Russia, Today: Part 1

Amid the annexation of Crimea, the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, and an emerging proxy war in Syria, many commentators have proclaimed the beginning of a new Cold War between Russia and the ...

Amid the annexation of Crimea, the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, and an emerging proxy war in Syria, many commentators have proclaimed the beginning of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. But as ideologues on either side spread their messages through international organizations and news media, it has become increasingly difficult to understand these crises and their origins. To the West, the actions of Vladimir Putin’s corrupt regime are eroding the foundations of the postwar nation-state and plunging the world further into chaos. From the Kremlin’s vantage, a hypocritical, decadent West has precipitated a coup in Ukraine and expanded NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Freighted with irreconcilable narratives, disinformation, and misleading historical analogies, scholars and observers alike seem to lack a vocabulary to adequately describe the West’s ongoing drama with Russia.

Our second collaboration between Public Books and the French online journal La Vie des Idées / Books & Ideas seeks a path beyond this intellectual impasse. Over the space of six articles, published in three parts, our contributors examine the forces that have led to a renewed era of global uncertainty. In this first pair of essays, American slavicist Eliot Borenstein examines Russia’s love-hate relationship with the West, while French sociologist Carine Clément analyzes the system that sustains Putin’s domestic power. In our November 1 issue we will publish a second pair of articles by Princeton historian Ekaterina Pravilova and French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, followed on November 15 by two final pieces by American legal scholar Monica Eppinger and French sociologist Cécile Lefèvre.


Caught in a Bad Romance: What American Means to Russia

Eliot Borenstein


Russia fares poorly in the headlines, and not just because the news is so often bad. The Anglo-American world’s limited knowledge about its culture and history saddles Russia with painfully obvious clichés, often involving the words “red” and “revolution.” But the banality prize must go to the inevitable “From Russia, with Love.”1 It has been almost 60 years since Ian Fleming published a James Bond novel by that name (and more than 50 since the movie was released), yet the phrase, like Bond himself, does not seem to be headed to retirement any time soon.

But it is time for our complacency about the nature of the ties between the two countries to be shaken, if not stirred. Fleming’s story features two Russian women trying to make contact with Britain’s top super spy; one wants to kill him, the other takes him to bed. With just a few small adjustments (such as swapping out Bond for an American), the two extremes could be applied to many Russians’ feelings about the United States, feelings that, as is often the case in cross-cultural relationships, are mutually misunderstood.

Pundits in the West anxiously wring their hands over the rise of Russian “anti-Americanism,” a notoriously vague term whose main effect is to make Americans feel besieged. Russia has become the latest focus for the naive question we never get tired of asking: “Why do they hate us so much?” In this case, though, the hostility towards America comes from a place of love. Angry, spurned love.


Enemies: A Love Story

Russia’s love of America is an old story, one that is worth recalling precisely when relations have gone so sour. Like Humbert’s Lolita, America had a precursor (she did, indeed she did): an older, and still simmering, affair with Western Europe in general and France in particular. But in the twentieth century, Russia was preoccupied with modernity and with the future. An infatuation with America was inevitable.

To those who lived through World War II, America was the Lend-Lease program. To the generation who came of age in the 1960s, America was the enchanted kingdom that gave birth to jazz (broadcast on Voice of America for years), Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and blue jeans. For most people, this love was political only to the extent that turning one’s attention to the “enemy” was a politicized gesture. The appeal was not the United States’ economic system or democratic institutions; US boosterism to the contrary, Russians were not seeking “freedom” or the “American Dream.” They were simply charmed.

We liked to think of Soviet citizens as virtually isolated from the rest of the world, imagining their naive delight when finally confronted with the wonders of Western culture and technology. But the naiveté was really ours. Reports of shortages and long lines led many to assume that the USSR, rather than being an industrialized, modern country with a capacious social welfare system, was more like a godforsaken island whose inhabitants couldn’t wait to start a cargo cult. The novelist Vasily Aksyonov, stripped of his citizenship in 1980, recalls how excited his new American landlord was when he heard that the Aksyonovs were from the USSR: he took them to a magic room that went up and down from floor to floor, depending on the buttons pressed. Aksyonov was too polite (and too amused) to tell him that the Soviets had long since mastered the secrets of the elevator.

If we accept that US-Russian relations are at least in part about love, then America is the ultimate bad boyfriend.

Still, there was one gap in their knowledge about America that would prove disastrous: the Soviets did not know that their love for America was unrequited. And, really, how could they? The conflict between the two superpowers defined the entire era, and the limited contacts between them nearly always involved American scholars, diplomats, or activists who were emotionally or intellectually invested in Russia (and wouldn’t have bothered, otherwise). This is not to say that Russia and the Soviet Union played no role in the American psyche. The ideological divide allowed for a reductive, functionalist approach to Russia and its culture, turning the Soviet Union into something of a totalitarian Disneyland for the American media/entertainment complex. Soviets made great movie villains. What else could Russia have to offer?

Russia has a long history of preoccupation with its image on the world stage. America, on the other hand, is notoriously self-absorbed, indeed, self-satisfied. We do, of course, get involved in foreign wars, but, really, our relationship with the rest of the world is one of benign neglect punctuated by the occasional recollections that we’re not alone; then, like a guilty but dutiful child picking up a Hallmark card on Mother’s Day, we remember to send a drone.

America was briefly infatuated with Russia and the Soviet Union during Gorbachev’s perestroika, a period that proved as anomalous for the US as it did for its home country. The damage, however, was done: for at least five years (late perestroika through 1993), citizens of the (former) Soviet Union could justifiably convince themselves that we were actually concerned about their well-being. We sent them McDonalds and Pizza Hut, and eventually humanitarian aid in the form of chicken (“Bush legs,” as Russians called them) and leftover Desert Storm MREs. More ominously, we sent our “experts” to reform/ruin the national economy, and acted as indefatigable cheerleaders for the country’s new democratic institutions (even when Russia’s president disbanded and then shelled the country’s parliament in 1993).

And, by the end of the 1990s, we more or less forgot about them. If we accept that US-Russian relations are at least in part about love, then America is the ultimate bad boyfriend.


Love Will Tear Us Apart

In retrospect, the turn against America should have been predictable. When we put our stamp of approval on a neoliberal, “democratic” regime that saw incomes plummet and crime run rampant, we became complicit in its failures. Even this could have been remedied, but we added insult to injury through neglect and lack of respect. Rather than seeing Russia as a partner (or even an antagonist—at least enemies get attention), we moved in the international arena as if Russia didn’t matter at all.

The 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was a well-known turning point for Russia, when the media and popular opinion portrayed the Serbian people as victims of an overreaching predator. Russia’s then-Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was flying over the Atlantic on an official visit to the US when he heard that NATO had commenced its bombing; he briefly achieved cult hero status by ordering the plane to turn around. The move was quickly dubbed “Primakov’s Loop,” an ironically appropriate term for a decision made because of the information loop from which Primakov had been excluded.

Russia’s anger over the bombings was cast, both internally and for export, in terms of the longstanding brotherly ties between two Orthodox Slavic nations. But these ties were only (re)discovered in the 1990s; in other words, the Russian media and political elites emotionally reinvested in Serbia precisely when Yugoslavia was collapsing. The implicit homology between Serbia and Yugoslavia on one side and Russia and the Soviet Union on the other meant that Serbia’s struggles were seen as a proxy for Russia’s. What the American media cast as a human rights and European security problem was, in Russia, presented as a test case for America’s plans for Russia itself.

It was after the bombings that anti-Western conspiracy theories started to move from the margin to the center. First came the revival of Russian émigré Grigory Klimov’s warnings about the sinister “Harvard Project,” an American/Jewish plot to use mind control and genetic manipulation to transform Russia into a nation of debased, predatory homosexuals. Long a fixture of the Russian far right, it spawned S. Norka’s dystopian Inquisitor trilogy about Russia’s near future, when the Harvard Project is challenged by a new Orthodox inquisition and a strong president who brings order to the land.

The Harvard Project would soon be eclipsed by the “Dulles Plan,” repackaged from a villain’s monologue in a 1970s Soviet spy thriller and attributed to Eisenhower’s CIA chief. What in the 1970s was, at best, a future threat to be avoided now looked like a plan that had already come to fruition: American pop culture turning people into idiots, “switch[ing] out their values for false ones and mak[ing] them believe in these false values.” Who knew that dubbed-over reruns of Santa Barbara could be so destructive?

Russia has become the latest focus for the naive question we never get tired of asking: “Why do they hate us so much?”

One need not be a die-hard Freudian to see that loving and hating America are two versions of the same libidinal investment; either way, America retains an outsized importance that haunts the current proclamations of Russian spiritual superiority. And in a time of increased state control over media outlets, presenting a hostile United States hits the sweet spot between preexisting public sentiment and state propaganda. As in most of the cases in which Russia’s well-curated state media carefully drive a particular message home, it is not simply a matter of an authoritarian government telling its compliant population what to believe; rather, it is a sophisticated media operation that confirms and extends beliefs that already hold a fair amount of currency.

Since 2006, the Russian media and blogosphere have been claiming that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lamented the injustice of Russia’s share of the world’s oil and mineral wealth (Siberia should therefore be under international control). Albright herself has denied saying any such thing, while Putin has managed to have it both ways (“I’m not familiar with this quote by Madame Albright, but I know that such thoughts wander through the minds of certain politicians”).2 This fake quote is part of a perfect feedback loop, reinforcing both the rapaciousness of Americans (and particularly the Clinton administration, responsible for the bombings in Serbia) and the greatness of Russia itself. It is the familiar politics of ressentiment, harnessing public pride and humiliation in the service of the elite’s agenda.

Given how much of contemporary Russian paranoid political discourse revolves around homosexuality, perhaps psychoanalysis does provide some useful insights. Klimov’s fantasy of a gay Jewish American cabal trying to lure Russia onto the path to debauchery looks almost prescient: the current anti-gay hysteria posits homosexuality as not simply an internal danger to the body politic, but as a disease deliberately exported by America and Europe (or as Russian homophobes prefer, “Gayrope”). A recent episode of the reliably rabid documentary/talk show hybrid “Special Correspondent” (which airs on prime time on Russian state television) followed a short film called “Sodom” about the excesses of tolerance in the US and Europe with a discussion of “what this is all really about.” America and Europe are using accusations of Russian homophobia as the pretext for their next round of “humanitarian” bombings, while the State Department is relentlessly pursuing the gay agenda at the expense of all else. Even the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision (like the US prosecution of FIFA officials) gets spun as an anti-Russian act.

The rabid homophobia in Russia’s contemporary public sphere is clearly about more than just disdain for same-sex love. To hear Russian defenders of “traditional values” tell it, there is nothing so fragile as heterosexual desire. The assumption seems to be that, as soon as a young boy or girl hears about homosexuality, they’re going to want to be gay (because, apparently, heterosexual sex must be a terrible drag). Homosexuality has come to stand in for the whole spectrum of “Western” (and particularly American) values that could seduce Russia’s youth.

<i>LBGT activists attacked during Day of Kisses rally against a homophobic bill in Moscow</i>. Photograph by Roma Yandolin / Flickr

LBGT activists attacked during Day of Kisses rally against a homophobic bill in Moscow. Photograph by Roma Yandolin / Flickr

Freud, in one of his more dated moments, argued that paranoia is rooted in a denial of homoerotic feelings: “I’m attracted to him” transforms into the more acceptable “He is persecuting me.” Meanwhile, the Russian legislature has rediscovered the joys of repression; it is a rare week without a news story about some new bill to ban something. Most famous, of course, is the “gay propaganda” law, making virtually any positive statement about homosexuality grounds for possible prosecution (to save the children from mythical predators who want to “convert” them). Again, America is inevitably brought into the discussion.

But perhaps the anti-American homophobes protest too much. The latent homosexuality of the homophobe is something of a cliché, but it suggests something about the geopolitical preoccupations of the guardians of Russia’s morality. They are, I would argue, trying to forget the sins of their youth, when they experimented with Americanism. That is the new love that dare not speak its name.


Jump to remarks:

Eliot Borenstein, Carine Clément

Putin, Patriotism, and Political Apathy

Carine Clément


Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings among his fellow Russians are record-breaking, reaching 89 percent according to a poll conducted in June 2014 by the Levada Center. Some say the poll was rigged and call it manipulative propaganda, others lament the Russian people’s incorrigible authoritarianism. Yet what if Putin quite simply enjoys the support of a large majority of the Russian population? There are several reasons for believing this may be the case. There is the revival of national pride following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea; the Kremlin’s firm position in the face of repeated rebukes on the part of the Western powers; the country’s relative calm compared to Ukraine’s instability; and unrest in Armenia and elsewhere. Next, it is widely believed that there is no real political alternative, an insight based on the reasoning that “Putin may not be ideal, but everyone else is a lot worse.”

These are the central components of what I call “Putinism,” a political system that is strongly centered and focused on the person of Vladimir Putin. This focus is not simply the result of the carefully orchestrated propaganda that credits Putin with every political success and blames failure on undisciplined subordinates. It is also the consequence of Russians’—including the opposition’s—impression of the outsized role that Putin plays in the country’s affairs. “Putinism” refers, finally, to a system of ideas and practices associated with the current government—a blend of conservatism, traditionalism, patriotism, and populism.

By becoming their spokesperson, Putinism deprives the people of their sovereignty.

Research that I undertook with colleagues in 2014 on the origins and meaning of apoliticism in particular socio-professional categories3 sheds light on the logic of this political support, including that of the Russians who, in 2011–2012, marched in the mass demonstrations under the slogan “for honest elections.” Some of those who had protested electoral fraud, and even professed personal “hatred” of Putin, declared in 2014 that they approved of his Crimean policy and recognized “the government’s greater attention to the needs of ordinary people.” Other studies4; A. Kal’k, Trudovoj opyt i otnošenie k politike: slučaj rabotnikov sfery informacionnyh tehnologij. Saint Petersburg European University, Master’s thesis, 2015. [Work Experiences and their Relationship to Politics: The Case of High Technology Workers]. ] suggest that some of those who joined the protest wave of 2011–2012 are now tired and disillusioned. The interviews abound with testimonials of the following kind: “I participated in most demonstrations, at first, but nothing happened; there were no results,” and “I’m fed up with abstract slogans, protest for protest’s sake, and wanted to do something concrete.” Some of the erstwhile protestors have since come out publicly in favor of Putin, who, they now think, “isn’t so bad.” An anarchist who is an experienced and well-paid programmer and system administrator—the epitome of the anti-Putin demonstrator of 2011–2012—went so far as to declare in 2014 that “In fact, if I were in power, if I were in Putin’s shoes, I’d do the same thing.” Should we see this as a sign of resignation? Of fear?

Though repression has increased significantly, fear is rarely mentioned as a reason for renouncing activism. Far more than political repression, the fear of jeopardizing one’s job or career is often a factor. But the crux of the problem lies in the sense of the protests’ futility—the fact that they “accomplished nothing.” Yet the so-called “Putin opposition” movement of 2011–2012 did in fact achieve results: in particular, they led to an easing of the requirements needed to register political parties seeking to participate in elections and a partial return to the election of regional governors, which had been abolished in 2004. A number of local elections that were widely discussed in the media also contributed to the impression that a liberalization of sorts was underway. This was particularly true of the 2013 municipal elections.

At the same time, this partial liberalization was accompanied by measures that tightened the state’s grip on civil society: one law required NGOs receiving foreign funding and engaging in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents”; another penalized “propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations aimed at minors”; penal sanctions were introduced against public activities deemed “offensive to religious sentiments”; the repression of public demonstrations increased, legally and in practice; a law on “undesirable” foreign and international NGOs was passed; and Russia retaliated against European sanctions directed against its involvement in the eastern Ukrainian war with its own counter-sanctions. All these measures arose from the same conservative and nationalist mindset: defending Russia’s “traditional values,” thwarting the efforts of hostile foreign powers to destabilize the country, and proclaiming—at least at a symbolic level—the sovereignty of the Russian state.


Arbitrary Repression

The Western media and international human rights organizations speak of heightened repression in Russia. Many activists who are deemed “opponents” to Putin’s regime, or threats to the “public order,” have been incarcerated. Among the most well-known scandals is the Bolotnaya affair, named after the square in central Moscow where clashes between demonstrators and the police occurred on May 6, 2012, following Putin’s reelection to the presidency. A total of 28 people were charged. More than a dozen remain imprisoned, including Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, and Alexey Gaskarov, an anti-fascist activist who had already been convicted for his participation in the campaign to save the Khimki Forest (he was later completely acquitted of those charges). Other leaders of the 2011–2012 movement who became known in the media are free but under surveillance, notably Alexei Navalny, who was placed under house arrest following his success in the elections for Moscow’s town hall. The famous chess player Garry Kasparov and State Duma member Ilya Ponomarev have sought refuge abroad. The fate of another renowned anti-Putin opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015, is, sadly, well known. Consequently, there remain few media celebrities who are still active in Russia, even among those involved in public opposition to Putin.

So does this all make the “Putin regime” a repressive system? Repression is not occurring on a massive scale. Many independent initiatives that are critical of current authorities still operate in broad daylight. One of the most troubling problems is that there are no clear criteria for gauging the risks involved in opposing the regime: where does the boundary lie that must not be crossed if one is to avoid persecution? This boundary, which, until recently, was perfectly clear to most people, has since disappeared amidst the increasing chaos that seems to characterize the policies pursued by Russia’s political leaders.

We can distinguish between three types of repression. First is the repression of the political opposition, which is mostly symbolic and media-oriented. It is directed against leaders and well-known establishment figures. Harsher repression, resulting in actual prison sentences, is aimed at political newcomers. The goal, in this case, is most likely to discourage ordinary people from getting mixed up in politics. A third form of repression targets activists for social causes that are not directly political, but which interfere with specific financial and economic interests. The repression targeting these organizations tries to prevent them from doing harm while denying them publicity. This is especially visible in the repression of labor activists and employees who are simply trying to defend their rights.

It is hard to measure the impact of such repression on public opinion. Based on polls, it’s not something most Russians worry about (only 3 percent of those polled in February 2015 considered repression to be a “major threat”). Declining living standards, rising poverty, and the economic crisis are seen as far more troubling. In a society that has abandoned the democratic illusions and the rousing, abstract slogans about human rights that it embraced in the 1990s, these priorities are not terribly surprising. This is particularly true given that the public is largely unaware of this repression and that, in some instances, it is widely supported by public opinion, as seen with the incarceration of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (at least initially) and, to a lesser extent, the singers of Pussy Riot, whose irreverent behavior towards Orthodox beliefs and places of worship was denounced by many. Finally, for many Russians, if repression means avoiding instability, civil war, and blood baths, it can be tolerated.


The Roots of Putin’s Support

The support that a majority of Russians offer Putin is primarily tied to jittery fears of chaos and instability, which they associate with the 1990s and the rule of the first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. Much of the population views these years as a dark period, when they concentrated on survival as factories closed, salaries went unpaid, and inflation was rampant. Yet it was precisely during these years that the media, politicians, and intellectuals preached the triumph of democracy and human rights. It is hard not to conclude that this is one of the main reasons these values have lost their legitimacy, and one finds an eagerness to challenge democracy as a system that is unjust and contemptuous of the “people.”

In the 1990s, parents and grandparents skimped to feed their children even as, on television, they watched unscrupulous individuals make fortunes through small or big-time fraud. And while most of the impoverished simply did their best to work and get by, they were often mocked by the media as the “losers” of the reforms, as “maladjusted,” and even as “nostalgic for bygone communism.” I personally experienced this contempt for the “masses,” the “people,” and the “ordinary folk” while conducting my initial research in Russia between 1994 and 1999. The “ordinary folk” were hard-working and conscientious, Soviet citizens who were neither over critical nor overzealous who, in the flash of an eye, had lost their nation, their ideological compass, and their values, income, and savings. Why wouldn’t these people identify with Putin’s populist rhetoric, which recognizes their importance and respects and acknowledges their demand for a socially progressive state, rather than scorning their purported sense of entitlement and preference for paternalism? Why wouldn’t they support patriotic discourse that finally gives them a reason to be proud of their country, which their ancestors defended, but which has since been allowed to decline?

Many of the “newly mobilized” of 2011–2012 have turned to local struggles, forming groups that reflect a trajectory from the general to the particular.

Sufficient consideration is not always given to the traumatic character of the Soviet Union’s brutal dissolution, when families suddenly found themselves strewn across different countries. Nor do we take full measure of what, for the ordinary Russian, the day-to-day experience of democracy means when it is associated with poverty and oligarchy, or of human rights when they are paired with unpaid salaries and pensions. And what is freedom of speech, which Russian intellectual and Western circles see as having experienced its golden age in the 1990s, when the voices of workers and other impoverished groups were almost never heard in public debates, other than to be belittled and scorned?

While I did not find these concerns articulated as such in my interviews from the 2000s, they are nonetheless implicit in most of the studies of groups lying beyond the political, economic, intellectual, and cultural elite. Consequently, mass support for Putin doesn’t strike me as irrational, strange, or symptomatic of a “Russian” affinity for authoritarianism. To the contrary, it seems to a logical result of the social disarray and the political ostracism that afflicted most Russians in the 1990s. Whether or not this is tied to Putin himself seldom matters. He is associated with a return to economic growth and paid salaries and pensions. Thanks to him, Crimea now belongs to the Russian Federation and the wounded pride of several generations of Russians resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been healed. Thanks to him, the “ordinary citizen” and the “people who work” and “love Russia” (to quote Putin’s speech at the rally held on February 23, 2012 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow against the “for honest elections” movement) once again have something resembling a social and political status.

In these ways, Putin’s popularity is rooted in the connection between democratic disenchantment and profound social disarray. Such conditions, as Pierre Rosanvallon has explained, give rise to a demand for populism, which is Putinism’s base. Putin’s populism addresses the aspirations of the “little people” for greater recognition far more than the opposition’s “anti-Putin” populism, which celebrates the “people” for the sole purpose of uniting the masses against the enemy that is Putin. Putin’s brand of populism plays on the rejection of elites and oligarchs. It is also a form of plebiscitary democracy, in which a people becomes “the people” through the mediation of a leader. It does not correspond to the procedural democracy of the “for honest elections” campaign. Rather, this populism is a response to the crisis of democracy, in which the people, in particular the “social people,” have lost their place. At the same time that it puts the people first, by becoming their spokesperson, Putinism deprives the people of their sovereignty.


An Opposition Cut Off from the People

The “opposition,” whose successes and reversals of fortune are avidly followed by experts, draws support primarily in Moscow and several other major Russian cities from the highly educated upper-middle classes, intellectuals, and independent or freelance workers. Even if the image of opposition leaders is partly shaped by propaganda from pro-Kremlin media outlets, they are in fact far removed from the concerns of the “hard-working and patriotic common folk” whose interests the current regime claims to defend. Generally speaking, the opposition, which in the Western media is described as “democratic” and “liberal,” is primarily focused on Putin himself. The problems that preoccupy most Russians—poverty, housing, education, and health—do not appear as priorities in the discourse of the opposition, which focuses on laying bare the corruption, “dishonesty,” and “thievery” of the Putin regime.

An incident recounted to me by one of my interviewees perfectly illustrates the way in which the opposition is perceived. Lyudmila is a professor who participated in several protest marches against electoral fraud in Saint Petersburg in 2011. She spoke at length of an incident that illustrates her relationship to politics. In 2013, she joined other residents in nearby buildings who regularly walked their dogs in a local square to fight the “dog killers” who were poisoning the neighborhood’s pets. They formed a committee and sent a delegation to the Municipal Council, which took several measures as a result of this meeting. But Lyudmila mostly remembers another incident. One of the “dog walkers” was a “nice” young man who was “fascinated by politics.” He advised her to go to the local offices of Yabloko, one of the oldest democratic parties, now considered part of the opposition. She recalls: “I arrived at the local office. Young people, proper in every respect, were sitting around. They asked what I wanted. I explained, but all they could say was: ‘Yes, of course, we see the problem. But tell us, how are we going to fight the regime?’ I exclaimed: ‘What regime are we fighting? I came to talk to you about a dog problem!’ And the girl replied: ‘I understand what you’re saying, but it’s a political problem. It’s political. We need to show the regime that people are in revolt!’ But I replied: ‘Miss, thank you, but I’m not a part of your audience.’ And I left. You understand. Was that about politics? No …”

This story is symptomatic of the divide between an opposition obsessed with fighting the “regime” on the one hand, and people with everyday concerns and personal problems on the other. Alexei Navalny is probably an exception, as he is genuinely popular in Moscow. Part of this is presumably explained by electoral platform, as he emphasized problems that concern most Muscovites—corruption, transportation, and housing—as well as the large percentage of immigrants, whom Navalny, a liberal and a nationalist, wants to regulate and control more strictly than the current regime. With the exception of Navalny and perhaps a few other figures, the opposition thus reinforces as much as it counters the depoliticization of society. Even the large marches of the “for honest elections” movement, despite the fact that they were directed in part against the “current regime,” were not really political demonstrations so much as a form of self-representation that declared: we’re here in the street; there are lots of us; we exist. The interviews conducted by the Laboratory of Public Sociology make clear how much the protestors reject any ideological or partisan affiliation other than that of being “united against Putin.”


A Paradoxical Apoliticism

As numerous studies have shown, many of the “newly mobilized” of 2011–2012 have turned to local struggles, forming groups that reflect a trajectory from the general to the particular. There is indeed another form of politicization, arising “from below” and rooted in local concerns and the realities of daily life. In this way, people come to believe in collective action and reconnect with the feeling of being able to impact their own milieu; they rediscover themselves, at least to some degree, as the agents and subjects of their own lives.

Local mobilization, which emerged beginning in 2005 during Putin’s second term and under the impulse of liberal social reforms, continues to flourish. From the first stirrings of the “for honest elections” movement, large local mobilization illustrated the power of this kind of activism: in Saint Petersburg in January 2013, several demonstrations mobilized thousands of participants against the closure of a hospital for children suffering from cancerous diseases. Battles fought in Moscow sought primarily to defend schools that were in danger of being shut down or “fused” with others, and to oppose “densified” constructions (in apartment building courtyards, sports fields, and green spaces). In the Voronezh region, the residents of threatened areas have, since 2012, mobilized against a project to start mining the region’s copper-nickel deposits. The movement, which has been around for over three years, attracted support from across the region and beyond, including such divergent groups as the Cossacks—who are generally more conservative and loyal to the existing order—peasants, and small business owners.

Also sprouting up across the country are “initiative groups,” the most popular form of autonomous organization in Russia. They are leading struggles in the realms of housing, ecological issues, urban planning, and social and medical infrastructure. Since 2007, labor disputes are back, despite legislative reforms from the early 2000s that make strikes almost impossible to organize legally. The economic recession that began in early 2015, which resulted in lower income, salary arrears, and layoffs, led to a proliferation of conflicts, less in the form of strikes than rallies, demonstrations, petitions, road blockings, work slowdowns, and hunger strikes. Protest actions are underway throughout the country, affecting every sector, including industry and transportation but also teaching and medical employees.



“Putinism” is thus a distinct form of state populism that is a response to the expectations of the majority of the population who self-identify as “the people” by way of its leader. Paradoxically, it is strengthened by the political opposition, which focuses on personal attacks against Putin while neglecting the aspirations and social demands of those who are fed up with elite contempt. Support for “Putinism,” as for the opposition, is a political posture that contradicts the purported apoliticism of the Russian population, even if this form of politicization is paradoxical and limited. Social mobilization “from below,” even when it declares itself apolitical, is especially political when emphasizing the demand for social justice and acknowledging the agency of actors who are disinclined to self-identify as such. What limits the politicization is the narrowness of a politics that boils down to either supporting or opposing Putin, leaving little room for a political understanding of the problems of daily life that trigger such mobilization. It seems to me, however, that a (re)politicization—a recovery of cognitive, emotional, and practical bearings—has no choice but to follow the tentative paths of mobilization “from below.”


Translated from the French by Michael C. Behrent.


Correction: October 19, 2015

The article has been updated to reflect the acquittal of the activist Alexey Gaskarov on charges related to his participation in the campaign to save the Khimki Forest.


Jump to remarks:

Eliot Borenstein, Carine Clément


  1. Jade Watkins, “From Russia With Love! Miranda Kerr Reveals a Hint of her Super Toned Tummy as She Does a Star Jump Outside the Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow,” Daily Mail Australia, June 17, 2015.
  2. Anna Smolchenko, “Putting Words in Albright’s Mouth,” Moscow Times, November 7, 2007.
  3. The research project was called “The Creation of Socio-Political Attitudes in Contemporary Russia” (2014), and was financed by the Faculty of Sciences and Liberal Arts at Saint Petersburg State University. The cases studied included educators, cultural professions, information technology professions, doctors, market professionals, and teenagers.
  4. See Sveta Erpyleva and Artemy Magun, eds., Politika apolitičnyh. Graždanskie dviženiâ v Rossii 2011–2013 godov, M: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014 [The Politics of the “Apolitical”: Citizens Movements in Russia, 2012–2013
Featured image: Disobey. Photograph by Sime Simone / Flickr