Russia’s Covid civil disobedience

‘How many have to die before you get vaccinated? Vaccinate!’. Central Moscow mid-2021.

Last week, András Tóth-Czifra wrote a nice post summarising the weaknesses of Russia’s emerging digital authoritarianism. I have a lot more to say on that topic next week at a roundtable on a book that is coming out – Networks of the City: People, Technology and Power. [upcoming blogposts will summarise]

In the meantime, András inspired me to revisit the political angle of Covid in Russia. His post looks at the small scale protests against QR codes and the potential for further ‘contagion’, populist moves like those of Bondarenko in Saratov last week, the large trade in fake certificates, etc. I want to come at this with a different take – on what all this tells us about ‘politics from below’ – a recurring theme in these blog posts.

It starts with a provocation. Why aren’t the usual suspects (the cold-warriors 2.0 and democracy bros) celebrating the mass civil disobedience going on in Russia? I mean, sure it’s prolonging mass suffering and death, but it’s not as if they care about that kind of thing. ‘No, no. Not that kind of civil disobedience! Give us more kids on snowy Moscow streets getting beaten in the head. Not your nurses, conniving with people to pour vaccines down the drain.’

Kimberley Brownlee, a legal philosopher, wrote a book in 2012 called Conscience and Conviction, making a case for civil disobedience. However, she takes the perspective of people living in pluralistic democratic states. There are two elements she emphasises – non-evasion and dialogue. A person who has a conscientious moral conviction has to be willing to articulate it to others openly and accept the costs of it. Disobedience needs to be visible in the public sphere to qualify for Brownlee and cannot be ‘evasive’. This is partly based on Rawlsian civility (non-violence, acceptance of consequences, publicity). ‘Conscientious conviction’ is contrasted with conscience as a moral and possibly private quality. Brownlee attempts to recover civil disobedience from stand liberal views that see its costs as not worth bearing and that there is not a moral right to public and ‘communicative’ civil disobedience – witness the current broad rejection of climate protestors in the UK. Their disruption of transport is viewed through a liberal prism as unacceptable and their arrest on criminal charges and lengthy jail sentences justified. Brownlee’s view is that civil disobedience is more conscientious than personal disobedience. She bases this argument on a conception of ‘moral rights’ to engage in constrained communicative breaches of law in defence of causes.

Now this argument might fly in 2012 when her book was published, but even in ‘democratic’ countries we have witnessed the criminalisation of protests and formerly civilly-disobedient actions – notoriously in the UK’s case the proposal to criminalise protests that are a ‘nuisance’. Brownlee says that civil disobedience is about preparing to risk punishment.  Because that in itself is part of the communicative process: that one has moral convictions and commitments. This runs into even more problems in a punitive authoritarian state that uses harsh punishment against even wholly peaceful protest, and even short of that – expressions of dissent, such as the poor souls punished for making posts online in Russia.


As Galina Orlova and I argue in our book chapter (I will blog about this in English next week), Russia is rapidly developing a model ‘European’ version of digital authoritarianism and people are resisting it any way they can.  The QR battle is unfolding right before us and may follow the less visible battle – now lost by the government – for vaccination. People will go to extraordinary lengths to resist? So is this not disobedience? Yes, it is. Is it not conscientious? Not in Brownlee’s terms, because it is semi-hidden. But it’s not ‘passive’, and it’s not completely individualized. András is one of few who notes the ‘ideological’ objection to vaccination and QR codes, and shows that people can think of the Covid measures in a wider political context. Even a lot of Russian analysis in Russia cannot grasp this, in a now classic denial of complexity and of the possibility of ‘révoltes logiques’ in ordinary people’s reflection (Jacques Rancière’s term). This article, for example talks about an ‘disproportionate’ enraged protest response and spends a long time linking the Covid protestors with homophobia and the so-called ‘family rights’ movement (about which I’ve written at length here), only at the very end covering the ‘civil society’ angle. (The organisers of the Immune Response protests, call themselves civil society activists). For my part I’d emphasise the not disproportionate rage, but the calculating connective capacities and reflective–affective discontent in Russia that acts as a motor for activating the ‘political’.

Again, I use Rancière’s term: the political is a ‘deviation from the normal order of things’ as a precondition for the appearance of a (political) subject. Unlike András though, I would emphasise the social indignity aspect of the political here, rather than just the civil liberty objections of Russians. Surprisingly, I find support in some unusual places, Ekaterina Shulman’s coverage of Covid has been very good – having herself fallen foul of targeted repression via ‘digital authoritarianism’ last year. Shulman talks about Covid-measures ‘fatigue’, but also disgust and an alarming fall in trust in the president since 2018. She uses other affective terms like ‘alienation’ from the authorities not seen since 1990. She cites the latest ‘Russians’ Fears’ poll, that shows that 58% people are afraid of the ‘lawlessness’ of the state. (The polls also show high levels of fear of ‘a return to repression’ but a more mixed picture for the question: ‘tightening of the political regime’). Finally, she also notes the ‘quiet sabotage’ of the vaccine/QR measures by their ‘enforcers’. But sabotage implies complicity and conspiracy. I wrote about vaccine hesitancy in an earlier post, and there gave the floor to my research participants. With the QR code fiasco unfolding, the Russian state decides once again that it is the ‘sole European’ (Pushkin’s famous phrase) in a country where the people need a firm hand and an internal passport. Do we want to hear what the subaltern has to say? I again let my research participants speak for themselves.

“It’s not resistance to the vaccine. My wife was informed with no warning that from 15th November she couldn’t go to work until she got jabbed. But now she has to sit at home until vaccine becomes available in Gosuslugi [unified citizen portal]. As you know in early 2021, we were ill and have antibodies – we paid to get tested. There’s no sense in getting a vaccine. Why such a pressure [nazhim] from every side… And then there’s statistics about how even with the vaccine things didn’t turn out well when people got the disease later. Sure, it’s not a large risk but even in our circle of acquaintances it’s enough to see the problems of after-effects. This is based on our personal experience. Another not insignificant fact is the split in opinion among medical professionals. And there are people there who are not necessarily anti-vax, but are loyal to the idea of personal choice and freedom and so that’s why we travelled to X and we asked the doctor ‘do the vaccine, but don’t do it and pour it down the drain’. And the sum is not fixed – you give them what you want. The Doctors’ support it and not because of money.

We’re not Moscow or even Kaluga, QR doesn’t scare us. Apart from masks in the shops you don’t need anything. We need to look at the root of this, at the general tendency, where it’s going. This is about the digitization of the population and that’s always about control. And control of movement which takes us back to the USSR. A huge degree of distrust towards the authorities is what we’ve got. The more the media ramp up the necessity to ‘protect’ by getting vaccinated the more people are suspicious and know that that is not true because it’s the people who actually got ill who have the antibodies, not the vaccinated in many cases. This is really the meaning of protest – it’s a rational response. If you want to get vaxed no one’s stopping you. The President on TV said that it’s ‘by choice’, but that’s just not true. There’s no ‘by choice’ now. This is what makes us indignant [vozmushaet].

We have to recognise reality – in my age group – (30-40) fifty percent got the vaccine and 50% bought certificates, paying from 3-7 thousand roubles for them. Another interesting fact – while I was at the hospital in X in the queue for the vaccine –  that I didn’t take. And the people I talked to in the queue who were genuinely intending to get the vaccine, and I mean they’d come there with that intention, they are very clear that they ‘consciously’ [soznatelno] don’t want Sputnik V and instead do CoviVac, but when they get to the hospital there’s a shortage of the latter and lots of Sputnik V. And there were a lot of Muscovites there in this small provincial hospital for some reason and they all were waiting for CoviVac and we knew that the doctors were throwing away a lot of the Sputnik because there’s simply no demand for it.

But there’s a different problem. Lots of people get sick with Covid and then do a PCR and get a negative result. A friend of my mother (65) did three tests when she got sick and only the third was positive. And this was when she got to hospital after spending some time with symptoms at home. And she couldn’t get the right treatment because of the initial two negative tests. And then I’ve got a comrade in Moscow who’s been sick for three weeks already and got a negative result. What to do in this situation is really unclear.

And then there’s something else I really want to say: there’s a huge quantity of disinformation, as ‘information’ and as ‘disinformation’. TV, internet, all these scientific experts, but one set say one things and the others another. We don’t know who to pay attention to, where the truth is. And even the same people contradicting themselves. There’s no authoritativeness, or authoritative person whom one could believe. A load of doctors lie with statistics… and the pieces of the puzzle just don’t fit together. But every family has been touched by Covid by now in one way or another. And so there’s a negative pattern – someone’s relative died, someone got seriously ill, or had a reaction to the vaccine. And this is two years now that it’s, well, really screwed up.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s