Ben­jamin Nathans

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ben­jamin Nathans

Protest in Putin’s Rus­sia by Mis­cha Gabow­itsch.

Polity, 332 pp., $69.95; $26.95 (paper)

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 an­tiriot 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.


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. 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.

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-yearold Navalny from emerg­ing as the un­mis­tak­able leader of the new ac­tivism. In his video ex­posé of Medvedev’s ill­got­ten 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

Pro­test­ers march­ing near the Church of the Sav­ior on Spilled Blood, St. Peters­burg, Fe­bru­ary 25, 2012. The poster on the left car­ries a quote from Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984: ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slav­ery, Ig­no­rance is Strength.’

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

Vladimir Putin

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