NEW YORK—A “flashmob” of LGBT activists releases a passel of multicolored balloons in Saint Petersburg, in defiance of Russian laws banning unauthorized protests and gay “propaganda.” In Moscow, authorities shove another group into a bus before they can get started.
Police arrest a man staging a single-person picket in Moscow demanding the resignation of Chechen tyrant Ramzan Kadyrov.
In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, a group of opposition activists announce a hunger strike to protest their disqualification from local elections.
These are some of the creative tactics Russians have adopted since authorities began cracking down on protests following massive street demonstrations in 2011–12. The variety has been “just wild,” Yana Gorokhovskaia said during a talk at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on Feb. 7.
Together with Katerina Tertytchnaya, Gorokhovskaia presented her research on the changing patterns of protest in Russia since 2012. Gorokhovskaia is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Harriman Institute. Tertytchnaya is a predoctoral fellow at Columbia. While the two presented on similar topics, each conducted separate research.
Both scholars took as their starting point the mass street protests of 2011–12, which followed legislative elections widely seen as fraudulent. Allegations of electoral fraud were nothing new in Russia, but now amateur videos of ballot-stuffing and disappearing ink enabled Russians to witness the fix themselves. Tens and hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in the largest popular demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Protests renewed that spring when Putin casually reclaimed the presidency after Medvedev’s four-year interregnum.
Caught off guard by the scale of the outcry, Putin’s United Russia party passed a series of laws restricting freedom of assembly and speech. Authorities imposed strict permit requirements and fines for illegal protests. Linking to so-called “extremist” content online was criminalized. Security forces dialed up the violence. Gorokhovskaia described these as efforts to discourage activism by increasing the cost of participation.
Nonetheless, as the two presenters made clear, Russians have found ways to express discontent. Many tactics, such as single-person picketing, were devised to exploit loopholes in the new regulations. Protests of one do not require prior approval and have been staged in a chain of “independent” demonstrations.
Gorokhovskaia and Tertytchnaya’s research also revealed variation in the types, targets and geographic distribution of Russian protests. In general, political protests target the federal government, while socioeconomic protests focus on regional authorities or employers. These latter protests are often organized around unpaid wages, cuts to pensions and failures of the Russian welfare state. And while the 2011–12 protests were scattered across the country, more recent protests have been concentrated in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and central Russia.
Tertytchnaya contrasted Putin’s approval ratings, which have remained high since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, with an uptick in “socioeconomic” protests, likely related to Russia’s pain in the face of Western sanctions and cheap oil—proof that the president remains popular despite possible growing dissatisfaction with his economy.
While the total number of Russian protests remains low, Gorokhovskaia said that the government may monitor activism so carefully because, in an authoritarian system, protests are one of the few indicators of the public mood.
As an example of official sensitivity, she mentioned the battle between authorities and activists over the improvised memorial to murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Whenever supporters gather flowers or portraits of Nemtsov at the spot of his 2015 murder, authorities cart them away in the trash. Within days, the memorial reappears.
Photo by Evgeniy Isaev, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Thousands march in Moscow in memory of killed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.