Protest in Russia is often considered to take two distinct forms. The first is social-economic; the second is political. The first tends to be local and specific; the second general and abstract. Examples of the former would be protests about garbage disposal and truckers’ protests about new tariffs imposed on them by the government. Examples of the latter would be demonstrations about democracy or human rights. The specificity of the former appeals directly to peoples’ concrete interests in a way that the more general nature of the latter does not. On the other hand, that very specificity also tends to limit the number of the people who can be brought into the cause, as it is unlikely to interest people who are not directly affected. It is also simpler for state authorities to appease social-economic protesters with timely concessions than it is to satisfy the more sweeping demands of political demonstrators. It is a matter of some debate which of the two worries the authorities the most.
A recent story provides one clue to a possible answer. The story in question is that French sociologist Carine Clément was detained by Russian border guards last week when she attempted to enter the country to attend an academic conference, and was then deported back to France. Clément had been due to give a paper discussing the French ‘Gilets jaunes’ and comparing them to Russian vatniki (rednecks, roughly speaking). Superficially, it doesn’t seem like something which should really bother the Russian security services. After all, the Russian state-funded TV network RT has been about the only international media outlet to regularly report on the Gilets jaunes over the past year. Nevertheless, despite the fact that she has a Russian husband and daughter, Clément was declared a threat to national security and told that she was forbidden from entering Russia for 10 years.
As a professor, restrictions on international academic exchange inevitably trouble me. I had never heard of Clément, so I looked her up. You can get an idea of her politics by a French article which notes ‘ses engagements en continuant de pointer le manque de justice sociale en Russie et la politique libérale pilotée par Vladimir Poutine.’ Anyone who considers Vladimir Putin’s policies ‘liberal’ clearly isn’t marching in step with the mainstream. Indeed, Clément appears to be very much of the left, described as a ‘militante des droits sociaux’, who has been active in defending housing rights, striking workers, and migrants, as well as striving to change Russian employment legislation. In short, she’s a social activist as much as an academic sociologist. It is this, no doubt, which has gotten her deported.
Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing recent written by her which is available on the internet, though if you speak French you can watch her talking as part of a panel of interviewees on Sputnik News in September of this year, here. However, I was able to find an English-language version of a 2015 article entitled ‘Putin, Patriotism, and Political Apathy’. It’s actually quite good, so I thought that I would share some excerpts of it here.
Clément starts off by noting Putin’s political popularity. This is genuine, she argues, and it’s not just a product of alternative voices being repressed. Political repression exists in Russia, but ‘Repression is not occurring on a massive scale. Many independent initiatives that are critical of current authorities still operate in broad daylight.’ The root of Putin’s support instead lies in the experience of the 1990s, Clément argues. In that time period, ordinary people ‘watched unscrupulous individuals make fortunes through small or big-time fraud’, while being treated with the utmost ‘contempt’ by the reformers and their allies, who dismissed them as ‘losers’ and ‘maladjusted’. Clément asks:
Why wouldn’t these people identify with Putin’s populist rhetoric, which recognizes their importance and respects and acknowledges their demand for a socially progressive state, rather than scorning their purported sense of entitlement and preference for paternalism? Why wouldn’t they support patriotic discourse that finally gives them a reason to be proud of their country, which their ancestors defended, but which has since been allowed to decline? … [Putin] is associated with a return to economic growth and paid salaries and pensions. Thanks to him, Crimea now belongs to the Russian Federation and the wounded pride of several generations of Russians resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been healed. Thanks to him, the “ordinary citizen” and the “people who work” and “love Russia” (to quote Putin’s speech at the rally held on February 23, 2012 at Poklony Gory in Moscow against the “for honest elections” movement) once again have something resembling a social and political status.
At the same time, Clément remarks, the liberal opposition is ‘cut off from the people’. It is obsessed with overthrowing the ‘Putin regime’, but ‘The problems that preoccupy most Russians, as indicated by polls, including poverty, housing, education, and health, do not appear as priorities.’ She recounts the story of a woman who visited the offices of the Yabloko party to complain about people who were poisoning dogs in her locality, and was told, ‘yes, of course, we see the problem. But tell us, how are we going to fight the regime?’
Russians see that this sort of thing is pointless, Clément argues. The political protests of the liberal opposition don’t interest them. Instead, they’re turning to more local forms of action, focusing on the sort of social-economic issues I mentioned at the start of this post. Clément believes that it is this sort of action, coming from below, and ‘rooted in local concerns and the realities of daily life’ which offers the best prospects for change in Russia. Thus, she concludes, ‘It seems to me, however, that a (re)politicization—a recovery of cognitive, emotional, and practical bearings—has no choice but to follow the tentative paths of mobilization “from below”.’
One can argue about how true this is, but I find it interesting that it’s gotten her into so much trouble with the authorities. After all, there’s hardly a shortage of Western academics who write nasty things about Russia, and who are allowed into the country to, among other things, meet with members of the liberal opposition and sing their praises. Political activism by foreigners seems to be more or less tolerated. But if Clément’s example is anything to go by, social-economic activism is a big no-no. Returning to the question at the end of my first paragraph, perhaps that tells us something about what worries the Russian state the most.