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Occupy Moscow: Attention, but Little Traction

By Maria Brock and Natasha Yarotskaya

Time and again, the Moscow protesters are contradicting those who have long predicted their demise. Young, educated, fashionable Russian urbanites are tirelessly living up to Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year—the Protester. Whether to keep with the trend or to stand up for their own political convictions, thousands of people have been gathering in main squares in Moscow and several other large cities across the country for rallies, walks, strolls, talks, sit-ins, sleepovers, song-singing, poetry reading, hand-clapping, etc.—all to protest Putin, corruption, and the lack of freedom and democracy.

But as Moscow’s “creative class”—the term coined to describe highly educated technologically savvy citizens—is reinvigorated by the democratic ideals and taken with the intoxicating energy of the street rallies, the fate of the protest movement is subject to a complex set of forces. Whether or not the protests will result in any meaningful change largely depends on political dynamics, the government’s ability to accommodate change, and Putin’s (unlikely) willingness to let go of a modicum of power. One thing is certain, however: were free and fair elections to take place next week, the odds would still be in Putin’s favor.

Putin’s regime relies on those who make up the system outside the immediate presidential environment, from local governments to courts and law enforcement agencies throughout the country. As such, the impact of the protests depends on the organizers’ ability to take their cause outside of the capital and win the understanding and support of the larger population. For change to take place, Moscow’s protests need to embrace the rest of the country.

Looking at the epithet the latest incarnation of the Russian movement has chosen for itself—Occupy Abai—it’s easy to see similarities with Occupy Wall Street. The original camp has been dismantled, but the activists did claim a kind of victory for having inspired a number of occupy-style protests across the globe. The movement provided a rousing slogan, but other than creating awareness of itself in public consciousness, the actual payoff has arguably been low. The fact that most activists still present this as a solid legacy may point to a fundamental flaw in the movement: its emphasis on cultural and aesthetic impact, rather than on any real socio-political platform.

Unfortunately, this appears to be one of the central attributes of the Moscow rallies too. Russia’s protest movement has been owned almost entirely by writers, journalists, bloggers, artists, and businessmen. When speaking to protesters in New York last year, philosopher Slavoj Žižek warned them that one of the greatest threats to the movement lay with the protesters, namely the danger of “falling in love with themselves.” The focus on enjoyment, on “having a good time,” together with the narcissistic gains from being at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, may have helped the protests to attract large numbers of young people. Žižek argues that this focus on enjoyment traps the participants in a bubble and alienates the rest of the population.

Žižek’s caution is particularly poignant when applied to Russia, where a state factory worker from Chelyabinsk, who earns just enough to feed her two small children and not quite enough to pay off her mortgage and care for her elderly mother, may struggle to relate to the protesters’ calls for democracy. After all, Putin’s promises to triple stipends, raise pensions and salaries for state enterprise workers, give subsidies for children, and also to fix the apartment block where she lives, likely sound more expedient to her. Looking at the protesters in the capital she may find herself thinking, those spoiled Muscovites have nothing better to do.

The protests, which appear to have taken their cue from flashmobs as much as they have from the student protest of the 1960s, have created a palpable sense of excitement. But a few catchy sound bites and instagrams might not be enough to attract those parts of the population whose lives do not resemble that of the young, educated urbanites who make up the movement’s majority.

The reason why many people in Russia cannot identify with the Moscow protests is not merely aesthetic, but also sociopolitical. The capital’s middle class is demanding political changes that match its Westernized conception of the world. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, has recently argued that democratic values are universal, echoing what many protesters have been saying. However, most Russians live in a country that has prioritized economic development and the achievement of a degree of stability in everyday life, to the detriment of societal and political advancement. This world, partially created and taken advantage of by Putin and his administration, is a place where democratic values and freedoms are alien notions, honesty is a fool’s game, and the public sphere is virtually non-existent, tainted as it has been by corruption and lack of justice. In the absence of a defined set of values or a national vision, the country is driven by economic pursuits and loyalty to “the boss.”

Thus, as many in Moscow are bracing their culture and Western values, the organizers are learning that democracy is a little frightening. Advocating for free and fair elections—one of the main demands of the protesters—means that everybody must have an equal say. The say of the Russian people is likely to be very different from what Muscovites may wish for. No one knows how political change will really play out in Russia, but history shows that the aftermaths are rarely as glorious as the hopes that preceded them: Most recently, the liberal revolutionaries of the Arab Spring have been sidelined by stronger and better-disciplined political adversaries.

Meanwhile, Putin’s popular support is not truly rooted in any deep personal or ideological allegiance by the wider population. He has managed to retain some loyalty because of a sense that “it could always be worse.” In 2010, Sergey Sokolov—deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta—told the BBC that de facto “Russian society does not exist.” Anyone who has lived in Russia for a long period of time can testify that most of its institutions do not foster a sense of trust in them, and this lack of trust has spilled over into everyday interactions. A distrust of both government and each other has resulted in a cynical attitude toward politics and a rather fatalistic perspective on life.

These are admittedly not ideal grounds upon which to construct a political movement that would be inclusive of the wider populace. But it’s not hopeless either. The task for the protesters is not to make ordinary Russians aware that they are part of the disenfranchised majority—their so frequently defeatist outlook on life partially originates from this awareness—but to convince them that it is worth their while to invest in an alternative political project. The protesters have people’s attention; what needs to happen now is to make Russians care about what the protesters stand for.

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Maria Brock holds an MSc degree in Social and Cultural Psychology from the London School of Econimics and Political Science. She is currently a PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research evaluates the psychosocial dynamics of transitional and posttransitional societies focusing on the former Eastern Bloc.

Natasha Yarotskaya holds an MPP degree from the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago and an MSc degree in Social and Cultural Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is currently a freelance researcher based in Moscow.

[Photo courtesy of ShutterStock]

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