Social Movements Research in Russia: Sociology of the ignored activism

By Anna Zhelnina, CUNY Graduate Center

Social movement studies in Russia gained momentum after the 2011-2012 protest wave, as new research groups emerged to conduct empirical studies of the spontaneous mass protests against electoral fraud (known as the “Movement for Fair Elections”). Publications appeared as early as January 2012 (one month after the first protests), when sociologists and anthropologists made their first and rather descriptive attempts to make sense of the unexpected mass mobilization. The “Rallies Research Institute” (NII Mitingov) in Moscow and the PS-Lab (Public Sociology Laboratory) in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities collected data on the protesters’ demographics and demands, struggling to find adequate methods to capture the “new” reality of mass protests.

The deeper analysis of these events followed later. One of the best contributions so far is the book The Politics of the Apolitical (Politika apolitichnykh) published by the PS-Lab collective in 2014. The book focuses on the “paradoxicality” of mobilization in the political and ideological context of depoliticization of the Russian society, and looks for the conditions of political subjectivization. Several chapters are dedicated to later mobilizations (such as volunteering in areas of natural disaster, local level activism) that allowed the “political subjects” formed during the anti-electoral protests to stay active.

The upsurge of mobilization research in 2012-2013 can leave a false impression of the absence of social movements and social movements research before 2011, and both the media and some of the researchers referred to the “Movement for the Fair Elections” as the first mobilization since 1993. However, social movements existed during the “cursed nineties” and “stable” 2000s, and researchers have examined mobilization around urban problems (housing conditions, heritage protection), labor and social security issues, and the women’s and environmental movement. Tilly’s political process theory, Melucci’s collective identity theory, and framing theory are popular frameworks for research. One significant contribution is the 2010 book From average people to activists (Carine Clement, Olga Miryasova and Andrei Demidov), an encyclopedia of social activism in Russia in 2000s.

Generally, movement-state relations are the center of scholars’ attention. Elena Zdravomyslova in her work on the organization “Soldiers’ mothers” analyzes the identity politics and the tactics of collective action legitimation under hostile state conditions. Natalia Danilova (in research on the disabled war veterans’ movement) and Milyausha Zakirova (on urban protest) look at movements’ search for mobilizing frames that allow them not to appear too “oppositional.” Scholars such as Elena Belokurova and Ivan Klimov pay attention to the organizational dimension of movements. Boris Gladarev in his work on the heritage protection movement is interested in a broader issue of the formation of the public, mostly based on Laurent Thévenot’s “moral sociology”.

Current interest is growing in conservative and right wing mobilization, although the future of those studies is questionable, since the state has become hostile not only to the activism, but also to research about it.

Question: did the emergence of the fair election movement change how scholars thought about movements, at the theoretical level? I think, it promoted the topic and it became more popular after the movement, and maybe just more people started “theorizing” about its origins. But it still is discussed either from the point of view of political philosophy or political science in the narrow sense, social movements studies in the strict sense did not become extremely popular.