Where Is the Movement Going: the Identity of Russian protest 2011-2012

written by Oleg Zhuravlev, Natalya Savelyeva, Maxim Alyukov (Laboratory of Public Sociology)



The Bolotnaya Square protest, which divided Russian society in 2011, is now barely discussed in any public forum.  How can it be that the first real large-scale protest since 1993 has been forgotten so quickly, and although it did prompt repression by the government, did not succeed in becoming a long-term social movement with the ability to radically change society?  Many commentators attempted to answer this question with a discussion of the weakness of the political opposition and institutions of civil society in Russia, or of the protest leaders’ inability to work out a political program or single list of demands.  However, even if we are not in a position to fully understand its consequences, there’s the example of Ukraine, where a vast protest movement emerged and the political regime. Of course, Ukrainian civil society and political opposition are more developed, although they did not play at all a decisive role in the triumph of Maidan.  On the contrary, the so-called opposition leaders–Yatsenyuk, Klichko, Tyahnibok and others–did not take decisive action, holding up the development of a general agenda while also inspiring dissatisfaction among the protesters and causing opposition party ratings to fall critically.  Besides the activities of members of the far-right paramilitary groups, one of the most powerful forces of the revolution was the military legions, groups made up of ordinary people from different regions of Ukraine, and the driving force of protest was self-organized peaceful citizens, many of whom not long before had been apolitical.

At Maidan and Bolotnaya we observed a wave of politicization of ordinary people, who trusted neither the government nor political parties and who furthermore viewed the speakers of the opposition who spoke from the stage at the protests with skepticism.  As important as the setting itself was, both in the context of the political conditions within our countries and on the international stage, the engine of the protests was specifically “the masses,” creating their own space at both Bolotnaya and Maidan, separate from the stage.  In both Russia and Ukraine the protesters demonstrated their independence from “dirty” politics and their resolve in the face of power.  Addressing the government with the slogans “We will go further,” “We won’t go if you won’t,” it seemed, was a approach favored by both the Bolotnaya activists and Maidan’s revolutionarily-minded participants.  However, in contrast to the Ukrainian revolution,  in which the dynamic that sprang up with the passing of time ultimately led to the change of power and a fractious civil war, the “Fair Elections” movement, after a series of meetings, processions, and marches, simply died out, “came to nothing.” (The most important result of the “Bolotnaya” movement proved to be local citizen unions, taking part in community improvement initiatives and in local elections, although their quantity and number is not commensurate with the scale of the mass protests of 2011-2012).

To understand why it happened this way, we have not only to analyze the movements’ political contexts, but also to turn to the old Marxist question of the collective subject of the protest itself.


How could one characterize the collective subject of the Bolotnaya protest, and the way in which its character influenced the dynamic of the “White Ribbon” movement?  In other words, how did it unite thousands of protesters, in many ways very different from one another?  What was the collective identity of the protesters, their ideology and interests?  To answer these questions, we analyzed three basic elements of the movement, enabling ourselves to address the question of collective identity:  its slogans, its demands, and the attitude of the protesters to their representatives and representation.  The material of analysis was provided by our research on the movement “For Free Elections,” for which we conducted interviews with participants of the meetings.  We also used the PEPS database of protest slogans, kindly made available to us by Mikhail Gabowirsich.[2]

Protests and revolutions are nourished by the foretaste of and desire for the new order that they mean to bring about.  However, the innovation that revolutionary movements bring with them consists not only of a new political regime and new institutions but also, and above all, a new collective identity, born in the course of the protests themselves.  And it is this new identity, in uniting people and allowing them to conceive of themselves as a part of a single collective subject, that allows the movement to endure and triumph.  In the specific, narrow sense, we could say that Bolotnaya was not a revolution, but had a revolutionary “component”, insofar as it, like all revolutions beginning with the French, created a collective identity, not only uniting all the protesters but also aspiring to universality, to representation and unification of the entire country.  “Nobody loves Putin.” – this typical slogan of the “White Ribbon” movement says a lot about its collective subject.  But what is the actual content of this identity?

Our research showed that professional, class-based, and ideological identities were not widespread at Bolotnaya.  In other words, identities such as “we are unemployed,” “We are democrats,” or “We are educated and free,” were marginal to the movement’s understanding of itself.  Our analyses of the interviews, like our analyses of the slogans, demonstrated that the two dominant themes of identity were at first glance paradoxical:  on the one hand, the “we” of the protesters, who united the act of going out onto the square itself with the spontaneous feeling of solidarity that sprang up there, was abstract and situational, but it nevertheless aspired to represent the whole country.  On the other hand, there were the personal identities of the participants, individualists who imagined this same “we” as a collection of individual atoms, of private individuals.

There were also many small collectives who represented various political movements and social groups, but were marginal when compared to the dominant identities.


To directly refer to the subject of the action the participants of the meetings used several vague categories such as “the nation,” “citizens,” “the country,” “Russia,” and “146%.”  At first glance, it seems that they refer to concrete groups, albeit broad, undefined ones, such as, for example, “residents of a single country.”  In addition, they have their own goal of not indicating a specific group, but asserting the community as such by using universal categories that include all members of society.  Slogans such as “#ordinarypeople,” “Russia, get up!,” or “We are citizens of a free country!” do not articulate any new or previously created specific identities referring to existing groups, their interests, or demands.  On the contrary, this abstract identity refers to a situational unity of all protesters, having suddenly come together at the meeting and feeling solidarity.  It recalls what Sidney Tarrow in his analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement calls “we are here”-identity.  She points out that the specificity of the “we are here”-identity itself shows, on the one hand, its fundamental ambiguity, and on the other an ambition to show that the existence of the movement as a whole is more important even than the satisfaction of any demands originating with one or another social subjects.[3]  Filling the space of slogans with expressions such as “Can you see us over there?  That’s us!,” and “We exist!,” the “For Fair Elections” movement represented itself by highlighting its own undefined existence.  The “we” of the protesters says nothing about their interests or goals, but it does announce that ordinary people’s solidarity, considered by the government incapable of collective action, is a reality rather than a mystification.  This avoidance of self-definition went hand-in-hand with a strategy of individual representation.  The refusal to identify different groups by their individual interests within the single whole of the protest meant that its basic element was necessarily the individual.  Paradoxically, the lack of collective existence may have been  caused by the fact that people went to the meeting and saw a lot of different people after a long period of political apathy.  The universal and abstract “we” of all the protesters indicates the insufficiency of collectivity, as much as that “we” can fall apart in a moment into its individual parts, not belonging to any concrete commonality.  This is expressed in the frequent use of the possessive (“My voice was stolen,” etc.) and reflexive pronouns (“I want to choose the president myself,” etc.), appeals to personal wishes (“I don’t want 146%, I want the truth!”), feelings (“I am very angry!!,” etc.), and personal experience (“I saw them stuff the ballot-box.”).  In other words, the majority of the participants of the protests appealed using the first person, represented with their slogans not their group affiliation, but their individuality.

Besides the obvious contradictions of an all-inclusive unity of the apathetic and the individualistic union of private citizens, both identities are characterized by a refusal to provide these “we”s with any content rooted in allegiance to a group.  The collective identity of the protest is tautological:  it does not serve as an instrument of expression of social content (that is, of the goals and interests of the sociopolitical subject of society) through the medium of a political form (i.e., a political association of citizens along with the mechanisms of representation), but instead content is subordinate to form:  people gathered together to express a situationally created feeling of community and to demand the acknowledgment of the authentic nature of the event of mobilization itself.


Is it possible that the “emptiness” and tautological nature of the foundational identities of the protest are a consequence of the political inexperience of the protesters?  Our research showed that the avoidance of sociopolitical self-definition of the collective “we” was a conscious step, a particular strategy of the protesters.  To demonstrate this, we turn to the answers we received to one of our questions:  “Do you think that the “Movement for Fair Elections” should include new demands?”, and to our analysis of voting strategies for the Coordinating Council of the opposition.  The answers we received to these questions led us to conclude that the protesters consciously did not want to include any concrete demands in the movement’s agenda for fear of singling out within the movement specific collective identities and fracturing the abstract “we” of all the protesters, which was considered a guarantee of solidarity and the durability of the movement.  Here is a typical example:

V:  Do you think the movement for fair elections could possibly include any social demands?

O:  The movement “For Fair Elections” is good because it unites a lot of people.  And if it is changed in some way to include some social or political demands, anything other than fair elections, this would just divide people.  Some people would support some of the demands, some people are on the left, some are on the right, some are against private property, somebody wants something else, and so on.  It would just divide people, it would not be such a strong movement, and everything would die off.  (male, b. 1988, higher education, software developer, 26 February 2012, Moscow)

Furthermore, our respondents even refused to include in the general agenda social, economic, and political problems that appeared socially important and might demand solutions at the level of civil society and government.  We examined the logic behind this refusal by studying the voting strategies of the Coordinating Council of the opposition:

“I made notes every time after the debates.  I took note of people who were capable of talking about their ideas beautifully, coherently, of drawing a crowd, whose point of view…I agree with, and even those with whom I didn’t agree, for example the nationalists, but those who could unite the protest.

…Probably, KS should organize the protest meetings and make people of different viewpoints not argue with each other, and go out and do what had to be done that day.” (male, b 1980, higher education, doctor, accountant, 20 October, 2012, St. Petersburg.)

As in our analysis of the slogans, in the advancement of demands and strategies of voting the principle of individualism presents an alternative to the situational and universal “we” of the protesters, exchanging the logic of political preferences or interests of the groups to which the protesters belong for the logic of personal sympathies and individual freedom:

V:  Who are you planning to vote for?

O1:  I plan to vote for whoever I’ve been hearing about the most.  Because I don’t know the others…

O1:  Well basically, for individuals, of course.

O2:  Not for points of view, but for people.

O1:  And they will change their points of view at this meeting.  If they don’t, we’ll help them (laughs).  (O1: female (mother), b. around 1960, higher education, engineer-meteorologist; O2: female (daughter), b. around 1980, higher education, journalist, 20 October 2012, Moscow)

According to the participants of the “white-ribbon” movement, the independence of individuality from collective interests presents a guarantee of “the unity of the different”:

V:  What did you like or dislike about today’s meeting?

O1:  What didn’t I like?  Really, that everyone kind of came together, and then here split into their own parties and said only that we’re right and don’t listen to the others.  Although everyone’s sort of together.

O2:  We say our position, if they ask.  We don’t impose ourselves.

O1:  Yes, I don’t like to impose.  I don’t want to impose myself on anyone.” (male, b.1985, higher education, surveyor; male (brother), b.1987, higher education (completing the last year by correspondence), sailor, 4 February 2012, St. Petersburg)

Did this strategy of maintaining unity by refusing self-definition help the movement survive and succeed?


Experience shows that for mass movements and revolutions a vague and all-encompassing identity can become a guarantor of success, but only when it is provided with social (or even nationalistic) content.  For example, the was the influential faction within the Occupy Wall Street movement that consciously refused to work out concrete demands in order to be able to announce that “We are the 99%.”  However, this apparently abstract “we” was full of concrete meaning:  it was the “we” of the non-privileged majority of Americans, who, unlike the richest 1%, suffered as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.  Having avoided concrete demands, having pitted the simple people of all Ukraine against the corrupt and criminal power, Maidan articulated a fully concrete nationalistic identity, one that had become increasingly widespread over the last decade and that reached the peak of its strength at Maidan, having morphed from a cultural-linguistic identity into a civic one. This identity not only allowed the protesters to withstand the pressure of the Berkut, but also secured mass support for the war against Russian actions in the southeast, and against those residents of Ukraine who did not want to become a national minority (however inclusive and indifferent to language, nationality and regional affiliation Maidan may have been at its beginning). The Bolotnaya protest, by contrast, by avoiding self-determination in an attempt to protect the unity and strength of the movement, frustrated its participants and bred feelings of redundancy. The abstract identity of the “Movement for Fair Elections,” which maintained the situational unity of all the protesters, was designed to ensure the reproduction of the protest movement, to protect and extend it: “We will come again!” But the tautology and emptiness of its identity did not enable the movement’s dynamics; rather, it promoted the endless repetition of its basic event, its base element, the meeting—without any perspective on the future. The vacuity of the movement’s identity led it to tread water rather than develop. At some point everyone had enough of “coming again” and went home. It must be noted that, in addition to not proposing social demands, the protesters also did not propose political demands: the main “demand” of the “fair elections” was not so much compromise on political conditions, central to the different factions of the movement, as a metaphor for a normally functioning society. Despite its apparent concreteness, the demand for “fair elections” intuitively became understood by the protesters as a metaphor of an effectively working social system in which no one steals, lies, takes bribes, etc. For this reason many protesters insisted that the problem of the elections needed to be addressed first, and that everything else would “take care of itself:”

O: I think that the demand for fair elections in itself implies certain changes that will make life better not only for the hipsters, for example, but also for retired people, and so on. That is, global changes. It’s not so simple: “Let’s put whoever did it in jail. Once again, it is the system. That is, everything is interrelated and everything is connected (female, b. around 1987, host of a radio music program, 4 February, 2012, Saint Petersburg).               

Why did the Russian protest movement persistently steer away from sociopolitical self-definition? In our view, there are two reasons for this rejection. First, there is the vague structure of class composition of post-Soviet society, which has inhibited a distinct feeling of social belonging. To the question of what class or stratum of society you belong to, in the majority of instances we received extremely vague answers, from “I hadn’t thought about that,” to “I’d like to be middle class.” This supports the hypothesis of the sociologist A. Bikbov, who maintains that an unstable feeling of group belonging inhibits political articulation and the representation of the interests and values of any social group.[4] Second, the avoidance of the construction of specific collective identity can be explained by the inertia of post-communist depoliticization, which is characterized by the dismantling of all political debates and ideological discourses as attributes of the totalitarian Soviet Union or as the venal and mendacious “big politics” of the 1990s, which repressed public sphere and substituted it with “political technologies” and implemented neoliberal reforms that turned out to be a property redistribution within the neo-patrimonial networks of politicians and big businessmen. For this reason, instead of the articulation of their own specific group interests and values, which in many cases leads to anti-government protests, the protesters turn to the fundamentally non-political and even antipolitical language of “authenticity”[5]: for moral discourse, maintaining the solidarity of all “honest people” in the face of a dishonest power or nationalistic discourse, uniting all “Ukrainians” against an external enemy and its internal collaborators, beginning with Yanukovich and moving on to the pro-separatist residents of the Donbass, characterized as “passive” and “susceptible to Russian propaganda.”  In this respect the seemingly successful (at least when compared to the Russian) Ukrainian protest begins to resemble its Russian counterpart, demonstrating its own “birth defect” that precipitates a political fiasco. The political bankruptcy of the naïve language of authenticity—which in certain cases leads to the movement dying out and demobilizing, and in others becomes the language for the justification of civil war, pitting people who share social interests against one another—forces one to ponder the necessity of a leftist political culture, one that is currently lacking in our political space, one that would insist on the primacy of social problems and their articulation in a political program.

A longer version of this article can be found in the book The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013 (forthcoming from Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie), written by the Laboratory of Public Sociology in coordination with the European University in St Petersburg and the Smolny Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St Petersburg State University.

Translated from the Russian by Emma Claire Foley                   

Laboratory of Public sociology (PS Lab) is an autonomous project of young researchers based on Center for Independent Social Research. PS Lab is the new incarnation of a research group “Politicization Researchers Collective” where scholars from different fields studied Russian protests in 2011-2012. More information on their website.

[1] An independent group of social scientists whose research focuses on post-Soviet social movements.  URL: http://cisr.ru/platform/ps-lab/

[2] “Protest Events, Photos, and Slogans” – a database of protest actions, photographs, and slogans, assembled by Mikhail Gabovich and his colleagues. URL: http://gabowitsch.net/peps-ru/

[3] Tarrow, S.  Why Occupy Wall Street is Not the Tea Party of the Left.  The United States’ Long History of Protest [electronic resource] // Foreign Affairs, October 10, 2011. URL: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136401/sidney-tarrow/why-occupy-wall-street-is-not-the-tea-party-of-the-left (date of access: 10.04.2013)

[4] A. Bikbov, “Representation and Self-Authorization” [Electronic Resource], Logos 4 (2012), http://morebo.ru/tema/segodnja/item/1362604787331 (last accessed: 28.01.2014).

[5] I. Matveev, «The Effect of Authenticity» [Electronic Resource], Russ.ru, March 12, 2012, http://www.russ.ru/Mirovaya-povestka/Effekt-podlinnosti (last accessed: 27.02.2014).



Laboratory of Public sociology (PS Lab) is an autonomous project of young researchers based on Center for Independent Social Research. PS Lab is the new incarnation of a research group “Politicization Researchers Collective” where scholars from different fields studied Russian protests in 2011-2012. More information on their website.