Respect and citizenship

In exciting news, my visa came through and I’ve gotten my plane ticket for an early phase of fieldwork–going from “visa-limbo” to “leaving in a week” is a bit of a shock! So I’ve been catching up on podcasts in hopes of getting my Russian up to speed, and to catch up on what my favorite hosts on the liberal-ish Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) have been saying about the flow of political events in Russia this winter. (If you haven’t been following, think crowds in the tens of thousands marching in central Moscow to protest election fraud. And crowds in the hundreds or thousands marching ostensibly to support Putin…but that’s a story for another day.)

There’s always something interesting going on in Russia, but I do feel a bit lucky to be heading out right now–so I hope I’ll be able to add some firsthand observations in coming months. Right now all I’ve got are a couple of inklings, hypotheses, or curiosities I’m determined to follow up on once I’m over there.

The first is this: above I glossed the goal of the demonstrations as “to protest election fraud.” But really, this remains an open question, perhaps especially for an anthropologist. Likely some participants were angry about ballot tampering, some about the lack of true competition in elections. Some came as a lark, some because they remembered standing up against the 1991 coup attempt. Perhaps some were trying to impress a friend, and some to infiltrate a developing political opposition. I’m curious about the specific motives of particular people.

As I was listening to a Feb 3 podcast with Sergei Parkhomenko, much of which he spent encouraging participation in the Feb 4 demonstration, I was struck by a statement he made near the end: ‘This event isn’t political, it’s civic.’ In other words, these actions aren’t precisely about forming an opposition party, or even specifically directed against Putin (though certainly those elements exist). Rather, he was suggesting that listeners view their participation as something of a civic duty, regardless of their feelings about specific parties.

Connected to comments quoted across many news stories (and twitter posts and blog comments) I’ve read about these events, many of which reference ‘respect’ and ‘dignity,’ I’ll be wondering (tentatively, in the most preliminary way) whether and how these protest actions are related to how Russians feel about citizenship. What role should the state have toward its citizens? What are their relationships to their government?

A further thought: Anyone who’s watching these protests, thinking that the most important thing is whether Putin will be re-elected, is almost certainly asking the wrong questions. Scholars of Soviet history (Alexei Yurchak in particular!) know all too well that a great deal of change can happen below the surface, while the political leadership remains the same.

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