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Protest in Russia (and Belarus)

I have been studying protest, activism, and social movements in the late USSR and post-Soviet Russia since the mid-1990s. At the time I was primarily interested in nationalist and anti-nationalist (in particular, antifascist) associations of various kinds. WIth the beginning of the new protest cycle in late 2011, I drew on my observations in this area to study other forms of mobilization. The result was the first book-length scholarly study, in any language, of the 2011-13 Russian protests. The book came out in German in 2013 and later in a thoroughly revised and expanded, in fact largely re-written English version. One basis for that book, in addition to interviews and fieldwork, was the PEPS database, a comprehensive collection of photos, descriptions, and slogans from protest events in every Russian region and beyond Russia’s borders. As a sociologist I am less interested in the strategic dimension of protest or its role as a black-box indicator of underlying social factors than in its internal dynamics and the different regimes of engagement governing protest participation. I am also interested in the history and theory of non-violence and the role of social media in protest. Another area of interest are structural similarities between protest and commemorative movements.

Starting in 2020 I also began studying protest in Belarus, a country I have visited regularly in recent years for archival research in different regions connected to my work on the history of Soviet war memorials. I am currently putting together two thematic collections of papers on the ongoing Belarusian protests with my colleague Nelly Bekus. I am also working on the dynamics between state populism and social protest in Russia in comparison with other BRICS countries.

Below you will find my publications and talks on post-Soviet protest in English, Russian, German, and French, as well as interviews with me on these topics (in the same languages plus Spanish, Greek, and Catalan).

  1. Books
  2. Articles
  3. Interviews
  4. Video / Audio

Books

Accolades:

“This is the best book about contemporary Russia that I have ever read. It is stereotype-free, subtle, and superbly written.”

Karine Clément, director of the Collective Action Institute (IKD), author/editor of
Russian Workers in the Upheaval of the Market Economy, 1989-1999 (in French),
Ordinary People into Activists (in Russian), and
Urban Movements in Russia, 2009-2012 (in Russian)

“One of the best books about Russian society I have read in recent years”

Jens Siegert, former director of the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation

“Protest in Putin’s Russia combines stirring reportage with conceptual sophistication, taking readers into sites of protest not only in Moscow but in cities across Russia.”

Benjaming Nathans, Alan Charles Kors Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, in the New York Review of Books

“Enthralling”

The editors of the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology

Frequently asked questions

Is the English edition simply a translation of the German book?
No, the English version is substantially different from the German one. The German book, published in 2013, was written at the invitation of the Suhrkamp publishing house and came out in a series that is prestigious but traditionally geared toward essays. I fought to avoid sacrificing complexity to format and managed to preserve detailed endnotes, but also strove to avoid overloading the text with conceptual and theoretical points.
For technical reasons Protest in Putin’s Russia was formally published as a translation from the German, but in fact I spent more time on revising and expanding that version than I had on writing the German book. The chapters that made it into the English edition were substantially reworked, expanded and updated, and I also made the theoretical premises of the study much more explicit in the new introduction. However, due to space restrictions I had to leave out two chapters from the English translations. Thus if you know both English and German I recommend reading the English version of the book plus the chapters about non-violence and the repressive apparatus from the German edition.

Why the weird title, Putin kaputt?
If you look more carefully, you’ll see that the title contains a question: it is not Putin kaputt, but Putin kaputt!? Russlands neue Protestkultur (Russia’s new culture of protest). Punctuation matters here, as does the subtitle. The title was meant to convey several important aspects: the emotional intensity of the protest wave in which (as my database of protest slogans shows) Russia’s president featured as the main target of critique and the main addressee; the implicit references to the Great Patriotic War that are a staple of Russian political culture (as expressed in a protest song titled Putin kaputt which was popular during the winter protests of 2011-12, referencing the war-time slogan Hitler kaputt); and my suggestion to question not just the movement’s success but also the entire binary worldview that was often in evidence among protesters. The subtitle stresses that what was important about the protest wave was the transformation of protest culture which it catalyzed, rather than any strategic gains in terms of political regime change in the narrow sense.
However, I may have overestimated some readers’ attention to detail and the extent to which the title’s implications are intuitive. While reactions to the book were overwhelmingly positive, some judged the book not simply by its cover but by a selective reading of the words on that cover. In the English version, to avoid such misunderstandings, I opted for a more neutral title.

Who funded the study?
Alas, no-one. The project started as an online-based effort to collect protest slogans, which evolved into a database that was populated with the help of several volunteer assistants. Invitations to universities in different parts of Russia allowed me to combine conference travel with interviews and fieldwork. Suhrkamp paid a modest advance for the German version, and Polity paid me to translate my own book (even though I ended up spending more time on revising the text than on translating the original German version).

Why does the book not engage more with social movements studies?
This is a question typically asked by those who are only familiar with a particular, primarily Anglophone tradition in the study of social movements: known as the contentious politics, political process, or resource mobilization school, this approach privileges strategic and organizational aspects of social movements and has a developed a relatively standardized terminology. This tradition is extremely influential in the English-speaking world, to the point where some have come to conflate it with social movements studies as a whole. However, it is not by any stretch the only available perspective on social movements or protest, and is far less influential outside English-language academia. My book does discuss some of the contributions of this approach, and draws on insights from individual studies that adopt it. However, I myself come from a very different tradition. Alain Touraine, a founding figure in the study of social movements globally, was one of my teachers in Paris, and the tradition I have found most useful in addressing some of the blank spots in the study of social movements is French pragmatic sociology. The introduction to Protest in Putin’s Russia outlines a number of conceptual issues in the study of post-Soviet protest that the contentious politics approach does not address in ways I find satisfactory.

Articles

Interviews

Video / audio

The Sociology of Belarusian Protest. Webinar, 20.8.2020
COSMO 18.8.2020. Interview zum Protest in Belarus
Protest in Russland, Teil I: Wer protestiert? August 2019
Protest in Russland, Teil II: Weswegen wird protestiert? August 2019
Protest in Russland, Teil III: Protest als Politik. August 2019

Protest in Russia. “Russia under Putin” conference, Oslo, November 2018
Беседа (на русском языке) с Викторией Ломаско о ее книге «Невидимые и разгневанные». Эйнштейновский форум, июнь 2018 г.
Protest in Putin’s Russia. Sean Guillory’s SRB podcast, July 2017
О протесте и коммеморативных практиках. Форум Бориса Немцова, октябрь 2016 г.
Дискуссия «Политика аполитичных». Радио «Свобода», 15.2.2015.
“The cognitive and emotional space of protest: Russia, 2011-13.” European University, Saint Petersburg, November 2013
France Culture : La Grande table, le 13/11/2013. Entretien sur le mouvement contestataire en Russie.


Proteste gegen Putin: Russlands neue Bürgerbewegung. SRF, 21.5.2013

Interview mit Katharina Raabe, Potsdam, Mai 2013
Putin kaputt!? Authority, opposition, and protest in Russia. Discussion with Masha Gessen, chaired by Wolfgang Eichwede. Einstein Forum, 13.2.2013