Will Russians take to the streets?
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.