Cover: Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond by Jessica Pisano (Cornell University Press, 2022)

In June 1996, on the eve of the first—and arguably last—competitive presidential elections in Russia, with the country still mired in the economic and social tumult that had followed the dissolution of the Soviet empire, a rash of writing spread across the walls of buildings in the southwestern rust belt city of Voronezh. The inscriptions were visible on large roadside cement pipes near the outskirts of the city, on buildings along major bus routes, and on the doors, gates, and walls of less traveled streets in the urban center.

The graffiti commented on electoral politics. It appeared to express the artists’ preferences for presidential candidates. One prominent inscription, scrawled across the side of an apartment building, read, “If you want severe hunger, cast your vote for the sickle and hammer.” On the walls of an underground passageway where young adults copied homemade paeans to the late Kurt Cobain onto the walls, a misspelled tag referred to the Communist Party candidate: “Zyuganov is a bastard with a capital B.” Nearby, others targeted President Boris Yeltsin, changing the “Ye” in Yeltsin to a swastika to read, “Yeltsin is the butcher of communism.” One accused Yeltsin of economic crimes: “Not one vote for Yeltsin the thief.” And another supported General Alexander Lebed: “Where there’s Lebed, there’s truth and order.” Playing on the meaning of Lebed’s family name, “swan,” someone else had added, “And what about where there’s a duck?” 

If similar inscriptions had appeared in postindustrial neighborhoods elsewhere in the world—on walls in Youngstown, Ohio, in Sheffield, England, or in Germany’s Ruhrgebiet—onlookers might have understood them as a kind of civic engagement or personalization: here were young people using their own medium to engage in political debate. For some, street art expresses freedom and creativity, a rejection of conventional social norms and an effort to reclaim public space for social critique. Seen through this lens, the street artists of Voronezh expressed youthful ebullience, even resistance to the constraints of the previous, communist order. 

In Russia’s heartland, another interpretation dominated press coverage and local discussions about the graffiti. This interpretation cast the writing as Soviet reminiscence, a mere spin on the visual propaganda that had saturated public space during decades of communist rule. A humor magazine published by students at Voronezh State University made the point. In one cartoon, an elderly woman trundled by a fence enclosing two buildings. Slogans atop the buildings read, “Put the decisions of the first punk congress into practice!” and “Yegor, you are wrong!” The latter addressed either Yegor Ligachev and his famous criticism of Boris Yeltsin (“Boris, you are wrong”) or Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister and architect of Russia’s shock therapy in the early 1990s. On the fence, someone had scrawled “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” The woman, leaning on her cane and looking at the fence in disapproval, says, “Hooligan!” 

The joke was that despite the ideological reversal that accompanied the end of Soviet power, the form of communication—here, slogans on buildings—looked just like the authoritative discourse of late socialism. And as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has argued, in late socialism, form had been the entire point. 

Neither interpretation of the graffiti—individual expression or authoritative discourse—captured the actual origin of the writing on Voronezh walls. In an effort to target youth constituencies, competing political parties had organized production of the graffiti. The artists were cash-strapped university students struggling to pay for food amid rapidly rising prices. Local branch offices of candidates’ campaigns, including that of incumbent president Boris Yeltsin, had hired them to go out at night with paint and brushes. Campaign workers had instructed the students to create speech acts that were meant to look like mild transgressions—even though in fact they were coordinated by some of the same power structures operating official party politics. 

The artifice of electoral graffiti in Voronezh heralded the proliferation, by the dawn of the twenty-first century, of performances now ubiquitous across territory formerly governed by the Soviet Union: choreographed elections, elite-directed social movements, mass demonstrations outwardly resembling grassroots mobilization, and smaller dramatizations. To their audiences, these performances look like practices traditionally associated with liberal democratic society. For many of their participants, another logic governs, one that generates other forms of meaning, community, and fealty toward the organizers. 

The slogan of the Yeltsin campaign in 1996 was “Vote or lose” (Golosui ili proigraesh). Addressing itself personally and informally to voters, the slogan meant to remind them of the dangers of a return to communism as the incumbent president battled Gennadii Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The slogan also neatly captured the political economy that would drive political participation in the decades to come and would slowly prompt a shift in the meanings people associated with their participation in elections and street demonstrations. 

Political parties in both Russia and Ukraine would gain voters by taking things and holding them hostage in return for participation in shows of support: people’s access to their livelihoods or their pensions, their access to critical infrastructure, their access to services, and their children’s access to education. Across Russia and Ukraine as well as the broader region, many people would mobilize because if they did not, local authorities would remove their access to things they believed were theirs to keep, and on which they had come to rely. Yeltsin’s campaign slogan carried a hint of that future: Vote for us, or lose everything. 

Performing Democracy 

This book is about performances of democratic politics in Russia and Ukraine: why people take part in such performances, how they are related to economic change, and how they affect the meanings that attach to political participation. While scholarship written in English about Eastern Europe and Eurasia often focuses on voluntarism and resistance, this book homes in on dramatic performances that express support for existing political orders. We can think of these as command performances, theater performed for the king. By focusing on local political economies of performance, this book shows how millions of people are called to participate in political theater and how their participation changes how they think about politics. 

But where is the line between political theater and ordinary politics?1 Sociologists and political philosophers have long theorized the role of performance in everyday life, and descriptions of politics as theater begin with Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Poetics. Democratic popular movements worldwide use spectacle to advance political arguments. In the worlds of the anthropologists Clifford Geertz or Georges Balandier, all of politics is theater. This book takes all politics to include theatrical elements, but it focuses on dramas that unfold at appointed times and places, involve specific people, and have identifiable beginnings and ends. These dramas have a metteur en scène, a director or directors who select the cast, block the play on the stage, and oversee the production. Some people are onstage, while others are in the audience. 

The performances in this book can be distinguished from their democratic homologues—what people in liberal societies might like to think of as the “real thing,” but which also can be viewed as theater, albeit of a different sort—by the perceptions and motivations of their participants, and by the meanings those participants find in the play. 

Some see command performances as fraudulent versions of democratic institutions, imagining politics as divisible into genuine and ersatz versions. This book argues that political theater is best understood not as mere imitation, a pale mirror of democratic institutions, but as a political practice with its own set of meanings. Even as they portray democratic contestation, command performances encode, express, and advance a real politics that is different from the ideal their form purports to represent. 

In Russia, today’s command performances remind some people of Soviet-era pageantry, but that too is part of the theater. In “The Kingdom of Political Imitation,” published in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti in 2014, political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann suggested that today’s “Stalin moustaches are also stick-ons.” Twenty-first-century performances do borrow their stagecraft and dramaturgy from Soviet-era repertoires, recalling another time. But their underlying political economy is anchored in market economies, the product of an alchemy of privatization, deregulation, and risk shift. 

The economic conditions for the proliferation of political theater arose amid a global shift from socialism in the East and welfare capitalism in the West to neoliberal capitalism almost everywhere. In Russia and Ukraine, markets have made many people more economically insecure than Soviet- era systems had, and the privatization and enclosure campaigns of the 1990s in both countries ultimately led to more, not less dependence on local political and economic elites. Governments and ruling parties now use that dependence to pressure people to participate in command performances. And the enclosure and erosion or disappearance of public-sector services and common-pool resources within which people formerly had been able to carve out spaces of subsistence and freedom offer new opportunities for political coercion and state expansion. 

This material story helps us understand the changing social contract underlying the political phenomena that observers often gloss as illiberalism or populism. Where command performances proliferate and leaders talk about “our people,” they refer not merely to people who support them at the polls: they mean a political community nested within the population. The contours of this imagined community of supporters are mainly defined not by people’s ethnic identity or adherence to ideology, but by their participation in an exchange. 

In that exchange, people trade political participation—going out onto a public square to demonstrate in support of the government, or showing up to vote in elections without choice—for mitigation of economic risk. If you support the leader, you get to keep your government job. If you support the leader, no one raids your business or shuts it down because of supposed fire or other safety inspection issues. If you support the leader, your kid keeps his place in kindergarten, your university professor gives you a passing grade, your village gets a gas line. Because some leaders favor the use of nationalist rhetoric, divisions between those who support them and those who do not might seem to be identity based, but at their source, they depend on economy. 

Taken as a systemic politics, the tactics used in political theater can pose a potential threat to almost all aspects of certain people’s daily material existence: their livelihoods, their children’s future, their home life. Political theater involves the conversion of goods and services people previously regarded as entitlements into privileges—privileges that they then receive in return for loyalty and participation in political performance. This exchange transforms relations between state and society, politicizing the responsibilities of the state toward citizens: the state assumes obligations not toward the entire population, but only toward those who support incumbent politicians or parties of power—political parties that act on behalf of executive- branch politicians. In this, we can see the seeds of so-called populist logics of governance. 

Over time, popular participation in the exchange networks underlying command performances generates boundaries within political communities. The practice of political theater gives rise to distinct epistemic groups that cohere around particular understandings of what it means to participate in politics. This can harden borders within political communities, destabilize perceptions of politics, and produce fuzziness at the edges of the state. By studying the stagecraft and stage management of command performances, we can observe how and why this happens. 

Thinking across Regime Types  

Some might wonder what Russia and Ukraine are doing in the same book about politics in the early twenty-first century. After the dissolution of the  Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine followed different paths, designing their institutions of governance differently at both the federal level or national levels, and in their regions. Those trajectories contributed to key differences in the nature and behavior of the policing apparatus in each country and the number of party organizations involved in politics. Today, most people view the two countries as embodying distinct regime types: independent Ukraine is widely seen as an unconsolidated democracy, while most outside observers describe Russia under Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian regime.  

Yet despite deep and consequent differences in the two countries’ politics— differences that led Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to remark of the two countries in 2019 that “only one thing remains ‘in common,’ and that is the state border”—much of the stagecraft and stage management widely used in Ukraine in command performances is also widely used in Russia. Political theater and its underlying political economy cut across regime types. This has been the case even as in Ukraine there have been multiple enactments of the script onstage at the same time, as some opposition parties leverage many of the same tactics as the party of power, while in Russia,  there is only one enactment, and one relevant party. Differences in national context are not a barrier to understanding. Instead, they help show how and why political theater can develop in diverse political settings.  

Jessica Pisano is an Associate Professor of Politics at The New School.

Excerpted from Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond, by Jessica Pisano, available for pre-order now. It was reprinted by permission of Cornell University Press. Copyright (c) 2022 by Cornell University.