My sons and I are in St. Petersburg, walking across Palace Square toward the green and white baroque façade of the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum. In my mind’s eye, I see images from Dr. Zhivago recreating in film that snowy Sunday of January 22, 1905.
Tens of thousands of protesters are converging on Palace Square, carrying petitions of reforms to Czar Nicholas II. Nervous Imperial Guards fire warning shots in the winter air. The marchers keep advancing. The guardsmen lower their rifle barrels.
For generations of Russians, what happened that afternoon has been memorialized as “Bloody Sunday.”
Fast forward one century. On Saturday, Feb. 4, Alexei Navalny, the rising star of Russia’s political opposition, plans to fulfill a promise he made to 100,000 demonstrators before Christmas holidays: a mass march on the Kremlin.
Will history repeat itself?
How will Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “omonchiki” – his well-equipped RoboCop riot police – perform if their backs are against the red brick walls of the Kremlin?
Mr. Putin, a St. Petersburg native, undoubtedly has weighed the consequences of a Bloody Saturday.
In 1905, popular pressure was so great after Bloody Sunday, that the Czar was forced to issue the October Manifesto, creating a national Duma and imbuing this parliament with real legislative power.
In modern times, Putin has enjoyed a compliant, rubber stamp Duma, controlled by United Russia, the ruling party. But today’s protest movement erupted after widespread charges that the Kremlin resorted to fraud to narrowly win the December 4 parliamentary elections. There are now widespread calls to hold new Duma elections in December.
With or without new Duma elections, the groundswell of opposition means that if Mr. Putin is elected president in March, he will have to adapt to ruling in a new, consultative fashion.
Czar Nicholas II had a hard time adapting. He dissolved the first two Dumas.
Will Russia’s current autocrat prove flexible?
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes in today’s Moscow Times:
“Since Putin will be a far weaker president in his third term, this will create serious problems for him and his inner circle. Is Putin ready to play such a role? It would seem not. After all, he is used to playing only one role — a combination of “alpha dog” and tsar. He is fundamentally unable to adapt to a constitutional monarchy, much less a democracy. He made this clear during his televised call-in show on Dec. 15. As hard as he tried to appear democratic, tolerant and compromising, he couldn’t help reverting back to his autocratic style and condescending tone toward the people who oppose his course.”
Prime Minister Putin, of course, never compares himself to Czar Nicholas II.
Instead, he compares himself to Pyotr Stolypin, the Czar’s law-and-order interior minister who became prime minister in 1906. Stolypin stabilized Russia after the revolution of 1905 and introduced a series of modernizing economic reforms.
Last summer, Mr. Putin ordered his cabinet ministers to personally contribute money to a Stolypin monument to rise this April outside Moscow’s White House, the federal government building. Mr. Putin has quoted approvingly a statement to the czar, attributed to Stolypin: “Give me 20 years of calm, and I will reform Russia.”
Opponents of Mr. Putin say this gives historical cover to Putin supporters’ plan to extend his rule over Russia to 2024 — a quarter century in power.
But an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev commented to me the other day: “The problem with comparing yourself to Stolypin is that we all know what happened to Stolypin.”
One night at the opera in Kyiv in 1911, a radical entered the Prime Minister’s box and shot him fatally in the chest. Radicals hated Stolypin’s for his ruthless campaign against them. In Russia of a century ago, people called the hangman’s noose “Stolypin’s Necktie.”
Yes, all this happened a long, long time ago.
But as Russians look to the future, they keep an eye on the past.
On Monday in Moscow, Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front and fresh from jail, stood in the snow, exhorting his followers to visit factories to bring workers to the February 4 mass march on the Kremlin. Where did Udaltsov choose to make his appeal: outside the 1905 Street metro station.
On Saturday, Kirill I, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, devoted much of his Orthodox Christmas televised address to warning the nation’s leaders about the folly of ignoring protest.
The Patriarch recalled the mass demonstrations that broke out in St. Petersburg and Moscow in early 1917 as Russia reeled from the massive economic, territorial and human losses of World War I. He said: “If the demonstrations prior to the 1917 revolution had ended in peaceful protests, not being followed by a bloody revolution and fratricidal war, today, Russia would have more than 300 million people and would be on the same level as the USA in terms of economic development, or even higher. We weren’t able to maintain our balance, and we lost our heads. We destroyed our country. Why did this happen? To put it simply, political forces seeking power very cleverly used the just protests of the people.”
Perhaps haunted by history, the Russians I have interviewed at protest demonstrations say they want reform, not revolution.
I once asked a Russian friend, why there is a restaurant in St. Petersburg’s historic core called “1913.”
Russia’s 20th century may have unreeled through his brain, for he responded, sourly: “That was the last good year.”