“Take to the Streets or Keep Quiet”: Protests in Russia Today

Protest is often explicitly intended to be apolitical. And it starts in the places where people are directly affected: right outside their own front doors. Carine Clément on different kinds of protest.

Text: Carine ClémentTranslation: William DriverVideo: SelinDoc06.08.2019

omething really unpleasant happened to me. I found out, I don’t exist.” With these words, the Moscow sociologist Grigory Yudin addressed his subscribers in mid-July on social media. Shortly beforehand he had added his signature in support of one of the independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma elections only to find that the election commission declared it ineligible because, apparently, no such person exists. Yudin wasn’t the only one: “My Mum, along with hundreds of my neighbours in the area, and tens of thousands of Muscovites also aren’t here. We are all ghosts. We are the nobodies.” The signatures were rejected and many independent candidates were barred from taking part in the elections.

By the end of the month, a protest in central Moscow had garnered thousands of participants, despite having no permission from the authorities and facing the real danger that law enforcement officers would begin to use force. The police did indeed take extremely rough measures. According to information from OVD-Info , more than 1300 participants were detained in a single day. Many protestors suffered injuries of varying severity and several people were hospitalised.

The protest on 27 July showed once again that Russian citizens, driven by various motives , are ready and willing to take to the streets. This protest was very similar to many protests of recent years. There were no obvious leaders or central coordination and it developed logically, akin to other protests: it did not emerge because of an abstract issue – for example, a lack of democracy in Russia – rather because of an event that has directly impacted on someone, caused them concern, experience outrage and share their emotions.

Protests for free elections, 27 July 2019

he media has largely focused on the protests in Moscow with particular attention being given to the political opposition and clashes with police. And yet the majority of protests look different: they are taking place regionally, the participants come from groups of lower-income brackets in society and they are not overtly political in character. The most widespread kind is the local protest, aimed at defending the interests closest to people’s hearts.

The first protest movement of this kind emerged during the fight against the “monetisation of benefits” . In January and February 2005 up to a million people took part in protests in almost every region of the country. This was probably the largest grassroots mass movement of the time in which representatives of different social groups took part – from school children and students to pensioners. The protest started spontaneously with mass rallies and demonstrations, along with the seizure of state buildings and blocked roads in dozens of towns. It developed particularly rapidly outside of Moscow. A large number of non-politicised people with no prior activist experience were the first to take to the streets. And for the first time the government in Russia was forced to make concessions to protestors.

By the middle of the 2000s, other local grassroots movements with a variety of aims had started to gain momentum. Their common goal was the improvement of their environment here and now . Building development, losing green spaces, corruption in equity construction and labour disputes – each of these and many other issues fueled the protest movement and other demonstrations of various sizes, whilst also attracting varying amounts of media attention.

ormal people become activists because they feel that their own way of life, or its quality, is threatened, largely when people perceived an attack on their interests by the state or a business . This could be poor quality housing and public utilities, or limited access to either of them, the destruction of green spaces and parks, unsatisfactory road conditions, environmental pollution, small pensions and wages, and more. Conflicts are erupting everywhere in Russia around these and other issues, many of which are far from being resolved and require a collective effort.

Several researchers have described such local protests as “small deeds” , referring to the poplulist theories from the end of the 19th century.  Behind such theories was the idea that these deeds, which were certainly not always “small” but rather always focussed on a particular purpose, represented a fight not for an abstract ideal of “a happy future in a democratic country”, but to improve one’s lot, even in a small way, as well as the lives of loved ones, neighbours and colleagues from work.

Yet this does not mean that all new activists are driven solely by material and banal motives. This factor more likely acts as the catalyst for the desire to protest, and behind this desire often stand more abstract values. By fighting, for instance, for major repairs to their building or for a raise at work, people are defending their own sense of dignity and expressing solidarity with others. They begin to realise that they can change or influence things. Moreover, just by carrying out these “small deeds” they are also making a stand for the common good. Having gained experience of collective action, activists then often then engage themselves beyond local issues.

Against the backdrop of local protests during the 2000s, one movement that clearly stands out is the rally for free and fair elections that arose at the end of 2011. The movement appeared across all of Russia and quickly rose to prominence. Many activists demanded the election results not only be annulled, but that the political system be changed fundamentally. One driving factor for the protests was a concrete issue that directly impacted various groups of people: the mass electoral fraud during the 2011 State Duma elections led many Russians to feel that their own vote had been stolen, a vote that they had not cast for Putin’s party, “United Russia”. This fraud, that people either experienced themselves, or through a friend or acquaintance, was seen by many people as a personal insult.

The movement quickly drew a large number of supporters into its ranks and gave rise to an array of new local initiatives. Activists carried out particular “small deeds” in their own town and local area . This was a rare event when the process of “activisation” came from a grassroots movement rather than from above – from a broad political movement to local initiatives.

he economic crisis in the autumn of 2014 led to an increased number of protests – not only local protests addressing a single cause, but national rallies with a broad social agenda.

One of the larger mass protests in 2018 became the movement against pension reform. It is worth noting that, among the people who participated, there were people who were not directly affected “here and now”, namely those currently on their pension or approaching pension age. Elena and Vasily – both pensioners – spoke of the reasons for their participation in the event in an interview given at one of the rallies in Moscow in September 2018.

“Because we are not indifferent. We are worried for our children and grandchildren.”

Elena added:

“If the authorities manage to push through pension reform without encountering strong opposition, they will continue their assault on the rights of normal people. I’ve heard they plan to introduce new taxes and I’m sure it won’t be the rich paying these taxes, but normal people, especially those in the provinces.”

This statement contains something characteristic to the current wave of protests: participants are expressing solidarity with those whose problems don’t concern them personally. People realise that what is happening affects others who are a different age, who live far away from them and have different jobs, etc.

People’s perception of rising social inequality has been another factor in recent years. Inequality between rich and poor, business owners and employees, between the capital and the provinces. The following excerpt from an interview with a group of women from Astrakhan fighting for collective management of their own home is a typical example (June 2016):

– Is (Putin) lifting our country up? He’s not lifting up our country up. Maybe he is in Syria, or Crimea.
– I don’t think he’s lifting  our country up, and he’s not doing that in Crimea or Syria, either. No.
– He’s lifting up the rich.
– No, well what has Putin done for pensioners? Nothing. Not a thing. He just makes promises. Empty talk, nothing more.
– In France people live, they don’t just exist. Here people fight. As soon as you’re born, you have to fight for survival.

Social inequality became the central protest theme during the anti-corruption campaign led by Alexey Navalny in 2017.

At the start of 2019, activities aimed at fighting particular social issues began to gain traction: the tariff hike for waste disposal, the construction of waste management sites, unpaid or low wages, the closure or restructuring of businesses, benefit reductions, low quality or limited public services and infrastructure .

In 2019, protests took place in many places under the banner of the all-Russian movement «#РоссияНеПомойка» which is translated as  “#RussiaIsNotADump”. The most famous site was Shiyes in Arkhangelsk Oblast, situated more than 1000 kilometres north-west of Moscow where the capital’s authorities had planned to send the city’s waste. Protestors against the illegal construction of the landfill, in their own words, “stood up to defend their own land”. Aprofound rejection of social inequality stands out in their statement:

“We send money off to Moscow after the sale of natural resources from the entire country, and in return we receive trash”,

says one of the activists. Judging by peoples’ response, many consider their fight to have significance for all of Russia:

“If we can defend Shiyes, we can defend the whole country.”

Labour disputes that have triggered a large number of protests  have drawn less attention from the expert and journalistic community. Such disputes continually erupt throughout the country and are widespread in every area of the economy, including the public sector. This is a direct result of the worsening situation for employees who are protesting against low wages or not being paid at all, redundancies, the restructuring of businesses and poor working conditions. Sometimes protests address several issues all at once.  

Frequently, a protest movement grows and expands its agenda  as activists from various local initiatives communicate and socialise, and who then carry out actions together, organise meetings, and also create a common gathering place, whether a constant or regular protest, a coalition or a headquarters.

olitical protests in their pure form, such as those against the barring of candidates in the City Duma elections, electoral fraud or political repression, represent only a small part of all protest movements in Russia. This is not because people are apolitical – on the contrary, people are becoming more politicised – it is rather because of the political sphere which is still considered to be a far cry from the lives and aspirations of everyday citizens. Despite that fact that all social and economic protests contain a political element, the green shoots of the protest movement largely remain on the sidelines of the purely political fight.

This is partly down to the fact that the majority of protests are aimed at resolving a particular issue, and partly to do with the opposition concentrating on the figure of Vladimir Putin, whilst grassroots social initiatives are conducting a fight “on all fronts” and sometimes even support Putin as an authoritative national leader.

Protestors often consciously distance themselves from opposition groups, as was the case, for instance, with the protests against the demolition of a number of five-story apartment buildings in Moscow. 

Protests more often than not erupt spontaneously or outside the traditional political channels. Sometimes one or another political organisation will hold sway in a certain town or region. Sometimes a political organisation will attempt to start a protest. Yet attempts to take the lead during a protest tend not to lead to success. Even Aleksey Navalny, who commands the most authority amongst opposition figures and who is largely successful at giving speeches in the protest arena, cannot manage to monopolise the protest movement.

here is a widely-held opinion that protests in Russia have little chance of success. However, the combination of decisiveness, solidarity and massiveness often brings success. Besides the movement against the monetisation of benefits that forced the government to make concessions, there is another, more recent example – the fight for saving green space in the centre of Ekaterinburg where plans were afoot to build a cathedral. Thousands of residents attended spontaneous rallies in the spring of 2019. This indicates that determination and solidarity amongst people are on the rise, especially in the face of the “insolent” authorities who make decisions without taking residents’ opinions into consideration. Here, as in many other cases, one can see the interrelationship between socio-economic and political demands that led to residents participating directly in decision making when their everyday life and environment was affected.

I’ve been here for four days already,” recounts 32-year-old Anton. “I need this green space right here. The most insulting thing of all is that my opinion as a resident of this city wasn’t listened to. It’s essential that we have a referendum .”

Another example is the protest that followed trumped-up police charges against Ivan Golunov, a journalist for the online news website Meduza, who had drugs planted on him. As a result of mass public pressure  and mobilisation by the journalist community, the protest ended in victory and Golunov was set free. Meanwhile, those who are less famous or who receive less support from the public and media still remain behind bars on false charges.

But the protest lives on. A relatively young couple (35-40 years old, the man an engineer, the woman an economist) recounted that when they found out about pension reform they took to the streets for the first time, and have been at all pension rallies in Moscow:

“Unfortunately, the protests haven’t had any impact on the authorities, but they have at least shown the people that we can fight. The choice is a simple one – either take to the streets or keep quiet.”

Carine Clément — Research Associate at the Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies (CERCEC/EHESS) (Paris) and the Centre for the Study of Civil Society and Human Rights (Saint Petersburg)