Manufacturing dissent in Russia: a discursive psychological analysis of protesters’ talk
This study sets out to explore how people who took part in mass protests in Russia produce and negotiate accounts of their protest involvement in talk. Although there has been a proliferation of research on protest in Russia, especially after the first mass demonstration in December 2011, the existing literature tends to prioritise the role of structural and demographic factors in mobilising dissent. However, there has been little investigation into how protesters themselves account for protest involvement and how they make such factors relevant. In addition, no in-depth social psychological exploration of protesters’ views has been conducted in Russia to date. This thesis addresses these gaps by offering a detailed empirical investigation of autobiographical accounts produced by Russian protesters regarding the reasons and motives for taking part in active protest and the subjective interpretations of what being a protester means. Semi-structured interviews with 48 Russian participants were collected, transcribed and translated. The data were analysed within the framework of discursive social psychology (DP). The analysis focused on how particular descriptions were used by protesters in talk to justify and contest certain versions of reality, and on the social actions thereby accomplished. The analysis led to novel insights into how protesters in Russia construct the causes and motives of their dissent, negotiate problematic identity categories and manage issues revolving around accountability and blame. For example, the analysis illustrated the potentially problematic nature of defining protesters’ interests and objectives as ‘political’. That is, when asked about their political attitudes, the interviewees actively justified these as not intentional. They mobilised various discursive resources to imply that they did not intend to become interested in politics and protest, but rather experienced situations that ‘naturally’ led to the acquisition of political interest. Similarly, when talking about motives for active protest participation, protesters tended to downplay explicitly political motivations. Instead, they portrayed their actions as a logical consequence of the deteriorating situation: some participants justified their involvement in terms of duty to defend their loved ones and the country in general, while others defended the appropriateness of active resistance through invoking powerful negative emotions. Such accounts functioned to protect protesters from being seen as motivated by personal or economic concerns, and warranted active protest as the only available means to address the unjust state of affairs in the country. Furthermore, I have shown that identifying with the label of ‘opposition’ is problematic for protesters, with oppositional membership being either denied or delimited in a number of ways. For example, the analysis demonstrated how respondents accomplished denials by making claims about the activities and attributes associated with the category of ‘member of the opposition’ and by invoking the negative connotations of the very term ‘opposition’. The instances of self-ascription of opposition membership further illustrated the sensitive nature of the topic: affirmation accounts were often modified to delimit the extent and nature of membership, with it being portrayed as a logical consequence of a speaker’s views, rather than in terms of emotional or psychological basis, such as shared identity or desire to belong. Finally, my study focused on the arguments relating to the people who do not protest. Interestingly, I found that, despite routinely warranting rationality and necessity of active protest, respondents portrayed the passive members of the public as not blameworthy. The behaviour of non-protesters was justified through attributing it to various practical hindrances and to specific cultural/generational mindsets, thereby placing it outside of peoples’ control. Overall, my thesis contributes to the social psychological literature on protest, by providing a complementary model of contention through the prism of protesters’ own orientations. The study demonstrated that, for protesters in Russia, protest experiences appear to be closely linked with interpersonal and normative considerations, with dissent being manufactured as a necessary and inherently moral act aimed at protecting Russia and its people. The study thus illustrated the utility of putting people’s accounts at the forefront of the analysis and treating them as valuable in their own right. In adopting a novel methodological approach to exploring protest realities as products of interaction, this thesis created an opportunity for a better understanding of the complexities and challenges of popular protest in Russia.