Protest in Putin’s Russia, Mischa Gabowitsch.
Polity Press, 2017, pp. 332, $24.95; ISBN 9780745696263. Language: English
Mischa Gabowitsch’s Protest in Putin’s Russia, published in English by Polity Press in 2017, is the first English language book to thoroughly address the wave of protests in Russia that gripped the country from 2011 to 2013. Gabowitsch offers a nuanced, theoretically grounded approach to the study of protest, recognizing the unique qualities of such social actions in Russia. At the same time, he does not exoticize Russia. The English-language version of the book, rich with on-the-ground details and covering a wide range of different actors and aspects of the larger protests, is a revised and updated version of Gabowitsch’s original German-language book, published in 2013.
This volume aims to offer a comprehensive view of the wave of protests that developed following the 2011 State Duma elections. Gabowitsch presents both an historical account and a sociological analysis. As a work of history, Gabowitsch aims to capture the specific events and contexts that spurred these movements, a task all the more urgent due to the ephemerality of many of the materials and sources associated with protest. As a sociological study, Gabowitsch is most concerned with treating protest ‘at face value’ and understanding it not just as a reflection of developments such as the growth of civil society (p. 13).
Gabowitsch’s chapters consider protest from a variety of vantage points, gradually progressing from a ‘top-down, politics-centered view to a view from the ground’ (p. 41). The chapters focus on the general contours of Russian society and politics (Chapter 2); domestic election observers spurred to protest after witnessing violations (Chapter 3); the history of social and political mobilization under Putin (Chapter 4); the relationships between opposition activists, new and grassroots protesters, and the media (Chapter 5); the case of Pussy Riot, used to highlight the role of countercultural protest (Chapter 6); the spatial and cognitive aspects of protest (Chapter 7); the transnational dimensions of the protests (Chapter 8); and finally a conclusion that looks to Russian protests since 2013.
Gabowitsch unites this wide range of material through the theoretical framework of ‘regimes of engagement’ developed by sociologist Laurent Thévenot (p. 21). Regimes of engagement are based on what Gabowitsch calls ‘social or political grammar[s]: rules that structure how we relate to each other without themselves dictating the content of the relationship; rules that decide what it means to be an individual in a space that we share with others’ (p. 22). Gabowitsch goes on to note that what Thévenot calls the ‘liberal grammar,’ the way that social relations are largely structured in liberal societies, while useful for understanding protest, can also be constraining, especially when looking at Russian society. To expand our understanding of the nature of protest in Russia, Gabowitsch proposes that we pay more attention to certain shared objects of attachment, cultural symbols and physical places—which Thévenot refers to as ‘common-places.’ These sustain a ‘grammar of personal affinity,’ which Gabowitsch contends is strong in Russia and demands greater scholarly attention (p. 24).
Gabowitsch has written an engaging study of recent Russian protests, ensuring that the particularities of Russia are understood in their context, while at the same time drawing connections to the wider scholarly literature on protest. Protest in Putin’s Russia challenges common interpretations of Russian political culture that view conflicts in the country through a series of binaries: ‘regime and opposition, civil and uncivil society, cosmopolitan Moscow and apathetic provincial Russia, or conservative majority and a liberal urban middle class’ (p.12). Overall, this nuanced work will prove useful for those studying contemporary Russia from disciplines as varied as political science, sociology, anthropology, religious studies and literary studies.