A Postscript on Election Protests in Russia

Since writing yesterday’s post on post-election protests in Russia, I’ve seen a lot of commentary along the lines of this piece in today’s Guardian. The thrust of these arguments is that pro-democracy activism won’t get off the ground in Russia because Putin, the man, remains fairly popular and most Russians are not politically active.

Those facts are true, but they don’t mean that a pro-democracy movement can’t emerge in Russia. Nonviolent movements are not referenda. Russia is a huge country, popular interests are distributed very unevenly across its landscape, and social movements always involve a small minority of the populations from which they draw and for whom they aim to speak. As many past movements show–from the US civil-rights movement to Egypt’s uprising this year–action by small but determined groups can change opinions and make tactical choices that have an outsized impact.

Before protests begin to snowball into a sustained movement, failure is always going to be the smart prediction. Uprisings occur rarely, even in societies with deeply unpopular governments and weak police forces. With such a low baseline rate of success, we will almost always be right by saying, “It ain’t gonna happen.” I said as much myself in yesterday’s post, for exactly those reasons.

But improbable doesn’t mean impossible. The likelihood of unlikely occurrences can still change over time. What’s more interesting than reflexive skepticism, I think, is to adopt Beissinger’s “evenful” perspective and try to think about how the events of the past few days, and the government’s responses to them, might produce changes in the Russia’s political atmosphere that will become the causes of future actions.

On that front, I am an optimist. In a dispatch published today on Foreign Policy‘s web site, correspondent Julia Ioffe observes that, “The feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.” In today’s New York Times, Ellen Barry writes that,

Many young people said this round of parliamentary elections had drawn them into political activism for the first time. A 19-year-old economics student, Dmitri Sherbak, related the story of his first arrest buoyantly, saying it had motivated him instead of frightening him. Dmitri Mikhailchenko, 23, who said he witnessed ballot-box stuffing at a Moscow polling place on Sunday, said: “People’s mentality has changed. I can’t stand being lied to anymore.”

This is new, and it could–could–be powerful.

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