The problem for the regime in Moscow is that today’s revolution is taking place not in the streets of Russia but in the minds of its citizens.
The Paris protests of May 1968 were cinematic in a way that current demonstrations in Russia are not. Today’s slogans are creative and witty, but current rallies lack the unrestrained defiance seen in 1968 photographs of young people throwing rocks and the iconic poster of a young woman throwing a paving stone with the caption “La beauté est dans la rue” (Beauty is in the street).
This difference is not surprising. The young woman from the 1968 French poster would be in prison in modern Russia, doing time for participating in mass disorders and resisting police officers. Following the May 6, 2012, protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, 34 people were charged in the so-called Bolotnaya Affair. Most were young, and many received prison sentences. Following the anticorruption protests on March 26, 2017, in the capital and 81 other Russian cities, more than 1,000 people were detained in Moscow alone. Four people were later arrested, and one has already been convicted. One hundred forty-five cities were involved in protests of the same kind on June 12, 2017, when police detained 731 protesters in the capital.
The Russian regime is ready to repress those who are openly politicized or offer physical resistance. But there are different kinds of protests taking place across Russia, and they cannot all be seen through the same lens.
The reactions of the authorities vary as well. They are ready to use force to shut down protests by truck drivers and farmers, though without resorting to criminal punishment. They are ready to pour in money to quell strikes and pickets by pensioners who are being deprived of their benefits by local governments. However, the regime does not quite understand how to deal with those citizens who take to the streets to defend their parks, backyards, and apartment buildings slated for demolition—that is, citizens who oppose the incursion of bureaucrats into their personal space. This is because those citizens had always been part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s electorate. They had been satisfied with him overall as a symbol of Russia’s renewed grandeur but are dissatisfied with their social standing or the actions of the authorities.
The latest wave of protests in Russia is too diverse and divergent to be unified by a single political leader, platform, or slogan—though there is one motto that people with all kinds of political views can get behind, a message for the president himself: “Enough, already!” So far, the wave has not swelled into a tsunami, and it has not become mainstream or attracted a considerable number citizens, even after the noticeable protests of June 12. The latest wave isn’t capable of regime change; it isn’t a color or velvet revolution; and it isn’t a perestroika-scale movement.
However, the current protests are expanding in geographic scope. They are being triggered by more and more conflicts and becoming more politicized, even though many initiatives seek only to compel the authorities to resolve pragmatic issues. Most importantly, these protests are all about injustice—they concern ethics.
In 2011, the first rallies were prompted by brazen violations during that year’s parliamentary election. In 2017, one of the most successful and uncompromising opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny, put out a video about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Viewed more than 23 million times, the film revealed the workings of the collusion between power and capital in Russia. This video inspired protests against corruption at large, against dishonor and injustice. But again, Navalny does not unify or symbolize the whole protest movement: there are many protesters who aim to resolve pragmatic demands and don’t accept Navalny’s radicalism or political views.
The involvement of the young generation in the 2017 protests is seen as a conceptually new phenomenon, one that is particularly important because today’s young people in Russia are more inert and more loyal to the state than middle-aged Russians. But this is not a protest of youth. A quarter of the participants of the 2011–2012 protests were also young. And the excessive ideological pressure that young adults face in high school and college makes them more opposed to discourse imposed from above.
The increasing scale of the protests—albeit a scale at which the demonstrations are still powerless to oust the current administration, force it into dialogue, or change the character of the authoritarian regime—can be defined in terms of the social contract between the state and the people. The first version of the social contract—that citizens stay out of politics in return for a share of oil revenues—worked flawlessly. The second version—that citizens stay out of politics in return for Russia’s renewed great-power status—was fueled by the March 2014 annexation of Crimea and enthusiasm for the construction of Russia as a besieged fortress with elements of Stalinist architecture.
However, this social contract is being gradually depleted, and elements of taxpayer democracy are creeping in. Citizens begin to wonder what exactly they are getting from the state in exchange for abiding by the law and paying taxes. They are happy about Crimea’s annexation but would also like to receive more services from the state.
Russians increasingly feel that they are more than holding up their side of the social contract. In surveys conducted by the Levada Center in April 2017, 53 percent of respondents said that they were fulfilling their obligations to the state by paying taxes and following the law, compared with 39 percent in 2001. A different survey in March 2017 showed that 31 percent of respondents felt that citizens received so little from the state that they owed it nothing. Others said that they could demand more from the state; this category has grown from 25 percent in March 2016 to 32 percent in March 2017.
Participation in protests is therefore not a revolution but rather a sort of petition for substantive revision of the social contract. The head of the Russian state, who does not want unrest during the 2018 presidential election campaign, is ready to satisfy the demands of the protesters, provided that these demands are social in nature. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who did not want to rain on Putin’s parade, had to seriously scale down his ambitious program to demolish Khrushchev-era five-story buildings known as khrushchevki (a program that would affect 1.6 million Muscovites). However, no one will coddle protesters who rally with political slogans.
Even if the Russian protests increase in scale and fervor, they will not prevent Putin from winning another six-year term. Yet the problem for the regime is that today’s revolution is taking place not in the streets of Russia but in the minds of its citizens. If Putin does not come up with a new version of the social contract, the erosion of his system will be inevitable.