Could Revolution Come to Putin's Russia?

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


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.
Alexander Tarasov, a former dissident and sociologist, was asked about the group in 2009, said, "It's simply dangerous to abandon this many kids after yanking them out of the wilderness and into political activism," Tarasov said. "I'll repeat once more, I don't think they'll be abandoned."
Revolutions nearly always belong to young, and, looking at images from Moscow, it's striking how old the population looks, particularly compared with the scenes from Tahrir and Tehran and elsewhere. The Nashi gave Russia's young an avenue into political thought, and, the success or failure of these December days will likely hinge on whether their blind support for Putin can be translated into genuine political agency -- on whether the Kremlin's dangerous gift can be turned against it.
The surges of unrest that world has witnessed alongside the financial collapse -- from rural to China, to Damascus, to downtown Manhattan - have been driven largely by those in their twenties and teens with little to lose. The global collapse has meant that the millennials around the world have watched progress stall, and futures become far less certain.
But, for the energy, and suffering, and beauty of these uprisings relatively little has been gained.
The lesson taken from 2011 may indeed be that revolutions need leaders, ones like the man the world lost last week. The digital era means that protestors can amass quickly, and singular events -- a troop carrier careening through a square, or a single act of police brutality in Oakland -- can galvanize a population and fill the streets.
But the slow nature of building revolutions in the analog era -- the very acts of circulating of Havel's plays and essays through Prague bars and theaters, or disseminating Khomeini's tapes through Tehran -- not only galvanized the public, but also built the stature of those who could negotiate with the regime, or who could come to lead in its place.
I've come to think that the street will very rarely succeed without icons, like Vaclav Havel, who can speak with legitimacy, and sit down with the ruling regime to negotiate, with both sides knowing that full weight of the street is behind him or her.
The street needs leaders, or cohesive coalitions of leaders, who can tell the movement when to lie low, like Mandela, and when to rise up, and who can demand more in the face of the regime's tepid offerings.
Starting with the Green revolution, in Iran, moving to Wall Street and what we've seen in Moscow today, these uprisings have sometimes seen individuals decline to lead (like Mir Hossein Moussavi in Iran), or suffer fractured leadership (like in Libya), or structure themselves in a way that they will never elevate a leader (Occupy), or simply too infant to have decided who, in the end, will lead (Moscow).
But, it should be clear that revolutions need leaders, and those that succeed without will continue to be the exception rather than the rule -- perhaps even more so today, because of both the advantages and dangers conferred by the digital era.
The Russian elite have a common retort when asked about the fusion of state and crime in their country, or about Surkov's take on democracy. They say, more or less, that it took200 years for America's flawed democracy to mature to its current state, and that Russia has had only a of couple of decades. Give her time, they say.
Perhaps Russia's democracy is growing, or perhaps this is merely a stutter along a smooth path to another decade of Putin's Russia.
It's intriguing that we so often refer to it that way, isn't it? Putin's Russia. It was the title of a jarring 2004 book about the wars in Chechnya and rampant abuse of young soldiers in the Russian military. The author, the daring and eloquent Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down two years later in entrance of her Moscow apartment building. The date was October 7, 2006  -- Vladimir Putin's birthday.
The nation remains his, and will until someone takes it from him. And the person who takes it from him will ride the support of the galvanized and the young, and -- like Mandela and Havel -- will likely have spent the better part of a lifetime gaining that stature.
Either way, it is an intriguing moment, and likely the last in a year that witnessed many unimaginable moments.
The world will watch, and wait, and see if it becomes something more.

Image: Reuters.