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.

The protests in 2011 and 2012 were driven by reports of egregious fraud in the December 4, 2011 elections, in which Putin’s United Russia handily defeated all other parties but emerged with a much reduced majority in parliament. Even before the results were officially announced, multiple amateur videos of ballot-stuffing and other violations were going viral. Soon after, election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a preliminary report detailing widespread improprieties.

Despite bitter winter temperatures, demonstrators across the country gathered in large numbers, chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Thieves and crooks, you have five minutes to pack your things!” Protests of this size had not been seen since August 1991, when vast crowds assembled to block an attempted coup by Communist hard-liners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, twenty years later, Gorbachev was calling on Putin to resign.

Nobody had anticipated such fervent pushback by so many. Coups d’état are unusual in Russian history; electoral fraud is not. In Russian, the same word, vybory, signifies both “election” and “choices.” In the Soviet Union, when you filled out a ballot on which a single candidate was listed for each office, you were taking part in a familiar ritual informally known as vybory bez vyborov, an election without choices. The 1996 multicandidate elections that (barely) returned Boris Yeltsin to the presidency of free-falling post-Soviet Russia were largely bought by Yeltsin’s oligarchic allies, who controlled the mass media almost as completely as the Kremlin does today. Presidential elections since then have also been tainted by charges of manipulation, though unlike Yeltsin the winners would almost certainly have won, if by less impressive margins, without the fraud. None of these precedents, however, set off anything like the popular fury of December 2011.

For many demonstrators, electoral fraud rubbed salt in the wounds caused by the announcement two months earlier that Putin, rather than his sidekick Medvedev, would once again be United Russia’s candidate for president. Having raised hopes with lofty speeches condemning corruption and “legal nihilism,” President Medvedev (2008–2012) turned out to have been little more than a placeholder so that Putin, after two terms as president (2000–2008) and one as prime minister (2008–2012), could again resume the presidency while abiding by the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms in office.


This elegant pas de deux confirmed what many already knew: that Russia’s presidents are chosen in the Kremlin, not in the ballot box. As a result of Navalny’s exposé, we also now know that Medvedev, far from a liberal modernizer, is an active participant in the kleptocracy that brings vast wealth to Putin’s inner circle. In 2008, presidential terms were expanded from four to six years, making it likely that Putin will lead Russia until 2024, and perhaps beyond—longer than Brezhnev, Stalin, Nicholas II, or any other Russian leader in the twentieth century.

Faced with large numbers of Russians taking to the streets and calling his legitimacy into question, Putin struck back. On December 8, 2011, four days after the election, he accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having “set the tone for some actors inside our country” and giving them “a signal. They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work.” The charge of meddling gained credibility with the arrival a month later of the new American ambassador, Michael McFaul, author of a none-too-subtle book called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution (2001). McFaul immediately invited a group of protest and opposition party leaders to the US embassy for a meeting. “Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia,” wondered the television pundit Mikhail Leontiev, “to work in his specialty, that is, to finish the revolution?”

Another pundit, Vladimir Solovyev, adapting an oft-quoted line by Pushkin (“God forbid we should ever witness a Russian revolt, senseless and without mercy”), warned his viewers that “in Russia, there is a culture of revolt. And this culture of revolt ends in bloodshed.” Ignoring the example of the Soviet dissident movement, he added that “in Russia, there is no culture of fighting for your rights within the framework of the law.”

Solovyev also ignored the fact that the demonstrations were remarkably nonviolent, even as they swelled in numbers. Over the next eighteen months, dozens of protests, most of them organized on short notice via Facebook and VKontakte (Russia’s homegrown social-networking platform), drew crowds of up to a hundred thousand. The Kremlin’s anxiety was palpable: in addition to local police forces, it deployed special mobile units controlled by the Interior Ministry to intimidate and deter demonstrators, deliberately using troops from faraway regions in order to maximize the social distance (and thereby minimize any potential sympathy) between them and the protesters. Yet notwithstanding the hundreds of arrests and numerous cases of rough treatment or beatings by anti-riot troops, the Kremlin applied only a fraction of the force at its disposal—significantly less than other authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Turkey have used against their own protesters in recent years. Putin appears to have been careful to avoid creating martyrs.

He has also drawn on other techniques, including orchestrating mass counterdemonstrations, not all of whose participants can be dismissed as having been bought or coerced into taking part (as has often been reported). Most effective, at least until this past spring, were the legislative restrictions placed on freedom of assembly (one person holding a sign can now qualify as a demonstration) and the severe penalties (fines of up to three years’ salary or multiyear jail sentences) for those who violate them more than once.

Supporters as well as opponents of the 2011–2012 demonstrations likened them to the roughly contemporaneous Arab Spring uprisings and Occupy Wall Street movement, suggesting that large portions of the globe were being swept up in a wave of democratic revolt against grotesque concentrations of wealth and power. But few of these movements achieved their goals. Nearly all of the affected Arab regimes either remained in power, replaced old authoritarian governments with new ones, or crumbled into civil war. Members of the 1 percent now occupy the executive branch of the US government. And in today’s Russia, as Navalny has shown, power and wealth are even more concentrated than they were five years ago.

Within weeks of the initial protests in 2011, several leading Western commentators settled on an interpretation: this was a drama of self-assertion by a new “middle class,” abetted by the inexorable forces of globalization. Observers such as Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman portrayed the demonstrators as educated, urban, cosmopolitan, iPhone-toting professionals whose emergence was enabled by Putin’s stabilization of the Russian economy—part of a global struggle for democratic, merit-based, transparent governance. These commentators have tended to assume that authoritarian regimes will over time be undermined by the newly assertive citizen-consumers who have grown up in the age of globalized commerce and the Internet.


For its part, the Kremlin saw the participants as ungrateful, unpatriotic beneficiaries of Putin’s policies, agents not so much of globalization as of Western interference in Russia’s affairs. Dreams of unmanaged democracy, the government and those close to it feared, were bound to produce the violence and chaos that had taken hold in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

The Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev, in Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest (2014), agrees that members of a “global middle class” had a crucial part in recent protests in Russia, the Arab world, Turkey, and elsewhere, but he considers the Kremlin’s alarm unwarranted. “Protesting itself seems to be the strategic goal of many of the protests,” he writes, whose participants “treat politics not so much as a set of issues but as a public performance or a way of being in the world.” He asks whether the 2011–2012 protests, rather than demonstrating the “technologically amplified power of citizens,” instead “mark the decline of the political influence of the middle class and its growing discontent with democracy.” Despite the disputed election that provoked them, the protesters lacked a clear set of political demands, much less a strategy to achieve them; Krastev concludes that they accomplished little beyond giving Putin a pretext to further restrict civil liberties and consolidate power.

Unlike Fukuyama, Friedman, Krastev, and most other commentators, Mischa Gabowitsch, a sociologist based at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, studied the 2011–2012 protests from within, drawing additionally on the research of dozens of Russian colleagues. Protest in Putin’s Russia combines stirring reportage with conceptual sophistication, taking readers into sites of protest not only in Moscow but in cities across Russia. In Chelyabinsk, for example, a thousand miles east of the capital, Gabowitsch meets protesters who until 2011 had “never been interested in politics and had considered voting pointless,” as one woman put it. Though unsure how to protest and uncertain whether doing so would reduce “all these lies, this filth, this vileness,” she and several others agreed that the demonstrations had accomplished something important. “We have seen that we are not alone,” she continued. “You don’t usually see that in your own circle. Everyone tells you to keep quiet, keep a low profile. And you feel like an idiot trying to prove something to them. But we are not alone.”

Gabowitsch finds scant evidence that protesters belonged to a “middle class,” or that such a category is meaningful in Russia today. While a significantly higher proportion (80 percent) of demonstrators had a university-level education than does the Russian population as a whole (less than a third), they had few other socioeconomic or political attributes in common. Nearly half said they were unable to afford a car; a third identified themselves as neither “democrats” nor “liberals.” Russia’s political parties, which, except for the Communists, have proven to be weak unifiers of opinion, had hardly any part in the protests.

Evgeny Feldman/AP

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny being detained during a rally in Moscow, March 26, 2017

Many of those who joined the 2011–2012 demonstrations were incensed by the combined arrogance of Putin’s self-reappointment as president and United Russia’s brazen electoral fraud. But this response was not specific to any one demographic in Russia; participants ranged from students to managers to pensioners. As one protester remarked in a 2014 study cited by Gabowitsch, “I belong to the middle class, but it does not exist.” Nor did the protests offer a solid basis on which to construct a strategy for change. Gabowitsch found protesters who were motivated by such disparate issues as local environmental degradation, anti-LGBT discrimination, and the dismantling of Soviet-era entitlements. In one survey, 85 percent of demonstrators indicated “corruption among political elites” as Russia’s most urgent problem—a statistic presumably not lost on Alexei Navalny. Some participants connected local injustices to national election fraud, but many others did not.

Whether in Moscow and St. Petersburg or the provinces, demonstrators often got bogged down in procedural questions and conflicts between radicals and moderates. Gabowitsch summarizes the fault lines:

Should the nascent movement attempt to topple Putin, or merely ensure the legality of the election process and protesters’ safety? Did the protests need leaders? Should they strive to create yet another party or electoral coalition, or perhaps a strong extra-parliamentary opposition movement? Or were they about something other than “opposition”?

None of these questions was resolved, in part because most Russians—including many who protested—consider politics an inherently dirty activity, antithetical to the moral values that underpin personal relationships and family life. Even the term “democracy” was largely absent from the protesters’ lexicon. One of the more common protest slogans was “We are not the opposition, we are citizens of our country”—as if the two were somehow incompatible, as if being in the opposition meant being political, and being political meant being immoral.

By standard measures of success, Gabowitsch concedes, the protests “were a dismal failure.” They did not lead to new elections or to fundamental changes in the electoral process. On March 5, 2012, the day after Putin won a commanding 63 percent of the vote in the presidential election, 25,000 Muscovites again rallied to denounce fraud at polling places—with no apparent effect. In one sense, then, Protest in Putin’s Russia provides support for Krastev’s argument that, instead of democratic political alternatives, Russian protesters offered merely “an explosion of moral indignation.” But Gabowitsch urges us to consider a different standard of judgment.

What if, rather than looking at what the protests failed to accomplish, we ask: What did they accomplish? What if, instead of focusing exclusively on assumed inputs (“middle-class interests”) and missing outputs (“democratic governance”), we examine what happened during the demonstrations themselves, inside what Gabowitsch calls “the black box of protest”? Here lies the most original aspect of his analysis.

What he initially finds among participants is a pervasive sense of euphoria—in striking contrast to the cynicism that is the default setting of the Russian public. Protesters discovered that it wasn’t just themselves and their friends who were indignant over electoral fraud, but tens of thousands of strangers. This helped inspire the giddy defiance on the homemade signs carried by demonstrators. Many of the slogans involved untranslatable wordplay. One of my favorites is Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete, a double-entendre addressed to the Kremlin, meaning “You don’t even represent us” as well as “You have no idea who we are.” (The sensibility was not unlike that of the signs in the more recent Women’s March following Donald Trump’s inauguration.)

For many protesters, “who we are” became a topic to explore during mass rallies. In these settings one could connect directly with fellow citizens beyond one’s circle of friends and free from the unending flow on television of Kremlin-friendly depictions of Russian society. Seen as “knowledge machines”—spreading information about fellow citizens’ true grievances and aspirations—the protests were, Gabowitsch claims, “far more successful and significant.” What remains unclear, however, is what protesters actually learn from their activism and how durable those lessons are.

In the original German edition of his book, Gabowitsch concluded rather optimistically that the demonstrations “cleared the path for the renewal of public political life.” But that was in 2013, in a work whose cheeky title, Putin kaputt!? (borrowed from a Russian protest song), has not aged well. The 2017 English edition, translated and substantially revised by Gabowitsch, offers a more sober but also self-contradictory verdict: the protests’ “lasting legacy…was in creating temporary spaces for experimentation.” This year’s demonstrations nonetheless raise the possibility that those spaces are still available.

Not so long ago, Western scholars were fond of accounting for the peculiarities of Russian history by noting that Russia had not experienced the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Discovery, or other stages of development considered necessary for the emergence of liberal governance. These claims merely use the lack of a cause to account for the lack of an effect, which is to say that they do little to explain the actual circumstances that contributed to Russia’s abiding tradition of authoritarian rule and fear of public protest. Scholars and journalists today similarly tend to scour authoritarian states for signs of an emerging civil society, only to register its weakness or absence. Gabowitsch takes a different view:

We often find it difficult to acknowledge protest that speaks a different language, or at least to take it seriously. Yet…we obtain a much richer picture if we acknowledge regimes of engagement with the world other than the liberal regime of individual choice and its aggregation. That regime is important for many protesters, in Russia as elsewhere. But so is the regime of personal affinity under which we value common-places that may seem private, parochial or vacuous to outsiders.

Rather than bemoan the failure of Russian demonstrators to “format” their concerns in the language of rights, individual choice, voluntary associations, and a social contract, Gabowitsch suggests that the mere fact of the protests was an important step in the development of Russian society. He highlights their value as alternative forms of nonviolent civic engagement that foster solidarity and build on human relationships within local communities. But he also makes clear that this kind of activism by itself will not loosen Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by John Springs

One of the liveliest current debates among historians of Russia concerns the question of whether the Western liberal conception of the individual, grounded in ideals of autonomy and rational self-interest, has prevented us from fully understanding the behavior of people who lived in the Soviet Union. After all, forging a Homo sovieticus (“Soviet person”) who could rise above bourgeois individualism—what Leon Trotsky called “an improved edition of humankind”—was high on the list of Bolshevik aspirations. Using newly discovered diaries and other autobiographical sources, the historians Jochen Hellbeck and Igal Halfin have shown how, during the Stalin era, quite a few Soviet citizens pursued an alternative model of selfhood, one that embraced the elimination of private property and the profit motive.*

Protest in Putin’s Russia makes the case for suspending a different liberal assumption—about how we organize ourselves in a civil society. Instead, Gabowitsch proposes a more indigenous, post-Soviet “regime of personal affinity”: attachments to specific places, people, and symbols, along with a wariness of having those attachments taken over by some broader, overtly political cause. If the forces that Gabowitsch identifies in 2011–2012 continue to pertain in Russia today, then the protests of 2017 are likely to be important for spurring new social engagement rather than effecting any real changes at the level of state policy.

The revival of demonstrations in Russia this year and the conspicuous youth of the participants indicate that protesting itself remains a renewable resource for opponents of Russia’s current political system. With the exile of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the self-exile of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, both in 2013, the jailing of militant activist Sergei Udaltsov in 2014, and the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the number of nationally prominent opposition figures has now been narrowed to one: Alexei Navalny.

Physical assaults, multiple arrests, and the jailing of his brother have so far failed to stop the forty-one-year-old Navalny from emerging as the unmistakable leader of the new activism. In his video exposé of Medvedev’s ill-gotten wealth, Navalny in turn demonstrated his capacity to narrow his message to a single issue:

Corruption in Russia is the cause of poverty, the cause of low salaries and the horrible state of all sectors of the economy…. Members of the political elite know about this. It’s only you and I, the people of Russia, who are kept in the dark. Dmitri Medvedev can steal so much because Putin is stealing on an even grander scale. Because everyone in the government does this—judges, prosecutors, the secret services, becoming millionaires and billionaires via corruption. This is our country, and these swindlers are stealing our money.

The protests of five years ago were set off by a specific event. This year Navalny has been able to summon people into the streets simply by making revelations about an ongoing, virtually constant phenomenon. In contrast to the earlier episode, moreover, there have been no counterdemonstrations, and for good reason: no one publicly supports corruption. While the extent to which high-level corruption can drive popular anger against the Kremlin depends in part on the state of Russia’s economy, this anger too constitutes a renewable resource. Putin’s petro-state, even as it emerges from a two-year recession, remains vulnerable to low oil prices, Western sanctions on trade and investment, and, not least, Russia’s expensive interventions in Ukraine (including Crimea) and Syria.

If Navalny’s revelations—and there may be more—turn out to derive in part from information leaked by Kremlin insiders looking to damage their rivals, the resulting cracks in the elite could open up new possibilities. In the same video denouncing Medvedev’s immense fortune, Navalny declared his candidacy for president in the March 2018 elections, a move the Kremlin will almost certainly seek to block by invoking his 2013 conviction on (questionable) charges of embezzlement.

On July 7, after twenty-five days of administrative detention, Navalny was released from prison. Police forces had raided his regional campaign offices, seizing thousands of leaflets and T-shirts and detaining staff members in an effort to forestall the next round of protests—actions he immediately condemned as a “pogrom.” Asked whether the protests in March and June had achieved anything, Navalny stated: “Yes, Medvedev remains the prime minister, and crackdowns are targeting our campaign staff rather than corrupt officials…. But we have broken this wall of censorship and lies that Putin built during his eighteen years in power and we were able to relay our ideas to millions.”

If he does manage to run, Navalny, unlike Russia’s protesters, will have to produce an actual program for governing, beyond his current platform of combating inequality, corruption, and the “vertical power” of the Kremlin. Whether he does so may go some way toward deciding if this latest wave of protest can bring about more than “temporary spaces for experimentation.”

—July 11, 2017