It’s Not Just the Russian Middle Class in Revolt – This Is a True Mass Movement
Masha Gessen (The Observer), The Guardian
March 4, 2012
The author of an explosive new book on Putin says the inevitable election result will not curb the passion to unseat him.
A single question has plagued me all week. I am on a book tour in the US, talking about Russia and the Putin regime, and at some point I am invariably asked: “But should we really take the middle-class revolution seriously? After all, Vladimir Putin has a broad base of support, on which he can rely after he wins [today's] presidential election.” Having answered this question no fewer than 20 times, I am still stumped momentarily whenever I am asked it because it’s hard to formulate the right answer when the question is so profoundly wrong.
Sometimes, we journalists come up with an image so seductive, so complete and easy to use that we keep running with it regardless of how well or poorly it reflects reality. Russia’s “middle-class revolution”, also known as the “Jean-Jacques revolution”, named after a Moscow chain of bistros, is one such image.
These phrases paint a picture of an entire generation of successful urban young people who, having started their careers and their families in the last decade, have now turned their attention to their country and are planning to put it in order. It is a perfect media image, because it seems to contain the answers to the big questions.
Why have the protests only started now? Because before, today’s 30-year-old revolutionaries were too busy setting up their lives. Why are many of the posters and the protests themselves so fun and whimsical? Because they are organised by the Russian creative class. And it goes without saying that Putin’s “broad base of support” – the civil servants, the not so rich and the not so young, or, conversely, those who are too young to be part of the “middle-class revolution” – remains unchanged.
The only problem with the “middle-class revolution” image is that it is dead wrong.
During the second large-scale protest in Moscow last December, the organisers decided they wanted to spend some of the money they had been able to raise on commissioning a professional poll of the rally. They wanted to know who made up the movement, or at least its Moscow part. Here is some of what they found out. The protesters belonged to all age groups; 25% were between 18 and 24; 22% were over 55, with the age groups in between distributed pretty evenly.
They came from all walks of life: a majority were white-collar workers, but only a small minority were managers; 8% were blue-collar workers, 2% were housewives and 12% were full-time students. Nor did they appear particularly affluent: only 5% said they could afford to buy anything they needed or wanted; 28% said they could afford a car but still had to restrict their spending; 40% agreed with the statement: “We can buy some expensive things, such as a television set or a refrigerator, but we cannot afford a car”; 21% said they had enough money to feed and clothe themselves but nothing beyond that; 7% said they did not even make enough to afford the bare necessities.
They also told the pollsters why they had joined the protest. Three-quarters said they were fed up with the way things worked in the country, and fewer than 15% said they actually liked the organisers of the protest or the political parties they represented.
When the poll’s results were released, both the Russian and the western media went with headlines heralding the coming of the “middle-class revolution”. Which proves that facts have trouble getting in the way of a good story.
The problem with a catchphrase that becomes bigger than the story itself, however, is that it ultimately kills the real story. If the Russian protest movement is supposed to consist of young urban professionals, then how do you tell the story of the scores of older people who came out in the bitter cold on 29January, when Moscow held its first car protest?
The young professionals (and the non-professionals and the not so young) drove their cars, adorned with white ribbons that are the symbols of the protest movement, around Moscow’s Garden Ring Road. From the sidewalks, they were greeted by clumps of pedestrians, many of them quite elderly, who were waving their own white ribbons.
How do you tell the story of the city of Kovrov, backwater of backwaters, population 145,000, where 120 people came out to protest? There are no bistros in Kovrov and no young urban professionals.
Or how do you tell one of my favourite stories of the protest movement, the story of the high-school students? They showed up for the first organising meeting I called in December; I simply suggested anyone who wanted to participate in direct-action organising should come to a Moscow cafe to look for allies.
A pudgy girl named Anya came up on stage and said she wanted to organise flash mobs. A few days later, Moscow underground riders witnessed a flawlessly organised action: people wearing tape over their mouths, with the words “MY VOICE WAS STOLEN”, were getting on different trains at different stations, all to converge at a predetermined moment at one of the central metro stations.
Several more actions followed, culminating in a series of one-person pickets (one of the few protest activities for which no permit is necessary) a couple of weeks ago. In spite of what the law says, the score or so of picketers were picked up by police. At least three of them turned out to be under age. And once Anya got out of jail later that day, she was grounded by her parents.
Anya was released from house arrest after a few days, but I fear her parents will not allow her to do much protesting in the near future. I am glad at least to be telling a bit of her story.
And I hope someone gives a proper account of the old people protesting in the streets of Moscow and of whoever is protesting in the streets of Kovrov. Because as long as these and other stories are not told and as long as the Russian and western media insist on writing on the “middle-class revolution”, they are missing the biggest story of all.
It may not sound quite as colourful, but it is a lot more important. It’s called a mass movement. And that, irrespective of the inevitable result of the election, is exactly what is about to change the course of Russian history.
Masha Gessen is the author of The Man Without a Face, a new, acclaimed account of the rise of Vladimir Putin. She lives and works in Moscow