In the latest episode of Expert Opinions - Russia, Eurasia, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Masha Udensiva-Brenner interviews Alexis Lerner about her scholarship on authoritarianism and dissent in Russia, particularly in the context of imprisoned Russian opposition leader and political activist Alexei Navalny. They also discuss Lerner’s book project on graffiti in post-Soviet countries and how the Russian authorities use graffiti as a way to drown out public dissent.
Intro: Hey everyone. I'm Masha Udensiva-Brenner, and you're listening to Expert Opinions, Russia Eurasia, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and Eurasianet.org.
Today, you'll hear from Alexis Lerner, a scholar who studies the intersection of authoritarianism and dissent in post-Soviet states. This interview is the second in a two-part episode about Navalny, transparency and political repression in Russia. In the first part you heard from Matthew Murray, a rule of law and governance expert who talked about his personal experiences of working with recently imprisoned opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny. Alexis will zoom out and talk about the more general patterns of authoritarianism and dissent in Russia.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to her is because of a study she conducted about the likelihood that potential presidential candidates in post-Soviet authoritarian states would be repressed by the incumbents in power. I wanted to see how Navalny, who ran for president in Russia in 2016, fit into her research framework.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: So, to start, I wanted to talk about one of the conclusions of your study, which is that candidates who have stronger foreign ties tend to suffer the least from repression. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Lerner: So, not only do international ties make someone more threatening, and that's pretty clear because as they become more popular, they become a bigger threat because of their capacity to have the international community come to their aid with sanctions or military action or anything like that. But it also makes them less likely to be repressed. And this is just like statistically on average less likely to be repressed. Of course, there are outliers, but on average.
Udensiva-Brenner: And what was the strength of Navalny’s foreign ties, how would you classify him?
Lerner: So, when he started his anti-corruption platform in 2011, he was more well-known at home than he was abroad, based on the way that I measure it.
Udensiva-Brenner: And how did you measure it?
Lerner: I used Factiva, which is a platform that you can use to look through news stories in all kinds of languages and all kinds of countries. It got me local Tajik sources, and all kinds of information. And I would look at how often that person was spoken about in their domestic languages versus from sources outside the country in a year prior to an election, stopping at the point of the first incident of repression.
And so of course, with Navalny, if we're looking at each election year as an individual event, we have some problems because he had been repressed in the past. But then again, this also shows that he's more prominent abroad as a result of having been repressed in the past.
Narration: Alexis kept track of these numbers in a dataset over time and she said that Navalny gained even more prominence abroad once he formally announced his presidential run in 2016.
Lerner: At this point we see that his international prominence starts skyrocketing and he gets to the point where he almost has an equal international and domestic prominence. So, it's unclear, for example, with someone like Navalny, how that might fit into my study. Whereas someone else who is clearly more prominent domestically than abroad might be more likely to be repressed. Or someone who is clearly more prominent abroad than they are domestically might be less likely to be repressed, and more likely, for example, to be co-opted.
So Navalny’s like an outlier. Navalny doesn’t really fit into my framework, which I guess reinforces that you can't really make predictions on these sorts of hypotheticals without talking to the people in power.
Udensiva-Brenner: Some of your research looks into the potential costs of ramping up repression. Navalny’s been in prison, his health has been waning, he was on hunger strike for a while, which resulted in more protests and a huge number of arrests. What consequences might the Kremlin face for all this?
Lerner: The Russian government has shown time and time again that it's unconcerned with the ramifications of arresting average people and throwing students, for example, in jail. But there's certainly a threshold where throwing someone high-profile in jail or murdering someone high profile like Navalny or before him Nemtsov or someone like that, could have sort of a backfire effect. One of the things that is important to think about here is whether Navalny becomes a greater threat to the Putin administration once he's not alive anymore. So, if the Putin administration keeps him alive and he's able to call for protests or bring people out into the street as a symbol, fine, that's threatening to the regime. But if he's able to do it even more so after he's dead, because of what he represents as a martyr, then that's even potentially more threatening, more problematic for the regime if it brings more people out.
That said, if Navalny’s in prison for two-and-a-half years, and he's killed 1.75 years from now, when he's not in the media, and he's not in the public interest as much as he is currently, will it have the same sort of negative effect for the regime? Maybe not.
Udensiva-Brenner: The fact that we're even talking about whether or not Navalny will die in prison and what that will mean for the Kremlin shows that it's just such a crazy time in Russia right now.
Lerner: I was just reading an article about how the Russian administration is using facial recognition technology to take the place of the Troika card, which was like a subway card that – well, you know what it is – and it's so funny because my first reaction was, “this is going to be a disaster and the technology is not gonna work. It's gonna like definitely glitch out, people aren't going to be able to get on the train. They're not gonna be able to get to work. It's going to be very frustrating.
But also, of course, this technology is going to be used to determine who was where and when, and that it’s actually a very interesting move on the part of the regime in order to proactively prevent mass gatherings and proactively track societal leaders before they even mobilize massive protests. To start to track everyone's movements even before these protests are happening, that seems wild to me.
Udensiva-Brenner: It's becoming much more Orwellian in than it used to be.
Lerner: Orwellian is a great word. Yes.
Udensiva-Brenner: The Russian authorities seem to be pretty innovative in how they drown out dissenting voices. And this brings me to your book project, which uses graffiti as a lens to examine the expression of dissent and how states respond to it. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Lerner: I have a book, “Post-Soviet Graffiti: Free Speech in the Streets,” and I look at how artists and activists can use graffiti as a tool for circumventing censorship in generally autocratic states, but I use the post-Soviet region comparatively. And I look at sort of the topics that come out, the spaces where people are particularly critical, the policy changes that are called for in the streets, the mobilizational efforts, and so on. And this is the product of about 10 years of ethnographic field work everywhere from Minsk and Moscow to Vladivostok and Tbilisi and Riga. All over the region.
And I also go to the post-communist Europe region, Berlin and Prague and Budapest, and so on. Specifically in Russia, and specifically in Moscow, I started this project in 2009 and over the next 10 years, I saw that what was originally very critical in these downtown spaces – so near Kitai Gorod [Chinatown] for example, or near the Kremlin, you would have explicit critiques of Putin, explicit critiques of policies that he was putting forth. It was hard-hitting against elites, that inner circle of Kremlin elites.
Over the next 10 years, you saw that the state started to use these, what we call “legal graffiti festivals,” to hire the same artists often, but even artists from abroad, to paint these murals and sort of take over the public spaces downtown in Kitai Gorod near the Kremlin and push out those critical voices to artistic districts near Kurskaya Metro or whatever, or even the end of line out into Marina Rosha or whatever it is, pushing all these critical voices to the outskirts of society so that, if you're walking downtown, what you're seeing is, you know, World War II celebrations and giant murals of generals from various wars, or murals about Crimea. And you're seeing a certain narrative that has totally been co-opted by the Kremlin.
And so this is a phenomenon that I see coincides with this sort of explicit Kremlin initiative to unify the people, to use this nostalgia to bring people together. And it specifically occurs after Russia domestically deals with all these problems – Ukraine and Syria, the crumbling ruble, bad relations with the U.S. and so on. All these different problems and that's when you see this new initiative of like, we're going to bring the people together with this conservativism and patriotism.
And that's when you start to see the flooding of critical voices out of the public space, at least in graffiti, and instead putting in these super pro-Kremlin narratives, really proud World War II narratives. And so, this is something that I think, you know, my research, you can see, you can observe it as someone just walking down the street. It's totally fascinating.
Udensiva-Brenner: It's kind of like when they push protestors to the outskirts of the city with the excuse that there are construction projects taking place in the center. So, they're just using the same tactic, but for visual art.
Lerner: Yeah absolutely. Absolutely. Or, to some degree, it even sort of looks like Kremlin trolls on Twitter just flooding out true dissent where the dissent still exists. And in some cases, it's still downtown, but it is so physically dwarfed by the manpower of the Kremlin. They have more money. They can pay for paint and bigger spaces and those murals aren't going to be buffed or washed over as quickly. There's just no competition. And so, it does floor out critique.
When I talk about this topic, I often give the example of the swings at Triumfalnaya Square. I don't know if you've seen them or heard about them, but they're these cool, beautiful swings.
It's a space where protests used to happen. But now that the swings are in the middle, it's become more family friendly, it's become more pedestrian friendly, a place to gather for people who may or may not be interested in protesting. And certainly it puts a barrier in the middle of the square, which would prevent someone in the back from seeing Navalny on stage. And so, it does actually have the same effect. It beautifies public space, but it keeps people from effectively communicating their discontent.
Udensiva-Brenner: So, it's a sort of soft power that they're using.
Lerner: Yes. And you're not using repression in the same way, but you're having maybe a similar effect in that you're able to at least dissuade some people from coming out or make the actual protests less effective.
Udensiva-Brenner: What was your methodology for conducting the research for this book?
Lerner: So, I look at cities and countries, far beyond just Moscow in Russia. In Russia I'm looking everywhere from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to Tyumen. I went to Georgia, I went to Belarus, I went to Hungary. I went also to the former Communist states of Eastern Europe. I went to Germany, Berlin. I went to the Czech Republic, Poland and so on, the Baltics all over the place, Ukraine. And in every one of these cities, I go to six different locations. I do this to establish sort of a social scientific consistency though, of course, ultimately I'm doing ethnographic work.
So, in each of these different cities, I look at six places. I look at the downtown area. I look at an artist district. I look at a student district, I look at sort of an approved graffiti spot, something like Lennon Wall in Prague, if you've ever been, or, Tsoi Wall in Moscow, kind of these official places where graffiti can live.
I looked at the end of the line and I looked at the market district. And I determined these locations through preliminary interviews with artists in all different places. And then I would, I actually used Couch Surfing. Couch Surfing was the platform I used to originally get into this work.
I would look up every single person in every language that would talk about being interested in graffiti and street art and then I would send them, essentially, a questionnaire. They would respond to me with a number of different places that they recommended to go see graffiti, for example, some of them would suggest they could take me. They would suggest someone else I should talk to. And then I would kind of triangulate and make a list of what they said versus what other people said, and then I would get on the ground and I would talk to people and they would put me in touch with other people through a snowballing technique.
And I've been doing this for so long that eventually it got to the point where I could go back to Warsaw or I could go back to Minsk and I could just do maintenance because I already knew the artists, I already knew the locations where they were painting. And that way I was able to say, “Oh wow, in Minsk in 2011, it looked like this. But in Minsk in 2017, it looked like this.”
Udensiva-Brenner: And did you photograph all of this as you were going along?
Lerner: I photographed everything, even what we would call named graffiti or tags or crew graffiti, which generally doesn't give us any substantive information, it's not political by any means, it's more just people and their egos.
So, I would photograph everything. And then when I got home, I would organize it. I would code it by a huge different set of indices, I would look at the theme, I would look at the type of graffiti it was, did it have language in it? If it did, what, what language was it? Where was it located? What kind of surface was it located on? And so on. And so I would just organize it by all these different features.
Udensiva-Brenner: Wow. That sounds like so much work, but really fascinating. And what do you think your book-in-progress contributes to the greater narrative of repression in post-Soviet spaces?
Lerner: I've been thinking about this a lot. I'm working on this chapter right now about Bakhtin – Bakhtin is a Russian literary theorist – and looking at graffiti as text and I've been thinking a lot about graffiti in the context of samizdat lately and thinking about how it is very subversive. It's a way of self-publishing and well, a way of sharing your opinions. Something that is very threatening to the regime, but why is it threatening? It's only sharing information. It's a piece of paper, a stack of papers. Samizdat itself is not threatening, but something about it is problematic enough for the state that there's obviously a need to control it. And I think that there's a lot there that bleeds into this post-Soviet space and era and how we think about graffiti as a new form of communication.
That's something I've been thinking about lately, is like samizdat, man. That's it. It's samizdat, but it's like public instead of handing someone something.
Narration: That was Alexis Lerner. You can learn more about her book and progress and her other work at alexislerner.com.
Thanks for listening to Expert Opinions – Russia, Eurasia. A podcast brought to you by Columbia University's Harriman Institute and Eurasianet. I'm your host, Masha Udensiva-Brenner. If you liked what you heard, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts and tune in next time.
Eurasianet is based at the Harriman Institute.
Alexis Lerner is a presidential data postdoctoral fellow at Western University’s Department of Political Science, and an incoming assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy. She’s also a visiting scholar at New York University’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia and a former visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is print and digital media manager at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Her work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, The New Republic, The Awl, and Guernica, among others. Any opinions in this podcast do not reflect the positions of the Harriman Institute or Eurasianet.