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Putin, Pussy Riot and Protests: A Turbulent Year in Russian Politics

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Centre of Russian and East European Studies (CREES) at the University of Birmingham in 2013, a series of lectures and special seminars were held over the course of the year, each featuring distinguished guest speakers coming from different fields of expertise. Kasia Remshardt reports on the second of two for Vostok Cable.

Birmingham UniversityPicture by Graham Norrie, used under Creative Commons Lisence

Birmingham University
Picture by Graham Norrie, used under Creative Commons License

20 March 2013 (David White, University of Birmingham; Edwin Bacon, Birbeck College, University of London)

In a joint seminar broadly covering recent political developments within the Russian Federation, David White and Ed Bacon shared their views on the ‘winter of discontent’ and the notorious case of the punk band Pussy Riot.

Protesting against Putin: Still waiting for the Moscow Spring (David White)

Tracing the development of the extra-parliamentary opposition which had been responsible for organising mass demonstrations in large Russian cities following the 2011 State Duma election, David White started off by singling out three key dates fuelling the protest movement. These include the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s candidacy in September 2011, the authorities’ reaction to the first wave of public discontent after the parliamentary election and finally the clampdown on the opposition after Putin’s re-election as Russian president in March 2012. Summing up the success of the movement so far, White pointed out that although the protestors did not manage to achieve their main objective of a “Russia without Putin”, the increasing reputational costs for the regime should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, Dr. White challenges the view that the protest movement has evaporated since Putin’s return to office a year ago, arguing that instead, it has adapted its aims and methods to a context distinct from direct electoral contestation. Far from abandoning confrontation with the authorities, the opposition has changed tactics, focussing more on sub-national politics and on civic rather than political activism carried out by a relatively small group of dedicated volunteers.

Dr. White also drew the attention to the diverse nature of the opposition movement, which merges communist (Sergey Udaltsov), nationalist (Aleksey Navalny), social liberal (Iliya Yashin), and economic liberal (Boris Nemtsov) elements. These various strands of political thinking were brought together in the Coordination Council established in October 2012, an elected body made up of 45 members and designed to function as an unofficial ‘shadow cabinet’ to the current Russian government.

Maintaining an organisational structure might prove even more vital in light of the increasingly hostile political environment since the return of Vladimir Putin to the post of the president. Since March 2012, numerous laws were passed to undermine concerted oppositional activity, including a law tightening the rules for political rallies. Moreover, members of the opposition have frequently been targeted by the Kremlin in an attempt to vilify and intimidate them.

However, political opposition in Russia has not yet yielded to outside pressure. Indeed, White argued that the very fact that a movement so heterogeneous in nature has not broken apart to this day should be taken as a positive sign. Though the time of telegenic large-scale protests in the streets of Moscow seems to be over, oppositional activity is likely to continue in the regions. In the long run, this might even prove to be a more effective way of achieving political change in Russia. The ultimate success of the movement will of course depend on the political opportunities arising in the years to come.

Pussy Riot (Edwin Bacon)

Zooming in on a more limited phenomenon within the context of protest against Vladimir Putin, Ed Bacon turned to the question of how to deal with the Pussy Riot case on a conceptual level.

With his own politico-theological analysis of the incident the topic of a forthcoming paper, Bacon carefully dissected the punk performance and its repercussions in order to counter the often overly simplistic interpretation commonly found in Western media and political discourse. Rather than viewing the young women as part of a liberal opposition against a repressive state, he alluded to the radicalism of some of the leading members of the group who are known to have participated in a number of extreme and sometimes violent artistic happenings in the past.

Furthermore, Bacon challenged the common perception of a permanent and close collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state – one of the main motives for the protest and a development seen as increasingly part of Vladimir Putin’s political strategy. Instead, he hinted at the diversity within the church and the limited scope of cooperation around the question of Russian national identity formation and the role the Orthodox faith could be playing in this.

Importantly, Dr. Bacon interprets citizens’ open commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church (which has become fashionable in recent years) less as a genuine rediscovery of religious sentiment on a national scale, than as a way of expressing one’s adherence to a particular ethnic group. In other words, the orthodox faith has come to serve as a “marker of (ethnic Russian) identity”, whilst the number of active churchgoers stays comparatively low in today’s Russia.

With regard to the political influence of the Church, Bacon disagrees with the assumption that the patriarchate wields considerable independent power vis-à-vis the Kremlin, emphasising that the state apparatus remains the main locus of authority in Russia.

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