- Protest in Putin's Russia by Mischa Gabowitsch
When in late March 2017 western media churned out sensational headlines about mass protests in Russia, the stories were focused on the anticorruption rallies that broke out spontaneously after Aleksey Navalny had posted an online video documenting prime minister Dmitry Medvedev's accumulated wealth. The rallies were hailed in the media as the largest antigovernment protests in five years. Simultaneously, the nationwide truckers' protest movement that was gaining momentum that same week received only scant if any attention. At a time when Putin's Russia is being portrayed as the West's arch-nemesis on a near-daily basis in the media, any protest in Russia that could be presented as "antigovernment" or "anti-Putin" was bound to get its fair share of coverage. In this sense, Mischa Gabowitsch's well-balanced and thoroughly researched book is more than just a welcome addition to the literature, it effectively serves as a much-needed corrective of a media-influenced narrative relating to protest in Russia.
Protest in Putin's Russia, an updated and essentially rewritten [End Page 346] English-language version of an earlier (2013) German-language publication, analyzes the 2011–2013 protest cycle in its variegated aspects. While the book takes the May 2012 "March of Millions" as a "microcosm" – each chapter starts with a lengthy personal anecdote of individuals involved in or observing it – for the wave of protests starting with the outbreak of the demonstrations for fair elections in December 2011 and ending with the "March against Scoundrels" in January 2013, it offers the reader in fact a broader reflection on the dynamics of protest in Russia going well beyond this period. While Gabowitsch places the Russian protests within the context of the "global wave of protest," he points out that they were arguably eclipsed by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the anti-austerity protests in Europe, Turkey's Gezi Park protests, and Ukraine's Euromaidan. In part, this resulted in the Russian protests receiving less attention in the world media and, additionally, becoming portrayed as a Moscow-centered event or series of events carried out by the "creative" middle class.
Herein lies one problematic element related to the protest wave that the book successfully tackles. Gabowitsch convincingly demonstrates that this is a highly distorted depiction as the protests were neither exclusively the middle class phenomenon, nor limited to the capital. Drawing upon a rich pool of source material that includes the results of the author's fieldwork beyond Moscow (among others in Chelyabinsk), the book presents a picture of protests that were ultimately neither about a single issue (fair elections) nor a political movement per se (against Putin), but drew in participants of all ages and classes spread out over the whole country, thus addressing a variety of issues. Nevertheless, as Gabowitsch himself stresses, the concept of a middle-class revolt in the capital had gained enough traction even for the regime itself to adopt it, in turn enabling to an extent the populist turn during Putin's third term as president.
The book complicates the narrative about the anti-Putin protests of 2011–2013 by qualifying the presumption that they constituted a political opposition movement. In reality, while opposition parties, the extra-parliamentary opposition, and civic activists all took part, the mass of protesters had not identified with a single clear cause. Gabowitsch rather applies concepts of "scenes," "mi-lieu," "common-places," and "cognitive spaces" to demonstrate how different actors interacted, sometimes in unison and sometimes in discord during the protests while their room for maneuver was structured and limited by the regime. He tries to steer the middle ground between what he calls [End Page 347] a political science "top-down" and a sociological "bottom-up" approach to the protests. As he aptly demonstrates, this reflected the positions and debates among the protesters themselves where for some the goal of the protests was to force political change whereas for others it was to alleviate specific grievances. In this sense...