Could Revolution Come to Putin's Russia?

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Saturday's mass demonstrations in Moscow may draw comparisons to the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, but Russia -- and Putin's "democracy" -- is unique

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History was made yesterday, on Christmas Eve, in snowy downtown Moscow. Tens of thousands of people rallied in response to the election two weeks earlier, which Vladimir Putin's party won amid widespread reports of fraud. 

It came almost exactly -- and somewhat eerily -- 20 years after the Soviet Union's collapse, on Christmas day 1991. And it came days after the death of Vaclav Havel, the iconic playwright who had struggled for decades to topple that rusted and totalitarian machine. 

And it came in the final moments of an incredible year -- one that saw an Arab Spring and an Occupied Wall Street, one that brought thoughts about protest, repression, and revolution, squarely to the political forefront. 

Watching tweets and clips and flipping through photos brought two things in mind: the first, a question about the effect of the 1990s financial collapse on the young; the second, a thought about the relationship between leadership and revolution in the modern era. 

Moscow is quite large; it's home to more than 10 million and it endures some of the world's most incessant traffic. The city had not witnessed, until this month, any sort of mass protest during the 12 years of Vladimir Putin's thuggish rule. 

Conventional wisdom holds that Russians are largely apathetic to politics, that they remain fractured and apolitical, and may suffer a kind of malignant strand in their national fiber that draws them to strong, unitary executives. The idea of a Khozyain, the owner, a kind of paternal provider, carries weight. And the Kremlin, with its complete domination of televised media, has carefully curated the image of Vladimir Putin as exactly that man. 

Valdislov Surkov, a round, boyish faced apparatchik, has moved deftly between employers. He first worked for oil magnet Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now in prison, then for Boris Yeltsin, and finally for Putin. He has been described as a Russian Karl Rove and is responsible for dispensing the narrative of Putin. In many speeches, he advocates a kind of authoritarian, "sovereign" democracy. The Kremlin's political maestro, who once wrote songs for a rock band and styled himself a Havel-eque Bohemian, has designed a Stalin-like false dichotomy -- either Russia will remain stable, with sure-handed Putin at the wheel, or it will return to the shortages and misery of the Boris Yeltsin era. 

Despite Surkov's hypnotic machine, though, on December 10th, 40,000 Muscovites marched downtown, protesting parliamentary elections held earlier in the month. Putin's United Russia narrowly won the vote, and estimates put the number of votes stolen to secure that win in the ballpark of 12 million. 

The demonstration was certainly modest compared with many of 2011's historic revolutions, but it wasn't modest for Russia. 

The last time Moscow saw an uprising of that size -- interestingly, one of very equal size -- was in 1991, when a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to roll back his reforms and return the Soviet apparat to power. The coup failed; Gorbachev's power evaporated; and Yeltsin, over a drunken night shared with the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, drew up documents to finish off the Soviet Empire once and for all. 

Despite the stakes of that August 1991 coup, though, fewer than 50,000 Muscovites came out to stand alongside Yeltsin, who mounted a tank and demanded an end to the putsch.

Nine years after the Soviet collapse, in another icy December, Yeltsin signed the nation over to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man known to almost no one. Putin, as head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, drew the favor of "the family," the circle quietly running the country in place of the drunken Yeltsin. He helped that clan dodge a zealous Moscow prosecutor investigating the Yeltsin family finances by orchestrating a filmed orgy with a look-alike, thus forcing the prosecutor to resign. It was a telling start to Putin's career on the world stage. 

Putin's Russia has returned the state's spy service to ultimate power. The FSB took over the borders and control of Chechnya, and planted operatives in every ministry, from the Bolshoi Theater ballet school to major television stations. Putin abolished several time zones and began appointing governors to the provinces, rather than suffer what elections might yield; five of the seven initial appointees were alumni of the KGB. 

Flush with oil money, Putin also, by way of Surkov's hand, formed the Nashi, best described as the Kremlin youth. The name literally means "ours," by way of "not yours. Their ranks number well over 100,000, many of whom joined the group as an avenue for advancement, not unlike the Komsomol decades before in the Soviet era. Building the Nashi played on young Russians' isolation, the need to feel apart of something larger and successful and potent, and their adherence to the Putin cult is, in many cases, part of the game rather than true religion. But the zeal and militancy of some elements of the Nashi, as well as the oil glut, inevitably demanded the Kremlin distance itself. 

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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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