Russia: The Joyful New Activism

Anatoly Maltsev/EPA/REX/Shutterstock
Protesters marching near the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, February 25, 2012. The poster on the left carries two slogans drawn from George Orwell’s 1984: ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Two plus two equals five.’

Over a few weeks in March, more than 13 million Russians watched an unusual video online. Posted on March 2, the film documented, with stunning drone footage and scathing narration by the anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s collection of marble-floored mansions, sprawling estates, luxurious yachts, and carefully tended vineyards (including one in Tuscany), altogether worth roughly half a billion dollars. It also included clips of the prime minister giving speeches condemning graft by public officials and explaining to a crowd of ordinary Russians in the newly annexed Crimean peninsula—where pensions and public services are far from what the Kremlin had promised—that “there’s no money.” A second Navalny documentary, also released on the Internet, investigated how President Vladimir Putin’s younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, came to preside over a “charitable” fund worth tens of millions of dollars.

Navalny called on viewers of these films to take part in protests against corruption on March 26. Tens of thousands did so in nearly a hundred Russian cities. Several hundred demonstrators, including Navalny himself, were arrested. Nonetheless, more protests were staged, again at Navalny’s urging, on June 12, Russia’s new national holiday. Though the numbers were similarly modest, the June protests were striking for several reasons, including the youth of their participants—many were under twenty-five or even teenagers—and their geographic range across the Russian Federation. This time, some 1,700 protesters were arrested or detained.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the March and June demonstrations, however, is that they occurred at all. In the years since the disputed 2011 parliamentary election brought hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets, the Kremlin has enforced a broad chill on public dissent. Those earlier protests had inspired much talk of a democratic breakthrough or even a “Snow Revolution,” but then the Putin government tightened restrictions on public gatherings and instituted steep fines against violators, and they fizzled out. In more recent years, critics of the Kremlin have been harassed, poisoned, jailed, and in some cases assassinated.

The startling eruption this spring of protests in open defiance of the Kremlin’s crackdown raises new questions: Are these merely intermittent outbursts, or are they preparing the ground for a sustained social movement? Are they capable of translating popular discontent into political change, and if so, how will they accomplish this, given Russia’s Vertikal—the highly centralized, top-down structure of governance under Putin that permits no independent sources of authority? These questions make particularly timely the arrival of Mischa Gabowitsch’s Protest in Putin’s Russia, which provides some unexpected answers by reexamining the social effects of the earlier demonstrations.


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