A Letter from Russia: Notes on Movements and Protests
Prisoners and suspects
Two years have passed since the unexpected appearance of a protest movement in Russia. Today the movement has declined. White ribbons, a symbol of the democratic movement, are out of fashion. And most of 28 participants of the peaceful oppositional meeting of the 6th of May 2012 that were arrested during the authorized demonstration in Moscow are still in prison. Ordinary people and activists have been accused in riots and violence against police during anti-Putin meeting. The meeting was much more peaceful in comparison with protests in Greece or Turkey. Experts from the President’s Council in Human Rights have even declare the guilt of officials in several cases of violence at the demonstration. But the prisoners remain in jail and a mechanism of repressions is turning around. “The Investigative Committee—a structure accountable only to president Putin—has constructed the case as a wide-ranging conspiracy stretching from rank-and-file street protestors to established politicians.”
In May 2012, many provincial activists have organized discussion camps for all interested in politics. Well-known politicians with rank-and-file activists participated. Homes of ordinary provincial activists were checked a year after. Police was searching proofs of preparation for overthrow of the state regime during the 6th May demonstration in Moscow. However many of the pursued activists were far away from Moscow on the 6th of May 2012. Nevertheless, even interest in politics was criminalized. It would be frightening, if it weren’t so absurd. Most of those activists are young, moderate and not very experienced. Police came to their homes in early morning, frightened them and their parents, took some agitation materials from authorized demonstrations and… did nothing after this. Activists just have got their taste of fear, and the Investigative Committee continued to search for clues of anti-Russian global conspiracy among trade-union activists in Yekaterinburg, and participants of political discussion camps in Chelyabinsk and Perm. Provincial activists witnessed this, but were not arrested. However 28 ‘prisoners of the 6th May’ are still absurdly accused of rioting, and many are in prison. Activists insist the prisoners could be free if people came out to streets and challenged government. The fact that the most popular oppositional leader, Alexey Navalny, was unexpectedly (and as experts suggested, temporary) released from custody after demonstrations in his support, verifies this wide-spread opinion. But people still haven’t free “prisoners of the 6th of May,” possibly because the uprising needs wider aims for action.
Can we call all this repression? Even if we can, it’s very strange.
Strange repression came after strange protests. The first post-election demonstration on 5 December in Moscow 2011 began unexpectedly, both for authorities and opposition. Most oppositional leaders called on the democratic public to boycott the unfair and uncontested election. But among the democratically-oriented public, there was a demand for political activity. The word “citizen” had new connotations: ordinary urban residents without any activist experience considered agitation and coming to demonstrations for fair elections their civic duty. It was the most significant outburst of political activity since Perestroika. Public interest in politics was inspired after years of de-politicization and apathy. The first days of demonstrations even authorities were confused by unforeseen protests. Television reports from demonstrations were without comments, quite a-typical for dependent Russian television. However, after a few days, the authorities had formed an official opinion and strategy on the demonstrations.
Later demonstrations were authorized and passed without clashes with police. In Moscow, the demonstrations were localized in Bolotnaya square (“Bolotnaya” is a Russian word for “swampy”), which became a symbol of political loss among radical politicians and activists. The later demonstrations looked like a holiday or carnival. In interviews of the protestors, the most wide-spread expectation was “they (authorities) will know we (protesting people) are numerous.” This expectation resembles slogan from Occupy movement: “We are 99%.” Although demands for new fair elections of the president and parliament were concrete, it was obviously impracticable for authorities. Oppositional leaders were criticized for their hesitancy and uncertain strategy, but doubtfulness characterized even people’s demands and expectations. The protest movement has now declined, and even new activists, who took part in protests, say that the demonstrations were irrational. Actually, demands and argumentation of protesters were rational, but their belief in changes appears to have been irrational today.
Real protests; Real Results
However the processes of politicization have begun. It can be described as a wide and amorphous popular demand to influence to policy and politics. In different places, it takes different forms. Together with democratic protest movement, that are visible for media, different forms of local self-organization have arisen. Most of them are not well-known, but very significant for overcoming soviet practices of authoritarian policy and for forming viable communities. One of the most successful cases of self-organization is ecological movement against copper-nickel mining in agricultural region near river Khoper. This successful movement manifested not only in mass demonstrations, with sophisticated democratic system of coordination, but also in effective direct action. The incapacity for direct action was one of the significant features of the all-Russian protest movement in Moscow and many other Russian cities. Nevertheless, after anti-nickel demonstration on 22nd June in small town Novokhopersk, people have destroyed drilling equipment that was set up illegally (video). The protesters’ anger led to an official investigation of legitimacy installation of drilling equipment. Activists caught by police, charged for rioting, were released in 3 days.
Apparently real mass popular protests yield real results, disarming the authorities.
Maria Turovets is a Democracy & Diversity Wroclaw 2011 alumna and postgraduate student at the Faculty of Politics in Higher School of Economics, Moscow. In her thesis she explores discursive and political repercussions of the protest movement in Russia in 2011—2012. Maria also holds MA degrees in Political Sciences and Sociology of Communication.
Her research interests include discourse analyses, protest movements, politics of memory, and cultural memory.
Originally published on September 27th, 2013 by Deliberately Considered.