The Ecology of Nailing Your Balls to Red Square


Individual protest in Russia has a bit of tradition. Rather than mass collective action, which was an underlying reality of the dual power systems of popular organization that sprang up against the Soviet bureaucracy, individual protest was seen as highly impactful in an important symbolic way.

Moscow is almost like London in that Moscovites never show emotion to one another, they pride themselves on living through the most dreadful weather, and they scorn public display. So, when an individual goes to Red Square to say something, it makes a big ripple. In Soviet times, dissidents who had enough and wanted to commit political suicide would go to Red Square, chant a few slogans, wave a sign around, and wait for the KGB to come. They would then typically be cast into the bowels of Siberia to some labor camp or psych ward. A samizdat newspaper, like the Chronicle for Human Rights where I worked, would write a short blurb about whatever happened to the disappeared, and it would be distributed lord-knows-how.

Putin’s Russia is remarkably similar. Many saw it coming, as Putin’s KGB credentials foreshadowed an advancing state repression. However, few could foresee how systematized the repression could get. The mafia is no reflection of the Soviet black market. It does not consist of quasi-professional laborers performing services under the table for other comrades. According to Ana Politkovskaya, who was assassinated for her journalism, the Russian mob consists of networks of former-Soviet-leaders-turned-businessmen, politicians, local administrators, and police. They work together to rake in as much money as possible, while turning out shoddy products to Russians on the informal market. On the “legitimate business” end, they price goods beyond the average Russian’s salary, many of whom are employed in sweatshops controlled by the mafia where wages are scant and often unpaid.

This is, of course, not to mention the infamous Russian sex trafficking industry, the drug crisis, and rampant street violence. The Russian mob is not only known for selling short the lives of everyday people, many of them are fierce nationalists who exploit migrants at every turn, while benefitting from the pogroms geared against immigrants from Central Asia. Along with their national pride, the mafia is particularly religious, putting them in the perfect ideological place of the real power blocs in Russia: the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church.