informal ties remained extremely important to cope with the increased uncertainty of the 1990s, social relations were increasingly monetized

Secondly, atomization metaphors often conjure up images of passivity and paternalism. Even when recast as ‘aggressive immobility’ (to use Sam Greene’s phrase), this glosses over the considerable dynamism and resourcefulness required to procure some of the most basic resources in both late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Finn Sivert Nielsen, portraying late Soviet society as an archipelago of islands, also observed that mobility between those islands was extremely high, although its point was not to maximize profits or advance a career but to secure a place for oneself that would allow one to tap into informal flows of goods and resources.

Thus authors as different as Nielsen, Greene and Laurent Thévenot all agree that places, and the considerable investments that Russians direct towards making them their own, are crucial for an understanding of Russian society. They usually confront each other, not as abstract individuals, but as people already heavily invested in certain places, and identifiable to each other as such. The particular investment – the route by which different people made it to a particular city or workplace, the ways in which certain cultural artefacts help different people make sense of an otherwise unsettling reality – may be different in each case, but if the objects are the same, they can serve as a basis for interaction. 

This brings us to the third problem with the atomization metaphor: it seems to imply a binary division between formal institutions or norms and informal practices. If formal rules are weak, all we are left with are disconnected individuals. This begs the question of what nevertheless holds society together and allows different people to coordinate, short of outright coercion. In other words, if society is an archipelago, then what is the sea? Nielsen’s answer was culture: since the Soviet state was not a behemoth but in fact itself an island whose attempts to govern other islands were constantly subverted, it had an overarching need to control cultural production as a source of legitimacy to fill the ‘limbo’ in which the islands were suspended. 

Moscow, 10 December 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0 Sergey Rodovnichenko / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Taken together, these observations make up something like a regime of the late Soviet (and, in part, post-Soviet) self: traditionally, Russians interact as people strongly invested in specific places. While the weakness of formal institutions often created a sense of isolation and alienation, a rich array of conventions, many of them drawing on cultural and ideological production, helped coordinate behaviour, and themselves attracted investment and allegiance. Both overarching cultural conventions and the informal practices required for survival were taken very seriously, creating obvious tensions and peculiar forms of discontent or critique that remain salient today. 

While cynicism was another possible response to the tensions inherent in the Soviet regime of the self, its true heyday came in the post-Soviet period, which saw the appearance and growth of a neo-liberal regime of the self. The Soviet welfare state was dismantled, state control over cultural production simultaneously disappeared, and while informal ties remained extremely important to cope with the increased uncertainty of the 1990s, social relations were increasingly monetized. A new wave of political rhetoric and cultural production portrayed society as a collection of individuals who had to fend for themselves. 

The culture of cynicism that often extended to everything outside one’s own domestic sphere and close circle of friends was a powerful substrate for acceptance of the Putin system

Two things are important to note. Firstly, it should be clear by now that protests such as those against monetization in 2005 were not mere expressions of paternalistic demands: they were clashes between two very different understandings of the self and its due. Secondly, the new focus on self-improvement does not fit neatly into divisions between the political regime and the opposition. State-sponsored patriotic youth camps and state TV are permeated by the rhetoric of optimism, self-reliance, self-improvement and consumption just as much as the discourse of much of the liberal, and some of the non-liberal, opposition. 

Political technology is only one of the many ideological innovations that the technical intelligentsia carried over into the post-Soviet era from the 1970s and 1980s. The series included myriad esoterical and scientistic approaches that promised to save Russia and the world through neuro-linguistic programming, levitation or expanded consciousness, by opening up torsion fields or planting masses of pine trees in Siberia. Whereas many such theories were extolled by lonely-looking ageing men holding up posters at conferences and demonstrations, others had greater commercial and political success – although only the political technologists were allowed to participate in rebuilding political institutions. 

The culture of cynicism that often extended to everything outside one’s own domestic sphere and close circle of friends was a powerful substrate for acceptance of the Putin system. If politics, and especially the ‘democracy’ of the 1990s, was at heart a dirty game defined by material interests, and any other motive was at best a failure to realize this truth, then a national leader who promised to return to Russian national interests and introduce more predictable rules of the game was not a bad option. 

This constellation – rather than mere fear of losing power – also underlies the largely sceptical or hostile reactions to the ‘coloured revolutions’ in the post-socialist states, as well as protest in Russia itself. Following the mass protests of 10 December 2011, Putin suggested in his televised question and answer session that they had been funded by the US State Department. He knew, he went on, that ‘students were even paid a little (which is OK, let them, at least the kids will earn a little money).’

This typical accusation was not without irony, since material rewards are regularly offered to participants in pro-Putin campaigns: from the point of view of post-Soviet cynicism it may have seemed well-nigh inconceivable that one’s opponents should act differently.

In addition to sincere enthusiasm, the system rested on another important pillar: a culture of cynicism that had been developing throughout the Soviet period and was now flourishing. As a worldview and a universal explanatory principle, the cynical mindset has two main interlocked components. Regarding individuals, the central assumption of cynicism is that material self-interest is the only authentic driving force of human behaviour. On this view, financial sponsors are able to direct the actions of those they fund in downright mechanical ways: calling the tune by paying the piper. The more general version of this tenet is that there are ‘technologies’ that allow the behaviour of people and entire societies to be steered. 

Given this background, it is striking that corruption became a central topic during the 2011–2013 protest wave. Despite their ironic tone, slogans such as ‘Hillary, where’s my money?’ expressed a desire for earnestness – a stance that took formal norms and rights seriously instead of dismissing them with the cynic’s jaded and all-knowing gesture.

The demand that state institutions should function according to clear, impersonal rules was neither a random development nor simply an expression of middle-class values

To understand this development we need to remind ourselves that corruption is never an objective state of affairs, but is always in the eye of the beholder. Corruption is always the corruption of others. The term describes the discrepancy between a normative understanding of how an institution is supposed to function and observed reality. In settings where there is universal agreement that obligations towards friends or family members or clan trump the formal requirements of office, there will be little if any talk of corruption at all. Even in Russia, the post-Soviet political system with all its obvious neo-feudal and personalistic features appeared to many as a meaningful, natural and effective type of governance, or at least as preferable to the chaos and permanent crises of democracy. 

Yet the 2011–13 protests were dominated by demands for the rule of law. The demand that state institutions should function according to clear, impersonal rules was neither a random development nor simply an expression of middle-class values. The change was itself an upshot of the new regime of the self, whose focus on individuals whose prior attachments should be irrelevant to their interaction and advancement provides a natural basis for critiques of corruption.

In addition, however, systematic efforts by anti-corruption activists, rights defenders and media professionals throughout the Putin era helped establish an alternative perspective. It had been prepared by the efforts of political and social activists who, over the preceding years, had presented corruption as Russia’s biggest problem, thereby establishing a kind of critique that proved more powerful than discredited concepts such as ‘democracy’ or ‘liberalism’. 

"I'm a teacher, and I'm here." Moscow protest, January 2012. CC BY-ND 2.0 Antony Dovgal / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Of course, accusations of corruption are not a post-Soviet invention. The fact that a novel kind of corruption critique developed in the late 2000s was not least due to the new situation in the Putin era. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, large parts of the political and economic elites left the state apparatus and settled their conflicts outside it, often using violent means. Since the end of the 1990s, in turn these elites recaptured the state and increasingly started using its apparatus, rather than private violent entrepreneurs, to advance their objectives. In addition, the economic boom and Putin’s discourse of stability held out a promise of certain minimum standards being met – in areas ranging from road quality to property management – that had not been a priority in the 1990s.

In this context, corruption critique by think tanks and opposition politicians could take effect. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the INDEM Foundation made a start. Directed by Georgy Satarov, a former Yeltsin advisor and co-author of the constitution, it increasingly specialized – initially working with the World Bank – in research on corruption. Finally, opposition politicians, journalists and bloggers began to take up the topic of corruption. 

The lawyer and shareholder activist Aleksey Navalny attracted nationwide attention with his anti-corruption blog. Coining the catchphrase ‘party of crooks and thieves’ for United Russia, he gave the coming protests one of their main slogans. 

By the beginning of the new decade, discourse about corruption had gained momentum as a frame for a civic critique of the state. An important set of preconditions for protest were in place: a topic, a language and, thanks to Navalny’s collective term for United Russia, a clear target. However, such cognitive framing does not on its own suffice to mobilize people and trigger mass protest. In addition to economic and political developments and a change in thinking, such protest requires a moral shock.

Emotional regimes

On 2 October 2012, the committee that oversaw elections to the new Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition posted a short video online. Starting in Bolotnaya Square, then cutting to other famous landmarks in several Russian cities, it showed people holding up square white posters that displayed both new and familiar protest slogans: ‘They stole my vote’, ‘There are more of us than it seems’, ‘You vote, therefore you are’. 

The clip was an attempt to mirror and thereby lend legitimacy to the emotions that Kira Sokolova mentions when she talks about her participation in the protests: the weariness of dealing with the authorities, her own fear and that of her apolitical family members, the new hope for what she calls, vaguely, the ‘triumph of normal human values’. More importantly, it suggested one particular way of displaying these emotions in public and turning them into collective action. ‘I need people / who will speak in my name’, two of the placards declared, and the video ended with the elections’ slogan: ‘Reclaim your voice’ (or vote). 

Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition video. October 2012.

The political grammar employed was decidedly a liberal one, as the visual techniques employed by the film made clear. The clip’s protagonists were pictured alone or in pairs, surrounded by traffic or empty landscapes. (The only exception was the elections’ main organizer, Leonid Volkov, who was filmed at what looked like a family picnic.) Even the message that ‘There are more of us than it seems’ / ‘Very many’ was displayed by lonely individuals standing among crowds of strangers – one inside a metro station, the other at a protest march flowing past him. Feelings, the clip suggested, were a private affair even when experienced in public. Negative emotions were caused by a mendacious state and indifferent crowds. 

The obvious way to overcome isolation and channel one’s emotions into collective action was to come together, aggregate with other individuals and choose representatives to speak in one’s name. That process was demonstrated visually: paralleling a formal election process, the final character to appear was shown stepping out of the background – an unspecified private realm – to deposit in public his message about ‘reclaiming one’s vote’, then return to where he came from.

The ad makes it clear that the 2011–13 protest wave, like any cycle of mobilization, was at least as much about managing emotions as it was about strategy. It was as much a challenge to the emotional regime established under Putin as it was to his political regime, as many protesters made clear when they spoke of the liberating effects of humour and irony.

The concept of an emotional regime was introduced by historian William Reddy to describe the ways in which societies introduce and enforce emotional norms, disciplining those who express emotions that stray from that norm. The term has been criticized as assuming that a single set of emotional norms is prevalent in any one society. 

If we want to understand the dynamics of protest in Russia, we need an account – however approximate – of the emotional regime under Putin to parallel that of the political regime associated with his name

But the idea of an emotional regime was never meant to suggest that a single set of rules governed the display of emotions for everyone in every situation within a given society. At least in the sense in which I employ it, it denotes expectations regarding what emotional expressions are appropriate in which setting. The feelings one may display at a funeral are not the same as those deemed acceptable at a football game or while appearing on television. Conventions governing what is appropriate in each of these cases vary between societies, and to the extent that they concern public events, they may be said to constitute an emotional regime. This says less about which emotions are actually felt by whom than about how people are expected to express their feelings, although of course the latter tends to have a powerful effect on the former.

In order to fully understand the importance of emotions for protest, however, those feelings need to be put in relation with the emotional environment in which they take place and which, very often, protesters hope to change as much as they aspire to transform social or political institutions. This is why, if we want to understand the dynamics of protest in Russia, we need an account – however approximate – of the emotional regime under Putin to parallel that of the political regime associated with his name. 

Emotional regimes sometimes change more abruptly than economic or political ones. Consider the frequently invoked parallels between the Putin era and that of secretary-general Leonid Brezhnev: depending on taste, both of them ages of (to some) stagnation or (to others) stability. To the extent that such parallels exist, they are based not only on similarities in economic circumstances. To be sure, in both periods the export of high-priced raw materials allowed drastic improvements in the quality of life without structural or institutional change, without serious increases in economic productivity or efficiency. 

Still, the structure of Russia’s economy in the 2010s differs significantly from that in the 1970s. But similarities in overall style are much quicker to capture the individual and collective imagination. Societal dynamics and intellectual tendencies are hard to squeeze unambiguously into precisely dated eras; this is much easier to do for emotional configurations. One might even say that the clear-cut chronology suggested by terms such as ‘the chaotic nineties’ or ‘Putin’s stability’ makes sense only if taken to refer to emotional keynotes. Especially in the media age, political leaders can exert a larger and more immediate influence on societal moods, emotional climates and legitimate forms of expressing feelings than they can on societal and economic structures. A new era is usually taken to begin with a highly emotionalized event.

The Yeltsin era began with the emotional surge of the failed putsch of August 1991. Even though outwardly nothing much happened in many Soviet cities outside Moscow during those days, most people understood afterwards that they were living in a new reality. A few months later, the unexpected end of the Soviet Union gave this reality a new political shape. The end of the Yeltsin era, likewise, was marked by such a shock – the president’s New Year’s speech on the evening of 31 December 1999, in which he surprisingly announced that he was stepping down.

That the late 1980s and 1990s were experienced as chaos had, of course, a lot to do with massive changes in individual circumstances. Yet it was also due to the fact that strict regulations on displays of feeling on the street and on TV disappeared. Emotions swept into public spaces that had had no place there before: from unfettered exuberance and cool irony to despair, from ostentatious pride in one’s wealth and status to naked fear.

Mass demonstrations and other protest events are among the forms of encounters most capable of intensifying individual emotions, but also of causing sudden changes in them

The rapturous enthusiasm that Putin made so many people express was partly due to a need to overcome this shame and re-establish the public sphere as one dominated by collective pride and emotional community. Few may have considered a complete return to Soviet-style affective regulation either feasible or desirable, but there was obviously a demand for greater limits on public emotional spaces, an end to emotional chaos – the bespredel (literally ‘limitlessness’) that had come to pervade politics and culture in the 1990s. 

The emotional regime that consolidated over the following years imposed severe limits on political protest: not just because politics continued to be perceived as dirty, but also because any protest could be construed as an affront to the emotional regime of national unity that had been re-established so laboriously. Overly vociferous public criticism of the state of the country became disgraceful again, not least because it was seen as humiliating Russia in the eyes of the West. Critique and discontent went back to being personal affairs, tolerated in a wide range of private and semi-public spaces, but to be hidden from public view.

Only the president had unlimited licence to display his (rather understated) feelings in public. This is one reason for the general obsession with Putin’s frames of mind among both the Russian public and foreign journalists. 

This state of affairs fit the interests and intentions of the political elites. Yet it was also welcomed by large parts of society and can hardly be described as merely imposed from above. In the previous chapter, we saw how each possible way to generalize personal concerns or grievances involves shedding part of what defines us as persons. A constitutive feature of the liberal regime is that, as we confront others in public, we need to shed our communal ties, and with them communal restrictions, in order to avoid unduly impinging on others. Supporters of the new emotional regime seemed convinced that this leads to chaos and damages individuals by plunging them into an atmosphere of insecurity. To them, what needs to be shed are certain emotions that belong squarely in the private realm – a stance which, in turn, can easily be criticized as hypocritical. 

What does all of this mean for protest? 

Mass demonstrations and other protest events are among the forms of encounters most capable of intensifying individual emotions, but also of causing sudden changes in them. State and opposition, activists and police can all try to influence emotions – one side through display of cohesion, collective ridicule, fiery speeches, singing, chanting or banging pots; the other through disparaging irony, intimidating gestures, displays of arms and banging batons on metal shields. 

Yet before these emotional micro-dynamics can occur, two things are required: potential protesters need to experience the moral shock or emotional breaching event that will make them feel a need to protest – and they need an affective frame that lets them give public expression to personal affect. Just as anti-corruption rhetoric, employing the liberal grammar, became an important mode of generalizing discontent, a mode of communicating profound emotional experiences was needed before moral shock could turn into collective action. 

Opposition activists realized this early on. As early as 2005, even the Marxist intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky, in a book on ‘managed democracy’, called for a ‘revolution of shame’. Visibly frustrated that the social revolution he had long predicted was failing to materialize and the previous winter’s massive anti-monetization protests had fizzled out, he proclaimed that only ‘great upheaval’ would give ‘people the right to be proud of their country and their history (not that of their distant -ancestors)’. 

Cognition and emotion are closely intertwined, and political economies of emotions and perspectives can be fundamentally altered by moral shocks

Thus, whereas some were hindered by shame from publicly voicing critique and protest, others were yearning for a ‘revolution of shame’ that would alone be capable of ringing in a new era. For all its exasperated and disparaging overtones, Kagarlitsky’s appeal demonstrated that feelings, too, could be generalized in different ways.

In April 2010, the Dozhd’ (Rain) TV channel went on the air, billing itself as the ‘optimistic channel’ and using the tagline ‘Don’t be afraid to turn on the TV!’ Targeting a liberal big-city public, the channel broadcast programmes such as the clip collection ‘Mood on Dozhd’’, attempting to combine the consumption-oriented enthusiasm of apolitical media with oppositional themes. The optimism that Dozhd’ proclaimed was linked both to hopes for political liberalization and to the constant calls for self-improvement that are integral to the new Russian capitalism. On Dozhd’, lifestyle programming coexisted with political debates. By putting a positive spin on opposition and protest and offering an appropriate emotional language, new media such as Dozhd’ did a lot to contribute to the growth of alternative emotional communities whose role in the coming protest wave was no less great than that of opposition networks, anti-corruption rhetoric and the new means of communication afforded by the spread of the Internet. The community it proposed was one of optimistic and self-reliant individuals.

The prominence of a commercial TV channel in providing alternative affective frameworks shows how emotional regimes are also political economies of emotions. Emotional configurations can never be entirely divorced from their political and economic underpinnings. Yet, just as different views of social reality cannot be reduced exclusively to financial or other material determining factors, emotions are more than just an epiphenomenal expression of individuals’ economic, family or health situation. Cognition and emotion are closely intertwined, and political economies of emotions and perspectives can be fundamentally altered by moral shocks. Many people experienced the Medvedev–Putin swap as such a shock; for others, such as Kira Sokolova, it was Putin’s failed outing in the Olympic Stadium.

For thousands more, however, the shock would be the direct experience of electoral fraud in December 2011.


Protest in Putin's Russia (Polity Press, 2016) is available now







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About the author

Mischa Gabowitsch is a sociologist and historian, a member of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. He is the author of Protest in Putin’s Russia and co-organiser of He is currently researching commemorative practices and Soviet war memorials. He is the former editor of Laboratorium and Neprikosnovennyi zapas.

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