13 May 2022

How have we changed in the year since the protests? Paperpaper.ru research on self-censorship, hope and kitchen talk

A year ago, mass protests took place in Russian cities. In St. Petersburg, the rallies on January 23 and 31 after the return of the oppositionist Alexey Navalny to Russia after his recovering from poisoning and his immediate detention broke records in terms of the number of participants and detentions. Since then, the pressure on protests has been growing, and opposition activity has been weakening.

In January 2022, we conducted a survey to find out how the 2021 protests and the violent response to them affected the cultural and social life of our readers. We discussed the results of the research with experts. We are publishing what we have learned about self-censorship, fear for the future, and protest.

Photo: Sergei Ermohin / TASS 

Not a Surprising Fact: Violent Crackdown on Protests Works

The results of our study, which included 845 people, confirm that the forceful response of the government was effective in suppressing protests. Recall that on January 31, 2021, 1313 people were detained which is a record high in the modern history of St. Petersburg. This is not to mention the subsequent detention of Alexei Navalny, the “palace case“, the judicial case of blocking roads and other repressions against supporters of the oppositionist and pressure on freedom of speech.

Two-thirds of the survey participants (63.1%) believe that it was the tough reaction of the authorities that reduced the protest activity. Among other options are targeted repressions (46%), the absence of noticeable results of last year’s protesting actions (44.5%), and the absence of opposition leaders (43.8%). The harsh suppression of protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan and the absence of a unifying protest agenda comes close to 40%.

At the same time, the majority of participants of our survey (88.5%) did not encounter direct reaction from the authorities. Among 845 study participants, 28 received an administrative fine and 8 got an administrative arrest. There are also those who faced violence from the security forces (13 people), two had a house-check, and one was serving a sentence in the form of compulsory labor.

Political scientist and economist Alexei Zakharov, who worked on the report “Year of Navalny”, in a conversation with Bumaga, noted that reaction of people to the use of force by authorities is always a combination of fear and indignation from injustice. “It’s hard to say what effect this will have on the medium- and long-term people’s willingness to protest,” Zakharov says.

Self-censorship is on the rise – unlike hope for change

In the study, we asked how the January 2021 protests and the reaction of the authorities affected our readers. In the top is the answer about the growth of self-censorship. 36.7% of respondents have chosen this option. Three-quarters of respondents also noted that their levels of anxiety and fear for the future were increased. Almost 64% said they would like to emigrate. 40% lost hope for the possibility of change.

From the response to the questionnaire

It becomes scary even in correspondence with friends to discuss power and everything that is happening and has happened. But we still conduct “kitchen” conversations. Sometimes it’s scary to repost something in stories on Instagram or leave likes and comments under the post. To be honest, it’s even worrying to answer this survey

More than half of the participants in our survey (56.9%) answered that they noticed self-censorship over the past year. At the same time, a third of respondents (32.7%) believe that they did not restrict themselves further.

Aleksey Zakharov, who had a look at the survey data, noted that survey participants who personally participated in protest actions are more pessimistic. “They were much more likely to say that they were more afraid. Self-censorship is mentioned less often, but emigration is more often referred to. Perhaps they experienced greater disappointment, or maybe they initially had such moods,” the political scientist analyzes.

Political consultant and member of the Russian Association of Political Consultants Yulia Mileshkina, in a conversation with Bumaga, admitted that the growth of self-censorship in general was influenced by high-profile public trials and pressure on opinion leaders. She mentioned Russian rapper Morgenshtern as an example, the pressure on him intensified after his statement about the costs of celebrating Victory Day. Shortly after that, the artist left Russia.

Political consultant Valentin Bianchi noted that one of the goals of high-profile judicial cases about publications in social networks could be intimidation of the audience. But this, in his opinion, can have a long-term effect: due to the lack of negative publications in social networks, there is a gap with the real opinion of the people. “The fewer places where you can see the measure of irritation, discontent and anger, the less predictable when and for what reason protests will occur,” says Bianchi.

Allegories are returning to art, and life is being discussed more and more in kitchens

Specifically, we were interested to know whether the people of St. Petersburg felt the impact of last year’s protests and the reaction of the authorities in culture and art areas. In a free-answer response, many noted the growth of censorship and self-censorship (18.1%), the persecution of creative people (7.9%), the penetration of the political agenda into creativity and art (7.6%). Only 13.7% of respondents believe that the January political events did not affect social and cultural life.

Respondents notice traces of the political situation in cinema, music, theater, fine arts, and stand-up. Speaking about recent years, survey participants, simultaneously note the growth of politicization in some areas (“There is a political song in every album”, “Political art objects appear on the streets”) and the desire for allegory in others.

From the response to the questionnaire

Film directors need to turn to the material of the thirties to talk about repressions (“Captain Volkonogov fled” [film]), to images of the execution in Novocherkassk to talk about the suppression of protests (“Dear comrades!” [film]), or to come up with mystical dangers of semi-fairy backwoods (“Swamp”).

Metaphorical conversation about politics is one of the main trends in art, which is noted by the survey participants. The same applies to social media content, such as TikTok videos. Several respondents also note at once the return of “kitchen” conversations as a sign of the influence of the political situation on everyday life.

Alexandra Arkhipova
social anthropologist, co-author of the report “The Year of Navalny”, author of the Telegram channel “(Not) entertaining anthropology”»

The survey participants are characterized by a feeling that I call “the ring of enemies is shrinking around.” People believe that there is more self-censorship around, that the level of anxiety has increased. They begin to perceive the world as more disturbing, more tense, more in black and white. They stopped feeling like a majority and began to feel like a minority

Restriction of freedom on the Internet is the main trigger for protests. But the chances of new rallies seem slim

Despite the general demand in society for protest actions, which was voiced by the participants in our survey, respondents have little faith in the repetition of mass actions in the near future. Only 13.8% believe that protests are definitely possible, while half (49.5%) answered “rather not”. At the same time, an unequivocal “no” was chosen by a small number of respondents – only 8.6%.

Among the possible triggers for new protests, the leader is the restriction of freedom on the Internet; 64.5% of respondents believe that such actions by the authorities can provoke unrest. The top answers also include political repressions against citizens on trumped-up charges (60.1%), falsification of regular elections (57%) and military operations of the Russian armed forces abroad. Economic instability crept close to the top (47.2%). However, none of these factors has yet provoked noticeable protest activity in St. Petersburg.

Almost all the experts with whom Bumaga spoke agree that the restriction of freedom on the Internet is a hot topic with the greatest protest potential. As Alexandra Arkhipova notes, these indicators are noticeably different from the opinion prevailing in recent years that people’s protests are primarily driven by dissatisfaction with corruption.

Almost all the experts with whom Bumaga spoke agree that the restriction of freedom on the Internet is a hot topic with the greatest protest potential. As Alexandra Arkhipova notes, these indicators are noticeably different from the opinion prevailing in recent years that people’s protests are primarily driven by dissatisfaction with corruption.

Alexandra Arkhipova
social anthropologist, co-author of the report “The Year of Navalny”, author of the Telegram channel “(Not) entertaining anthropology”»

Traditionally, for the past few years, it has been believed that corruption pushes people to protest, but according to this survey, we see that people assess their readiness to go out more by the growth of political repressions, including against specific people — and if freedom of speech on the Internet is narrowed, closing certain [web-]sites. This is an interesting dynamic, which has not been seen before

Valentin Bianchi
political consultant, board member of the Russian Association of Political Consultants

Internal irritation of people, according to my feelings, is growing. Another conversation is that there are very few tools that allow you to notice this. We can only understand that there are no public protests. But for these protests there must be a consolidating theme

In the second half of 2021, mass flash mobs in social networks provoked a protest against the introduction of QR codes, uniting opponents of the codes (offline protest actions bypassed St. Petersburg until January 2022). At the same time, protests against QR codes did not find a response from our respondents. They were unambiguously supported by less than 12% of those who voted. More than 40% are unambiguously against such an agenda.

Probably, this protest is not associated among our readers with the struggle for civil liberties. But it can be associated with the anti-vaccination agenda. “The point may not be that this protest is perceived as not political enough, but that people can consciously support covid-restrictive measures and prevent the unvaccinated from entering public places,” says Alexandra Arkhipova.

Alexey Zakharov
political scientist

I think that among the people who read your media, there are not very many covid-dissidents. Your audience is advanced, urbanized youth. There is a difference between anti-vaxxing and protesting against QR codes, but I don’t think it’s very significant. In addition, I looked at your data, the more a person earns, the less he supports protests against QR codes

Political scientist Alexander Konfisakhor considers the protest against QR codes political – however, in his opinion, people simply do not see any benefit in it. “Many people understand that this is pointless: once such a decision has been made, resistance is useless. Following the example of Konovalov, they now see what can follow,” the expert says.

Readers of Bumaga sympathize with the protests, but are not so unambiguous in their assessment of Navalny

Nearly 80% of our survey participants said they sympathize with the political protests in the country. Less than 4% were categorically against opposition actions. It should be held in mind that Bumaga posted the survey on its social networks – the study probably attracted first of all readers who are not indifferent to the political agenda. This is also indicated by the fact that almost half of the respondents (47.5%) participated last year in various protest actions.

The protests of January 2021 were largely associated with the figure of Alexei Navalny (since January 25, 2022, included in the register of terrorists and extremists in Russia), investigations into the “Putin Palace” and the alleged poisoners of the oppositionist. Nevertheless, the readers of Bumaga are not as unanimous on the issue of supporting the social activities of Navalny and his supporters as they are in sympathy for the protests in general. The politician is definitely supported by 44.9% of respondents. Another 36.4% are rather supportive. One in five does not sympathize with Navalny’s activities. It can be said that not all of those who went out to protest actions a year ago did so in support of the politician.

The authors of the “Year of Navalny” study came to similar conclusions. According to their calculations, on January 31 at a rally in St. Petersburg, organized by supporters of the oppositionist, only 22% of the participants said that they completely trust the politician. As some protesters said, they went to the rallies because of their moral and ethical principles and the difficult economic situation.

Alexey Zakharov
political scientist, participated in the work on the report “The Year of Navalny”

I think the main reason is that people just don’t have a great need to trust someone implicitly. Just such a psychological feature. There are people who feel reverence for authorities. In political science, this worldview is called authoritarianism. Among opposition-minded people in Russia, the percentage of people with such attitudes is much lower

The survey was conducted from January 19 to 25 on the website and social networks of Bumaga. It was anonymous and consisted of single-choice questions, multiple-choice questions, and one open-ended question.

In total, 845 people took part in the study, approximately an equal number of men and women (45 to 54%, another 0.8% identified themselves as queer and non-binary people). Mostly these are employed St. Petersburg residents aged 18 to 35 with higher or incomplete higher education, average income, without minor children. The demographics of the survey are for the most part the same as the demographics of the audience of Bumaga.

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Authors: Бумага
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