I have just returned from a conference in Russia, in which the focus was studies of social movements.
(My own contribution was to argue that recent protests in Brazil, Turkey, and Russia represented a shift to democratic-style protest rather than high-risk political instability).
Two surprises from the conference (held at the European University of St. Petersburg): first, there has been quite a lot of peaceful protest in Russia in recent years. Starting in about 2005, with growing economic security from the oil and gas boom, people became more assertive. In 2005 there were protests by pensioners over a change in laws that took away certain guaranteed free services and substituted a cash benefit; people felt this violated their established ‘rights.’ In 2008, there was a protest over closing of a hospital that served fishermen in a coastal community. In 2010 there were major protests in Vladivostok against a law raising import duties on used Japanese cars (which were being imported in large numbers in the far East of Russia as cheaper and better than those manufactured in western Russia and shipped East). In a number of cities there were protests by kiosk owners against municipal statutes banning them from placing their kiosks in municipal owned space. Note that the Vladivostok and Municipal protests were by business owners who felt their ability to do business was being infringed. This is the stuff of middle-class protest, not anarchists and outcasts!
Of course, the best known protests are those that occurred in 2011 following elections to the Duma which were widely seen as fraudulent and manipulated to give then Prime Minister Putin’s party a majority in the parliament (the Duma). Now in fact the Duma is a relatively powerless body, so it is odd that manipulation of its elections would draw outrage. But in fact resentment at corruption was so great (Putin’s party was popularly criticized as a party of ‘crooks and thieves’ even though Putin himself remained popular) that people wanted to send a message by rejecting the party’s candidates. Denied the opportunity to do so by rigging of the votes, they took to the streets to protest.
These protests occurred not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but all across the country, in dozens of locations. They were followed by further political protests in 2012 and 2013, the last against the prosecution and arranged conviction of Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny. Partly in response, Navalny was released on appeal and allowed to run a campaign for mayor. He lost, but the saga goes on. His conviction was upheld, he demanded a recount, his sentence was suspended, but his and his brother’s assets have been seized by the state.
Nonetheless, the overall message is that protest is becoming an accepted and increasingly effective mode of influencing the authorities, even if the state remains far from a liberal or democratic regime.
The second surprise is how rapidly the scholarly study of social movements is advancing in Russia. Not only are there protests, there are sophisticated master’s and Phd students doing surveys of protestors, collecting data on the frequency and geographic spread of protest activity, and developing analysis of how protests affect the participants and their targets. They are also collaborating with European scholars of social movements from the European University Institute and other western universities. So Russia is developing international-level scholarship in sociology after a long interval of Marxist-dominated thought.
Both of these trends — more protests and advanced study of protests — are promising for Russia. No doubt there will be ups and downs (more on the Russian economy in a future blog), but after the harsh reactionary crackdowns on protest seen this Spring, this richer and more nuanced view of Russian developments was uplifting.