In Russia’s new protest cycle, a demand for a democratic state emerges

Over the past two years, public protests have become increasingly common in Russia: a conflict over the Shiyes

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Over the past two years, public protests have become increasingly common in Russia: a conflict over the Shiyes landfill site in Russia’s far north; a campaign against an Orthodox church being built on a Ekaterinburg city square; protests in Moscow in support of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, and over city council elections - these actions have become a milestone in the recent history of protest politics in the country. Or at least, that’s how it feels for activists, interested observers and expert commentators.

Some commentators have rushed to see something new and revolutionary in these “regional” protests - a radical challenge to the Russian state by society. But does this view betray a certain confirmation bias? A new study of the Ekaterinburg and Shiyes protests in 2019 suggests a different picture: these protests have crystallised a demand for a democratic state in Russia - one that would be capable of dialogue with civil society, act in the interests of the “people” and be accountable to them.

This is a demand by active citizens, rather than passive individuals and it signifies something bigger than just “sympathy for the state”. Indeed, perhaps we are seeing a shift from the politics of protest to grassroots politics as a regular process in Russia.

“The sovereignty of civil society”

A series of Russian political commentators, including journalists and social scientists, have called the campaigns at Shiyes and Ekaterinburg nothing less than the “future of civic protest in Russia”. According to this version of events, the most important feature of these protests is the “rise of Russian society as a historical subject and the start of its separation from the state”, and the “birth of the anti-state individual”.

In our view, such a strong conclusion does not reflect the new reality of Russia’s protest movements, but rather projects onto them the “anti-state” consensus that has emerged in Russian liberal circles. This consensus suggests that Russian civil society’s main task is claiming “sovereignty in relation to the state”. It’s easy to understand this interpretation: when “normal people” or local activists, rather than opposition politicians, start criticising the authorities when trying to fix concrete problems (often around, for example, urban development), it’s easy to fall prey to the illusion that Russian society has at last started fighting against its criminal state.

Rally against election falsification in December 2011, which set off a cycle of protests often known by the shorthand "Bolotnaya" | Public Domain / Zurab Zavakhadze / Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, there’s nothing new in this mix of local activism and high politics. After the Bolotnaya Square protest cycle in 2011-2013, the populist language of “people versus the authorities” became widely used in Russia, making its way into various spheres of civil society. But it’s important to note that struggling against the authorities is not the same as fighting the state.

Against the desire to see an anti-state mood among the protesters in Ekaterinburg and Shiyes, our sociological analysis shows that if there is something principally new in these protests, then it’s not the combination of protest “politics” and local problems, but the emergence of a demand for a democratic state.

If participants in Bolotnaya and the post-Bolotnaya protests seemed to create a “parallel world” of authentic, honest and sincere civil society which opposed the state of “crooks and thieves”, then the protesters in Ekaterinburg and Shiyes did not place themselves in opposition to the state as an institution. Indeed, this move was necessary first and foremost to ensure that state representatives listened to people’s opinions.

This is why, in Ekaterinburg, after local authorities offered a compromise and announced they were preparing to hold a city-wide vote on the future location of the church, the protest came to its logical conclusion. Citizens went home. For many, collective dissatisfaction gave way to a feeling of pride over having at last broken the wall of official silence and indifference which separated them from the state.

Protests in Ekaterinburg over the proposed construction of an Orthodox church, 2019 | (c) TASS/SIPA USA/PA Image. All rights reserved

And this is why when hopes for the swift intervention of state officials, including law enforcement bodies and Vladimir Putin himself, into the Shiyes standoff were unsuccessful, the protest in northern Russian began to take on a note of opposition radicalism.

The “politicisation” of Russia’s new regional protests lies not in the Bolotnaya-era idea of hostile “sovereignty” towards the state, but rather the opposite - these protests articulated an image of a democratic state that can answer people’s needs and interests. That said, the protesters in Ekaterinburg and Shiyes often formulated this desire for a democratic state differently.

The fight for the square in Ekaterinburg

At first glance, the participants of the 2019 Ekaterinburg protest cycle might appear to be radical “anti-state” protesters. Even the most moderate of them used the language of the “people versus the authorities”. They were decisive, ready to go to the street and even pull down fences. In the end, the target of their criticism and struggle was the city administration, the Russian Orthodox church, and an oligarch known for his conservative rhetoric. These three elements symbolise the modern Russian state - corrupt, conservative and authoritarian.

Watch some of the more heated moments during the Ekaterinburg church protests in May 2019.

However, this doesn’t mean that the protesters were using the pretext of local activism to throw down a challenge to the Russian state. Nikolay (hereinafter, fictitious names are used), a 20-year-old barista and design student, admits from the very beginning that protest participants wanted a dialogue with the state. “The people don’t have a dialogue with the authorities… Many people were saying ‘Who cares about the church and all this protest! Maybe it should be built here, but it has to be discussed properly first!’ It’s like we didn’t agree to the very process of discussion.”

Aside from protecting the square, we see that protesters were also concerned with the quality of communication with the authorities. Organising and improving this communication was a demand frequently aired in our interviews. That said, our intellectual opponents could also object - yes, the protesters were talking about referendums, procedures and dialogue between citizens and the state, but not because they wanted this dialogue, but because this is how they criticised the state for its lack of democracy and ability to listen. In other words, Ekaterinburg protesters’ discussions about dialogue were an opportunity to highlight a defect in the state, its lack of capacity for dialogue itself.

But, from the start of the protest in Ekaterinburg, people had the expectation that the state would listen to them, which is why they were so surprised that the “authorities and police, law enforcement in the first days… simply missed this issue, they didn’t get involved, state their position and just left events to take their own course”, according to Alexander, а 28-year-old university lecturer and gym trainer.

That said, the culture of dialogue and pluralism that characterised the Ekatinerburg protest stopped the protesters from seeing the state, by default, as autocrats indifferent to the opinion of its citizens. Moreover, at times activists criticised themselves for their inability to find points of dialogue with the authorities. Valeria, 17-year-old pupil, for example, expressed regret that “they didn’t give [the mayor of Ekaterinburg] the opportunity” to speak when he came to the square.

After a TV host called Ekaterinburg "city of devils" over the church protests, locals erected a welcome sign with the same name | Source: YouTube

It may seem surprising, but Ekaterinburg protesters often intimated that protest was something undesirable, a last resort that can be avoided as long as there is a functioning mechanism for interaction with the state, and democratic principles of making decisions. For Anastasya, 40-year-old salesperson, the Ekaterinburg square protest was her first ever protest. When we asked whether she was planning to participate in future actions, she said: “I don’t think so: I would possibly try to become more engaged in some activity that would avoid such events and organise a dialogue with the powers-that-be on various subjects so that the situation doesn’t come to a head.”

In this sense, participants of the Ekaterinburg square protests were not “anti-state”, but neither were they passive bearers of “paternalist consciousness”. They didn’t silently expect protection or privileges from the state, but actively worked towards their goals. The protesters saw the lack of two-way communication and dialogue as a general political problem, one which needed to be solved via cooperation - not necessarily without conflict - between state and society.

A demand for representation

This movement towards and not away from the state is what differentiates the protests in Ekaterinburg and Shiyes from previous mobilisations in Russia.

Protesters did not criticise the state as something inherently opposite to civil society, rather they were regretful that the Russian political elite “had cut itself off from the people”. As a result, these protests put the problem of political representation on the agenda - and this is what makes them special or innovative. In previous studies, Public Sociology Laboratory has pointed out the “anti-representative” character of the Bolotnaya and post-Bolotnaya protests (despite their main slogan of “honest elections”). The protesters’ refusal of political representation was provoked by their ideas about the state and politics as something “dirty” and “false”, and the public sphere of protests as something clean and authentic.

Russian protesters with white ribbons, a symbol of protest, gather together during a rally against alleged vote rigging at Bolotnaya Square, Moscow | )c) Alexander Zemlianichenko AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Bolotnaya’s anti-representative mood also signalled a refusal of concrete political demands to the state about how it should be constructed. In other words, Bolotnaya-era protesters weren’t interested in creating their own political party, nor did they consider how “high” politics and the state should interact. Thus their slogans (“You don’t even represent/imagine us!” - the word for imagine and represent is the same in Russian; “I didn’t vote for these bastards, I voted for the other ones!”) asserted that the Russian state was unable to see its citizens - and that citizens did not want to imagine their own state.

This position hindered any project of political representation of the protest movement. In other words, the protesters did not want the movement to be represented in “politics” (for example, in parliament). Moreover they insisted that the Bolotnaya movement should distance itself from “politics”. The Bolotnaya-era pathos centred not only on a political divide between citizen and state, but a moral and ethical one, too. This mood suited the “anti-state consensus” among Russian liberal circles, which imagines passive citizens as bearers of “paternalistic” consciousness and the principal supporters of the state. These people, it seems, are the main advocates for the state’s “interference” in society, the market and political competition. But according to this version of things, Russia’s active people, the “citizens”, are definitely outside or against the state.

The protests at Shiyes and Ekaterinburg break out of this picture, combining grassroots civic activity and a demand for a just, democratic and functioning state. The demand for political representation is the result of this combination. Participants in the Ekaterinburg square protests reflected on how politicians - representatives of the people - should act, and what qualities they should have. “There should be people with... some idea of how to improve their own lives and those of others, and, accordingly, these people should try to climb the ladder of power to put these ideas into action,” says Konstantin, a 45-year-old artist who did not finish university.

The protesters, connecting the conflict over the Ekaterinburg square with the problem of the state, also thought about how communication and democratic decision-making on big political issues should work. Anastasya, for example, said: “Well, the current situation demonstrates well that normal people should have the opportunity to state their position. There would then be less likelihood of conflicts arising over the authorities not listening to the people. To take town planning, which is where we have problems now, we might have to revisit the concept of public hearings. Perhaps there’s something wrong with them. At a minimum they are not announced properly, as the case with the church shows.”

In Anastasya’s statement we can see how the language of “people versus the authorities”, endemic to Russia’s opposition, and the desire for dialogue can produce a demand for political representation. Anastasya also talks about the need for concrete steps to be taken to create mechanisms for the regular participation of citizens in decision-making concerning city life: “We need to create some kind of association that would take part in these issues around squares, parks, green spaces and so on, and do it without waiting for a situation to arise where people will have to give their opinions…” Her anti-radical and even anti-protest mood does not lead to apathy or paternalism, but rather focused and long-term participation in politics. She talks about the need to set up an organisation “already now”, “without waiting” for conflict, which is unwelcome.

The demand for political representation and dialogue with the state is also important because it turns Russia’s protest politics from a series of conflict events into an institutionalised process, one with a view to building a new political system. “It would be really great if we could resolve this issue by other means,” said Irina, a 20-year-old student protesting in Ekaterinburg. “We hold regular elections to the Duma and we elect our president. So it wouldn’t cost a lot more to include this issue in an agenda devoted to some other voting exercises.” The word “regular” in the last quote suggests the demand for democratic politics not in the form of a series of actions and campaigns, but as a long-term process with public involvement.

Images from the Shiyes protest | Images provided by authors

Thus, the proposition made by analysts that Russian “protesters are not appealing to the state as a guarantee and defender of their rights” does not withstand criticism. The situation is, in fact, the other way round. As one of our respondents, Mikhail, a 20-year-old student with libertarian views, said: “Since, according to the Russian Constitution the sole source of power is the people… the state must act in dialogue [with the people]. The government should be the people, and there should be no differences between the two [...] If someone is trying to build something on city property, there should be a referendum on the issue.”

The protesters appealed to the state precisely as a guarantor and defender of their rights. In other words, activists turn to the state not as the “Putin regime”, “crooks and thieves” or a set of all-too real public officials - they appeal to it as the highest body of power that guarantees the rights and interests of citizens. Another instance of dealing with the authorities as if they were the state, that is the highest democratic institution, is the protest at Shiyes.

The struggle for Shiyes

If you want to, you can see even bigger anti-state moods among the activists in Shiyes in comparison with Ekaterinburg.

Indeed, if the Ekaterinburg protesters called on the authorities to enter into a dialogue with them, the protesters at Shiyes had an even more irreconcilable position. They emphasised that “there could be no compromises on this issue”, given that “96.6% of residents of Arkhangelsk region are categorically against the construction of the landfill… and don’t try to convince us otherwise”. Yet despite the uncompromising position, the Shiyes protesters, just like the activists in Ekaterinburg, did not put themselves in opposition to the state as an institution, but rather judged public officials against their idealistic concept of the state. The difference between the Ekaterinburg and Shiyes protesters in terms of their visions of the state is that while the former demanded dialogue, the latter called on the state to take “the people’s side”.

Given that protesters at Shiyes felt the support of the overwhelming majority of residents of Arkhangelsk region and the Komi republic over the landfill, they therefore appealed to the “will of the people” when dealing with the state, rather than calling for a referendum. Ivan, a 19-year-old student who lived for a time at the protest camp in Shiyes, described the private security firms and police officers they had to deal with in the following terms: “they are going against the people, the will of the people and the constitution”.

Residents of the region recorded video messages addressed to President Putin (the “guarantee of the Russian Constitution”), requesting that he intervene in the citizens’ conflict with the local authorities and stop the landfill construction, thereby taking “the people’s side”. These actions weren’t just a rhetorical move designed to demonstrate the peaceful nature of their protest and the lawlessness of the authorities. They were the result of an expectation that the central public authorities are capable and ready of acting authoritatively, according to the highest law in Russia.

Calling on Putin, the Shiyes activists showed themselves not as paternalists, expecting the state to solve problems for them, but as citizens who see the problem of state power as an issue for all. This is why after the political leadership made no public moves on Shiyes, the protest radicalised.

Shiyes protest camp | Source: VKontakte

Roman, a 41-year-old skilled oil-rig worker with higher education, says: “This protest is a defence of the Homeland from its internal enemy, which is destroying its people… The protest hasn’t been ecological one for a long time, now it’s a political one. And the aim of this whole protest is to change the government in our country. The government of criminals, thieves and bandits should be changed for a government of honest, good people who will observe the law for themselves, and take this law to the people”. In this revolutionary demand for a change of government, we see not an anti-state position, but rather an image of the ideal “people’s state”, which should not only guarantee the rule of law and justice, but educate people, too.

Much like the protests in Ekaterinburg, the activists in Shiyes articulated a demand for political representation. What’s interesting is that the populist language of “people and the authorities”, which became widely used thanks to Bolotnaya and its aftermath, can both connect these two, as well as divide them.

Evgeniya is 46, and she works as a university lecturer. During a conversation with us, she criticised representatives of the local authorities, who, according to her, should have taken the side of “the people” in the Shiyes conflict. “We pay their wages, and they only do what the higher-ups tell them… The local authorities should represent the people, their interests!” We can see the demand for political representation under federalism here: in a “people’s” state, the local authorities should represent the interests of the local population before the federal government, which would make the latter “belong to the people”.

The Shiyes protesters also talked about how the mechanisms and procedures of democratic state should look like. Roman, for example, said: “The power should come from the people! That is, people should have the right to vote, and people should vote… the authorities should be elected. It should go from small units right up to the top, to the State Duma, we’ll say. The construction, the structure itself, may remain how it is now. But we need to get rid of all those people.”

Precisely this demand for representation is the point where Shiyes protesters shift from discussing concrete issues to “politics”. To solve the landfill issue, you need directly elected governors. For example, Ivan says: “Our [demands] are ecological. But! When the government doesn’t listen to you, then all your demands quickly transform into political demands… We need to demand the return of democratic elections. Including the head of Arkhangelsk city.”

The issue is not that the Russian state is preventing people from “living on their land how they want to”, but that, according to these people, ecological problems are impossible to solve without a strong democratic “people’s state”.

Participants of Shiyes protest camp call on Vladimir Putin to intervene in the conflict, June 2019.

The Shiyes activists spoke of representative politics as a regular process that requires responsible people and participation from below. Maria, a 41-year-old manager at a telecommunications company, shares her reflections. “[People] should vote for the person they trust [...] who listens to people’s opinions and again they should be accountable to people, what they did, did they carry out the promises they made. But everything is different here now!”

The Shiyes protesters did not oppose the state as an institution to civil society, they rather criticised the Russian authorities for losing their connection with society, the “people”. In their opinion, the state can restore that connection through a system of political representation, which would make the state democratic, and the Russian North environmentally sound.


Our conclusions in this study are not an attempt to pose a “pro-statist” version of democratic politics in criticism of our colleagues who idealise a “sovereign” civil society. It’s too early to forecast how protesters’ attitude to the state will develop in Russia - it could be highly varied, as a strong belief in the state could lead to further delegitmisation of the regime.

Russia’s recent vote on constitutional amendments took place amidst a growing crisis of legitimacy. Political commentators noted that Putin, it seems, was far from pleased that he had to play out a show of popular support - not least an unsuccessful one.

Interestingly, ahead of the protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2011-2012, there was no sign of this kind of crisis, despite the castling move of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and widely-recorded falsifications at the ballot box. Protest politics in Russia have been on a journey in the years since. The Bolotnaya and first post-Bolotnaya rallies and marches were more a celebration of togetherness, of the mobilisations themselves, than articulation of political demands and programmes.

By contrast, Russia’s recent protests, including Ekaterinburg, Shiyes and the Moscow city council election rallies, have concentrated on more clearly articulated political goals and projects of social change that could be achieved through state institutions. This path has led from self-absorbed protest actions (“happenings”) to claims for an equal dialogue and substantive conflict with the state, a demand for reforming the state and democracy, and, at last, the right to speak in the name of the Russian constitution. This is why official silence towards protest demands - let alone the rewriting of the constitution - will only deepen the crisis of legitimacy.

More importantly, Russian citizens who are unsatisfied with the current state of affairs will be able to present an alternative when necessary. This is why their refusal of the fleeting “romantic” genre of protest - the one-off actions which dominated previous cycles - is so important, as are the beginnings of sustainable grassroots protest - whether focused on political representation, local self-governance or a combination of the two.

Russia’s protests are becoming more mature, without losing their radicalism and creativity - perhaps because they’re focused outside the capital.

This article was prepared by members of Public Sociology Laboratory, a team of Russian social scientists. Conclusions on the two regional protests were made on the basis of analysing interviews with protest participants in 2019 (more than 30 interviews with protesters in Ekaterinburg, and 30 with protesters in Shiyes), content analysis of video messages by residents of Arkhangelsk region and Komi republic on YouTube and VKontakte, as well as analysing online discussions between participants and outsiders in Ekaterinburg. Violetta Alexandrova, Oleg Zhuravlev, Darya Zykova, Darya Lupenko, Vladislav Siyutkin and Angelina Shesternina collected the data.
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