Why don’t Russians march on Moscow? Resisting the unpopular draft requires coordination, says the political scientist Vladimir Gelman
Following last week’s official announcement of Russia's mobilization, anti-war protests are once again resulting in thousands of arrests — 2,400 by the present count, as acknowledged by the United Nations. The most heated protests took place in Dagestan, where the police fired machine guns into the air and still could not dispel the crowds. The majority of Russia’s regions, however, did not come close to this kind of protest activity. Meduza in English has summarized Vladimir Gelman’s detailed analysis of protest behavior in Russia. Here is what he has told us about what stifles protest in Russia — in our own condensed retelling.
In his book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the German-American economist Albert Hirschman described how individuals, organizations and entire states respond to crises. The “voice” and “exit” of the book’s title are the two fundamental possibilities of response, first studied by Hirschman in the context of consumer behavior. “Voice” stands for vocal participation in a situation, while “exit,” roughly speaking, is a strategy of escaping the situation without comment. Since its first publication in 1970, Hirschman’s framework has been applied to different spheres, including political behavior. It applies to the current situation in Russia, too, and can help us understand why Russia’s current, massively unpopular mobilization is not meeting with more resistance from potential conscripts, their families, and the larger public. We can say that, in times of trouble, Russians generally favor the second strategy. When in danger, they will try to avoid its source instead of confronting it. This week, Novaya Gazeta Europe tells us that 260,000 men have left Russia since mobilization was announced last week. This certainly confirms the magnitude of the perceived threat, and the general sense of crisis among the public. But it’s still individuals, not masses, that we see protesting the Russian draft.
The difficulty with political protest is that it needs coordination. Emigration, on the other hand, doesn’t — it’s a personal choice, in which your chances of success do not depend on vast numbers of other people. As far as protests aimed against the draft, we see that kind of grassroots activity where local communities are strong, and where past events meaningful to the community activate the response. This was the case in Dagestan and elsewhere.
It is the combined sense of grievance and ability to coordinate that distinguishes regions where we do see mass protests. Those are the places where military administrations were particularly eager to meet the mobilization quotas — and then it turned out that those communities had some preexisting mechanisms of coordination that “mobilized” them in an unforeseen way.
These cases are not the norm for Russia. The heroic women of Makhachkala, who fought the police there, were fighting for their loved ones — their husbands, their children and relatives. This will mean, at best, that instead of their loved ones someone else will get mobilized, in places with less resistance.
This kind of situation — with the sense that something I don’t like may happen, but better “not in my backyard” — is not unique to Russia. The question is, what are the available means of community coordination in a given place.
Latin-American authoritarian regimes, for example, were regularly confronted with the organized resistance of labor unions. In Russia, Alexey Navalny’s team attempted to become such a coordinating force, but it’s practically in shambles now. Some of its members are being prosecuted, others have left the country. Even before February 2022, their coordinating potential had already plummeted. The ruling party understood the real threat presented by Navalny’s organization; they did their best to address it, and it worked. Sure, some online coordination from abroad can be done — but only as a complement to real-life, on-the-ground coordination.
Besides, the threat of repressions is serious, and it keeps people from participating in mass protests. Consciously or not, people weigh their chances of success against the potential risks. And those risks are very high — given that we’re speaking of criminal liability. Meanwhile, the chance of success is very modest. It’s natural that what Russian people resort to are individual decisions made quietly, not “voice” — not collective, public action.
The lesson that people across Russia are drawing from Dagestan is not so much that protest is possible, but that protesters are vulnerable to police brutality and, worse, torture.
Dagestan’s example might be followed by other regions if it became apparent that the machinery of repression cannot keep up with the mass nature of the protests. Such a development would require a critical mass of activists prepared to, figuratively speaking, take the state by the storm. This is something we do not yet see — instead, we see individuals trying to protect their loved ones.
Any noticeable weakening of the repressive machinery might embolden protest. But at the moment, the MVD forces and Rosgvardiya (the National Guard) are highly motivated to suppress protests — since proving their usefulness at home will keep them all out of Ukraine.
Another variable at play is the level of public discontent. A drawn-out war may influence the dynamics here, but it’s hard to make any specific predictions, apart from sheer probabilities.
Even the “homecoming” of large numbers of the mobilized — dead rather than alive — is not certain to translate into organized collective action. Action requires not just acute emotions, but also some means of coordination, which take time to develop. Coordination may be stimulated by the worsening situation — by deaths in the battlefield as well as the economic downturn — but, again, it’s difficult to predict such developments.
Russia’s great size makes it easy for the authorities to minimize the significance of regional protest, and to apply a policy of “divide and conquer.” What happens in Makhachkala is not very likely to spread to Moscow or Petersburg. In a smaller country, you might have expected a nationwide mothers’ march upon the capital. But mothers from Dagestan won’t march all the way to Moscow.
Another factor here is the state of the ruling elites and what kind of an authoritarian regime we’re actually dealing with. Some regimes are governed collectively, by different players with different potentials. In those contexts, conflicts within the ruling class can sometimes lead to regime change. In 1957, the anti-party group led by Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich attempted to depose Nikita Khrushchev. They failed, and Khrushchev fired his opponents. But in 1964, Khrushchev was removed. This became possible because the Supreme Soviet Presidium was an organ that settled questions collectively, and had the capacity to get rid of inconvenient figures — which made it an important decision-making arena.
Personalist regimes led by a single political actor — including Russia’s current regime — have no such collective decision-making mechanism. To watch the recording of the federal Security Council meeting of Feb. 22, 2022, is to see that this organ was in no way capable of balancing the President’s position. Worse, its members have plenty to lose — and, once again, just like ordinary citizens, members of the ruling elite can be said to prefer exit strategies to strategies of vocal resistance.
It’s possible to envision a clash of the Russian elites, but we cannot exactly expect it anytime soon. Dissent alone is not a sufficient condition for such a clash, since dissenters may very well try to wait things out, to stay in the shadows until some more favorable turn of events. Least of all are they prepared to take decisive action against their leadership.
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Apart from the so-called “voice” and “exit,” Hirschman identified another possible strategy for dealing with crises — namely, “loyalty,” or reconciling with the course of events as determined from the outside. Later, Hirschman’s disciples drew another distinction, between “loyalty” and “neglect,” the strategy of doing nothing and not responding in any way at all. To apply this model to Russian society, we could say that what we see here is “loyalty” stemming from a sense of disempowerment. As for the elites, what they’re practicing is “neglect,” meant to minimize their own risks. In this sense, ordinary citizens and the elites alike realize that, in a proverbial fight-or-flight situation, neither option will save them. They respond just as you would expect them to, under the circumstances.
If these dynamics might seem peculiar to Russia, it’s because other countries may have certain institutions that stimulate people to act differently. If the state were to adopt some monstrously unpopular policy, democratic institutions can influence that. The US withdrawal from Iraq was effected in that way, with the participation of both the voters and the ruling elites.
Authoritarian regimes do not have such a mechanism of change. Russian protesters cannot affect foreign policy in the same way that you’d expect in a democracy. This doesn’t make their behavior irrational — rather, the opposite might be sadly true.