On December 14, 1825 (or December 26 with the new calendar) a society of military officers led 3000 soldiers in an uprising against the ascension to the throne of Czar Nicholas I, who was replacing his father Czar Alexander I. They were hoping to bring liberal reforms to Russia, believing their system to be out of date and stagnant. Czar Nicholas I, who was destined to become a brutal and conservative Czar, put down the revolt, and since the uprising took place in December the upstarts were called ‘the Decembrists.’ (Pssst – if you googled this hoping for something about the band the Decembrists, this isn’t the page for you).
It is now nearly 200 years later and a new group of Decembrists are trying to bring change to Russia — young people angry about the November election which saw United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev win a majority of seats in the State Duma, though with far, far fewer votes than in 2007. In that election they had 64% of the vote, this time it was officially 49%. Most are convinced that the actual total was much less. Medvedev called it proof that Russia was democratic, since they lost so many seats, but many in Russia believe the result was rigged.
And they have reason to believe that. As the election was taking place election monitors were suddenly told to leave; they could no longer monitor the election voting and counting. That’s the equivalent to having student in an exam grab her text book and tell the professor to leave as she finishes the test — it’s tantamount to announcing that you’re going to cheat.
In Russia social media is driving a growing call to go to the streets and force the election to be held again, as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded. Saturday in Moscow 50,000 people gathered, protesting peacefully. The police were said to be numerous and friendly — Putin clearly doesn’t want images of Russian police crushing protesters, but it’s also clear that the government doesn’t know what to do.
Putin’s essentially kept the media under control and relies on the fact that Russians historically do not defy authority. Even the famous Russian revolution of 1917 was actually a coup d’etat, not a true popular uprising. Protests of opposition leaders and public calls for calm on the day after the election seemed effective; protests were relatively mild — and the pro-United Russia rallies were relatively large.
However, there is a growing discontent and call for action among the Russian youth that suggest that perhaps like so many other movements this year, from Cairo to Wall Street, the dissatisfied may have more support and staying power than the elite anticipate. To be sure, December is a horrible time to start a mass protest movement in Moscow. Temperatures already can dip well below zero and it’ll only get colder as time goes on. If the heat of the Arab desert helps ignite the blood of the protesters there, the Russian winter might cool the enthusiasm in Moscow.
Still, what if? What if growing protests start to threaten the stability of Putin-Medvedev state? Where could these protests lead?
One thing Moscow’s police will prevent is the occupation of a public place. One reason the movements in Cairo and elsewhere were so successful is they could occupy 24/7 a public spot to give protests an identity and on going presence. People could join or leave as they saw fit, they didn’t have to organize every event. That’s unlikely to happen in Moscow and probably in the rest of Russia.
Russian demographics are very different than the youth-centric Arab world. The median age is 38 and they’re experiencing negative population growth. On the other hand the youth are well educated, modern and connected. They are also very angry about what is happening to their country. Until recently leaving Russia was a goal of many young folk, figuring that the corrupt patronage system of United Russia would simply persist, leaving limited opportunity.
Putin, for his part, claims to want to revitalize and modernize the economy. But with the money flowing in due to high oil and gas prices, the temptation to give into corruption — corruption that has been a part of Russian politics and life for decades — is high. Putin had been riding a wave of popularity as Russians were disgusted with the flagrant growth of wealth of the so-called “oligarchs” or “new Russians” in the 90s, when the country suffered poverty and massive disruption as communism fell while oil prices were low.
Putin took them on and they either had to sell their assets back to the state and take a diminished role or, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, end up in prison. Khodorkovsky was a multi-billionaire determined to take on Putin’s effort to reassert state control. He is now in jail.
The fall of the oligarchs and the rise of oil and gas prices improved life for Russians who saw the chaotic anarchy of the Yeltsin years give way to stability and economic growth. Even those who realized that high oil and gas prices were the main cause of improved conditions gave Putin the benefit of the doubt. The oligarchs had acted like the worst caricatures of capitalism and most thought the state needed to get involved to bring the Russian economy into the 21st Century and stabilize democracy.
With Putin’s determination to seek the Presidency for a third term, playing a kind of tag team match with Medvedev, many Russians have had enough. Especially the youth see oil money being squandered to line the pockets of the elites while Russia’s economy remains under developed and corrupt.
Communism fell twenty years ago this month — on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, nearly to the day 166 years after the Czar Nicholas put down the Decembrists. The youth now have grown up in a post-Communist era, hearing promises of better times to come as connections and media access to Europe and the West grows. They realize that their leaders have yet to have grasped the promise of democracy and economic modernism; that the old KGB agent Vladimir Putin is too wedded to the tactics of the past to really guide Russia into a better future.
So now they are taking to the streets. Czar Nicholas easily disposed of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, so far the collapse of communism in December of 1991 has yet to yield a modern vibrant Russia. As protesters try to take things into their own hands, defying Russia’s tradition of authrotarian rule and public docility, the world watches to see if the winds of change are going to sweep from the heat of the Arabian dessert to the steppes of the Russian tundra.
Back on January 19 this year I wrote a blog post speculating on whether the Tunisian revolt could possibly spread around the Arab world. It seemed very unlikely at the time, it went against everything people thought and expected about countries like Egypt and Libya. But something’s up. The world is in motion, change is real. Perhaps the Decembrists of 2011 can start a true Russian transformation.