Project description

New Political Groups and the Russian State (2008–2012)


In the course of the 2011/2012 electoral cycle of Duma and presidential elections, an old and yet New phenomenon arose in Russia; for the first time since the early 1990s, collective action and mass demonstrations swept through Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities. Demonstrations counting between 70,000 and 120,000 protesters led some to say that this meant an ‘end to the post-communist status quo’ of personalized rule (Shevtsova, 2012:19).

In addition to widespread usage of social media as a means of communication, the protesters made innovative use of symbolic imagery. The Putin- Medvedev tandem was portrayed as two prisoners chained to one another; the head of the Electoral commission, Vladimir Churov, as a bearded and loyal boyar; and the United Russia as a party of ‘scoundrels and thieves’ (Aleksey Naval’ny). Protest movements also showed some resilience: demonstrations were held regularly from December 2011 to May 2012, with closure coming only after the Putin inauguration and the adoption of restrictive changes in legislation of NGOs.

Even though the cycle of collective action was short-lived (December 2011–May 2012), and was curtailed and neutralized by police crackdowns against demonstrators, by high fines, targeted jailing, publicly staged legal processes and the adoption of a stricter NGO law stigmatizing protesters as being bribed from abroad, the phenomenon was surprising. It seemed that a) the government and the state were late in pushing new restrictive legislation; b) the new frame for legitimacy (Putin’s extensive use of the term ‘patriotism’) failed to assuage protests; c) the pre-electoral mobilization attempts in pro-Putin movements like the All-Russian Popular Front (VRNF) had a limited impact on political preferences; and d) there was a fundamental dissonance between the frames of legitimacy of the state and societal movements. Given the assumed power of the Russian state over society, these phenomena were indeed calls to a reassessment of societal developments in Russia.


The NEPORUS Research Project


This project asks the following research questions:

  • What conditions have enabled/disabled social protest movements and civil society organization in Russia (legal frameworks, funding, and social media) in the period 2008–2012?
  • How do these affect social mobilization and changing social identities?
  • What are the counter-strategies adopted by the state?

The project will draw on social movement theories (SMT) with some adaptations to major assumptions of recent area studies, with a special focus on the effect of social media on framing, coordination and collective action. The postdoctoral position will be dedicated to exploring this field in detail. Indeed, these theories have been applied to the post-communist context; with the creepingcollapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of informal associations (neformaly) in the Soviet Union (Brovkin, 1990) and the formation of a democratic movement in Russia in the early 1990s, social movement theories fused with area studies, creating new concepts.

Seminal authors like Tarrow (1994) and Fish (1995) ploughed new ground in the non-permissive environment of the decaying Soviet state and the Russian successor state. In the early 1990s, Russian post-communist social movements had a formidable impact in their challenge to the state and political systems. Fish (1991, 1995) described post-communist civil society in Russia in the early 1990s as a ‘movement society’: not an autonomous arena of civic initiatives, but an arena in the making.

This fundamental observation differed from how social movements performed in a Western context. Rather than ‘challenging the established political codes (left/right, liberal/conservative etc.)’ or the ‘partly corresponding socioeconomic codes (such as working class/ middle class, poor/wealthy, rural/urban population’ (Offe, 1985: 831), social movements and civil society in post-communist Russia were formed ‘from scratch’, inventing and mobilizing on the very concepts they would have challenged, had they been in a Western context.


Two arguments can be launched in defence of drawing on social movement theories: First, even if social movement against the state and the ‘pre-decided’ elections of 2011 and 2012 were not as massive in scope as in the early 1990s, they revealed changes in societal identification that have arguably become more expressed and visible after the elections. Contentious action arose quickly, and through the use of social media.

Moreover, even though few (if any) in the elite supported these movements, the movement itself had leaders that still have an impact on opinion formation in Russia, and also on reframing the public discourse. These personalities are not representatives of social movements who take up state positions (as was the case with the Russian democratic movement), but explicit voices from society. Shevtsova (2012) argues that an alliance between former democrats and liberals and new ‘nationalists’ is emerging, and that there is resonance for this alliance in society.

Second, even the concerted response by the state against collective action (the redistribution of incentives and committee structures within the Duma and the adoption of restrictive NGO legislation) does not mean that there is complete agreement within the elite.

On the contrary, dissent is evident, both in the expelling of dissenters from the ranks of Duma factions, the fact that most United Russia candidates for the mayoral and gubernatorial elections run as so-called samovydvizhentsy (selfnominees), and the fact that the electoral cycle (mayoral and gubernatorial elections) of 2013 has made the opposition run several candidates to various positions. Questions are whether these Developments are harbingers of elite splits that may again more trigger collective action.


Research Themes and Research Group


Four themes are outlined below, with the basic assumptions of SMT adapted to the post-communist reality of Putin’s Russia. The frame of reference is that

  1.  for social movements to mobilize, political opportunity structures must be widened or narrowed down;
  2.  social movements can sustain their activity over longer periods and gain resonance in society if they can find political allies in the elite, funding, and options of alternative communication;
  3.  states may curtail social movements (legal framework) or control movements (counter-movements and framing) in the media, through statesponsored groups or arrests;
  4.  framing competitions may occur before, during and after mobilization, and these ‘constructions of meanings’ (Gamson, 1988) are central in understanding how states claim legitimacy and how societies respond to demands and enact societal change.


For additional information, contact Associate Professor Geir Flikke at ILOS,



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Published Apr. 4, 2014 1:11 PM - Last modified Aug. 13, 2014 11:17 AM