Protest in Putin’s Russia. Mischa Gabowitsch. Polity. 2017.
On a Saturday afternoon in October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya strode across the sidewalks of Moscow’s picturesque Frunze embankment and entered the Ramstor supermarket. As a co-founder of, and intrepid journalist for, Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper), Politkovskaya had fearlessly investigated amassing evidence that the FSB (Russian secret service) rather than radical Chechen separatists were responsible for the four apartment-block explosions that killed nearly 300 people across Russia in September 1999 – a series of heinous terrorist acts that catapulted Vladimir Putin to the presidency and supplied a perfect casus belli for the Kremlin to launch a second invasion of Chechnya to avenge Russia’s humiliating loss in the First Chechen War. She had also written on the systematic stifling of the independent media as well the plethora of atrocities carried out by the Russian army and its proxies in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus region. After an afternoon of shopping, she returned to her apartment building on Lesnaya Street. As she got out of the elevator, four shots rang out, and Anna dropped to the floor.
Five years passed, and then the unexpected happened. In December 2011, crowds of discontented Russians turned out en masse in dozens of cities to protest the rigged elections to the Duma (the state assembly). For one relatively brief moment, the corrupt and murderous regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Yet, Putin survived. In Protest in Putin’s Russia (2017), Mischa Gabowitsch insightfully reveals the fractious dynamics beneath the failed ‘opposition movement’ and offers a critical and nuanced view of the current state of Russian politics.
After overtly stating that ‘the purpose of this book is to provide a detailed, multifaceted account of the protest wave that takes seriously the experiences and perceptions of its participants’ in the introduction (12), Gabowitsch outlines the architecture of Putin’s kleptocratic, quasi-dictatorship in Chapters Two and Three. Here and in later chapters, she draws on a range of sources including newspapers, monographs, journal articles, blog posts, interviews, online photo albums and a number of sociological studies focused on the shaping of mass consciousness and the formation of protest movements, including recent works by Graeme Robertson and Hilary Pilkington as well as long-established classics by Emile Durkheim and C. Wright Mills.
Image Credit: Pussy Riot – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, painted portrait (thierry ehrmann CC BY 2.0)
In the immediate years subsequent to succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president, Putin steadily eroded the shaky, post-Soviet institutions of government by re-centralising power, creating an extensive vertical patron-client network from the top-down and tampering with elections to ensure victory for his party, United Russia, at the ballot box. One overarching question begs an answer: why did a significant portion of the country support or willingly overlook the steady march to despotism? According to one of a number of salient observations by the author, a widely shared ‘emotional regime’ of ‘humiliation’ over the loss of empire and prestige, the expansion of NATO eastward into former Soviet territory and the twin terror attacks at the Moscow Theater (2002) and a school in Beslan (2004) by Chechen separatists provoked strenuous calls for a vigorous state response. Upon the widespread discovery of electoral fraud in the 2011 elections, however, this shared, nationalist-infused emotional regime was supplanted by outrage over the illegitimate return of Putin to an unprecedented third presidential term. Across a range of social media platforms, citizens railed against the outcome and organised street protests with chants and clever signs, such as ‘I did not vote for these bastards but for the other bastards’ (81).
Through ‘Scenes and Solidarities: Opposition and Grassroots Protest Before 2011-13’ (Chapter Four) and ‘Crossed Purposes: Opposition and Grassroots Protesters in the 2011-13 Protest Wave’ (Chapter Five), Gabowitsch delivers a spirited appraisal of the failure of the protesters to coalesce into a genuine and lasting movement. In these pages, individual figures such as Alexei Navalny receive important introductions. As a trained lawyer, former ‘stock market analyst’ and forthright politician, Navalny possessed the knowledge, background and expertise to credibly expose the nexus of political and financial corruption behind the regime. Consequently, his revelatory blog posts both attracted and mobilised millions of increasingly discontented and disaffected Russians. Contrastingly, when former Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov decided to turn his genius toward politics in the mid-2000s with anti-Putin umbrella party ‘The Other Russia’, the promise of his organising efforts quickly dwindled as a result of a sustained series of government intimidation tactics. The sudden appearance of thousands of people in the streets in Moscow and elsewhere in December 2011, however, seemed to augur for a future of wholesale change.
Yet, Putin’s grip on power only strengthened. Why? For Gabowitsch, the 2011-13 protests were not only riven by divergent interests at the local and regional level, but also misrepresented by the preponderant organisers of the marches – journalists. Hence, the unity captured by camera crews belied deep divisions among the masses, and few if any members of the professional class (i.e. journalists) could take the microphone and truly speak for more than a segment of the crowds.
While factionalism unquestionably beleaguered the movement to some extent, the author may be underappreciating and thus understating the common bond between the intelligentsia, the ‘middle class’ and rural workers, borne of the shared desire to replace Putin in order to liberate the entire nation economically, politically and socially from the tyrannical apparatus of his regime. In ‘Cognitive Spaces of Protest’ (Chapter Seven) and ‘The Transnational Dimension’ (Chapter Eight), the author demonstrates how the government neutralised the effect of the marches by 1) forcing the protesters to gather in sterile public spaces rather than near highly symbolic sites; and 2) promoting xenophobia in order to prevent the organisers from establishing meaningful and lasting connections with international human rights groups.
On 21 February 2012, five members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot nonetheless entered the empty Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and rendered a world-famous – or infamous – performance later uploaded on YouTube entitled ‘Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away’. Part of the jarring chorus became instantly memorable:
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!…
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee (165)
Although the three bandmates, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested, the publicity surrounding their audacious stunt earned the attention of, and stirred debate within, both the nation and the West. In Chapter Six, ‘Pussy Riot and Beyond: Art, Religion, and Gender Regimes in Russian Protest’, Gabowitsch coherently reconstructs how Putin politically capitalised on their ‘sacrilegious act’ by championing ‘traditional family values’ to those hostile to feminism and LGBT rights – a cynical political ploy fraught with supreme hypocrisy as he had all but ignored social matters during his quest to reverse the geopolitical fortunes of Russia.
While Protest in Putin’s Russia succeeds in complicating extant interpretations of the 2011-13 protests as being primarily engineered by the ‘middle’ or ‘creative’ classes, the omission of a robust scholarly analysis of the eclipse of the free press – another key component in the inefficacy of the protest marches – somewhat hampers the author’s balanced judgments in an otherwise accomplished volume.
Since the cold-blooded murder of Politkovskaya more than a decade ago, the public sphere in Russia has all but collapsed under the weight of Putin and his FSB-led regime. Journalists continue to be co-opted by the state with high salaries or murdered for their unvarnished reporting, and political opposition figures still risk incarceration and death for speaking the truth – perhaps the most precious and precarious commodity in Russia today. As such, the examination of power and society in Protest in Putin’s Russia will be of interest to specialists and general readers alike for its multifaceted perspective on the ongoing struggle between the elites and the inchoate dissent from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Note: This article first appeared at our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Jeff Roquen is an independent scholar based in the United States.