Tag Archives: activism

Russia: a natural experiment in the limits of decentralized resistance and activism

Moscow, October 2022. Graffiti on fence reads: 'There is always a choice'.

Moscow, October 2022. Graffiti on fence reads: ‘There is always a choice’.

A curious fact: the most demotivated and depressed of all those opposed to Putin’s regime are among the formerly most politically-engaged activists. These are the people who devoted their lives to causes like labour rights, environmentalism, and socialist alternatives. The people I talk to for my latest book project.

I talk to them, in person, or now more likely on Telegram and they say things like: ‘Russia is now a fascist, or proto-fascist state. The only option is emigration. We lost the country.’ Most of all they fear not mobilization, although there is evidence forced mobilization is happening of oppositionists and that it has a high chance of resulting in death. They most of all fear the long prison sentences for anti-war speech and see no point in sacrificing their lives futilely.

Why are they so pessimistic? They believe public space is completely closed off. They feel risks now are too high ‘we are being hunted’, one said, and deleted me from their contact list. Perhaps most significantly, they believe they lost their networks – built up over decades of nomadic opposition. So much has been written about the potential of internet and smart-phone technology to facilitate social movements and change, but with the fast learning of the Russian techno-security apparatus (partly thanks to Covid – Galina Orlova and I wrote about it here), activists are often so paranoid they break all electronic contact with each other.

Delicate webs? Easily broken? But until the invasion of Ukraine they had survived the depredations of Putin’s securitizing efforts to break them. The open war against activists can be traced back to the authorities’ abuse of Article 228 of Russia’s Criminal Code to imprison journalists and activists. This anti-narcotics law was an undisguised weapon to imprison opponents. It is even known as ‘the people’s article’ because so many young people are imprisoned under it. Some examples here. But before the war, threats like arrest on planted drugs charges did not break activists. In my experience is was only after repeated arrests for protests that some activists stepped back, but even then they carried on in other ways.

So people are scared and demotivated. But broken networks are actually a sign of the relative success previously of decentralized and horizontal connections between people opposed to Putin; people who maybe met in person once a year could successful collaborate in opposition despite being thousands of kilometres from each other in Nizhnii and Piter, for example. I write about one case like this in a forthcoming book on activism, co-edited with my colleagues Andrei Semenov and Regina Smyth. Also, ‘weak’ netness, but strong ‘catness’ (strongly shared opposition) can mean that, like in the brain after damage, connections can spontaneously repair and reform. Everyone strongly anti-regime knows the half-dozen activists who were active in the places I did my research. They can find each other again – if they didn’t leave Russia. If they can come back. If they won’t be sent to prison. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world right now, than the end of Putinism. But we have to try. These are some of the questions my book project on micropolitics engages with – what happens when everything except the most micro of politics is impossible? How does netness sustain itself? How and why are Russian activists ‘nomadic’? Yes the nod to Deleuze is intentional.

Russian activism through a micro-scale and social media lens

still from Vestnik Buri’s video on Sergei Guriev “An Apostle of the Free Market”

When I was writing recently here and here and here about Navalny, what was at the front of my mind, but mainly left unsaid in those pieces was the vibrant activism of the far less visible Left in Russia. So, to try to restore balance in this blog, I’ll say a little bit about my scholarly turn of attention to left-activism. After all, this blog is supposed to reflect my core research agenda – which is the micro-scale and the ‘everyday’ experience in society that is often overlooked in work on Russia, but which, I would argue is a good barometer of social change itself.  

The Belarus protests are a good example of how we can focus too much on the visible elite actions (and here Navalny is an ‘elite’, if I may) and not enough on the interplay between, dare I say it, structure and ‘ordinary’ agency. I was also interested in the Belarus case because of the possibility of coalitions between different parts of Belarus society. The jury appears to still be out, but Volodia Artiukh’s piece from late last summer shows some potential futures and pathways. I engaged with Artiukh and others because my hunch is that like in Russia small successes of ‘political’ unions can have an outsize indirect effect on worker-militancy more widely and on ‘traditional’ unions themselves (who start feeling they have to up game). But I don’t really know much about Belarus. Update here from an interview with activist group ZabastovkaBY from March 2021 that mentions the importance of informal associations of workers.

Late summer 2020 I also started writing about left activists and the Moscow food courier strike. My main argument was that there is clear evidence of ‘learning’ by activists in ‘political’ unions that this learning can be transferred to completely new terrain (the gig/service economy). Not a very original argument, but again, not something many scholars are working in Russia, so why not build a case study around it. One of the left activists I studied for the courier protests got arrested around the time of the recent Navalny protests. However, this was a clear political punishment not related to Navalny, but because of the union organiser’s solidarity action in support of Azat Miftakhov – an anarchist student stitched up because of his expressive eyebrows.  Subsequently, the union organiser made a very detailed and evocative youtube interview on his experience in a ‘spetspriemnik’ (holding jail for administrative prisoners).

The effective use of social media resources – both for organising, but also then reflecting on the experience of arrest and providing practical advice to future arrestees – reflects another aspect of my interest in this case.  In parallel to the attention Navalny gets as a smooth media operator (perhaps too smooth), anticapitalist Russian YouTube has undergone a real breakthrough (as far as anticapitalist media can be said to breakthrough at all!). That’s not really the main subject of my writing, but in passing I reflect on the advantages of a loose affiliational model of activism sustained by ‘transverse’ online communication. That is to say – one way of hanging on in the hostile (to leftists) environment of social media/journalistic circles is the proliferation of different leftist mini-media projects that might look like isolated corals in a sea of liberal smirk, but which actually exchange direct (and offline) communication, personnel, and experience, online. This is based on the ‘streamer’ model – on platforms like Twitch gamers build (million-strong) subscriber bases for their live streams of video games by engaging in small yet constant acts of solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation, collaboration, and promotion of like-minded others. I hope to come back to this topic again, but in the meantime, spare a thought for the many, many activists (of different stripes) who take great personal risks, but get little attention.