Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 13, Day 1. Our subject is Putin’s Social Revolution and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I have just a couple of quick announcements for you. Thank you to all who have submitted their three-page rough drafts! If you have not submitted yours yet, I encourage you to do so as soon as you can. I will turn those drafts back around to you with written comments ASAP. And if you have any questions, if you’d like to talk with me on Teams, or if want to send me another rough draft, I am happy to help you with any of those things. Just send me an email.
Looking ahead from here: Week 13, Day 2 (next time) is our last day with new material. We have a news article and some music videos. Hopefully you’ll find them fun! For our final class meeting, I would like us to get together one last time as a group on Teams. We’ll meet at our regular class time (2:20pm EST) on Monday, May 4. It should be on your calendar in Teams, so please look out for that. Please also remember to complete you Revolutions Timeline posts before then, so we can discuss them together. If anyone is unable to join a class video meeting, please email to let me know.
Today, we’re look at Social Revolution in Putin’s Russia, and we’re exploring it from two sides: Social Revolution made by Putin and Social Revolution made against Putin. Ann Garrels’ book Putin Country will help us understand why Putin is genuinely popular among Russians. To be sure, he doesn’t win elections by the wide margins that he claims. But he has consistently won a majority all four times he has run. The reasons behind this are complex, and Garrels will help us get a handle on them.
At the same time, there are citizens in Russia who are opposed to Putin. They have a variety of concerns. Pervasive corruption has enriched Putin and his allies at the public’s expense. Limits on free speech have progressed from silencing opposition journalists to censoring of the Russian internet to laws against staging mass public protests. And as you read, since 2013, the Russian government has passed laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community. Like Ludmilla Alexeyeva and her fellow dissidents, those who oppose Putin are a minority. But they are persistent, and so far, they have continued to find new ways to protest against Putin’s regime.
Individuals and organizations at the forefront of this opposition have faced serious consequences for their activism, which may again remind you of the Soviet dissidents, as well as figures from Imperial Russia like Vera Figner and Alexander Radishchev. In 2006, independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a series of exposés about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, was murdered, and her killers were never caught. The same year, the human rights NGO Memorial, which was started by former dissidents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was forced to register as a “foreign agent” because it accepts funding from international sources. Official harassment has continued since then, but Memorial has found new ways to continue its operations.
Anti-corruption activists have faced similar difficulties. Boris Nemtsov, who served in Yeltsin’s government but became an opposition leader under Putin, was arrested several times for leading protests and assassinated in 2015. Protesters march every year on the anniversary of his death, and this year they added Putin’s proposed changes to the constitution to their list of grievances. Alexei Navalny, the subject of Julia Ioffe’s article, has also been arrested several times. Despite this, he continues to lead protests in person and spread his message about Putin’s corruption through his YouTube channel. Nemtsov and Navalny are the big names, but we should also keep in mind the thousands of ordinary Russians who take the risk of joining protests, themselves. Without their support, Navalny would be about as effective as the Decembrists, who didn’t think to include the masses in their movement.
As I hope I’ve made clear, there are strong social movements in support of Putin and in opposition to him, which makes the theme of Putin’s Social Revolution especially intriguing. Let’s explore it further through our discussion questions.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Garrels starts by telling us about a woman named Irina Korsunova, a magazine editor in Chelyabinsk. Korsunova was educated in the West. She enjoys Western consumer goods and fashions, but she has a real chip on her shoulder about how the West sees Russia. Can you explain Korsunova’s complaint? How does it relate to Wood’s explanation of Russia’s troubled relationship with the west since 1991?
2. In chapter 3, Garrels interviews three people with different social positions: the middle-class, cosmopolitan Irina Korsunova, the elite former-oppositionist she calls V, and the steelworker Yura Kovach. All thee support Putin, and especially his annexation of Crimea. Can you unpack how Putin manages to court each of these constituencies? Last time, we looked at how Putin sells himself to Russian citizens. Now, we’re looking at how those citizens respond to him. What do these three figures add to our understanding of Putin’s popularity? Based on their reasons for supporting him, is this a stable “social revolution” or not?
3. Garrels returns to the issue of how international relations influence Russians to support Putin in chapter 18. This time, she focuses on how the sanctions imposed by Western Europe and the US are impacting ordinary Russians. She notes that the sanctions are restricting Russians’ purchasing power. How does she explain the fact that this has not had the intended effect of turning Russians against Putin, but rather has strengthened their allegiance to him? Do you think Americans would respond the same way, if the situation were reversed?
4. In Chapter 10, Garrels writes about students at an elite high school. She is surprised that they are so disengaged from politics. How might the growing importance of money in Russians’ access to education incline them to support the status quo? Is the students’ apathy really such worrying sign for Russia’s future? Or is it typical of high schoolers everywhere?
5. Consider Garrels’ description of the experience of voting in a Russian election on pp. 178-179. If this were your only experience of voting, how would it affect your relationship to politics? What do you think it would take to inspire these students to become more engaged? How does this add a dimension to the issue of Putin staying in power indefinitely?
6. In Chapter 15, Garrels addresses the issue of media freedom. What methods has Putin used to curtail criticism from the media? What are the pros and cons of anti-corruption journalist Irina Gundareva’s decision to take her journalism online? How will this change the audience to which she has access? On p.177, Garrels asks Gundareva why she takes the risks that she does. Can you analyze Gundareva’s answer? What makes her different from the students in the previous chapter, who didn’t want to get involved?
7. Another journalist Garrels interviewed says that the real problem for the Russian media isn’t censorship—it’s self-censorship. How does this self-censorship work? What makes it potentially a greater problem than official censorship? Remember the “Central Committee Resolution on the Journals Zvezda and Leningrad,” which criticized the authors Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. That document was pretty clear about why censorship was necessary and beneficial for the Soviet Union. Why do you think Putin has taken a different tactic in censoring the media today?
8. Garrels warns us not to dismiss Russians who believe state media reports as uneducated or stupid. She gives us an example: Tamara Mairova, a retired engineer. Make a close reading of Garrels’ description of Mairova on p.186-187. Why does Mairova choose to believe state media? How has “free” Western media contributed to the problem? This might not be just a Russian problem, either. Can you relate it to the media environment in the United States in the past five years? Are we also at risk of a media breakdown?
9. Let’s turn to Julia Ioffe’s article “Net Impact,” about Alexei Navalny. Ioffe begins by describing a debate between Navalny and a Putin-friendly Duma deputy named Evgeny Fedorov. How does Navalny manage to make Fedorov look foolish? What does this reveal both about the role of new media in Russian politics and about Navalny’s personality? Do you think his personality will eventually undercut his activism, or is he precisely the right person for this role? Would you categorize Navalny’s crowd-sourced reporting as journalism or as politics by other means?
10. Before starting his blog, one of Navalny’s first political moves was to start a movement called Da (Yes)! What was “Da!”? How was it good training for his future as an anti-corruption blogger? How might the way it ended have prompted Navalny to turn to blogging? Can you assess the pros and cons of in-person vs. online activism? (This is similar to Question 6, and you may like to answer them together.)
11. After blogging for a while, Navalny started RosPil. RosPil’s success seems to counter Garrels’ claim that Russians are wary of getting involved in politics. How does its setup enable people to speak out against corruption without feeling like they’re doing anything too “political”? What are pros and cons of this model?
12. In many ways, Navalny comes across as a hero. But he has a dark side: his nationalism. It got him kicked out of Yabloko in the early 2000s, and it still influences his work today. Consider how Navalny explains his position on the last page of the pdf (first column). What do you make of his claims here? If you were a Russian who supported Navalny’s anti-corruption blogging, but found his nationalism unacceptable, what would you do?
13. Finally, let’s explore Jeff Sharlet’s article “Inside the Iron Closet.” Sharlet notes that in Western Europe and the US, there has been a steady increase in acceptance for LGBTQ+ people since the early 1990s. Why has Russia not followed that trajectory? How has Russia’s history in this period shaped its response to gay rights? How might the development of anti-Western attitudes that Garrels described have influenced Russians to accept anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric coming from their government?
14. Where is Putin in this story? We know that nothing becomes law in Russia without his approval, and at times he does speak in favor of homophobic agendas. But this doesn’t seem to be a top priority for him. How can we understand Putin’s approach here in strategic terms? How does it serve him politically? What do you think of how activist Elena Kostyuchenko’s explains this issue to Sharlet? Ultimately, does it matter whether Putin is genuinely homophobic? Why or why not?
15. One of Kustyuchenko’s actions was a kiss-in protest, which she and others staged at the Russian Duma. How does this relate to the activism of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s, particularly the 1966 Constitution Day Protest? In your analysis, is this form of protest more or less effective in contemporary Russia than it was in the Soviet Union?
16. Kostyuchenko says that LGBTQ+ activism in Russia follows one of two philosophies: educate or “stop trying to get everyone to like us.” Can you unpack these two ideas? What are the pros and cons of each? Which do you support and why? (You should answer this specifically for Russia, but you may answer it in a more global framework, as well.)
17. Russia’s 2013 anti-gay law is framed in terms of protecting children and families. How do the personal stories in this article undercut that claim? Many of Sharlet’s interviewees, particularly the ones with children, see emigration as their only option. What are the long term consequences for Russian society if the queer community goes into exile? Do countries with more enlightened perspectives have an obligation to pressure Russia to change its laws? Given the international situation, would that do more good or more harm?