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  • Protest in Putin’s Russia by Mischa Gabowitsch
  • Emma Gilligan (bio)
Mischa Gabowitsch, Protest in Putin’s Russia, (Polity Press, 2017), ISBN 978-07-45696-25-6, 332pages.

Mischa Gabowitsch’s Protest in Putin’s Russia employs extensive interviews, blog posts, print media, and sociological theory to draw a compelling picture of the wave of protests that took place across Russia from 2011 to 2013. Depicting this mobilization through the “logic of the actors” and his own “observations on the ground,” Gabowitsch questions the common perception that the protests were a middle-class rebellion driven by discontented liberals threatened by electoral rigging and the state and corporate corruption.

Gabowitsch widens the analytical lens considerably to illustrate how and why thousands of Russians turned out in dozens of cities across the Russian Federation. For the author, these demonstrations were more than a wave of protests in defiance of the rigged elections of 2011; this was an expression of a larger and by now deeply rooted discontent with the practices of the Russian state. The range of grievances expressed by the protestors shows the acute struggle for normalcy in regional Russia and general feelings of political disempowerment and marginalization. While those who protested were driven by an array of complaints at the local and regional levels, it was clear that the majority of protestors shared one thing in common: an above average education. As sociologist Aleksey Levinson argued, “protestors’ motivations were more likely moral. It was about honour and duty, not class interest.”1

Gabowitsch’s analysis supports Levinson’s claim and is well illustrated in the vibrant array of interviews provided by the text. It is this personal experience or “eventful protests” as characterized by Della Porta, these “moments of acquaintance, self-discovery and newfound agency . . . rather than strategic opportunities for regime change” that, for Gabowitsch, defines the nature of the protests from 2011 to 2013.2 Protestors were demonstrating against the unpredictability of the system, the corruption, the impunity of the law enforcement structures, and the ineptitude of the judicial system.

Framed into nine chapters, the book contributes to a growing literature on protest movements in Russia. Easily accessible, the text could be used in teaching by both the specialist and nonspecialist alike. It has potential for both theoretical studies on social resistance movements conceived more broadly [End Page 1000] and for undergraduates trying to understand the post-soviet protest culture. The book begins by placing the protest events within the broader political power structure in Russia. Chapter 2 addresses the growing realization among electoral observers of the fraud that was driving United Russia’s determination to win. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 form the central core of the book and analyze the main protest leaders Aleksey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, the emergence of new local movements across Russia, and finally the organizational challenge of coordinating these disparate complaints into a unified voice against the excesses of the Russian government. Next is an analysis of the Pussy Riot case and the reverberations of that event for protest in Russia generally. Chapter 7 highlights the importance of place, especially after the excitement of the fair elections protests. As Gabowitsch argues, “within those bounded spaces, the protests created a rich array of interpersonal relations, investing new places with multiple emotional associations,”3 giving life back to the public spaces in which people had gathered. Chapter 8 makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role of transnational activism in this growing discontent, both from the perspective of Russia’s new diaspora and larger western campaigns around cases such as Sergei Magnitsky and the associated sanctions.

What is refreshing about Gabowitsch’s analysis is that he moves away from a formulaic approach to protest as defined as either a “success” or a “failure” in bringing about certain predefined outcomes. By moving away from the so-called “black box perspective,” he provides a more far-sighted and open ended approach to the importance of 2011 to 2013 as one potential stage in the formation of a serious protest culture in Russia. The recent events of 26 March 2017 in which thousands of young people came out on the streets calling for...