Monday, June 24, 2019

Another Survival of the Soviet Past: Russians Distinguish Political Protests from Social Ones --Even When These Overlap

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 22 – The Center for Social-Labor Rights, an NGO that has been the recipient of numerous presidential grants, says that in the first quarter of this year, as compared to the same period in 2018, the number of protests on social issues went up while the number of those with political agendas went down, Kommersant reports (

            The Center analyzed 429 actions, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, and reports that what it calls social protests rose from 86 to 157 while the number of protests it classified as political fell from 149 to 108, a trend that the Kremlin certainly welcomes but one that may be more an artifact of the classification system than of reality.

            That is because the line between social and political protests is thin. If people complain about a social issue, they may be raising political issues because only those in power can solve them.  Nonetheless, the division exists in the minds of many Russians and has since Soviet times, Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center told the paper. 

            Russians “more willingly participate in social protests than in political ones,” he says, both because they think they may achieve more if they don’t label their protests political and because “from their point of view, political actions are the prerogative of the opposition” rather than of ordinary people.

            According to Gudkov, “this is the customary conformism of the Russian population which has been inherited from Soviet times.”  But precisely because of this, it is far more difficult that the Center suggests to divide protests neatly into these categories. Self-designations clearly don’t help, and those who do the classifying have their own interests.

            A more objective finding from the Center is this: in the first quarter of 2019, there were demonstrations and protests in places which had never or only rarely had them in the past, a trend that undercuts the Kommersant-trumped finding in two ways. It suggests the Kremlin faces a bigger problem than it did.

            And, more important, it is an indication that Russians in places many in the capital and the West write off as hopelessly backward are in fact becoming more willing to speak up for themselves – something that in turn means that they are becoming less Soviet in this way than many, including the Kremlin, assume. 

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