It is an ominous picture. Surrounded by leaden winter clouds, the mask-like sphere is encircled by drab Stalinist buildings, and the russet trees seem to jab out at the viewer. A large crowd — red, white, black dots — fills the middle. This is an aerial view ofBolotnaya SquareinMoscow, where between twenty-five and sixty thousand people showed up on 10 December 2011 to protest against the rigging of the preceding week’s parliamentary elections. This demonstration was the largest action of mass dissent to take place in Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power on New Year’s Eve, 1999 — by some accounts, since the 1993 constitutional crisis. Whatever its precise size, the protest was a surprising, even shocking, event for a country that had been deeply steeped in political apathy for decades.
The aerial picture of Bolotnaya gives us that. Look, it says, at the speckled swarm bulging out towards you, pushing out the buildings around it. Notice how dynamic it looks as it straddles the stillMoscowRiver. It is a distinct, new pattern in an endlessly receding panorama of muted architecture. What this photograph does not tell us about the sprawling mass of human dots is how heterogeneous the crowd was close-up. The opposition’s motto — “For Honest Elections!” — appealed to wildly disparate political factions. Hence, on 10 December, communists, nationalists, liberals, gay groups and members of the so-called “creative class” (on which more later), among others, shared the tight space of the square, which quickly filled up, forcing thousands of people to watch the action from the neighboring bridges and streets. Another crucial feature of the protest movement, which we cannot deduce from the aerial photograph, was its rejection of revolutionary methods. The opposition insisted that it wanted an “evolution” — progress, not a coup — in Russian politics. This, as it turned out, was an exceedingly difficult concept to visualize.
Also on 10 December, the libertarian communist group “Avtonomnoe deystvie” (“Autonomous action”) carried a large banner at a concurrent demonstration in Saint-Petersburg. Its slogan, “You don’t even represent us” (“Vy nas dahze ne predstavlyaete”), coined by the poet and literary critic Pavel Arseniev , quickly became the rallying cry of the opposition movement. The popularity of the catchphrase was due, in part, to its double entendre. While the slogan was aimed first and foremost at the newly elected Duma, the Russian verb “predstavlyat” can also mean “to imagine.” In this reading the motto implied the hidden strength and potential of the demonstrations, powerfully conveyed in the aerial view of Bolotnaya. Much like the English verb “to represent,” “predstavlayt’” can also mean “to picture.” The maxim hence can also be interpreted as a retort to the portrayal of the protests by state-sponsored media, which largely ignored the dissenting demonstrations and focused instead on the pro-Putin rallies. What interests me in this essay, however, is not how the official media channels failed to represent the protest movement, but rather how the opposition pictured — and saw — itself in photographs from the demonstrations, especially from Bolotnaya.
Why limit my analysis to the way the Russian opposition constructed, and consumed, its own image? This approach, which may initially seem like navel-gazing, mirrors the reception of my chosen photographs. Their audience was small and largely self-selected, appropriately enough for a movement that was fueled by, and primarily spoke to, the urban elite. Since state-sponsored media did not show these photographs, their dissemination was confined almost exclusively to the Internet, which only a quarter of Russians use to monitor the news . Moreover, while much has been made of the role social networking sites have had in catalyzing the recent demonstrations, the total number of people in the opposition’s two largest groups on Facebook and VK (a popular Russian social networking site) was under fifty thousand at the time of writing. These photographs, then, were preaching to the choir.
Except that there was no one choir. The diversity of the protestors’ political views plagued the opposition since the very beginning, and was largely responsible for the movement’s recent dispersal. How, then, could the opposition portray itself as more than a sum of its parts, and not just a motley crowd with no common agenda? And did it succeed?
In the hours and days that followed the protest at Bolotnaya, independent media and social networking sites were inundated with thousands of photographs from the demonstration, taken by both professional and amateur photographers. The most popular among these were the fairly straightforward, documentary shots of various placards. If some protesters taped their mouths shut to symbolize their stolen votes, many more created posters, often humorous or sarcastic, in an attempt to reclaim their voices and make themselves heard. The strategy worked; clever banners quickly became the trademark of the movement. As Mikhail Ratgauz, deputy editor of the Internet magazine Openspace.ru and curator of an exhibition of oppositional posters (on which more later), pointed out, “what was prized most of all in this winter’s placards was not aggression, but wit” . It is an ungrateful task to attempt and translate these banners, with their winking allusions to current events, while maintaining their bite. Many punned on the “magical” powers of the Head of the Elections Committee, or on popular Internet memes. Others included swear words and obscenities. One of the easiest to render in English — and one of the most frequently photographed — placards proclaimed, “I didn’t vote for these assholes, I voted for the other assholes. I demand a recount of the votes.”
It seems to me that both the popularity and the effect of these posters — their parodic words and images endlessly reproduced online through photographs — can be best explained through Mikhail Bakthin’s conception of the carnivalesque in Rabelais and His World. Partially a reaction against the stifling state-sponsored and -approved culture of the Stalinist era, Bakhtin’s examination of medieval carnival suggests that laughter is an anti-authoritarian force that levels social distinctions and questions the prevalent regime. I do not mean to equate the recent protests inRussiawith Rabelais’ carnival. Bakthin himself wrote that one of the main features of the carnivalesque — “familiar,” obscenity-filled speech — is markedly different today from its medieval counterpart, most significantly in its lack of universality that brings together all strata of society . This is a crucial distinction: much of the humor displayed on December 10 was an inside joke, leveled against the presumably undereducated, provincial supporters of Putin. Still, the Bolotnaya protest shared certain key features with the carnival. Like the Bakhtinian celebration, it was an event sanctioned by the powers that be (all the oppositional demonstrations had to be authorized by theMoscowgovernment). Moreover, in its parodic and satirical manifestations, which often included swearwords and expletives characteristic of carnival speech, the opposition’s mode of protest also defied the official culture of the state. It is not insignificant, in this context, that the demonstration at Bolotnaya and subsequent rallies were often described as a “celebration,” “party” or “carnival,” the latter with both positive and negative connotations.
Aleksey Levinson, the head of the influential Levada-Center, recently wrote of the carnivalesque nature of the opposition as a serious threat to the Kremlin and suggested that the movement would not take on the endlessly cyclical nature of the medieval carnival, that it has overthrown Putin’s regime for good . But from the very beginning, the opposition disavowed any possibility of a revolution, adopting, instead, the metaphor of an “evolution” to describe itself. In this, it did it in the end take after the Bakthinian carnival, which is never a decisive anti-authoritarian event. Rather, it is a kind of safety valve that releases steam and hence keeps the masses’ dissent from reaching a boiling point. “Wit, unlike aggression,” Ratgauz said of the satiric posters, “is not given to augmentation” .
But wit is given to reproduction. Photographs of posters and banners quickly pushed images of nationalists, communists and other groups that represented themselves only through flags or clothing out of the public view. These political factions were left in the margins, footnotes to the visual history of the opposition, which came to be defined by its imaginative, carnivalesque manifestations — the political effectiveness of which was almost immediately questioned. Even Pavel Arseniev, the inventor of the “You do not even represent us” slogan, has recently said that the time of mocking the state was coming to the end, and that the opposition had to invent new creative strategies for its protests . An even more pessimistic view was voiced by the poet Vsevolod Emelin in his latest cycle, “Bolotnaya songs,” parts of which read: “No longer is the carnival triumphing/The music didn’t play for long/The dupe did not dance for long….O, victims of creative thought/Did you hope, maybe/That you were so effective/As to win in this fight?” .
Arseniev and Emelin’s allusions to creativity and “victims of creative thought” are crucial here, and deserve a short detour away from the question of photography. Much of the news coverage of Bolotnaya pointed to the “creative class” (a notion first introduced by Richard Florida in 2004 and used in the Russian context to mean young, upper-middle-class professionals employed in the arts and media) as a moving force behind the protest. Sociologists and political scientists endlessly debated the role of this new group in the demonstrations. This was, in part, because the photographs of witty placards, carried by well-dressed, hip (if not hipster) urbanites, took pride of place in representing Bolotnaya. These images helped create an image of the opposition as a movement largely made up of the “creative class.” And this opposition, it seemed, was interested not so much in voicing dissent as in voicing it in clever and creative ways.
Carnivalesque, artistic activism came to define subsequent demonstrations and rallies, so much so that members of the opposition became concerned with the image the movement was projecting. Spurred on by the “White Ring,” a performative action in whichMoscow’s Garden Ring was occupied by white-wearing, hand-holding protesters, the prominent art critic Ekaterina Degot exhorted the opposition to cut back on its creative modes of protests so as not to depoliticize the demonstrations completely. The younger generation of demonstrators, she wrote, mostly had aesthetic issues to pick with the Kremlin: the government was too “anonymous, unprogressive, grey” for them. This is why, Degot argued, the oppositional gestures of this class were individualistic and aesthetic, rather than political, and left a “loophole” (not unlike, I might add, the safety valve of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque) that allowed the dissent to err on the side of self-expression rather than politics. “An additional injection of art” into the protest movement, Degot concluded, “could prove fatally dangerous” to the opposition .
Degot’s worries about the depoliticizing effect of art are not new; she herself cites Pierre Bourdieu as an influence, and Walter Benjamin famously suggested in 1936 that the aestheticization of politics (albeit, in his case, as imposed from above, rather than as pioneered by the masses) was one of Fascism’s primary vehicles for placating its subjects . Degot’s prognosis is not as dire, but her anxiety is well-founded; the aesthetic and original approaches to protesting ultimately had little effect on the Kremlin, and the opposition failed to come up with ways to make its political demands heard. The demonstrations, however, did generate a veritable explosion in theMoscowart world: in the months following Bolotnaya, at least three exhibitions dealing with images of the opposition were organized. They included a show of posters and banners from the demonstrations, titled You Don’t Even Represent Us; For Honest Elections, an exhibition composed of political works by well-known Russian artists; an ongoing Civic Protest photography competition, sponsored by theAndreiSakharovCenterfor Documentary Photography; and PhotoBoloto and PhotoSahar, an exhibition of photography from the protests. Speaking of the You Don’t Even Represent Us exhibition, the writer Mikhail Butov echoed Degot, saying that the show, which opened two weeks ahead of the presidential elections, served as “excellent evidence that the essence of the protest movement was the narcissistic self-admiration of the ‘creative class’” .
An element of this self-admiration was, without a doubt, present. Take, for instance the PhotoBoloto and PhotoSahar (or, rendered in English, PhotoSwamp and PhotoSugar) show — even its title, in keeping with the opposition’s ethos, is a pun on the locations of the first two protests, Bolotnaya (literally ‘swampy’) and Sakharov Prospect (Sakharov’s last name sharing its root with the Russian word for ‘sugar’). Viktoria Ivleva, a photojournalist and one the exhibition’s curators, has said that she wanted to show that “we are beautiful when we are free” , inadvertently suggesting both that the opposition was worth looking at because it was ‘more free’ and that one of the primary motivations for the attainment of freedom was aesthetic. Yet, in this and other similar exhibitions, I see not only a desire to aestheticize the opposition, but also a political impetus. The press release for PhotoBoloto and PhotoSahar called for photographers “to create the country’s history together,” in part by “letting people see how beautiful they are when they are free” . There is a crucial slippage here. If in her interview Ivleva said that “we are beautiful because we are free,” the press release instead suggests that the exhibition’s main ambition was to propose a new way for society to see itself — a desire that calls to mind the 1920s Russian avant-garde’s notion of re-educating the “visual thinking” of the people, of changing their way of seeing the world, in order to bring forth a revolutionary consciousness.
The press release, then, takes the focus off self-admiration, and casts the opposition in the role of the vanguard party. This is further confirmed by the curatorial philosophy behind PhotoBoloto and PhotoSahar. While the methods for putting the show together were democratic — anyone could submit their photographs from the demonstrations — the submissions were judged according to strict aesthetic standards. No amateur photographs made it into the exhibition; “we managed to filter them out,” Ivleva has said, “and leave good, professional shots” . Moreover, while originally the show was meant to bring “art into life” — the photographs were exhibited at several protests — this idea was withdrawn when eighty-three of the ninety-five photographs displayed were stolen at the second Boltonaya protest in February. Even though Ivleva has said that she considered this appropriation the highest compliment, the exhibition was subsequently brought indoors to The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, away from the crowds. There, the museum-going public could browse large prints of professional photographs from the demonstrations or a watch a slideshow with images of the liberated protestors while reclining in bean bag chairs.
The PhotoBoloto and PhotoSahar idea came about after Ivleva witnessed an “incredible number of people with cameras…. taking pictures however they could” at Bolotnaya . Even if they didn’t make into the exhibition, amateur shots of the protests did not disappear from public view, populating social networking sites and appearing on countless blogs. Critics accused those who uploaded pictures from Bolotnaya of wanting to be a part of a new and fashionable trend, and the desire not only to see but also to be seen was certainly part of the equation at Bolotnaya. But in their totality, amateur photographs of the protest built up the kind of revolutionary archive Aleksandr Rodchenko imagined in 1928 when he wrote, “Do not lie! Photograph and be photographed! Register man not only in one “synthetic” portrait, but through a mass of instantaneous shots, made at different times and in different conditions.” According to Rodchenko, in order to be truthful, a revolutionary archive had to be heterogeneous and multiple — just as there could not be only one, “synthetic” portrait of Lenin, he wrote, but rather a Lenin composed of the many, sometimes contradictory, moments of his life . A multitude of voices was, after all, what Bolotnaya was all about.
An earnest desire to record something and to archive it, to ascertain that an event actually took place, may seem like a hopelessly outdated notion in today’s era of instant uploading and information sharing. Yet this ambition, which was very much behind both amateur photography and the subsequent exhibitions, is in itself an act of resistance in the media climate of contemporaryRussia. If a letter to pro-government saboteurs with the suggestion that photographs from the demonstration be falsified through PhotoShop and then posted on social networking sites  seems overly Soviet in its embrace of disinformation, consider that the state-sponsored TV stations initially had no plans to cover the Bolotnaya protest. And recent scandals involving PhotoShop — an attempt to smear Aleksei Navalny, an opposition leader, and the erasure of a $30,000 Swiss watch from an official picture of Patriarch Kirill — confirm that altering photography to rewrite history is still a prevalent practice inRussiatoday. As one blogger wrote, “people photographed purposefully so that no one would dare say that only a handful of people [had gathered at Bolotnaya]” . The protestors, in other words, took their representation into their own hands.
Part of the reasoning behind the exhibitions and the protestors’ endless photographing at Bolotnaya, then, was an attempt to record a watershed. Perhaps it is also for this reason that the photograph with which I began this essay became one of the most popular images of the protest. The sphere and its sister photographs, made by Stas Sedov and Dmitrii Chistoprudov with the help of a drone camera, were used by the opposition to calculate the number of people at Bolotnaya (contradicting the government’s estimates). The panoramas of crowds filling the square, bridges and streets also provided neat visual testimony to the shockingly large, by Russian standards, demonstration. Chistoprudov’s reaction to the turnout is emblematic of this surprise. “We were standing below, by the water,” Chistoprudov wrote in his LiveJournal, “and could not see how many people were gathering in the square. And when the hexacopter rose in the air (and transmitted images back), I cursed out of astonishment each time — at how many people were there!” . Many protestors, no doubt, had a similar reaction when they first saw the aerial shots. But during the protest the drone became a target when, mistaken for a police surveillance camera, it was sniped at with fireworks (tellingly, the firing stopped when some protestors recognized the drone as “ours,” meaning the opposition’s). In describing the incident, a blogger wrote that “on the whole the protest was surprisingly civilized.” Reconsidering, he continued, “although why ‘surprisingly’? That’s how it should be” .
“That’s how it should be.” The astonishment at Bolotnaya’s success passed quickly; larger protests, longer marches and more creative flashmobs followed. Yet the spherical panorama from 10 December remains one of the iconic images — if not the iconic image — of the Russian opposition movement. The crowds, which from air appear united, take center stage and seem to sprawl out intoMoscowat large. The photograph’s resemblance to a bomb or even a helmet — the bridge its nose, the river its eyes — suggests a movement that is ready for a fight, whose strength “cannot yet be imagined.” It is a picture of a rebellious city; the protest pushes out the buildings, and the architecture seems to withdraw in the face of the crowds. The golden domes of the Kremlin, in the upper right, and Christ the Savior Cathedral, in the upper left — Russia’s main symbols of institutional power — become little more than miniature decorations. Stalinist towers and the soaring mast of the 300-foot sculpture of Peter the Great, the symbol of excess and corruption of the 1990s, lose their dominion overMoscow’s topography. Even the gargantuan House on the Embankment, the former residence of the Soviet elite eviscerated during the Great Purge, almost blends into the background as it lines Bolotnaya on the left. The city, warped and convex, resembles a globe, a world where people have banished institutions, or at least have appropriated much of their power.
This picture is both misleading and accurate. Accurate because in Moscow, the opposition did succeed in rattling the government. The capital was the only place in Russiawhere Putin did not win the majority of the votes (still coming awfully close at 47% percent, according to official figures). Misleading because it suggests a kind of global takeover. We can compare the sphere to the aerial view of the second protest that took place on Sakharov Avenue exactly two weeks after Bolotnaya. It is an impressive sight: people, with banners and balloons flying overhead, fill the avenue. There were at least as many, if not more, demonstrators here than at Bolotnaya. Yet in this picture, the corporate architecture towers over the human flux, enveloping it and separating it from the rest of the city. Here, the crowds seem to flow along with the prescribed order; in the aerial view of Bolotnaya, the protestors do not simply fill but rather alter the urban geography, shift its center, force us to look at it anew. If in the vista of Sakharov, the avenue engulfs the crowds, in the spherical view of Bolotnaya the masses seize public space. The popularity of the latter photograph shows that the protest movement, despite its own claims to the contrary, is invested in the idea of an explosive event, a decisive action, an insurgency. And in true revolutionary spirit, the opposition speaks the language not of progression but of binaries: a multitude of voices versus the voice of the state; the vanguard versus the masses, and the masses versus the system; humor versus officialdom; creativity versus bureaucracy. Yet, at the same time, the protest movement remains committed to a peaceful political transformation (an admirable goal that, nonetheless, has much to do with preserving the demonstrators’ own economic interests and lifestyles). The way the movement has represented and seen itself through photographs from the protests underlines this ambivalence. It is still an open question, I think, whether the discrepancy between what the opposition says and how it pictures itself means that the movement has not yet found the right language to describe its goals — or whether this disjuncture reveals that the opposition’s ultimate and perhaps still unconscious ambition is a change in power, even if in the end it looks more like a revolution than an evolution.