Will Russians take to the streets?

March 10, 2009

“God preserve us from the Russian Uprising, senseless and merciless.”

The line from poet Alexander Pushkin was quoted to me often by Russians in the dark days of the early 1990s when the Motherland had fallen from grace, communism was collapsing and millions were pitched into unemployment and poverty. Romantic souls, bleary-eyed, would tell me how Russians were born to suffer: to suffer the piercing winter frosts of a vast land, the predations of war and invasion, the shortages, the harshness of their masters. The Russian would suffer patiently, silently; that is, until he could take no more.

A recent poll suggested nearly a quarter of Russians would consider joining protests against falling living standards. Sixty percent said they would regard protesters with respect or understanding. So, could the popularity of tandem rulers Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev wane, with jobs lost, wages unpaid, factories run down?

President Medvedev, on a videoblog marking his first anniversary as president, appealed to Russians to keep their faith in the future. Putin struck a more bellicose note, warning opposition critics not to consider exploiting the economic crisis to challenge his government and stir discontent.

Certainly, the crisis bites with a peculiar ferocity in some areas of Russia. Decades of Soviet development left some whole cities almost entirely reliant on single factories for employment and social services. Think of Motor City Detroit and triple the problem. Tolyatti was born to its car factory, Seltso lives by a munitions plant, Magnitogorsk is fed by a smoking behemoth of a steelworks that was the pride of Soviet power.

Russian protests so far have been small and limited largely to the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, while Greece has seen riots and Iceland the toppling of a government. Police have tended to act vigorously. In Vladivostok, 6,000 Km (3,750 miles) from Moscow, on the Pacific coast, riot police were flown in to break up an unsanctioned rally in December against new tariffs threatening a trade in imported second hand Japanese cars. Regional interests clashed dramatically here.

 The duties, a big blow to the Vladivostok economy, were imposed to offer some protection to the car workers of Tolyatti. Anger towards Moscow ran high but street protests ebbed.

Looking back over recent history, there’s little evidence of change being driven by the streets. Mikhail Gorbachev set about reforming the Soviet Union and the Communist Party ‘from above’. A hardliner coup to halt that reform failed not because of mass demonstrations or riots but largely because the putsch leaders simply lacked authority with the security services and and failed to mobilise a sclerotic machinery of government.

I remember that coup leader’s hands shaking uncontrollably as he shuffled documents at a news conference, recall his fellow conspirator, the prime minister, who fell ill at the height of the putsch, and the interior minister who sat on his bed and shot himself in the head. Yes, some brave people took to the streets, Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank and barked defiance to the crowd, but the collapse was at the top.

Yeltsin pushed Gorbachev aside as the country and the Party crumbled. Putin, in turn, showed Yeltsin the door as the new century arrived, restoring order in a country threatened by regional separatism and economic decline.

In the post-Soviet era, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution were never emulated on the streets of Russia.

Pushkin’s “Russian Uprising” was an 18th century peasant revolt focused on the Ural and Volga regions led by Yemelian Pugachev, a pretender to the throne of Tsarina Catherine the Great -– a rebellion crushed with equal brutality. The memory of Pugachev is a distant one, but there are more recent events, less dramatic in scale that scar the Russian landscape.

One city name stands alone as a reminder to Russia’s leaders as they weigh the dangers of social unrest in the months ahead: Novocherkassk.

In June, 1962, workers at the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Factory, furious about food shortages, wage cuts and dismal working conditions, declared a strike. Moscow, wary of any spread in the unrest, ordered tanks into the town. Crowds marched on the Communist Party headquarters to present their demands. Militants broke away and stormed the local militia headquarters. Rioting swept Novocherkassk, a city situated close to the historic heartland of the cossacks Pugachev drew on for his rebellion. Moscow ordered troops to act, and shots were fired into the crowd. Dozens, including women and children, were killed, their bodies buried secretly at night by the security services.

Russian leaders, ensconced in the Kremlin, had failed to recognise the depth of feeling and suffering in the distant provinces and were quickly overwhelmed. Authorities in Novocherkassk under pressure from Moscow acted clumsily, in panic, to restore order.

The political perils for Russia’s leaders lurk today, as they did in the past, in the more remote provinces of a vast country spanning 11 time zones and countless nationalities from the Polish border to Vladivostok in the Far East.

Some in the poorest regions have little more they can lose as the crisis grips. They may be joined in their anger by a middle class, only just emerging, only just adapting to the pleasures of wealth now snatched from them.

Putin made clear the importance he gives to control over the regions when, as one of the first acts of his presidency, he brought them directly under his appointees. According to one newspaper report, the head of Russia’s oil producing Bashkortostan region may leave his post within weeks, the most powerful casualty yet in a clear-out of regional leaders analysts have linked to Kremlin concern over possible unrest.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union has its lessons for the Russian Federation. The tensions of the coming months may play out less on the streets than quietly between Moscow and the power elites of the struggling regions – from the unruly north Caucasus to the Arctic north, from the Siberian oilfields to the distant Far East.

In the best of times, Russia is a hard country to hold together.

18 comments

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The Russian people have the power to topple Putin’s regime. It only takes the action of a few people to incite the furry of the majority into forming an “all out” revolt.

Crushing a tin god is as easy as making the collective decision to do so. I’m sure that the Russian people can find enough anger in their hearts to overwhelm the troops assigned to keep them in check. When you have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain – why not?

Posted by Asclepius | Report as abusive

This piece is a ruse by liberal media who want you to think Russia is on the verge of collapse when in reality Russia has been and intends to continue rapid military growth while concretizing middle east alliances in an effort to control oil and bring America to her knees, and finishing off democracy and capitalism under comrade Obama. Those of you in journalism 101 should at least appreciate the long sentence.

Posted by JoeG | Report as abusive

Russia will not suffer another revolution, because of one simple matter shared by China. Nationalism.

Look to Russia’s media. Look at Putin. Look at every political statement and diplomatic move Russia makes.

Every single one is calculated to appeal to their own public. To reassure them that their country is “important” and actually matters in world affairs.

Do you think Russia really cares that 10 interceptor missiles are baing based in Europe? Russia has enough nukes to reduce the entire world to ashes, even without any other nation taking part.

No. Their policy and statement is for the benefit of their own public.

This was the reason they marched an army into Georgia, and the reason they are desparately trying to keep their military from falling apart at the seams.

Because the Russian people will be satisfied with the Putin kleptocracy, as long as they think their nation still matters.

The difficulty will be trying to keep the people believing this when resource prices start to fall, and all the state controlled business starts to record losses.

Posted by John Smith | Report as abusive

I strongly believe all people of all races, nationalities, and backgrounds, are responsible for and should topple all of their respectful governments. For it is not the economy that’s crashing. Hostory has without a doubt showed and proved to us that a civilizationa and economy based on government and monetary will not last, but rather continue to crash, fail, and have problems. It is because of this poeple world wide must unite for the common goal political and monetary abolishment. All people would get along if we didn’t haqve people in suits and ties representing and speaking on behalf of an entire nation of people. The current U.S. presedent’s thoughts are not my own. Since government is for the people by the people, it’s only fair that the people have the right to strip the government of it’s obligation, responsibilities, and duties without opposition or struggle

Posted by dan | Report as abusive

And will British take to the streets?

Posted by chiragu | Report as abusive

“In the best of times, Russia is a hard country to hold together” – Wait without hope! We still grow flowers on your grave. (from Rus)

Posted by PiterGS | Report as abusive

Where do you get information about Russia? A quarter of Russians would consider joining protests? What a stupid idea!
We know Pushkin and our history very well. We are tired of revolutions. We’ll overcome the crisis without it, be sure.
“In the best of times, Russia is a hard country to hold together”. – However, it has been standing for a thousand years. And will be. Despite your hopes :)

Posted by Nonromantic | Report as abusive

Forget these hopes, guys, Russia remains stable until Putin is at power. All this anti-Russian propaganda in Western mass-media will not help. Especially after great democratic “successes” in Ukraine and Georgia.

Posted by Oleg | Report as abusive

The problem is that most Russians have what to lose.

Believe me it’s much better here nowadays than in the times of Yeltsin who along with Gorbachyov crashed Soviet Union.

But I must admit that most rich or wealthy enogh people are FAIRLY percieved as a big big thievery corporation.

Posted by Shalun | Report as abusive

Full quote: “God save us from seeing a Russian revolt sensless and merciless. Those who plot impossible upheavals among us are either yong and do know our people, or are hardhearted men who do not care a straw eithe about their own lives or those of others”

The meaning changes, isn’t it?

Posted by Roman | Report as abusive

Full quote: “God save us from seeing a Russian revolt senseless and merciless. Those who plot impossible upheavals among us are either young and do know our people, or are hard-hearted men who do not care a straw either about their own lives or those of others”

The meaning changes, isn’t it?

Posted by Roman | Report as abusive

This article is footless fancies of the author.

?? that mischief hatches, mischief catches.

Posted by Ruru | Report as abusive

“In the best of times, Russia is a hard country to hold together” – No way. You’ll see, we will get even stronger in the end.

Posted by Artem | Report as abusive

Oh, my God! As hard as some journalists to refrain from after alcohol abstinence delirium. Your head breaks, but there is a editorial job – to write about Russia! What to write? About! Here it is! Russia, too, breaks! P.S. If something happens in Russia, only it does not collapse. In Russia, waiting for the accession of Ukraine – each Ukrainian family has relatives in Russia – and are afraid of this.

Posted by Slovohot | Report as abusive

Even if Russians DO take on the streets,( which I don’t foresee tomorrow,) there is nothing good in cards for the West, USA in particular. After the very dubious role ( to say the least) of US government back in 90ies, (Clinton’s “economic advisors” to Kremlin, anyone?)Russians became much wiser about the ulterior motives of the West. There is not much naivite left on this matter among Russian intelligenzia that went through Yeltzin’s times.
To all the people of goodwill in the West – be patient. When Russians finally take on the streets, it will be your day too, for “history has without a doubt showed and proved to us that a civilization and economy based on government and monetary will not last, but rather continue to crash, fail, and have problems.”
But for now – the rift between Russia and USA will only keep on widening and growing, no matter how much Obama would try to mend the differences. Clinton made too big of a mistake back in his time, and history will not forgive it.

Posted by H.K. | Report as abusive

Russians will not go on streets. It was a genetic selection performed successfully from Pushkin times. Czar’s government, later communists cleaned up nation systematically of those, who could even possible rise a riot.
And besides, current generations of Russians clearly understand that today, covered with word “DEMOCRACY”, more evil is caused to people, than in middle eaves was done by Inquisition with the name of “GOD” on their mouth.

Posted by Rockcrawler | Report as abusive

2 John Smith: – Do you think Russia really cares that 10 interceptor missiles are baing based in Europe?
– 10 interceptors in Europe are not important.
But 10 big missiles in East Europe, close to Moscow and Peterburg, are VERY dangerous.
We remember death of children in Belgrad and Bagdad, and we do not want such destiny for our children.
We remember, how the regular Georgian army shot sleeping Tshinval and the Russian peacemakers. And as SNN and FoxNews lay about the Russian aggression. Therefore we do not trust you.
Russia will not break up. Yes, at us inefficient management. Yes, at us corruption. Yes, we do not have not enough freedom. But today safety is much more important. Safety from you.
Your agents correcting today in relatives to us to Ukraine and Georgia, have cast the people of these countries into poverty. It is democracy? No, this treachery.
Certainly, you want disintegration of my country. To eliminate the competitor, to receive the control over resources, to put a foot on ruins of the destroyed empire… Pleasantly, isn’t it?
Not you the first, not you the last. Did not leave at them, it will not turn out and at you.

Posted by Eugeny | Report as abusive

If you interested for Novocherkassk tragedy 1962, you may read about here: http://novocherkassk.net/wiki/1962/
Here is some video from place of events.

Posted by Sarry | Report as abusive