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Interview with Maksim Kononenko: Russian Non-Oppositionist Blogging

In connection with a larger research paper, I recently emailed with Maksim Kononenko (@kononenkome), to learn more about his views on “non-oppositionist” blogging and online social movements. Kononenko is widely considered to be one of the RuNet’s pioneers, and has worked as a publicist, a columnist, a programmer, and a television host, among other things. He is a self-described “liberal,” though his political positions place him squarely outside the Russian opposition.

Many thanks to Maksim Vitalyevich for taking the time to answer my questions! (Thanks also to RuNet Echo colleague Andrey Tselikov for polishing my questions in Russian.) I hope readers enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Maksim Kononenko, photo by M.K., used with permission.

Kevin Rothrock: Greetings, Maksim Vitalyevich! I'm trying to understand if it's possible to argue that non-oppositionist bloggers in Russia constitute a social movement. Scholars and journalists generally assume that the non-establishment Russian opposition is a social movement, however splintered and weak. I want to know what can be said of their online adversaries.

One of the most famous definitions of social movements belongs to Charles Tilly. He argued that social movements combine the following factors:

1. A sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target audiences: a campaign
2. Employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering: the social-movement's repertoire
3. Participants’ concerted public representations of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC) on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies: WUNC displays

Question One.
Do you think Tilly's definition [of a social movement] characterizes your work as a blogger? Or maybe just a part of his concept relates to your work? Or are the Tilly's factors entirely unconnected to your blogging?

I assume that Tilly's definition isn't a perfect match, especially since political blogging is a relatively new phenomenon, done online and not on the street, where traditional “movement” activity takes place. So, even if you think most of Tilly's definition is non-applicable, I'm interested to know if you think some of it does describe your efforts as a blogger.

Question Two.
Regardless of whether or not you think that non-oppositionist bloggers constitute a social movement, what is your attitude about classifying certain bloggers as members of a social movement? Do you think this can be done scientifically, or is the entire enterprise a political game of glorifying certain individuals and vilifying others?

Maksim Kononenko: I hope you understand one important, fundamental thing about Russia: twenty years ago, we all lived in the Soviet Union. It was a rather peculiar society, thoroughly miserable on a quality-of-life level, but consequently quite equal socially. That is to say, everyone lived poorly equally, but—inasmuch as they all lived this way—this everyday misery did not particularly bother anyone.

Then, literally in an instant (in a matter of weeks during the winter of 1992), everything changed radically. Our society sharply divided into those who could adapt to the new, antisocial conditions (a minority), and those who continued to live as they had before (the vast majority). Those who continued to live as before greatly envied those who adapted. They envied their cars, their changing living conditions, their visits abroad. This envy bred the colossal social tensions of the 1990s—an era when virtually all income was viciously redistributed to those who had adapted (especially to the very few called “oligarchs”).

And then Putin arrived. And the price of oil rose. Putin moved to nationalize the oligarchs’ enterprises. And the offices of state enterprises grew many times over. That is, there were several times more people among whom to redistribute profits. And so the bureaucracy grew in step. All this, plus total corruption, still further increased the number of citizens reaching for crumbs of the great oil pie. And the social situation paradoxically balanced out. Bit by bit, money trickled out to the regions. People gained confidence about a tomorrow (this was impossible under Yeltsin), and started making plans, having children, borrowing on credit, buying cars and apartments, and building homes. And, to this day, the overwhelming majority of the country's population is busy doing just that: buying and spending, in an effort to catch up to what people were denied under the Soviet authorities and under Yeltsin.

In Moscow, just in recent years, a stratum of people has formed, for whom basic consumption is no longer an issue. This includes both Soviet people, who have reoriented to the new conditions, and others, who don't even remember the Soviet authorities, and grew up in an already capitalist Moscow, which they know how to navigate. It's these two categories of people that comprise the base of the present-day Russian street protests. And precisely this explains why there are protests in Moscow, but not in the regions—the regions still struggle with basic consumption. As regions become satiated, protests will spread to the regions. But they are unlikely [to mobilize] more than one percent of the population. (This is my estimate.)

It follows that Charles Tilly's formula doesn't really apply to our Russian reality. Any collective demands we make of the authorities are brought by rather small groups, and these demands are almost always highly utilitarian. We have a hard time with unity in Russia. After the collapse of a very united Soviet society, a new society never formed, and people live isolated.

For that reason, any study of the “oppositionist blogosphere” always risks turning into a study of a quite narrow community of people tied together by certain common interests—something along the lines of “blogospheres of fishermen” or “blogospheres of students from some particular university.”

It’s the same thing with the “pro-Kremlin blogosphere.” Generally speaking, this is a community of people who know each other and live in one city. (Sure, Moscow is a metropolis, but the pool of intellectual clubs and cafes in the city center probably can’t accommodate more than a thousand people.) That said, “opposition bloggers” and “pro-Kremlin bloggers” are inevitably acquainted and often studied or worked together. And their “standoff” online is, in large part, a game.

Around this core of mutually acquainted people, there are, of course, the ideological people—the followers, so to speak. You find them on both sides, and the core blogosphere (both oppositionist and pro-Kremlin) quite indulges these ideologically motivated followers, as one might children.

But there’s no conflict of super-systems.

So your assumption about a “political game” is generally correct. Political movements in the Russian blogosphere haven't yet formed. Charity movements are forming. Volunteer movements are forming. Environmental movements worse so, but they're forming, too. Since 2005, we've made great strides in this direction, but political movements are not forming. They haven't gotten beyond the old cliques of the first Putin decade. Moreover, the “opposition,” take note, is largely headed by people who supported the authorities during the first decade of the 2000s. Only later, grown disillusioned or tired, did they switch to the other side. Those who remained [on the authorities' side] (like me) don't constitute some united force—they're loners. You might call this a kind of intellectual exercise, validating and justifying the actions of Putin today, inasmuch as doing so has become harder than it was five or six years ago.

But, by and large, the Russian blogosphere and the society from which it derives are entirely apolitical.

Kevin Rothrock: In 2008 book titled “The Web that Failed,” Floriana Fossato, John Lloyd, and Alexander Verkhovsky concluded that the Russian government is interfering consciously in the RuNet, sending pro-Kremlin bloggers and “trolls” to fight the opposition, in order to “to reproduce well-tested mechanisms of propaganda and manipulation.”

What do you think about this? Is it true what Fossato, et al, wrote? It’s their idea (and not only theirs) that an oppositionist grassroots movement exists on the RuNet. This movement is under attack by certain “trolls,” whom the Kremlin orchestrates. Could such an interpretation describe reality?

For instance, it seems to me that there are two alternatives: either (1) there is no such thing as grassroots, and all political bloggers are simply at the beck and call of their sponsors, or (2) “pro-Kremlin”/”non-oppositionist” actors write honestly, too, without manipulation from above. What’s your opinion on this issue?

Maksim Kononenko: The world is diverse. Certainly, there are public opinion leaders, whose loyalty is bought. But investment in the “opposition” happens exactly the same way. What’s more, this really only concerns the leaders, and there are only a few of them on either side. Sometimes they take on an assignment dictated from above, but that’s only occasionally. The main thing is that they aren’t going against their consciences when they are in one camp or the other. They write what they themselves believe.

Besides this, there are different categories of opponents on both sides.

First, there are the committed fighters—what you call “trolls.” One might compare their fighting with the battles between groups of sports fans, which are every bit as meaningless as they are entertaining. There are fans on both sides: Putin has them, and so does Navalny. And it’s precisely these fans who produce the overwhelming majority of the polemical traffic on LiveJournal. They don’t need any special resources to do this—they orchestrate their own entertaining plot-lines (for example, the story about a pregnant hipster [being beaten by police] at Bolotnaia [Square]).

Second, there are the committed trolls. These people aren’t committed fighters but are distinctly committed trolls, and their purpose is to troll each and every one of us. On Navalny’s LiveJournal, they troll Navalny’s adoring followers. On Maksim Sokolov’s LiveJournal, for instance, they troll Maksim Sokolov’s fans. Now this is just a part of the online culture. You need to understand that Anonymous varies. There is Anonymous that is against all government, and there is Anonymous that is against specific governments (for example, against Georgia).

And third, there are those who seek funds. Once again, what you find on one side, you also find on the other. To the degree that both sides are being financed, you find people eagerly trying to sell both camps ready-made bot-nets. Either that or they sell their own blog as an advertising vehicle.

A grassroots opposition movement does exist. (I've already addressed the nature of this.) But just as real is the grassroots patriotic movement, and it’s far stronger than the opposition, though it’s less entertaining in media terms. Believe me: the visits the opposition’s leaders make to American congressmen anger significantly more people online than Putin and his decrepit system. [Despite their anger about Putin], they’re not yet ready to share their grief with the politicians of another country.

Kevin Rothrock: I'm very interested in what you wrote about this incestuous “community of people.” If all the political blogosphere is playing in a clique, does this mean that the majority of bloggers consider their work a sort of game? You mention a certain “intellectual exercise.” Is such exercise a game for you? Is Maksim Kononenko just an articulate contrarian, or does he criticize oppositionists for some genuine purpose?

Maksim Kononenko: That's a good question. I don't know how it is for others (relationships to the current context can be complicated—just look at Marat Gelman, Gleb Pavlovsky, Marina Litvinovich, Stas Belkovsky), but I can tell you about myself. I’m a very liberal person. In my youth, my liberalism was absolute, but—as I’ve aged and become responsible for my family, children, and parents—that liberalism has been walled off from the big and noisy world. I remain a liberal, but I don’t want my world to intersect with the world of ideological revolutionaries—with the world of people who throw asphalt at police, or even the people who attend rallies at all. But insofar as I am still a liberal, I can’t allow myself to say, “Let’s exile all these people to Siberia.” No, for my part, I will battle these people with the same methods demanded by my liberal convictions. I will take the piss out of them, and throw their sins under the magnifying glass (like with the story about Navalny's legal experience). This is simultaneously a game, an intellectual exercise, and at the same time a political position.

Unfortunately, there are few people like me, but there are also other incarnations of the same thing. Take Navalny, for example. Navalny is a politician. His current image as the “Champion of Anti-Corruption Across Russia” is the fourth of his public political projects. First there was “Yabloko,” then the “Da-Debaty,” and then the “NAROD” movement. Each of these times, it didn’t work out, though the “Da-Debaty” were very popular and Navalny was even called to appear on television. And he took his role as television host completely seriously! This is because it was his capitalization, and he is—I repeat—a natural politician. Later he found success with exposing [corruption], and gained real political weight.

Now answer me: what for Navalny were “Yabloko,” the “Da-Debaty,” and the “NAROD” movement? A game? An intellectual exercise? A venture? And is it worth taking seriously his anti-corruption campaign, if he’s conveniently forgotten his three previous political incarnations? I don’t know.

Moreover, don't forget that nearly everyone knows each other on this side and on that side. They've worked together, sometimes on the same political projects, and later parted ways, taking up other political projects and opposing one another. Why, you could write a screenplay just about my relationship with Marina Litvinovich!

What’s more, everyone (that is, literally each person) has a completely different motivation. [Boris] Nemtsov wants revenge against Putin because he never became president. [Garry] Kasparov openly works for the U.S. State Department. [Oleg] Kashin hates the regime because of his beating. Everyone has their own reasons. Those on the other side do, too.

Kevin Rothrock: One last question: why have charity, volunteer, and environmental movements formed in the Russian blogosphere, but not political movements? Perhaps you're right that civil society in Russia is still too Soviet to activate, but why have certain parts of society nonetheless awoken? Why has it been precisely these groups?

Maksim Kononenko:  Because there's generally nothing to fight about in charity and volunteer movements, whereas, in any political project, the key question is “who's in charge?” In fact, this alone is the reason for the failure of all political coalitions in Russia over the last ten years. They've been totally incapable of agreeing on who's in charge. But these people who can't agree are people from the past—your Nemtsovs, Limonovs, and Kasparovs.

They're now being replaced by a generation born after the USSR. A generation of twentysomethings. They look at life a bit differently and are able to compromise. So political movements will emerge online, certainly. Just give it time.

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