Dossier: Liveliness of social struggles in Russia

In January 2021, Russia made the headlines for once, not for the authoritarianism of its regime but for the massive mobilisations that took place all over the country following the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the publication of the scandalous video on "Putin’s Palace" questioning the corruption and exorbitant wealth in which the elites of a country where the majority of the population is poor or on the verge of poverty are wallowing.

The texts collected for this Intercoll dossier, written by sociologists, journalists and activists, explain who the demonstrators are, what their aspirations are, and what the long-term consequences could be, particularly from the point of view of the democratic left forces, which are few in number in Russia, but which nevertheless exist.

The selected articles also put the current protests into perspective in order to show, contrary to the cliché of an apathetic Russian society, the liveliness of the social struggles taking place in the country, especially on a small scale and rooted in concrete problems, but also on general issues of democracy and, increasingly, social justice.

Mobilisations of January 2021

Navalny and protests in Russia: some clarifications

Karine Clément pour Mediapart

Karine Clément, sociologist and specialist of social movements gives her analysis of the "Navalny case". She explains his sudden popularity in the West and the fact that he has been a controversial figure. But more importantly, she comes back on the history of the diversity of his commitment on social issues and on the unprecedented and courageous mobilization that his arrest provoked. This mobilization brings together different generations and social milieus in the entire country. Although we cannot foresee the future of Russia political life, Navalny clearly undermines the Putin’s regime.

Not for Navalny but against poverty: Who and why supports protest actions in the Sverdlovsk Region. An investigation

Olga Baliuk pour

The article presents the results of a survey conducted by Sotsium, a polling institute of the Sverdlovsk region (Ekaterinburg). The poll does not focus on Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but rather, explores people’s opinion in the Urals. Moreover, the survey sample is not limited to demonstrators. According to the data presented in the article, people supporting and opposing Navalny’s arrest represent roughly the same percentage (respectively 38 and 36%). Thus, these figures seriously question the theory of the "silent majority" favorable to the regime and the status quo. Contrary to what could have been expected, the majority of people heard from the demonstrators through television and not through the internet. The poll results also challenge the idea of a "youth" protest. Finally, a large number of respondents, whether or not they are in favor of the protests, consider that people came out not for Navalny but against the low standard of living. In a word, the article shows the clear politicization of the inhabitants. This politicization does not focus on the political regime or even corruption, but on economic and social issues.

What the demonstrators in Russia want?

Myriam Désert pour The Conversation

Myriam Désert is a sociologist and has been observing mobilizations in Russia for a long time. Based on the results of a survey conducted by the independent Levada Institute that shows that A. Navalny’s arrest is not the main motivation for people who took part in the demonstrations on January 24 and 31, Myriam Désert questions the emotional aspect of the current mobilizations. Her analysis is based on based on reports and surveys made on-the-spot and surveys.

Putin’s Majority?

Ilya Budraitskis & Ilya Matveev pour Newleft review

As in many mobilizations around the world today the articles shows that the main reason why people demonstrate is that they feel like their dignity is trampled. Yet V. Putin’s popularity at the beginning of his presidency was precisely based on the fact that he had restored dignity to the Russian people, it seems that the mobilization is driven by a feeling of bitterness and sadness, but also by an outburst of moral conscience, by a revolt against submission and by the victory over fear.

Who are all these people

Irina Kozlova pour Zanovo

Anthropologist Irina Kozlova draws the first lessons from the January events, which she went through to gather testimonies from participants. She points out the variety of reasons put forward, but also the unanimity of the demonstrators’ determination. The even harsher repression on the second day of 31 January caused the last illusions to be lost as to the possible comprimism with the authorities.

Is Russia waking up?

Aleksandr Buzgalin pour Mronline

Historical figure of the Marxist left in Russia and participant in the dynamics of the WSF A. Bouzgaline wonders about the reasons that drive the protesters into the streets. The regime’s capital of sympathy, which was based in particular on foreign policy choices, had been eroded, whereas the past decades had only accentuated the reduction of the individual to a consumer. The Russians are reportedly waking up to this situation. The majority of them are therefore not following the liberal slogans or following A. Navalny, himself supported by part of the economic establishment, that people took to the streets. But be careful, says Bouzgaline, the left must not make the mistake of thinking in an illusory way that it can direct the dynamic as it pleases towards its objectives. And the tomorrows could be disappointing...

Left perspectives on the protests in Russia and Navalny

Rossen Djagalov pour LeftEast

Several authors develop what they see as new perspectives for the left in Russia after a period in which protest movements were dominated by liberals. Should the left adopt a boycott line as it has done in the past? Or should it participate but with its own agenda? Or should it form alliances?

Mobilisations at electoral moments

From protests at the elections... and again to protests?

Sergey Reshetin pour Zanovo

In this article the activist Serguey Reshetin, who had taken part in the mobilizations, that ended up with the Bolotnaya case in 2012, wonders in this article how a long lasting mobilization based on independent structures in society can emerge in Russia. If the type of mobilization is the only way to produce change and democratization in the country, how can it emerge in a context when the repression has never been stronger. FBK leaders (Navalny’s organization) recentIy chose to limit street actions in order to move towards longer-term strategies. However, all the demonstrators are not necessarily Navalny’s supporters and they are not necessarily ready to listen to the instructions made by FBK leaders. Strategically, the upcoming elections at the Duma in the fall of 2021 appear as a crucial moment to hope for an opposition coalition. The victory of a mobilization "from below" in 2018 in Armenia, when the leader N. Pashinian did not have a powerful organization, could be a model to follow.

Protests in Russia today

Karine Clément pour Dekoder

The article was written in the summer of 2019 by Karine Clément, at the time of protests in Moscow against the authorities’ refusal to register independent candidates in municipal elections. It aims to question the often artificial divide that is made between so-called "political" and "apolitical" mobilisations, by questioning the dynamics of the mobilisations and the meaning that the actors themselves give to their acts of protest. It has been published on a platform run by researchers and activists, which aims to popularise mobilisations in Russia by providing keys to understanding in three languages: Russian, English and German, by reconciling texts and images.

Local/social mobilisations

Introduction to the Special Issue - Imagining a link between local activism and political transformation: Inventions from Russia and Eastern Europe

Karina Clément et Anna Zhelnina pour International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society

This article is the introduction to a special issue on local mobilizations and political transformations published in 2020 in the International Journal of Politics Culture and Society. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the historical, social, cultural, economic and political context of social mobilizations taking place in post-Soviet Russia. It focuses on local grassroots mobilizations that have dominated social mobilization since fall the Soviet Union. Morevoer, the article point out their links with national movements and question their potential for social and political transformation. As opposed to the shared vision that russian society is largely apathetic, this introduction depicts the vivacity of social resistance in Russia and shows how Russian and Eastern European experiences can be useful when it comes to bottom up political transformation.

In Russia’s new protest cycle, a demand for a democratic state emerges

Oleg Zhuravlev, Violetta Alexandrova et Darya Lupenko pour Open Democracy

The three sociologists who investigated the mobilisations in Shies (environment) and Ekaterinburg (mobilisation against a project of the Orthodox Church) are opposed to the approach, often presented in recent years, that since 2017 a new era of protest in Russia, that of the advent of an autonomous subject vis-à-vis the state, civil society. On the contrary, far from being a protest primarily directed against the state, according to the authors of the study, these mobilisations testify to a strong demand for a democratic state and therefore formulate expectations vis-à-vis the public authorities.

On the brink: why Russia’s healthcare workers are organising

Interview by Evgeny Senshin with Andrey Konoval pour Open Democracy

What would happen if health care workers went on strike? This interview conducted in 2019 - before the health crisis - with Andrey Konoval, the leader of the independent health sector trade union. This trade union was founded in 2012 to protest against the liberal health reform projects initiated by V. Putin. In this interview, Andry Konoval points out both the medical insurance choices and the budget cuts, the working conditions and salary levels throughout the health sector. After a successful strike in 2013, the union gained members in 40 regions of Russia.

Russian social networks, whistle-blowers of the Norilsk disaster

Perrine Poupin pour The Conversation

How do Russian citizens use social media to raise awareness on ecological catastrophes? In May 2020, Russia experienced one of its largest diesel spills in Western Siberia, after an incident at the Norilsk thermal plant. But the authorities were alerted only two days after the incident and the fuel already had time to spread in the nearby lakes and rivers. The region has experienced many ecological disasters during the past years, but in Russia the industry remains beyond the state control, and so far, national authorities have failed to address the problem. In this context, citizens have continuously used internet and social media to document and denounce the negligence of the state regarding ecological catastrophes. While researchers documented the impact of climate change on fauna and flora, they also point out the lack of equipment and competences to face industrial catastrophes at a time when Russian authorities further exploit the Arctic.

In Russia, the population is fiercely opposed to a landfill project

In Russia, the tenacity of opponents leads to the abandonment of a giant landfill project

Estelle Levresse pour Reporterre

Shies: a « zad » ( zone to be defended) in the Far North of Russia? These two articles come back to the mobilization of the inhabitants of Shies (Arkhangelsk region) against a landfill project designed to receive the waste of the capital Moscow. Determined to prevent an "ecological disaster" that would ruin both local economy and their way of life, the inhabitants also mobilized against the contempt of local authorities for the population, against Moscow contempt for the regions’ natural resources and its desire to send this waste back to the capital. After months of mobilization on the site as well as in the regional metropolises near Shies, the inhabitants won their case.