“Protesting is not Just About Reaching a Strategic Goal”: Interview With Mischa Gabowitsch

People attending a demonstration in Russia can often be taking a big risk. Is engaging in protest irrational? What changes resulted from the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011–2013? And how do pro-Putin and anti-Putin demonstrations differ? Luzia Tschirky (SRF) interviewed contemporary historian and sociologist Mischa Gabowitsch.

I. Who protests?

Luzia Tschirky

Luzia Tschirky: What do you think: Isn’t it actually irrational to engage in protests in Russia at all?

Mischa Gabowitsch

Mischa Gabowitsch: No, it’s not irrational at all. There can be many different motivating factors for protests. For instance, people may just want to achieve a very specific goal, and there are plenty of cases where protests, as well as letter campaigns or other forms of communication, have been used successfully to achieve a goal. On the other hand, people don’t always use protests strategically to achieve a goal. Sometimes, for example, they do it just to be with others who think and feel the same way. For one’s own life, one’s personal development, that can be very important too. And you can’t say: “It is irrational to take to the streets for that reason.” So, there are a lot of motivating factors at work, and very few that I would label irrational.

Luzia Tschirky

Have people’s motivation, their reasons for protesting, changed over recent years in Russia?

Mischa Gabowitsch

Well, there were some really big waves of demonstrations calling for fair elections in 2011-2013, for example, and then against the pension reform and so on, and that caused the creation of a kind of stage for protest. A lot of the time, people don’t necessarily go to a protest because they feel strongly about the actual cause, but just to communicate with other people. In other words, the cause of protests has become more closely intertwined, and I think that may be the most significant change. Before that, in the 1990s and the 2000s, demonstrations took place again and again in many different places. But those protests were usually almost completely isolated from one another. Very different kinds of people protested, often totally unaware that others were doing so.

Luzia Tschirky

We keep reading that lots of teenagers have been involved in the demonstrations in Russia in recent years: What’s your take on that?

Mischa Gabowitsch

What we can say is that, in Russia, and actually in all the other post-socialist countries, it was primarily older people who demonstrated in the 1990s. Firstly, because young people were simply busy surviving. They had to earn money, most of them were working more than one job. They quite simply did not have the time. The first big national wave of protests, 2011-2013, was when people first noticed the involvement of rather large numbers of demonstrators who were roughly in their mid-30s. One certainly cannot say it was just them, but they were definitely very present. In 2017, we saw a big wave of protests that were primarily organised by Alexei Navalny and his supporters. At these, you really noticed –  less so in Moscow, maybe, but nationally – there were lots of school children or very, very young people.

Luzia Tschirky

What might explain that: Does it have to do with the form of mobilization that Alexei Navalny used? 

Mischa Gabowitsch

It definitely does, yes. The new means of communication – think “Internet” – play a very, very important role of course. That’s one factor. Another might be that a younger age group may not have had any experience of the state’s repressive response, perhaps simply hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. Of course, that will change when they go to the next demonstration which is brutally suppressed. 

Luzia Tschirky

You’re saying this instils fear, the experience of brutal suppression. But can’t it also result in greater radicalisation and strengthen people’s belief in the rightness of their own protest?

Mischa Gabowitsch

Yes, but they are probably in the minority. I think that in most cases when a demonstration is really brutally suppressed – there are a few examples in Moscow but quite a number in the provinces too – the result is usually that people get more cautious. In a minority of people, it certainly leads to radicalisation as well. That’s clear. There are always some people who are willing to risk even a spell in jail. But naturally, not a whole lot.  It is almost inconceivable that the brutal suppression of a protest on one day would cause 10,000 people to suddenly take to the streets on the next. In Russia, anyway, that is next to impossible right now. 

Luzia Tschirky

Looking back at the changes in Russia since the last big protest movement in 2011–2013, is it fair to say that it has not been possible to maintain stability, the stability promised by the political system under Vladimir Putin, as it was before those years?

Mischa Gabowitsch

That comes down to what you mean by stability and what you are comparing it to. It has to be said that despite the sinking oil and gas prices, despite the sanctions against Russia, a lot of things in day-to-day life in Russia have noticeably improved. It’s true that an analyst could say: “Yes, but all of that is being financed on credit. It does not benefit everyone equally” and so on. But a lot of people see their daily lives and say “Look, the infrastructure is getting better!” It starts with bicycles for hire in Moscow, with a better banking system, and so on. Daily life is becoming more comfortable for a lot of people.

Luzia Tschirky

Can the same thing be said for the regions in Russia?

Mischa Gabowitsch

To an extent, it varies a lot. For some regions: yes. For others: no. The gap is growing. That is quite clear. I think that for any individual, going back to the question we started with: “When is it rational to protest?” For any one person, it is usually more rational to focus on the business of day-to-day existence, by which I mean to better one’s work situation or try to fix one’s financial problems, that kind of thing. But then comes the time when you say: “This isn’t working.” That feeling of not being able to move forward: That could certainly become a source of new protest someday. But what would that protest be aimed at? It’s impossible to predict. We have to avoid the mistake of always saying or thinking: “Every protest in Russia is automatically a protest against corruption, for democratisation and for pro-Western reforms and friendships with Western countries.” No way.

II. Why do people demonstrate?

Luzia Tschirky

Luzia Tschirky: What explains the fact that protest in Russia is now more focused on concrete issues? Is this due to protesters acting on their own initiative, or rather a lack of opportunities for other forms of political engagement?

Mischa Gabowitsch

I think there are several reasons. The protest back in December of 2011, was, for a great many people, a kind of catalyst. It was the first time, that they became aware, on a very personal and emotional level, just how corrupt the system can be. This was due to the electoral fraud, that a large number of volunteer election observers reported. And this was a wave or cycle of protest taking place over several months, that gave many people their first opportunity, to even start to get a clear idea: “What options are there for reacting? Who can I join up with? What issues can we actually talk about? Who else is out there? What kind of political currents are out there? What opposition movements?” A lot of people who went to demonstrations, didn’t have a concrete strategic aim such as: “We want to change the system now; we want to at least make sure that the elections are fairer next time.” Instead, they simply had the feeling: “I have to – somehow, now – come together with other people and somehow exchange ideas, talk with them, to feel on an emotional level that I am not alonein my frustration.” 

From there, things evolved in different directions. Some people became disappointed and tired at some point, and said: “We could go out for a tenth march, chanting the same funny slogans, but it won’t get us anywhere.” That made the protests become a bit more diverse as well as more specific. People fanned out, so to speak, into different areas, perhaps, because they realised: “I am, somehow, frustrated by the system as a whole. But what affects me personally right now is mainly, say, that they intend to tear down this old building in central St. Petersburg, without anyone ever asking me, although I live there.” Or: “I am personally concerned by the plan to build a mine here somewhere.” Thus, the concerns became more concrete. In addition, many people got the sense that taking a specific concern to the streets can achieve something. We saw that recently in the case of Ivan Golunov, the journalist.

Luzia Tschirky

When you have such different, pro-this, anti-that causes that people demonstrate about on the same day: What is there to unite people? Where can you see the common ground at all?

Mischa Gabowitsch

There are, in principle, two main types of connections. One is a sort of strategic coalition-building. People check: what’s on our programmes as opposition movements or parties? Where are there areas of overlap? That’s one type, and it’s fairly common. The other is: “We all feel a very close emotional tie with some cause.” For instance, with this forest that someone plans to build a motorway bypass through. What intrigues me, as a researcher, is that these are often the movements that last much longer. That they are, for instance, far more defiant in the face of repression. The involvement of professional opposition actors is less than elsewhere.

Luzia Tschirky

What explains that the opposition’s role in long-term protest of that kind being a tangential one in Russia?

Mischa Gabowitsch

The people in Russia, that we call “the opposition”, i.e. representatives of real, professional or semi-professional opposition movements, parties, etc.: their primary aim, is largely, or was until recently, to reform the entire system. The clear and stated aim was: “We want to democratise the system!” In other words, they tend not to care a lot about specific concerns. So, if they notice: “This environmental issue is not going anywhere right now, it’s too controversial, too risky, too difficult, too tedious“, they simply change course and take up another issue. But the people on the spot, for whom it is all about their specific river, or their specific playground, which is in the way of a new housing project, those people say: “Ok, wait, it’s fine that you want to reform the system and see our playground just as an example or a case study. But for us, this specific problem is the main concern. If you suddenly decide to move on and fight the corrupt system somewhere else, it won’t do us any good at all!” This is a continual source of conflict within the protest movements.

Luzia Tschirky

What might be the long-term consequences of the shift of focus for protests in Russia towards specific issues and away from a basic critique of the political system?

Mischa Gabowitsch

Both exist. There is general protest, and there is increasingly differentiated protest about concrete concerns. What consequences will that have? I can certainly envisage things staying this way for a very long time. No single protest in the last ten years has truly posed a radical challenge for the political system as a whole. You notice this particularly when you compare it with neighbouring states. Nothing even came close to being on the scale of the big Ukrainian protests. This is partly because nobody wants that. However, one often hears talk about a need for the social and the political protests to be brought together somehow. Because the issues are incredibly diverse, though, that would be very difficult to do. That is to say: There is a well-established toolset with which the state reacts to such protest. Very roughly speaking: the carrot and the stick. And they may continue to be used for a very long time. Another scenario might be the ideal case. Gradual reform from below or from within. That at some point, someone says: “Let’s allow a few opposition candidates after all.” It’s conceivable that then – at least in some regions or in some institutions – a little change might come. But naturally, for those in power now, that is an extremely big risk.The third possibility, one you hear about a lot, is, in my view, unlikely at present. This is that some kind of “big bang” really does happen. Navalny, or whoever, gets into power, becomes president, and democracy breaks out on the next day. I don’t see any indication of that at all, however. I could see a partial or even a bigger change in political “personnel” happening. But whether this would lead to fundamental change in society? That, in my view, is open to question.

III. Protest as politics

Luzia Tschirky

This week, the mayor of Moscow, commenting on last week’s protest, said: These people tried to storm the mayor’s office. Is this remark a reflection of the desire to portray demonstrators as violent subversives? What’s your take?

Mischa Gabowitsch

Exactly, and that’s not just in Russia, it’s like that in other post-Soviet states too – it’s an argument you hear constantly: “We want peace and stability! No chaos!” That is, it’s better to have authoritarianism, better to have a “strong hand”, than the chaos of the 1990s, wars, violent coups and so on. And ironically, in Belarus, for instance, people are saying: “Look, in our country everything is stable and peaceful, not like Russia, which is constantly involved in one war or another!” In Russia, people are saying: “Look, at least everything is stable in our country, not like in Ukraine, where every few years, there’s a violent revolution.”

The constant message is: “Members of the opposition are enemies of the people, leading young people astray, into violent actions because they want the country in chaos. For them, getting into power is more important than people being able to get on with their lives in peace.” And that’s why they always claim, that there have been calls for violence, despite the fact that it is completely untrue, that people are attempting to bring about a violent coup.

Personally I think this is ironic, since the protest movement in Russia may well be the least revolutionary one out there right now, at least in the Northern hemisphere. The mantra of almost all opposition movements in Russia, is that revolution is the last thing they want, they want reform: “We want to democratise the system, not overthrow it. No bloodshed, no revolution. We just want the laws to be respected.”

Luzia Tschirky

Can this be explained by looking at it in the broader historical context of the October Revolution? That Russia is still traumatised by the October Revolution even after 100 years?

Mischa Gabowitsch

I think the 1990s are more relevant. For some people, the ’90s were an experience of unprecedented freedom and unlimited possibilities.

But for the majority, naturally, it meant chaos, poverty, unclear rules and violence. Since that was the first period that was officially called democracy, democracy is associated with this chaos. So that is, of course, another reason, why it’s only in the past few years that lots of young people have been taking to the streets. Because they make up the first generation that didn’t experience that chaos first-hand. You can’t use that argument with them anymore: “Don’t you remember the the chaos of the 1990s?” Of course they can’t, they hadn’t even been born yet.

Luzia Tschirky

What would you say: Looking at how the police react to the protests, is there a pattern?

Mischa Gabowitsch

There’s always some degree of speculation in that. For a definitive answer to that question, you’d have to be able to look into the heads or the smartphones of the people in charge, which we can’t do. But I do think one could say that the moment that protesters get a bit too bold when their first successes go to their heads. Every time there are several big demonstrations in a row and the protesters say: “So now you have to listen to us! Tens of thousands of us have marched into central Moscow with impunity.” Then the authorities always slap them down. Just to show what’s what. But the dynamic is very complex, and not just between the protesters and the political elite. Neither one is ever just one monolithic block, particularly within the state apparatus there’s a very complicated dialectic, one people on the outside usually can’t see at all, but that ultimately explains much of what we do see, on the public square, or in the streets. 

Luzia Tschirky

How do opposition figures, like the politician Alexei Navalny, for instance use the protest movement for their own ends?

Mischa Gabowitsch

If you look at, for example, Navalny’s failed campaigns, when he was trying to run in the presidential election and gathered signatures, supporting his registration as a candidate. At that time, he stumped around the whole country, meeting with activists all over the place. In many cases, they weren’t all his supporters, a lot of them were people with concrete problems: taxi drivers dealing with corrupt officials, or a grade school studentin [Russia’s] Far East who publicly posted something political and had problems at school as a result, environmental activists and so on. A team of documentary filmmakers went along to these events, documenting them. So, you can watch a lot of these scenes. And it struck me: here is someone who is very cleverly taking advantage of this media attention, and saying: “Look: the taxi drivers support me too, and the environmental activists support me too!” But ultimately, for him, it’s not about  these local concerns, he is trying to package all that together and saying: “The first and sole goal right now is that I will be able to take part in the elections. Everything else comes later! First, we have to reform the system, then we’ll solve your problems!” 

Luzia Tschirky

How do the rallies organised by supporters of Vladimir Putin differ from rallies organised by his opponents?

Mischa Gabowitsch

The big difference is naturally that the organisers of the Putin’s rallies are all people with very close ties to the government. Regardless of what role they are officially playing. Also, internal controls at these demonstrations are much stronger. That means: There are metal fences all around and metal detectors you go through to enter, and then you are in the protest zone and inside you feel free and have the feeling: “Okay, so I’ve made my way into a kind of island, but at least I’m among my own kind and can say whatever and sing whatever I want!” But at these pro-Putin demonstrations there’s a kind of endoskeleton too, meaning, within the protest zone, there are a lot of police officers or, above all, civil servants in plain clothes around, and they are always listening: “Is someone saying something he shouldn’t?” Because the point of the whole thing is a televised image. They want to be able to show it on television: “Look, here are 200,000 people who support Putin!” Although many of them have, in fact, come there for quite authentic and sincere reasons, there are always a very, very strict controls to make sure no one steps out of line. That, I think, is the biggest difference.


Luzia Tschirky is a Russia correspondent for SRF (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen), Swiss public broadcasting’s corporation for German-speaking Switzerland.

Mischa Gabowitsch is a contemporary historian and sociologist and a member of the academic staff of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. He is the author or editor of books on the protest culture in Russia and on the commemoration of wars and atrocities.