Trump, Russia, and Monstrations
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Susan Buck-Morss remarked that the whole world was now postsocialist. In the past decade, however, it has become common to claim that “postsocialism is over.” But looking at U.S.–Russian relations today, this diagnosis seems premature at best. Postsocialism as a condition that shapes our historical period is unmistakably here. Our present continues to experience the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse and remains rooted in the Cold War past.
In the United States, postsocialism has manifested itself in the rise of neoliberalism and a shift to a political rhetoric that divides the world into democracy and authoritarianism, liberals and conservatives. The election of Donald Trump has made this rhetoric sharper. This is the division between those who are imagined as white, racist bigots of the red states who voted for Trump, and enlightened, ethical liberals of coastal cities who did not. This is also the division between the imaginary US “traitors,” who are manipulated from across the ocean by the sinister KGB, and “patriots,” whose liberal values are protected by the defiant FBI.
It seems clear that Putin’s government sponsored some online interference during the U.S. elections in 2016. But despite the avalanche of media coverage, it remains far from obvious which aspects of this interference are true and more importantly, to what extent they have been consequential. Such considerations, however, seem to be of secondary importance; what has mattered more is how successfully this rhetoric has made the elections appear illegitimate. Regrettably, this shift of focus makes it harder to confront the sad result of the long neoliberal hegemony, which disenfranchised millions of Americans and which helped, in its own way, to shape the unexpected result of the elections. It also reduces Russia to a regime that acts out of its own internal logic of authoritarianism and imperial nostalgia, as though it were not also subjected to powerful external pressures, such as NATO’s assertive expansion.
State-controlled media in Putin’s Russia also describe their own country in binary terms, referring to it as “two Russias” (see Matveev 2014)—a country of “patriots” (the majority that allegedly supports the government) and “traitors” (a small group of pro-Western liberals also known as “the fifth column” and “foreign agents”). But Putin’s state is not alone in inventing the concept of two Russias. The Russian liberal opposition does it too, while reversing the terms. Many liberal intellectuals describe the majority of their compatriots as a conformist, apolitical mass that is brainwashed by state-controlled TV and nostalgic for the Soviet past. They use derogatory terms to dehumanize these people, calling them “zombies,” “the 86 percent” (the alleged rate of support for Putin) or, in Svetlana Aleksievich’s memorable phrase, “the Red Man.” Conversely, liberal intellectuals describe themselves as an active, independent, Westernized minority that values democracy and embraces capitalism. This liberal language, like its pro-government counterpart, is blind to realities of class and power, substituting the analysis of massive inequalities under which Russians have lived after the collapse of the Soviet state with references to mentality and nature.
For liberal journalist Andrei Mal’gin (author’s translation), the difference between the two Russias is reflected in faces: “On the one hand, there are repulsive sovoks [a derogatory term synonymous with homo Sovieticus]. Put this creature anywhere on the globe, in any crowd, and you will still recognize him as a sovok; he won’t blend in. On the other hand, there are people whose faces project self-respect and traces of an intellect. Civilized people.” For popular liberal writer Dmitry Bykov (author’s translation), “the main cause of the catastrophe in which we live today—not just in Russia but also globally—is that humanity has divided into two biological types.” One values “nonviolent pursuit of knowledge, science, art, creativity, and familial happiness,” the other values raw “emotions and violence.”
What kind of language could be critical of Putin’s authoritarian state but also able to resist class chauvinism and political reductionism of the liberal opposition? One answer is offered by a movement called monstration: a neologism that refers to demonstration (the Russian word for political rally) that is not quite demonstration (without the “de”).
What kind of language could be critical of Putin’s authoritarian state but also able to resist class chauvinism and political reductionism of the liberal opposition? One answer is offered by a movement called monstration: a neologism that refers to demonstration (the Russian word for political rally) that is not quite demonstration (without the “de”). In these marches thousands of young people walk through city centers carrying slogans that may at first appear absurd: Down with chicken drivers, Let’s turn English into Japanese, I’m your sugar packet. State-controlled media dismisses them as meaningless carnivals, yet state officials suspect them of having a hidden political message and assemble riot police to monitor them.
Political messages at these marches are constructed through indexical and iconic reference, reserving symbolic reference for the absurd and carnivalesque. The slogan “We support same-sex fights” opposes the recent law against what is termed “the propaganda of homosexuality.” (In Russian, “fights” [draki] rhymes with the plural form of “marriage” [braki]). With the slogan “Russia without Agutin!”, the name of a well-known but uncool pop singer is rhymed with Putin, iconically invoking an earlier oppositional chant “Russia without Putin!”
The banners you see at monstrations state their theme obliquely. In the spring of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea, the slogan “Crimea is ours!” dominated pro-government media channels and billboards. The liberal opposition, conversely, stressed that the Crimea was illegally stolen. Meanwhile, monstrations sided with neither of these accounts. On May 1, 2014, the Novosibirsk monstration walked behind the banner “Hell is ours!”, a statement that iconically and ironically challenged the official slogan, but also refused the simplified version of the political events advanced by the liberal opposition. The march united young people with different political opinions, from those who saw the annexation as an isolated unlawful act to those who refused the liberal oppositional story and instead saw the Crimea in connection with other events, including the attempts of the extreme right and ultranationalist movements in Ukraine to hijack the popular Maidan revolution (see Ishchenko 2016).
Monstrations are a symptom of a deep crisis of the pro-state nationalist and anti-state liberal discourses that reduce Russia’s complex political reality to two formulaic camps, obliterating space for democratic debate. Could there be an American monstration? One that resists Trump, but also refuses to explain away the phenomenon of Trump by referring to bigots and Russian agents? One that neither demonizes Russia nor justifies the actions of Putin’s regime?
Ishchenko, Volodymyr. 2016. “Far Right Participation in the Ukrainian Maidan Protests: An Attempt of Systematic Estimation.” European Politics and Society 17, no. 4: 453–72.
Matveev, Ilya. 2014. “The ‘Two Russias’ Culture War: Constructions of the ‘People’ during the 2011–2013 Protests.” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 1: 186–95.