Chasing the Wind, or the Bright Side of Lost Causes | Wilson Center

Chasing the Wind, or the Bright Side of Lost Causes

Protesters clash with police at a recent protest in Moscow. Source: Varlamov.ru, CC-BY-SA 4.0

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

In a society like Russia’s, protest movements tend to come in waves. A wave rises, then recedes, leaving a trail of foam on the sand. The comings and goings of those waves tend to produce a sense of futility.

Those who are old enough to remember at least two or three social waves rise and die are often deeply skeptical of political change. “Everything under the sun is meaningless, like chasing the wind”—I can easily imagine a Russian in their forties and older saying those words with heartfelt sincerity.

Of course, politics fatigue and disillusionment with politicians know no borders. But in many countries, the established political parties differ at least on some issues. They might contribute to policy changes and thus give some people reason to fund those organizations and others to join them and rise through their ranks. Politics thus makes sense, at least as a vehicle for young people to get to the next level of a social-status game. Often you do not need to believe in your party’s line, just believe in your own career.

In a place where the political game is arbitrary and subject to the whims of a close-knit ruling elite, one cannot hope it would produce desirable policy changes, nor can one enter politics as a career path. Being detained, expelled from a university, or fired from a job are the likely outcomes for a typical participant.

One has to be emotionally involved and burn with desire for political change to join a movement or even a civic cause that is not directly sponsored by a state-run organization. Movements “spark and then disappear because there is no recognition or follow-up,” Lev Gudkov, head of the independent polling organization Levada Center and someone who has seen dozens of big and small political waves, once told the Russia File.

Emotions do not last. When an organization that knows how to sustain political work as a day-to-day routine is missing, political waves recede. But those waves are still important. They are important in how they wake some people up and important for the “trail of foam” they leave on the sand.

What happens during moments like the one Moscow is experiencing now is that some people recover their social “senses.” “As part of this experience, sensitivity recovers in large zones of indifference that have formed the foundation of Russia’s social order ever since the 1990s,” the sociologist Alexander Bikbov said in a recent interview.

Those who experience firsthand arbitrary policy and violence will not ignore stories about such things, as they might have done before. People who have experienced such an awakening may never join another political demonstration, but they usually stay sensitive and may contribute to civic causes that reflect their views. This is the trail that a “lost” political cause leaves behind.

The protest wave of 2011–12 left behind an entire constellation of unrelated civic platforms and nongovernmental organizations that are active today. Some, like the storytelling site Takie Dela, focus on finding people in need of charitable support. Some, like MediaZona, monitor publicly significant court cases and abuses of law. There is OVD-Info, an organization that monitors police detentions and provides first-aid legal help to those detained. There are advocacy groups that have trained lawyers, like Agora or Komanda 29 (although these two were founded before 2011, inspired by earlier political waves), help anyone who finds him- or herself at loggerheads with the state. “Many of those who work for these groups went through the 2011–12 protests and learned their ethical and cultural beliefs from that experience,” Bikbov says.

This is a trail that has endured, even though the political wave itself has long receded. Those groups of people who were very disenchanted after the events of 2011 and 2012 are now helping other people whose turn it is to be enchanted today. This newfound civic sensitivity extends even to state structures because the Kremlin has to deal with the reality of heightened public expectations. 

Those “awakenings” never happen simultaneously for all, across all generations and social groups. Police brutality used to happen in the 2000s, in 2011 or 2012; it did not start yesterday. “It is always there but it is the kind of reality we all normally tend to ignore,” the psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya said in a recent interview. But the moment may come for everyone when ignoring the nature of those events is no longer possible. “Some found themselves overwhelmed by this discovery in 2011, some knew that since Putin came to power, some were awakened even before that. Everyone has a moment of insight of their own,” Petranovskaya says.

“On Facebook, I often encounter posts that say: We just woke up in a different country! How could this happen to us? But those revelations tell us more about us as individuals, about those moments when it dawned on us, rather than about the country we live in,” Petranovskaya continues.

We do not know how long the current wave of bottom-up political activity will last. It may succeed in upsetting the balance in the elections to the Moscow city council, but it could hardly do more. Alexei Navalny’s “Smart Vote” is meant to nip off as many votes from city-approved candidates as possible. It is a highly targeted campaign that is consciously keeping clear of the idealistic “demand-the-impossible” kinds of slogans. The campaign is controversial even among the opposition-minded Russians. Some do not like that fact that they are asked to register on the campaign’s website, some hate the prospect of voting for communists or spoilers. There are few alternatives to the city-approved candidates because most of the independents were denied registration.

The current wave of political awakening, even if it dies out soon, will leave behind a trail of recovered sensitivity to social and political causes. Not everyone will fall back into their normal fatigue. Some might feel energized enough to support a civic group of their choice or even start one themselves. Even if it fails in achieving anything concrete, the current wave is already strong enough to leave a good creative trail whose exact shape we do not know yet.

One could call this chasing the wind. Sustaining political activity that is not directed by the state is hard. But, proceeding from failure to failure, those waves of grassroots politics leave promising civic traces behind.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
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