Presidential election in Russia, March 4, 2012. Image credit: Elena Fragoso / Shutterstock.com
In her new book Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2022), Jessica Pisano draws on her long-term research in Ukraine and Russia to examine why some people support politicians like Vladimir Putin, how politicians close to the Kremlin enforce performative elections, and how political theater shapes both authoritarian and democratic societies.
Over the course of conversations with both Jeffrey C. Goldfarb and James Miller for Public Seminar, Pisano discussed Staging Democracy and how the lens of political theater can help us understand the conduct of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The resulting interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Public Seminar: What do you mean by “staged democracy”?
Jessica Pisano: All of politics is theater, but the performances in this book are a very specific kind of theater with roots in imperial Russia and the Soviet Union: staged elections, rallies organized and paid by politicians but meant to look like grassroots movements, and various types of smaller mise-en-scènes. The book analyzes staged performances of democratic institutions in Russia for the past two decades and in Ukraine during electoral cycles when Russia successfully meddled in Ukrainian elections. I argue that even as the form of these performances grew out of political practices promoted by Moscow throughout the twentieth century, the mechanisms that draw people onto the stage are anchored in contemporary forms of capitalism. In Russia, and in parts of Ukraine before Zelenskyy came along, these performances had important consequences for how many people came to think about political participation. Arguably, this type of political theater is a phenomenon we’ve started to see elsewhere in the world.
If during the Soviet period people made decisions about participating in rallies or parades or elections whose outcome was known in advance because of a form of sociality in a closed ideological field, against a backdrop of state-sponsored violence, in the twenty-first century we observe a situation in which people actively participate mainly because they’re being offered something material—or because they stand to lose something material if they don’t participate. In Russian politics, we’re talking about people losing their public or even their private sector job, their place in university, their access to social services if they decline to take part in the play. It’s true that sometimes people are offered modest positive incentives, like payments in kind or even cash. But the book also argues that when we look at those positive incentives in context, they’re often distributed amid concurrent processes such as enclosure of the commons or monetization of social benefits, which bring losses that people try to mitigate by accepting payments. In other words, where people feel a certain degree of precarity in their economic lives, some agree to participate in affirmations of political loyalty to maintain or improve access to the consumer life to which they’ve become accustomed or to which they aspire.
Public Seminar: How does this function?
Pisano: If we look, for example, at how this worked in universities before mobile phones became widely available (in Ukraine, once students had phones, these tactics no longer worked because students made and shared videos of any attempts to intimidate them), it would look like this: the rector of a university might receive a phone call from the regional governor noting that the president needed help with his re-election campaign. The rector would call in his deans, who would call in their faculty, to let them know the university’s funding might be in jeopardy if an opposition politician successfully challenged the incumbent. Faculty would understand that their salaries or benefits would be at risk if they did not comply with administrators’ political demands, and they or administrators would let students know that their scholarships might be cut if the wrong candidate won, or maybe their attendance grades would suffer if they didn‘t participate in a street demonstration for the president, and so on. A key feature of this type of political theater is that its local stage managers leverage hierarchies embedded in existing social and economic institutions to compel people onto the stage. They extract performances of compliance by tapping into broadly shared economic anxiety and insecurity in conditions of contemporary capitalism.
Public Seminar: What are “biscuit politics”?
Pisano: “Biscuit” and “sandwich politics” are terms I coined in the book to label the different constellations of meanings that attach to political participation in staged democracy and in democratic politics. The terms come from an incident in Kyiv during Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, when an American delegation visited Maidan the morning after Interior Ministry forces under pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych forcibly removed a tent city and engaged violently with pro-European Union protestors. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland went to Maidan offering a bag of goodies to both Interior Ministry forces and protestors, and this provoked an international hermeneutic crisis. Some observers thought they saw sandwiches in the bag, while Russian state media claimed to see tea biscuits in the bag—and regularly repeated the claim about the biscuits for over two years.
This divergent interpretation was significant because of the different meanings associated with sandwiches and biscuits in this context. During the pro-European Union demonstrations of 2014 in Ukraine, local volunteers organized to provide food to protesters. That food could include sandwiches. But in the conduct of staged democratic elections, bags of food are often offered to people in return for a promise to vote in a certain way. In Ukraine before Zelenskyy, people generically called these bags “grechka” (often using the Russian pronunciation) in reference to the buckwheat groats typically included in the bag. Within the system of meanings associated with Moscow-based political theater, accepting these bags signaled an implicit contract, a promise to vote for a particular candidate. In cities, these bags often also contained sugar, cooking oil, and, very often, tea biscuits. They never included sandwiches. When Russian state television personalities repeated to Russian viewers that Victoria Nuland had handed out tea biscuits to both police and protesters on Maidan, they were making an accusation: that Ukrainians had declared political loyalty to the United States.
The situation with accusations of biscuits versus sandwiches on Maidan shows why even a little political theater can be consequential. Late eminent political scientist and sociologist Juan Linz once suggested that liberal democracy needs to be “the only game in town” to work. But it only takes a few people familiar with performances of democratic institutions to destabilize understandings of what political participation is for everyone—and potentially to discredit the whole enterprise. Even though people protesting on Maidan were there of their own accord, the existence of the practice of political theater at other times in the society was enough to allow the Kremlin to try to discredit any democratic participation.
In an American context, even if only a small number of people have been, let’s say, paid to attend a pro-Trump rally, those who are aware of those payments may come to imagine that other rallies are organized this way. Understanding this dynamic helps us appreciate the genius of the political influence operation known as “Stop the Steal”—the lie about manipulation of the American 2020 presidential elections. If someone’s aim is disruption and chaos, they don’t need to win an election through manipulation, only to seed just enough doubt about the sincerity of participants to undermine trust in the system itself. This is the Kremlin’s calling card. The book shows how this worked in Russia itself, and in Ukraine during periods when Russia intervened.
Public Seminar: Some people on the left think Russian had a reason to invade Ukraine, and that reason was American intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine during Maidan.
Pisano: I’ve heard people express that opinion. I find it troubling first because of its colonial gaze, presuming that Ukrainians are going to do something only if Americans tell them to, and second because it seems to flatten any legal or moral distinction between offering support to peaceful protesters sincere in their convictions, and leveling whole cities, committing mass rape and torture, destroying schools, hospitals, and museums; shall I go on?
You know, I’ve worked in both countries and in both languages throughout my career. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, I’d been involved in both Russian and Ukrainian academia, with formal institutional roles in the two countries at different times, over a period of more than thirty years. I have chosen kin and friends in Russia, in major cities and in places far from Moscow. I’ve also consistently taken clear anti-imperial political positions, even expatriating myself from the United States for several years in protest of the war in Iraq, for example. This is not an ambiguous situation. Russia’s war is immoral and unjustified. If we’re looking for an American role in it, we could even argue that it was the weak response of the international community to Russia’s previous invasions that contributed to the current situation. And when historians look back at this war, they may locate part of the United States’ responsibility in our decision to put a highly divisive figure in the White House, causing Americans to do exactly what the Kremlin hoped we would: fight among ourselves for four years while they got ready to go to war.
Regarding the Kremlin’s own justifications for the actions of Russian forces, I think it’s important to remember that propagandists often don’t believe their own propaganda. Tucker Carlson provides only the latest illustration of this. Kremlin figures still send their children to live and be educated in the countries they accuse of being immoral because of our support for LGBTQ people and for transgender rights. The story the Kremlin is telling in Russia about war with the so-called collective West is mainly a tool of domestic politics for keeping themselves in power.
Public Seminar: How does the book help us understand the war?
Pisano: Even though I wrote the whole book before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the explanation it provides for people’s participation in imitations of democratic institutions can help us understand how Russian support for and participation in the war works. In North America, we tend to focus on the Russian president’s speeches or the ideologies that the Kremlin promotes through Russian social institutions because those sources are easy to access—and those sources are what Kremlin actors would like us to focus on as well.
But while it’s easily presented, the salience of ideology may be overestimated. Like Russian participation in shows of support for the Kremlin, Russian participation in this war is also partly a material story. Many of the people who volunteer or are mobilized to fight in Ukraine are recruited from impoverished communities. As others have also observed, in some ways, the Kremlin seems to be using its war against Ukraine to empty its own territory of minoritized people, taking people from Asian and Muslim enclaves within Russia and sending them, untrained and underequipped, to kill people in Ukraine. By the way, I should mention that anyone who still has any doubt about the intentional character of the Kremlin’s targeting of Ukrainian civilians could spend half an hour watching Russian state television—it’s all right out there, including their intention to “wipe Ukrainians off the face of the earth” (that’s a direct quote).
Getting back to those who volunteer to fight for Russia in Ukraine, they are often young men in debt or unable to qualify for a mortgage, buy a car, et cetera. The state offers to pay off their debt, buy their family a car or a household appliance, get them a mortgage if they serve in Ukraine. Russians who survive their deployment, though, are finding out that those promises are coming up short: they’re not receiving the payments or debt relief they expected. The Russian government shorting Russian fighters is common and well-known enough that Ukrainian comedians regularly satirize the phenomenon.
This highlights a key feature of the war: we may be used to thinking of Moscow as a city glittering with petroleum wealth. But much of Russia is very poor, and there are many places where basic living conditions deteriorated in the twenty-first century—even as much of the rest of the world, including many places in Ukraine, experienced certain improvements. The behavior of Russian fighters in Kyiv suburbs, where they stole toilets, washing machines, microwaves, and coffee makers from Ukrainian homes and took the trouble to mail them back home to Russia tells us something about their living conditions at home.
Public Seminar: You have suggested that occupation was a non-starter. Why would this be the case?
Pisano: The Kremlin’s approach to governance through performance requires not only the participation of people on the ground but also deep contextual knowledge of local economic relationships—something Russia did not and does not have in temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine. To compel people’s cooperation in this way over time, they would have needed to know how to apply pressure on actors at the community level. This is one of many reasons why long-term occupation of Ukrainian territory was never going to work.
In the book I show how performances of democracy worked at the local level in different places in Russia and in parts of Ukraine where people used to vote for Kremlin-leaning political candidates. One of the patterns that emerged from the community-level analysis in Ukraine was that people who voted for pro-Kremlin incumbents often did so precisely because of pressure from local authority figures, not necessarily because they felt much programmatic affinity. The book suggests that the “divided along the Dnipro” narrative about Ukraine, which grew in part out of analysis of electoral outcomes, describes regional differences in opportunities for staging political theater during the period in question—not variation in Ukrainians’ patriotism or attitudes toward Russia. Arguably, the Kremlin’s belief that Russian forces could take Kyiv and the east and south of Ukraine without a fight may have been predicated on a misreading of precisely this reality: those advising the Russian president may have been fooled by their own show.
On the one hand, it might seem surprising that people in the Kremlin didn’t realize all this before the full-scale invasion. On the other hand, as the book shows, one of the things we can observe about performances of political theater is that they have changed over time in a way that makes them less legible to the central state. To shift to a musical metaphor, 20 years ago the Kremlin’s orchestrations looked like a nationwide symphony, with people playing different parts laid out in advance from the center. But over time, performances came to look more like many different jazz combos, with improvisation at the local level. In this model, Moscow doesn’t really care about the chord changes, so long as the audience shows up. But in this model Moscow doesn’t have a clear handle on what the music sounds like in different parts of a very large country—nor what is really happening in parts of Ukraine it claims to control.
Public Seminar: How does this end?
Pisano: It seems to me that the war can only end one way, and that is with the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory, accountability for war crimes, and negotiation over reparations. Of course, from a moral and legal perspective the war should end this way, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t think it can end any other way. Anything less would mean not its end, but its eternalization. There are people who imagine that territorial concessions could stop the war, but that position misunderstands how people in the Kremlin conduct politics. The Kremlin would like us to believe that standing up to Russian aggression will provoke them to expand the war, and they actively encourage this line of thought over social media targeting Americans across the political spectrum. But the Russian state’s actions ever since their destruction of cities and towns in Ichkeria, their invasion of Georgia, their razing of Aleppo, and now their expansion of conquest and destruction in Ukraine show that the opposite is the case: the shortest path to the further expansion of this war is to teach the Kremlin that intimidation and aggression works. It’s likely that Russia will continue to hold the world hostage until the world learns this lesson. And it shouldn’t be a hard lesson to learn. When you give the schoolyard bully your lunch money, he’s going to come back for more.
Public Seminar: What’s Zelenskyy’s relationship to staged democracy?
Pisano: Zelenskyy was an interesting politician before the full-scale war because of how he helped change the conduct of politics in Ukraine. I’ve been following Zelenskyy since the 1990s, when I used to watch a lot of improv comedy on Russian television to develop the cultural literacy that I needed to conduct ethnographic research. I wanted to get to a point where I could relate to laughter that depended on word play and cultural references. Zelenskyy’s interventions in Ukrainian politics make me think of an old Soviet detective miniseries set in post-war Odesa that was called The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed. The series title came from the idea that for an undercover police officer meeting a gangster under investigation, it was important not to change the plan. Zelenskyy’s presidential campaign changed the meeting place of politics, taking it off the stage, and reframed Ukrainians’ relationship to political participation. When Ukrainians elected him in a landslide in 2018, they were responding to a mainly internet-based campaign—not to local officials pressuring them or using material enticements to vote as they had in previous electoral cycles.
Now, Zelenskyy’s earlier shift to internet-based messaging has proved if not prescient, then adaptive amid Russia’s attempt to de-territorialize Ukraine: with millions of Ukrainian citizens displaced both within and beyond the country’s borders, many people are participating in political and communal life through the screens of their smartphones. They’re organizing as volunteers over social media applications, following the presidential administration’s wartime Greek chorus in online videos, sharing online memes and jokes, and so on.
In the book I write that in his own storytelling, Zelenskyy uses the same Aristotelian theatrical conventions favored by Kremlin dramaturges. But there’s a big difference. In both cases the story follows a narrative arc ending with catharsis. In Russian political theater, the audience identifies with the characters and leaves the performance emotionally satisfied, without feeling a need to change something in the world. But Zelenskyy draws the audience into the performance not to identify with the characters, but to be the characters. We can see this when he involves European and American audiences in Ukraine’s tragedy by asking them to recall or imagine analogous moments in their own national imaginaries. This approach prompts the audience to want to do something, to leave the theater, so to speak, emotionally primed for action. Whereas the Kremlin has used political theater to socialize Russians to believe that their voices don’t matter, Zelenskyy has used political theater to further empower Ukrainians as political subjects.
In contrast to the staged democracy that I analyze in the book, Zelenskyy’s approach to political leadership has been focused on creating conditions that allow people to self-mobilize and self-govern, rather than mainly dictating or micromanaging from the center. This will form a solid foundation for the continued practice of democratic governance and participation after the war—providing that wealthy countries currently supporting Ukraine’s struggle to preserve its independence understand that later, their role will be as partners supporting Ukrainians as they reconstruct their own country. Ukraine’s leaders are explicit in their understanding that Russia’s damage to built environments in Ukraine offers an opportunity to rebuild differently amid climate emergency: green housing stock, localized small and autonomous power grids, all emphasizing self-governance at the community level. There’s an understanding that a focus on community-level political and economic development not only will improve life for greater numbers of people but also can reverse processes of democratic erosion I analyze in the book, and that we see in so many places in the world.
Click here to read an excerpt from Staging Democracy: Political Performance in Ukraine, Russia, and Beyond, courtesy of Jessica Pisano and Cornell University Press.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School. He is the founder of Public Seminar.
James Miller is Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics, and Faculty Director of Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism at The New School. He is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar.
Jessica Pisano is an Associate Professor of Politics at The New School.