Protest in Russia explores the people, ideas and channels of communication that are re-shaping the political landscape in Russia today.

Principal Investigators:

Graeme Robertson, University of North Carolina [web]

Samuel Greene, King’s College London [web]

Research Assistance:

Anna Yudina, University of North Carolina

With support from the Smith Richardson Foundation.


Project Summary

Understanding the New Russian Opposition: People, Ideas, Channels

After years of apparent stability bordering on stagnation, a new chapter in Russia politics seemed to open the winter of 2011-12. The heavy dose of electoral fraud that characterized parliamentary elections in December 2011 was met not with the customary collective shrug, but with the largest mass protests in Moscow since the collapse of communism. The protests took most commentators and analysts – and even some organizers – by surprise. They also caught the Putin administration off guard, although the Kremlin seems now to have regained its composure and is reacting with its trade-mark mixture of populism and repression. Nevertheless, the protests have continued, new organizations have proliferated and a real opposition movement has appeared for the first time in many years.

The new opposition movement represents a major challenge to the Russian government, but also to policy makers elsewhere. Though the protests were a surprise to many, the organizational, cultural and human resources to make them possible had been building for several years, a product both of the prosperity and stability of the Putin years and of the corruption and political inertia of that period. Consequently, while a single issue – clean elections – brought the protesters together, they represent many different agendas and political tendencies as well as a range of different organizations. These movement organizations operate, for the most part, outside of what has become known in Russia as the “systemic opposition” and are largely unrepresented in formal institutions. As a result, understanding the ideological and organizational substance of the protests, as well as assessing the degree to which they represent a real and lasting alternative to the incumbent Russian regime, is a major challenge facing policy-makers and scholars today.

Among the key issues that we need to understand better is the nature of the challenge the protesters represent? What political vision of the future do they offer? There are at least two competing visions of who the protesters are. Some say the protesters represent Russia’s “creative classes” —  liberal, educated, middle class and tired of the restrictions and corruption of Putinism. As the celebrated Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, told the New York Times, “Today we just proved that civil society does exist in Russia, that the middle class does exist and that this country is not lost.” For these analysts, the Russian protests are a “moral awakening” analogous to the US civil rights movement.

By contrast, others analysts see darker forces at work in the protests. The real source of the protests, some prominent Russians have argued, is not civil rights, but an economic slowdown that is threatening to turn into a full-blown economic crisis. In this version, it is not corruption and civil rights that motivates the protest movement but economic worries and fear. Consequently, a major strain within the protest movement is ethnic Russian nationalism, and animosity to the millions of immigrants in Moscow and other major Russian cities from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In support of this view, analysts cite racist and nationalist slogans from leaders and the presence of neo-fascist groups at demonstrations.

Realistically, of course, the answer is likely to lie somewhere in between. Provoked by the Kremlin’s blanket rejection of all organized opposition, the protests naturally brought together both constructive and destructive forces. Consequently, a key challenge is to break the movement down analytically and carefully scrutinize what the important currents are and what they represent. To date, a lot is known about the leadership of the movement, not least since most of the people involved are well established figures on the Russian political, media and cultural scene. Leaders, of course, are important, but just as important for understanding the character of the various parts of the movement are the second tier of activists and the rank and file members of the many different new groups that have sprung up as part of the protest movement. Important too are the constituencies that are attracted to the opposition and the messages that resonate with the broader audience.  At this stage, there is little systematic analysis of either who the activists are, or what the broader constituencies want.

This project uses multiple methods to identify the organizations and networks behind the protest movements and to map the contours of the key political constituencies to which the protesters appeal, studying the intersection of people, ideas and the channels through which the two connect. In particular, we analyze the evolving organizational and interpersonal networks on which the opposition is based and the relationship between these organizations and the broader community of sympathetic, internet-using Russians.

Specifically, we are focused on the opposition at three different levels:

(1)   People: Who are the key actors within the movement? Who are the constituencies, both active and latent?

(2)   Ideas: What are the most salient, durable and mobilizationally powerful ideas within the movement, where do they come from, and who shares them?

(3)   Channels: What are the organizational and media structures that connect activists and constituencies and contribute to the dispersion and assimilation of ideas?


  1. Pingback: Putin and the creative class: Who loves him, who hates him, and who couldn’t care less?
  2. Pingback: Putin and the creative class: Who loves him, who hates him, and who couldn’t care less? | Protest in Russia

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