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Putin ka-putt!? Russlands neue Protestkultur by Mischa Gabowitsch (review)

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 460-464

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The protest movement against Putin’s system inspired thousands of people to organize themselves. Putin kaputt!? by Mischa Gabowitsch complements and develops a tradition of protest chronologies in Russia that started with the book From Ordinary People to Activists , by Corinne Clément, Olga Miriasova, and Andrei Demidov. 1

Putin kaputt!? consists of a preface and nine chapters, each of which contains five or six essays. Most of the essays describe and analyze the anti-Putin protests caused by the alleged falsification of the parliamentary elections in December 2011. Some of the essays offer insight into various aspects of life in Russian society. Essentially, they reconstruct the contextual background of the protest, but can also be read on their own. The preface describes the “March of millions,” one of the culminating points of the anti-Putin protest coinciding with the presidential inauguration in May 2012 and unifying the whole spectrum of political opposition in Russia. Each subsequent chapter begins with a biographical sketch of participants in the march.

In the first chapter, the author identifies the key elements of the “vertical of power” established during Putin’s reign and its principles of operation. Informal practices and the principle of loyalty leading to the establishment of a culture of corruption and cynicism are the key mechanisms that determine and maintain the social order in today’s Russia. Institutionally, Gabowitsch characterizes Russia as an authoritarian, corporate, and neopatrimonial state.

The second chapter examines the emergence of the “election observers” movement. The author argues that the firsthand experience of volunteer observers became the starting point for the formulation of protest objectives and gave an emotional impulse to their mobilization. “A trauma inflicted upon the observer” (P. 113) not only provoked an outburst of anger via social media but also launched a mechanism of consolidation of public institutions and crystallization of civic control in Russian society.

In the third chapter, “The Structure of Protest,” Gabowitsch studies the leadership factor, specifically focusing on the figure of Alexei Navalny, who in many ways has personified the opposition to the pro-Putin United Russia party. Gabowitsch then proceeds to an overview of major political parties in Russia as well as extraparliamentary opposition groups that took part in the protests. The author also discusses the tightening of state control over Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the transition from the paid activism in NGOs to collective protests. The final part of the chapter deals with the attempt to coordinate the protest against the election fraud by means of an elected council.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the famous public protest performance by Pussy Riot. This case study examines the role of music, art, and religion in formulating the political message. In the second half of this chapter Gabowitsch presents an overview of the intellectual climate within the Orthodox Church leadership – the target of Pussy Riot’s protest, and the reaction of the top Orthodox hierarchs to the group’s action. The chapter concludes with an attempt to analyze this case within the broader context of LGBT activism and feminism.

The fifth chapter, “Protest and Curiosity,” centers on the most popular slogan of the protest against the rigged elections: “Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete,” which can be translated from Russian in two different but interrelated ways: “You have no idea who we are” and “You do not even represent us.” The author argues that protest participants were motivated by a desire to leave their private spaces and enter the public sphere. Gabowitsch points out that this interest was prompted by “people with interests in social sciences.” A subchapter on the role of students in the protest movements is one of the strongest in the book, given that it is based on solid fieldwork and includes the author’s own self-reflection as a movement participant. The chapter also argues that the Internet has gradually pervaded the daily life of Russian urbanites, parallel to the general commercialization of urban spaces. As a result, a surge of interest in events in Moscow typically leads to sharply intensified Internet networking activity.

In principle, how could the protest be peaceful in a country where the culture of violence is so widespread and pervades...

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