Introducing ‘Varieties of Russian Activism’

Regina Smyth*, Andrei Semenov and I have just published an edited book on activism. The book has nine chapters and 18 contributors. In the introduction the editors discuss the framing of the volume – broadly relying on three approaches to the study of activism: social identities and connections, frames, and local political opportunity structures.

Activism is any type of grassroots collective action aimed at redress­ing failures of governance, protecting rights, or demanding changes in policies enacted or imposed by elites. These actions emerge from and redefine participants’ relationships to their local commun­ities and their perceptions of the meaning of citizenship (Fröhlich 2020). Activism varies widely across groups, issues, and regions. It also varies across individuals as they decide to participate or not participate, dip in and out of activism, engage in actions across issues, or move from local activism to national protest, as observed in the Navalny rallies that burst out in Russia in winter 2021. And since the war on Ukraine began and the scope of activism seemed to narrow.

In the Russian context, most local activists regard their actions as nonpoliti­cal. As in other authoritarian states, the futile and aggressive nature of power politics leads citizens to distance themselves from institutionalized political arenas. For many local activists, politics is a dirty business. In contrast, actions that address local con­cerns are acceptable. After 2005, many local move­ments limited alliances with political parties or political opposition groups to attract social support (Clément, Miryasova, and Demidov 2010). Over time, depoliticization defines a significant schism between political and civic activ­ists (Semenov 2021).

For social scientists, any action, even localized events, taken to alter power relations, redistribute funds, or demand policy change goes to the heart of politics. Yet Nina Eliasoph (1997) argues that there is no dissonance in nonpo­litical activism in a culture of political avoidance. The nonpolitical construct emerges as residents experience shared feelings and understandings based on the disruption of their everyday lives that are distinct from high politics (Clément 2008). In Russian soci­ety, the distinction remains crucial to the dynamics of societal participation and individuals’ movement from nonpolitical to political engagement, a pattern examined in the volume.

Despite many examples of successful activism in the 2000 which we review in the introduction, it remains widely believed that Russian society is largely passive. This impression stems from a dominant para­digm in Russian sociology in which the traumatic Soviet and post-Soviet ex­perience engendered distrust and atomization, rendering “new social forms of interaction impossible” (Gudkov 2011, as quoted in Sharafutdinova 2019, 189). Even in critical approaches observers remain trapped by the idea that sustained expression of or demand for civil liberties is all but impossible. It is a measure of the stubborn persistence of this perspective that the growth in local activism remains understudied.

As Gulnaz Sharafutdinova notes, “At a minimum, intellectuals owe the public a degree of self-reflection to avoid turning their disappointment with the absence of democratic change in Russia into a suggestion that change is not possible” because of societal pas­sivity (2019, 195). Our studies take up this point, acknowledging that Russian society has changed enormously even over the second, more repressive decade of Putin’s leadership. And even since the invasion of Ukraine, new activism has emerged with new actors and methods, such as the feminist antiwar resistance, direct action, and passive resistance to the draft and mobilization.

The Societal Building Blocks of Activism: Identities, Communities, and Social Capital

Clément’s pathbreaking work (2008) underscores the first set of factors that our authors bring to the book: shared understandings, identities, networks, and experiences that influence worldviews and shared grievances. This focus on the interactions or relations among actors has much in common with the concept of social capital and the emergence of prosocial norms that enable collective action. While Russian civil society remains underdeveloped, existing social ties and identities are the building blocks of joint action and organization. Our authors suggest that they are at the root of activism and are strengthened and extended through activism, creating a new type of activist identity that can transcend the boundaries of local issues. They also emerge via social entrepreneurs, who shape the frames and narratives we discuss in the next section of the introduction.

Generating Grievances and Forging Solutions: Information and Framing Processes

In political contexts where few independent social organizations or move­ment structures exist, social activism is coordinated through communication that emphasizes shared identities and grievance or framing. Social entrepreneurs can provoke participation by providing three types of information: a diagnosis of the shared problem, a prognosis of how taking a specific action will solve that problem, and a call to arms that brings people together. Our chapters illustrate this dynamic: how individuals come to see action as a meaningful path to achieve common goals.

Grassroots activists rely on new media and alternative tools to generate collec­tive action frames despite these controls. These frames emerge from the daily interactions noted by Clément and articulated by activist leaders, civic organizations, and independent media. The information that facilitates frame resonance comes from daily activities such as grocery shopping, or coping with medical problems. These personal experiences shared by family, neighbors, and colleagues counter the regime’s depiction of social reality and are reinforced by personal networks, independ­ent media, and online discussions.

Opportunity Structures, Arenas, and Incentives for Action: State in Society

The concept of opportunity structure focuses on factors that shape the probability of collective action: the ability to engage formal state institutions, state repression, available partners within government, partners outside of government, and potential financial supporters. This list includes media allies, business support, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and social organizations, and other existing civic associates. It also includes local planning officials and priests.

In nondemocratic regimes, the opportunity structure defined by the multiparty system, formal institu­tions, and frequent elections appears to be open. Yet the policy process—a hegemonic party, mechanisms of legislative co-optation, and bureaucratic coercion—renders the system closed. For almost two decades, the regime has increased harassment of social organizations that support local actions (Semenov and Bederson 2020) when actions previously aimed at overtly polit­ical actions have been directed at nonpolitical initiatives.

Despite increased direct state action, the chapters in this volume show that these factors vary across local contexts. Many of our chapters focus on urban action spaces, where mobilization is more likely to emerge. The Russian state is not a unitary actor but a “melange of social organiza­tions” (Migdal 2001, 49). Even in the state’s seemingly least responsive per­iods, activism has the potential to manipulate a calculus of pressures rooted in broader state aims. For example, bureaucrats can find it useful to align themselves with, or make implicit concessions to, activists to meet these aims, especially in the arenas of social provision, education, and cultural produc­tion. This more nuanced view of state-society relations recognizes the state as both a source of grievances and a potential partner in solving the problems in everyday life.

From this perspective, we need to look beyond national state actions to understand the compromises inherent in authoritarian governance (Fröhlich 2012). Echoing Clément’s body of work, these approaches call for a focus on how state authority operates in people’s daily lives and how people come to imagine, encounter, and reimagine the state. Activism often exists in a bureau­cratic ecosystem comprising what Russians call formal volokita—or red tape and informal fixes and workarounds (Morris 2019).

The Repertoire of Contention

At its core, social activism is about communication among social actors and between society and elites, expressing preferences, interests, grievances, and demands. The range of available forms of protest actions, or repertoire, has evolved through history with changes in opportunity structures, resources, and technology (Tilly 2008). Contemporary repertoire varies in size from a protest involving tens of thousands to the action of a single citizen who engages in a picket or wears a symbolic color or piece of clothing.

Influenced by Deleuze’s (1987) concept of the rhizome, Kapferer and Taylor (2012) highlight the contestation of hegemonic state pro­cesses via overlooked or less visible processes. They identify societal practices counteracting the state that are open-ended, relational, and structured by “pro­cesses that spread out laterally in all directions” (5). Clément (2015) notes that the informal mechanisms that Russians relied on to solve problems for decades can be read as infrapolitics—including the reliance on blat, or personal rela­tionships, that Ledeneva (2013) notes as marking Soviet-era social relations. This rhizomatic logic is relevant to some of the more successful examples of activism in our volume and may yet prove decisive tools in opposing mobilization, even electronic mobilization of soldiers.

The theme of infrapolitics reemerges throughout our book, underscoring how everyday hidden actions shape political behavior and provide a platform for the organization. Through this lens, the universal experiences of powerless­ness and marginalization do not necessarily lead to anomie and atomization. Rather, hidden transcripts, which prefigure organized activism, are plenti­ful, from the online sharing of creative memes ridiculing the government to sophisticated forms of microresistance, such as cheat sheets on how to avoid traffic fines. These actions foreshadow our discussion of how activism shapes state-society relations, allowing for change, in fits and starts, in both social and state structures. Creativity and learning are implicit in these actions.

In the next post I will summarise the separate sections and chapters of the book.

*While our names appear in alphabetical order on the book’s cover, no one should be in any doubt that Regina Smyth is the intellectual motor driving this volume. Her resourcefulness, care, tact and organizational skills made it possible.

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