IV / Counter(revolutionary) war against society

by Oleg Zhuravlev

​​​Volodymyr Ishchenko and Ilya Matveev debate the question of what kind of rationality stands behind Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. Is Russia’s elite an ideologically-motivated political actor? ​​​If so, is its ideology expressive of class interests (as Ishchenko argues) or in contrast with them (as Matveev claims)? ​​ 

​​​I deal with a similar but distinct question. My argument concerns not motivations behind the Russian state’s decision-making, but rather the social condition within which this state is becoming a radical political actor. Before 2011, the Russian state was a more prominent economic actor, retaining a monopoly of power over society through management and policing. ​​​However, after 2011 and especially after 2014, it faced problems that led it into political radicalisation, which, ultimately, brought about the decision to invade Ukraine.

In this essay, I ask the question: is the elite that backs Vladimir Putin a rational economic actor or is it a volitional political subject? This question has not only produced an academic debate, it also puzzles ordinary people in Russia and around the world, who once thought that the Russian elite was made up of ‘crooks and thieves’ (as Russian protesters have said), opportunist managers and administrators, but now recognise it as a group of ideological fanatics.

The decision by the Russian authorities to intervene militarily in Ukraine was the result of a process of what I term the counter-politicisation of the Russian state, in response to the politicisation, sometimes revolutionary, of certain groups in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries.

It is important to note that this counter-politicisation of the state in response to the politicisation of society took place not in the form of political dialogue or a struggle for hegemony, but through these political forces declaring themselves ​independent and thus opposed to each other: the politicisation of social groups and of the state has occurred not through the logic of the creation of a common political space, but rather through the logic of mutual separation and exasperation.

Matveev, in his response to Ishchenko, correctly points out that: ‘Putin’s actions were also driven by the deep fear and mistrust of popular mobilisation. Putin’s inability to comprehend the existence of power in the Arendtian sense, that is, collective social power, ultimately led him to rely on force – repression at home, military aggression abroad’.

The reactionary, counter-revolutionary character of Putin’s war, as well as the ‘detachment from reality’ of the elite, living in an ‘information bubble’, have been noted by a number of experts. At the same time, as a rule, these same experts do not address certain key questions: what are the properties of the social structure in Russia and the post-Soviet countries that lead to this state of mutual isolation and exasperation? What is the role, not only of Putin’s state, but also of the protest movements to which this state is responding? What kind of politicisation did both the contentious social groups (previously apolitical) and the state (previously managerial) ​undergo​​​? To answer these questions, I will briefly examine the state of Russian apolitical society in the 2000s, its tumultuous ​‘​​​hyperpoliticisation​’​​ in the 2010s, and the state’s counter-politicisation that made the war possible.

Depoliticisation and the crisis of hegemony

Post-Soviet Russia has been widely regarded by scholars as a depoliticised society. Depolitici​sation here means not just the political indifference of ordinary people. Indeed, sometimes people might have engaged in collective action, including volunteering, civic activism and even protest campaigns, without crossing the border into the realm of the political: a corrupt and tainted space associated with the state, political parties and oligarchs. At the same time, Putin’s regime consciously avoided the political mobilisation of its own ​support, preferring​​ ​instead to pacify various social groups by guaranteeing them autonomy of private life and economic stability. 

​​​​​​Political theorist Sergey Prozorov describes ‘a mutual exclusion of the state and society from each other’s respective domains, whereby formal politics and social life unfold at such a distance from each other that it is increasingly impossible to conceive of any possible relation between them​’.​​ ​

According to Prozoroy, Putin’s bureaucratic depoliticisation suspends the legitimacy of all political options (witness the decline of all ideological parties, from liberals to communists) without itself occupying a substantive ideological locus.​ ​ ​​​ 

​​​Indeed, as the political scientist Vladimir Gelman points out, the ‘formal politics’ of the state was aimed at ‘the economic performance of the regime’ rather than at the establishment of a hegemonic rule.​​ Thus, the depoliticisation of Putin’s Russia resulted in the mutual exclusion of the social and the political, of the social movements and the state. This also gave ​a ​predominantly economic and managerial character to state governance. In the 2010s, certain social groups in Russia opposed to the government then became increasingly politicised (although society-at-large did not), as did the Russian state in response. However, this politicisation and counter-politicisation did not overcome the logic of mutual exclusion. Instead, it reproduced and intensified this logic.

Protest and ​hyper​politicisation 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was partly a reaction to protest movements in post-​Soviet countries, especially in Ukraine (2014), Belarus (2020), Kazakhstan (2021), and in Russia itself (2012-2021). It is necessary to analyse the specificities of these protests themselves in order to understand why the regime reacted to them by launching a war. In what follows​,​ I will draw on the sociological research of the Public Sociology Laboratory, focusing on the Russian protests, on the ideology and political strategy​ of those involved. From 2011 to 2021​,​ we carried out interviews, focus groups and ethnographic observations​,​ communicating with Russian protesters and activists in different contexts. 

In December 2011, a wave of huge rallies, marches​ and ‘Occupy’ camps began to emerge in Russia, triggered by widespread fraud during the 4 December Duma elections. At the time, there were no strong opposition parties, either within or outside Parliament able to prepare and organise protests of this magnitude. But, after social media platforms (such as Facebook and vkontakte.ru) were flooded by independent observers’ reports of the fraud, and the ruling United Russia party’s historically low results despite manipulating the polls, thousands of people​ ​—​ ​many of them youngsters participating in protests for the first time​ ​—​ ​took to the streets. On the following Sunday, about 100​,​000 people gathered for an officially authorised rally in the centre of Moscow​​ with smaller but still considerable rallies held in other major cities. The protest​e​​rs’ demands centred on fair elections, a rerun of the December vote, and the denunciation of corruption. Honesty and dignity were ​held​​ up as the animating values of the protests. The protesters, heterogeneous as they were, represented on average a richer and more educated strata of the Russian population. 

On 6 May 2012, the police brutally dispersed the protest​e​​rs​,​ afte​r which​​​ many were accused of violence and were imprisoned. That same day, Putin declared victory in the presidential elections. To further complicate matters, the movement faced a severe internal crisis after it failed to propose a clear political program​me​ and develop a strategic agenda. In the wake of these events, the protest​e​​​rs demobilised, at the same time as the state became more authoritarian and repressive. Since then, new protest campaigns have emerged almost every year, while new local anti-Putin activist groups, social movements, ​and ​municipal deputies’ campaigns have taken form. 

The movement ‘For Fair Elections’ was characterised by what can be called ‘the politics of the apolitical’​.​ The Russian protests constituted a movement that based its legitimacy on ‘authentic’ experience of the collective action itself. 

The collective sentiment that those in power had abused the population by stealing the election, as well as the experience of unity in the streets, produced a new collective identity. This identity was self-referential, as it expressed not belonging to a class or commitment to a common political agenda or ideology, but rather the experience of togetherness, itself forged through the act of protesting. At the same time, it was a movement that had strong anti-political ​characteristics that built its image on an opposition between morally dignified protesters and immoral elites. This anti-political element was evident in that the protesters expressed their scepticism towards both the state and opposition parties and politicians. The leaders of the protest were journalists, bloggers, and cultural figures. However, the protest movement was able to move beyond anti-politics by giving birth to a new more politicised civil society. 

​​In our research we show that the protesters avoided articulation of any particular social demands and ideological preferences in favour of moral unity. Moreover, protesters positioned themselves in opposition not only to political elites​,​ but also to ‘politics’ per se. The specificity of the Russian version of ‘anti-politics’ was that while in the West anti-politics has tended to challenge the basis of liberal democracy, the Russian protesters demanded fair elections.

Protestors did not use ‘liberal political grammar​’​,​ which, according to the French sociologist Laurent Thevenot, involves people coming together, communicating, and acting in concert via the articulation and taking into account of individual needs, objectified as a list of publicly available options (for example, competing political parties) to be chosen. Instead, they demonstrated the logic of ‘affinity through common places’ that presupposes a more silent means of uniting and acting in concert, based on the personal, emotional investments people have in what’s common, which can be places (homes or parks), but also songs, pictures, and other such objects. ​​​ 

​​​The theft of votes​​ became a common complaint for Russian protesters. For example, this is how one of the protest​e​​rs we interviewed answered the question of why he decided to attend the protest rallies:

Yes, I believe that [fair elections] are important, because whatever the elections are like, they should be fair. They should not forget we are not fools. People have eyes and brains. We understand everything quite well, and they should not take us for fools. I’m not sure we can shunt aside Putin, because he is backed by major financial organi​s​​ations. He’s the head of state, what can you say? But, in fact, we could at least show them that we are not stupid louts, that we see the violations, that we know they are deceiving us. Why are they doing this? So yes, I support fair elections. What matters is that elections are held. Let people have their say. That is what matters to me: the right to vote (March 2012, St. Petersburg; male protestor with higher education qualifications, born in 1982).

In this case, we see that the appeal to emotions is both subjectively significant and a legitimate argument for the protestor’s involvement in the movement. Our informants told us they had been personally insulted by the manner in which the elections had been held. It was not a problem for the protesters that a vote for a party other than Putin’s United Russia had not been tallied, but rather that each individual vote had not been counted, whatever party the person had voted for. One’s vote was not deemed a means of expressing one’s opinion or part of the machinery for maintaining the commonwealth, but as a personal belonging. Our interview subjects were first morally invested in voting. Then, after encountering proof that their votes had been stolen (in the form of videos published on YouTube), they became outraged:  

Yeah, those videos showing violations [at polling stations]… are quite important. Those videos also influenced me. [I watched] literally a dozen of them, but they had a big impact on me. [Question: In what sense?] Well, you see they’re deceiving you. And anger rises inside you: what the hell?! It’s like you want change, you believe [in the process] and go to vote, you spend time going to the election, you spend two hours or so on it, and before that you spend a bunch of time figuring out whom to vote for, although there is no one to choose from (Interview continued). 

Replete with moralising and personal complaints, such as ‘My vote was stolen!’ and ‘Give me back my vote!’, the expressions of the protesters pointed to the fact that votes were regarded as belonging to individuals, as material even. The protest space itself (together with the stolen votes) turned out to contribute to a sense of the common for participants in the rallies. Their shared identity based on the experience of togetherness was in many ways the result of personal attachment to this space.

​​This political culture, or ideology, characterised protests not only in post-​Soviet countries but also elsewhere during the so-called ‘global wave’ of uprisings from 2011-2014. As Sidney Tarrow wrote about the Occupy Wall Street movement, its legitimacy derived from an occurrence of co-presence experienced by participants during collective action. He defined this type of collective action as the ‘we are here’ movement: ‘By their presence, they are saying only, ​“​​​Recognise us!​” ​​If Occupy Wall Street resembles any movement in recent American history, it would actually be the new women’s movement of the 1970s (…) their foremost demand was for recognition of, and credit for, the gendered reality of everyday life.’ ​​

Their identity​,​ based on the experience of co-presence​,​ was developed not only in opposition to, but also ‘in separation’ from, the Russian authorities. One of the popular slogans of the Russian protesters addressed to those in power was ​‘​​​​Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete’​​​ which simultaneously means ‘You don’t even represent us’ and ‘You can’t even imagine us’, indicating that the protesters opposed those in power not through the articulation of a political alternative but, rather, by celebration of their civic autonomy and moral virtue. At the same time, they sought to de​​legitimise Putin’s regime by labelling it as immoral, corrupt and abusive. 

The protests of 2011-2012 gave birth to a new anti-Putin civil society: local activist groups, the communities of municipal deputies and the movement in support of Alexei Navalny became civic laboratories in which the anti-Putin spirit inherited from the protests was combined with various forms of collective action at different levels, from local to national. As a result, the politicised language used to criticise the government which was formed during 2011-2012 simply became common sense language for the many civil society institutions. It has spread among many small activist collectives across Russia​,​ all loosely connected to each other by their rhetoric and history. Denunciation of the regime, ​and ​a demonstration of its faults became a central goal for the new oppositional and civic movements. 

​​The new civil society that emerged from the protests of 2011-2012 was curiously both anti-political and politicised. It was anti-political in ​that it created​​ realms of collective action autonomous from the state and parties, as well as often rejecting both the state and political parties as legitimate sites of action. And it was politicised because​,​ unlike civic activism that existed in Russia before 2011 when activists focused on local agendas only​,​ it now openly challenged the political regime. This civil society was autonomous from the state and in conflict with the state at the same time. ​​

​​The Russian protests of 2011-2012​,​ as well as the post-protest civil society​,​ can be characterised by what political theorist Anton Jäger calls ‘hyperpolitics’. ‘​T​​he mood of contemporary politics’, Jäger writes, ‘is one of incessant yet diffuse excitation… “Hyper” indicates both a state of supersession and intensification: the elongation of a vowel that has already been vocali​s​​​ed but does not yet spell out a new word. 

This is not simply about securing a sense of continuity with the preceding period of post-politics, which first split politics from policy, and whose division hyperpolitics widens rather than closes.’ It was precisely in this manner that the protests of 2011-2012 in Russia led to the emergence of widespread democratic practices that, in turn, contributed to a crisis of political legitimacy.

​​In an article that I wrote with Ishchenko, entitled ‘Post-Soviet vicious circle: revolution as a reproduction of a crisis of hegemony’,  we showed that the Euromaidan revolution possessed important similarities with the Russian protests in that it constituted an autonomous space of dignified civic action in opposition to corrupt and abusive authorities. Protesters were correct when they declared that those in power could not even have imagined them. Indeed, for political leaders such as Putin, the realm of popular collective action could never be authentic. Rather, it ​represented a​​ political threat to both Russian elites and the country itself manufactured by US elites.​ ​​​​ 

​​In his text,​​​​ Ishchenko rightly argues that Putin conceived the protests and revolutions in the post-​​Soviet countries as a threat to the existing political and economic order. It was for this reason that Putin and his allies believed that in order to preserve Russian sovereignty​,​ the protests must be actively neutralised. The task of suppressing the protests required the state to politicise itself and attack what are regarded as proxies of anti-Russian political forces​ ​– most notably the US. One of these proxies, according to Putin, is the Ukrainian state.  

Counter-politicisation of the state 

​​​​​In Russian and other post-S​oviet countries, the state responded to the protests with its own counter-politicisation through a conservative propaganda campaign. The so-called ‘Crimean Spring’ – the patriotic mobilisation that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – was an important event during this process. However, this counter-politicisation reproduced the mutual exclusion of society and the state instead of bridging the gap between these spaces. Paradoxically, it relied on demobilisation instead of engagement.

I reflect on this in an article written with ​Matveev: 

The Kremlin’s response to the protest movement turned out to be ​‘​​politicisation without mobilisation​’.​​​ It consisted of a crude media campaign to delegitimi​s​​​e the protests in the eyes of the regime’s supporters… The creative style of the protest rallies led by people with high levels of cultural capital was unfamiliar to the broader society. This fact was sophisticatedly exploited by the Kremlin, which turned the discrepancy between the protest movement’s style and ordinary people’s expectations into a kind of ​‘​​​culture war​’… Nevertheless, even in the nationalist fervour of 2014, the regime stopped inches away from finally combining ​‘​​politicisation with mobilisation​’,​​ ​that is, creating its own loyalist street movement. The most striking mobilisation in support of the ​‘​​Crimean Spring​’​​ ​happened in the territory of Ukraine, not Russia. Indeed, it was the war in Eastern Ukraine that attracted newly politicised conservatives​ ​—​ ​combatants, volunteers, and other civic supporters. Within Russia itself, the regime still preferred tight top-down control of any mobilisation or street activity. 

The Russian elite – to be precise​,​ the narrow cadre of military leaders, bureaucrats and businesspeople around Putin – politically mobilised not its audiences but itself. In doing so, it became more concerned with political threats to its power, which it equated with threats to national sovereignty.

​​​​​Putin’s understanding of sovereignty reflects the counter-politicisation of the state and the Russian elite. In a recent speech he articulated his vision of sovereignty in the following terms: ​‘​In order to claim leadership, any country must ensure its sovereignty. Either the country is sovereign, or it is a colony.’ Indeed, Putin has long propounded a concept of sovereignty that he now applies in relation to Ukraine. In a speech delivered on the eve of the war, he asked: ‘Do the Ukrainians themselves understand that their country has been reduced to the level of a colony with a puppet regime? The government has lost its national character and is consistently working toward the complete dissolution of the country’s sovereignty.’ 

Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s national sovereignty turns the reference ​to its ‘complete dissolution’​​ into an ominous threat. But what is most interesting here is his denial of the sovereignty of the people of Ukraine. He thus denies the people the possibility of politicisation, the possibility of becoming a source of sovereignty. ​​

When Putin speaks about sovereignty, he means absolute sovereignty, as understood by Jean Bodin​,​ rather than the popular sovereignty privileged by modern theories of democracy. It is relevant to note the tension that exists between Putin’s conception and that which is today dominant in political theory and in modern constitutions (including that of Russia), according to which sovereignty originates in the will of the people​.

The politicisation of the state was occurring at the same time as a perceived threat posed by a practical realisation of the people’s sovereignty through revolutionary protest in the post-Soviet countries. When people are depoliticised, the state’s sovereign power can be exercised within a managerial mode of government. 

Before 2011,​ Putin’s regime could retain ​a ​monopoly of power without needing to politicise the state. However, after popular mobilisations openly challenged the regime’s legitimacy, it started suppressing its political enemies, who were denied a space of dialogue in which a struggle for hegemony could develop. 

Putin’s embrace of absolute sovereignty precisely constituted the politicisation of the state itself, ​and ​this in turn required the deliberate exclusion of all popular groups. This demanded that the Russian state itself become a counter-revolutionary subject, making itself a source of constituent power. The 2019 Russian propaganda film The Salvation Union, about the Decembrists’ uprising, is revealing. In the film, one of the Decembrists remarks to Emperor Nicholas I: ‘We are the same. You and we have the right aims, but the ways are criminal.’ In these words, one can see the equation of the state with the revolutionaries in the sense that the state produces constitutive (rather than constituted) power, power that creates law rather than obeys it. 

​​The origins of popular sovereignty, in its modern conception, can be traced back to the decline of Medieval Europe and the opening of a space for the self-organisation of the people.​ ​​From this moment on, as Russian sociologist Alexander Filippov notes, revolution is always possible, simply because the people have opportunity for association and action: ‘Underneath the supposedly solid foundation is a boiling magma. And it’s not boiling because someone is doing something wrong. It is not because of the things themselves, but because there, in the depths, is the primordial atomic cauldron of social and political life, from which new tongues of revolutionary flame can burst forth at any moment.’ ​​​ 

The energy of self-organisation in Russia and Ukraine promoted the people as an actual source of sovereignty. 

This ​revolutionary spark was apparent in the slogans of the Russian protest movement: ‘We are the power here’ and ‘You do not even imagine us​​’​.​ ​​It was no surprise, then, that Putin’s political advisor Gleb Pavlovsky responded to a question about the government’s position on the 2011-2012 protests with the following words: ‘Imagine you’re sitting there and all of a sudden a stool bites you in the ass. How would you feel about that? It can’t be!’

​​​​​​​Of course, there are other causes behind Putin’s war against Ukraine and the American-led world order. However, the ​popular politicisation in post-Soviet countries and the Russian state’s counter-politicisation played an important role. The logic of mutual exclusion and hostility intensified a pre-existing political crisis in Russia – a crisis of legitimacy and crisis of hegemony. ​​

As I have argued in my work with Ishchenko, both the rise of bonapartist authoritarianism and the mobilisation of popular discontent were ‘deficient’ reactions to the crisis of hegemony. And, in turn, they created the conditions for the extreme decision to go to war. Interestingly, new ​research​ conducted by the Public Sociology Laboratory shows that it is depolitici​s​​​ation and alienation from the state, not sincere commitment, that stand behind the ​‘​​​support​’​​ ​of a large part of the Russian population for the war. Justifying the war, many of our informants have said that they are not experts in global politics, but that for this reason they trust that those in power have the knowledge to decide when it is appropriate to go to war.

This alienation demonstrates the effectiveness of the Russian state’s counter-politicisation. In the name of national sovereignty, Putin has undermined the sovereignty of the Russian people. And this has also allowed him to undermine the sovereignty of foreign populations deemed to pose a threat to his power. In this way, Putin’s regime has self-organised and initiated its own (counter-)revolutionary war – against Russian society and, principally, against Ukraine.

Oleg Zhuravlev - Alameda

Oleg Zhuravlev

Oleg Zhuravlev is a sociologist. He is a research fellow at Scuola Normale Superiore (Italy) and researcher with the Public Sociology Laboratory (Russia). He received his PhD in Social Sciences from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy). His research is focused on social movements, the sociology of knowledge, Marxism, pragmatic sociology. His academic articles have been published in Post-Soviet Affairs, the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Studies in East European Thought, Laboratorium, and others. Oleg is also an Alameda affiliate.


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