The Russian Winter? A Case of Civil Disobedience

December 13, 2011

Political action, Political Theory


Over the weekend, tens of thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Moscow and other major Russian cities in response to voting fraud in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. It was, by far, the largest public protest in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union over 20 years ago. Aside from protesting the corruption in their election results, Russians were also demanding the release of several prominent political activists from prison, who were arrested during protests last week, and the withdrawal of Vladimir Putin from the next presidential election in early 2012.

Tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Moscow on Saturday

Putin has brought political and economic stability and growth to Russia through reforms during Russia’s reshaping after the fall of the USSR. However, in recent years, his reputation, and that of his party, the United Party, has been tarnished by accusations of corruption, limitations on freedom of speech, and the spreading pro-government propaganda (via state-sponsored television networks).

This past week was full of small demonstrations, during which several leading opposition figures, including famous political blogger (link to his blog) Aleksey Navalny, were arrested. Navalny was arrested on suspicious charges of resisting arrest. The week’s events culminated in the largest non-violent protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union as tens of thousands of Russians flooded the streets of Moscow around the Kremlin carrying signs calling Putin’s party a, “Party of Swindlers and Thieves,” and chanting “we exist,” “Putin is a thief,” and, “Russia without Putin.”

The protests were against the possible voting fraud in the last week's parliamentary elections

In response to the protests, Putin was quick to blame the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for interfering in Russian affairs by demanding an investigation into voting fraud, which, Putin claims, incited the riots. Did Secretary Clinton have the right to step in and not only comment on the issue, but also demand an investigation? How should the US foreign policy work in the world? Do we have the right to intervene in the affairs of first world nations with more-Western styled governments, or only in more third world, oppressive regimes? Many of the protestors on Saturday were from the newly established middle class of Russian professionals, which has grown under Putin. Are we better off, as our own foreign policy is concerned, defending those who don’t have a voice, or people like the Russians, with far more political rights? Does this reflect a government anti-Putin sentiment?

How do these protests compare to Dr. King’s civil disobedience protests in the South during the Civil Rights movement? First of all, Dr. King and his supporters were protesting laws of segregation, while the Russians on Saturday were protesting against the government itself for its corruption and leadership under Putin. Secondly, there is a question of how certain individuals, like Navalny, were arrested. Did they resist arrest or were they simply dragged off by police officers without cause? After taking a closer look, a video was released showing Navalny (and others) did not, in fact, resist arrest and that the police officers that testified against him were not the ones who arrested him. Despite the difference in protesting over laws or votes, I believe these recent protests in Russia still meet Dr. King’s criteria for civil disobedience, since they are a non-violent protest to something unjust, while also respecting the overall body of the law, government, its legitimacy, and its control of coercive force (if you believe the protestors were willingly arrested). The protestors believed in stopping injustice like Dr. King because, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Police prepare to face protestors. One of the protestors grievances was limitations on freedom of speech

A few other differences between the two instances of civil disobedience are the massive numbers of protestors in Russia on Saturday. There were very few instances of civil rights protest that could boast such numbers; many more of their protests were smaller acts such as sit-in and freedom rides. This can be attributed not only to the massive grass roots movement that is taking place in Russia against the United Party, but also the all-encompassing nature of the protest. This issue affects all Russians equally; as a result, people from all walks of life and political views came out to protest on Saturday. Another major difference was the presence of international involvement of the United States, as Secretary of State Clinton demanded an investigation into voting fraud. I didn’t know we intervene in the political affairs of other first world nations? This potential spark of international support could have possibly empowered protestors, along with the recent successes of political activism across the globe against oppressive regimes, a la the Arab Spring. However, the biggest difference I see between then and now is the widespread use of social media and new technologies. Not only would the protestors not have access to their fellow countrymen’s views via the Internet blogosphere and Facebook, but also we would not have readily available information and video footage (including that of the arrest of several protestors).

So were the Russian protestors right for demonstrating over the weekend? If we look at the issue from Socrates’ perspective in Crito, I believe that he would not be able to form a full argument for or against them. Based on the ideas of resisting injustice – and since voting fraud is clearly injustice – then he would support their protests since they are being prevented from participating in a democracy. Thus, the democracy fails its own goals because peoples’ votes no longer matter. Conversely, Socrates would argue in favor of supporting the state because of theories of reciprocity and tacit consent. In Crito, during Socrates’ argument of the Laws he states (as the Law):

“Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? – You would not say this?”

The Law argues that since it is responsible for the upbringing and well being of the people, it is, therefore, better than them and must be obeyed since it knows what is best. Socrates would argue the same point for the transitional governments under Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. These governments saved Russia from economic collapse while also bringing political stability and advancing Russia into the twenty-first century. The protestors are enjoying middle class, modern lifestyles solely thanks to government reform during the last two decades. Therefore, Socrates would argue, the protestors need to show their thanks to the government by obeying and trusting the experts who have more knowledge on how to run the government, despite the accusations of vote fixing.

Police were accused of making unnecessary arrests

As I stated earlier, Dr. King would support their fight against injustice, while Socrates might not. What do you think? Are the protestors right, or does Putin truly know what’s best? This may seem like an easy question, however, take a minute and consider Russia, a nation struggling to find its true identity after the fall of communism. Many people still believe in a revival of the Soviet Union, so I ask you, would a Burkian or Tocquevillian idea of maintaining the status quo with a familiar government apply here? Would keeping Putin and the United Party in power remove any threat of returning to communism? If so, is that in the people’s best interest, or should they be able to vote for communism again? Would it permit voting fraud to prevent communism?

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3 Comments on “The Russian Winter? A Case of Civil Disobedience”

  1. tyhughes2014 Says:

    I would first like to comment on the United State’s involvement in the matter and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the matter. The United States should not intervene in such matters and I find it disappointing how often the United State tries to intervene in other countries affairs. I understand that sometimes it is important for the United States to become involved especially when the United States faces a security or economic threat. I, however, do not believe that potential election fraud in Russia poses any threat to the United State and because of this, the United States should not have gotten involved in the matter.

    Regarding your Dr. King and Socrates comments, I completely agree that Dr. King would fully support the civil disobedience of the Russian population but I am not sure that Socrates would be against such civil disobedience. The only thing that I think Socrates might be against is if an individual acts non-peacefully and then faces charges for such actions. The individual then needs to accept the punishment passed down to him and should not resist the punishment he faces. Dr. King on the other hand, would fully support such protests as I believe these Russian protests share many similarities with protests of the civil rights movement.

    Regarding the Tocquevillian idea of maintaining the status quo, I think this concept does not apply because the individuals of Russia clearly want something different in their country and if free elections drive this change, it is perfectly acceptable. It would be a gradual change of the status quo anyways, with change being implemented slowly. Tocqueville would not oppose this in my opinion.

    Freedom involves letting the people choose the fate of their country. Allowing election fraud, even in the name of stopping communism, cannot be allowed. The Unites States should not involve themselves in this matter and even if we as a country believe democracy is the right path to take, we cannot force this will on others. The resistance by the Russian population is a clear sign of a desire to change, and because this is what the Russian people want, it should be allowed. Let freedom take its course.

  2. rschles92 Says:

    It’s interesting to think that the US should not intervene. It makes complete sense to say we should MYOB and let the revolution run its course. However, that’s simply not the way the world works.

    Whether we like it or not, the United States is posed with the responsibility to protect human rights globally. And that is undeniable.

    The US is always asked to help other citizens who are being oppressed by an over controlling government. We are the international police officer. I think that our involvement in aiding countries that have suffer from disturbing oppression (Rwanda, Darfur) earns us the right to intervene when one of the world’s superpowers does the same.

    Obviously Russia is nowhere near as drastic and complicated as those two examples. Nevertheless, we are still rivals with Russia and we have the right to call them out for being wrong. Not ignore it and continue to allow Russia to proceed in their old Soviet Union ways behind a former KGB leader.

  3. luniho Says:

    While I can understand the position of those who believe that the United States should not interfere in the policies of other nations, this country has built a reputation on its consistent machinations in foreign locales. I believe that in this instance, where citizens are being aided in their call for a more just government, the intervention of our nation could be beneficial, more helpful than injurious.

    Personally, I support these protestors in their contestation of the results of this election; I believe that the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would as well. Their peaceful methods, combined with the unjust actions of Russia’s government, create a condition that King would favor. His stringent requirements for adherence to just laws and nonviolent protestation would encompass these Russian activists.

    Finally, I concur that Socrates would not support this kind of revolt. Though he himself was sentenced to death unjustly, he had taken advantage of the polis his entire life and considered himself subject to all of its edicts, however questionable. In the past few decades, Russia has flourished, especially in comparison to the abject poverty evident in some of its neighboring countries. Socrates would consider these protests to transgress against the country that had so willingly raised these citizens. Their protest would be considered invalid and undeserving of support.

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