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6 January 2016

New ‘class struggle’

The fate of the creative class in Russia

The book by Richard Florida The Rise of the Creative Class and How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life was translated and published in Russia in 2005, 11 years ago. The original American edition, published just three years earlier, was greeted with great interest by the public and became a bestseller.

Richard Florida defines the characteristics of the creative class as a synthesis of ‘the three T’s’: talent, technology and tolerance. According to the author, the creative class currently comprises about 30% of the entire US workforce. Notably, it is a prominent social stratum which shapes today’s America.

The burst white balloon

Traditionally, Russia has lagged behind in terms of development of Western trends, but at the time of the publication of the Russian translation of the book, one could speak of the formation of the creative class. In his foreword for the Russian edition, Richard Florida even cited a total of roughly 13 million creative professionals in Russia.

In 2008, the Russian creative class welcomed Dmitry Medvedev - and his slogans of modernization, a ‘reset’ in relations with the West, and an interest in technological novelties - to the presidential post. However, no technological or social modernization took place in Russia during Medvedev’s presidency. Moreover, the war with Georgia (reflecting Russia's imperial tradition) was unleashed during his tenure as president. Still, the unexpected return of Vladimir Putin for his ‘third term’ prompted mass social unrest from 2011-2012.

The protests are known as the failed ‘White Revolution’ today. White ribbons and balloons, witty slogans and non-violence, musical and artistic accompaniment were all the result of the leading role of the creative class in these events. Nonetheless, the main difference from events in Ukraine was the lack of any clear objective defined by protesters. 

Ukraine's 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ targeted the ‘succession’ scheme of the transfer of power and patent election fraud. Ukraine's 2014 "Revolution of Dignity" (also referred to as Maidan) demanded the unconditional resignation of Yanukovych. In contrast, he main slogan of the Moscow ‘White Revolution’ was ‘free elections’, which were formally free anyway, albeit for registered candidates only. The opposition failed to develop a unified program. Slogans of liberals, leftists and nationalists differed significantly – unlike in the Kyiv Maidan.

A significant difference between Russian civil protests and those of the Kyiv Maidan also lies in the fact that more than half a million people took to the streets of the Ukrainian capital in response to the violent crackdown on the first student demonstration in November 2013. It was then that the phenomenon of the Maidan emerged. While in Moscow, no further mass unrest unfolded after the police crackdown at Bolotnaya Square in May 2012.

The Russian creative class placed their bets on businessman Mikhail Prokhorov in the presidential elections of March 2012. His style and image appealed most to the tastes of the urban creative public, and Prokhorov took an active part in ‘white-ribbon’ demonstrations and criticized growing authoritarian tendencies of the Russian government. However, as it turned out, creative freedom lovers fell victim to Kremlin political technologies. Prokhorov came 3rd (and even 2nd in Moscow and Saint Petersburg) in these elections, but then abruptly withdrew from political activity, his voters left with virtually nothing and having no representation in the state government. To compare, Alexander Lebed, who came 3rd in the 1996 presidential elections was appointed Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, and he ended the first Chechen war while in office. 

The annexation of Crimea and the proclamation of ‘Novorossiya’ in eastern regions of Ukraine finally split the Russian protest movement. Many participants of the opposition ‘white marches’ suddenly came to support the Kremlin’s policy. The Russian creative class faced a difficult existential choice.

Agitators or ‘the fifth column’?

The imperial and anti-Western ideology of russkiy mir (‘the Russian world’) which became official in Russia in 2014, was the polar opposite of the values of the creative class. Creative and political freedoms, global openness and technological development have all suddenly become suspect, and exponents of these ideas - formerly the legal opposition - have been transformed into the traitorous ‘fifth column’.

Obviously, by no means have all of the creative individuals been willing to work under such conditions, and the explosive rise in emigration from Russia in recent years is hardly surprising. These are representatives of ‘post-industrial’ professions: IT specialists, industrial engineers, journalists, designers, etc.. According to Rosstat (the Russian Federal State Statistics Service), over 200,000 people employed in these spheres left Russia in 2014.

Those who remain can be roughly divided into three groups: the apolitical, the freedom fighters, and those who became obedient tools of the state.

The first group opts to be profoundly apolitical. Of course, a steady decline in the permitted area of freedom is inevitably reflected in the reduction of their professional efficiency.

The second group continues to fight for freedoms, including the freedom of information, having learned to circumvent the censorship of ‘forbidden’ sites. However, one cannot speak of any real opposition policy in today’s Russia – unwanted candidates and parties are simply denied registration. Street protest activities are decisively suppressed – frightened by the 2011-2012 demonstrations, authorities have cracked down by tightening laws.

Non-government organizations (NGO’s) often become the opposition format for the activity of the creative class. However, according to the law on NGOs, if they are engaged in political activity and maintain contact with colleagues from abroad, they are labeled ‘foreign agents’. This automatically leads to a significant rise in the number of government inspections and loss of image.

Finally, the third group of the creative class began to openly serve the governing authorities, having gone from being free, creative individuals, to obedient tools of state propaganda. This group bears a deep inherent psychological dissonance: between the inclination towards free creative work and the need to bring work into line with official inquiries. In fact, this brings about the new instatement of the ‘doublethink’ which is described vividly by Orwell and is reminiscent of the life in the USSR for many.

Today’s creative class in Russia is not at all monolithic in terms of its worldview, and is internally deeply divided into radicals and conformists. They use the same Western information technologies, adorn themselves in similar clothes and even frequent the same ‘hipster’ cafes. They are all talented to a greater or lesser extent when it comes to their occupational activity. The split runs along the line of the third element of the formula of ‘the three T’s’: tolerance. Conformists are primarily tolerant of the existing authorities. And those labeled ‘the fifth column’ are tolerant of the tendencies of contemporary European development.

On the other hand, attempts of the opposition to build a ‘party of the creative class’ (for example ‘the December 5th Party’ etc.), appear helpless not only because of government obstruction of the activities of independent civic organizations. Here, the problem lies in the very nature of the creative who try to avoid excessive ‘mass character’ and value the freelance style characterized by strong individuality in particular.

Some of the surveys conducted by officially recognized sociologists which indicate that the overwhelming majority of Russians know nothing about the creative class seem somewhat incorrect. The fact is that many people working in creative industry do not necessarily think in ‘class’ categories similarly to ‘the proletariat’ in the Soviet era. Collective identification can be linked not to profession, but to sympathy for a given political option.

If thinking in terms of ‘the class struggle’, one can see that the Russian creative class has not confronted another class, but has become internally divided. Conformist media agitators come up with successful information designs for the existing authorities, while protest actions of radically-minded artists like Pussy Riot, Petr Pavlensky and others, increasingly resemble acts of despair.

However, it is possible to identify one common problem with the outlook of the Russian creative class which manifested itself in the 2011 White Marches - imperialist-centrist thinking. Even ‘advanced’ creative oppositionists generally share the imperialist-centrist thinking typical of the authorities. Aleksei Navalny’s anti-Georgian speeches in 2008, and his recent statements that ‘Russians and Ukrainians are one people’ which coincide with Putin’s views, are a case in point.

This convergence of views between state and some creatives is largely due to the fact that many creative individuals from the regions leave for Moscow in an attempt to fulfill themselves personally and this creates a centralist outlook in them afterwards. In fact, life in the country of a continental scale simmers only in the capital – the remaining part of ‘the periphery’ is preoccupied solely with the task of survival. This contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States, for example, where possibilities for creative activity exist throughout the country.

There is a vast unexplored field, a whole terra incognita, in Russia for the application of the capabilities of the creative class; at least for those who would like to exercise their own political creativity. This is regional branding which is becoming commonplace in all contemporary European countries. The authorities initially welcomed it before coming to fear it – since the process of cultural differentiation of the regions will inevitably raise a question about the revival of constitutional liberalism. Should the Russian creative class actively deal with this sphere, it will be able to undertake a historical revanche of the defeat of the White Revolution.

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