Russia’s Protesters for Reform: 21st Century Dekabristi?

Posted December 14th, 2011 at 7:52 pm (UTC+0)

A world traveler, Olga works in Moscow and enjoys traveling to Europe and the US. She is part of a new generation of Russians who see Western travel as their unalienable birthright. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At Centrale, an Italian thin crust pizza restaurant, a European soccer match was on the big screen, American pop music wafted out of the sound system and Olga was nibbling on her Norwegian salmon carpaccio.
I asked her how many foreign countries she had visited.
“Italy, Switzerland, France, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Spain – four times, I liked Spain – U.S., Bulgaria, um…Maldives, and Croatia,” the 26-year-old ad account manager said. “I love to travel.”
Ok. And how many countries had your mother visited when she was your age?
“Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine — of course it wasn’t a country then,” she said.
When Vladimir Putin was 26, he could only dream of the plum KGB assignment that he won seven years later — East Germany.

Fast forward to 2011. Mr. Putin, now prime minster, is grappling the fruits of the decade of stability he provided Russia.
This December, the largest protests in a generation have broken out across Russia. Olga was home nursing a cold and skipped the Moscow protest. But it was her generation out there — middle class, university-educated, in their 20s and 30s, people with exposure to the outside world.

Two weeks from now, when the last New Year’s eve flight takes off packed with Russian holiday makers, the total number of Russians traveling this year outside the former Soviet Union is expected to hit 15 million. That means that roughly 10 percent of Russia’s population has traveled outside Russia this year.
Olli Perheentupa, Finland’s consul general in St. Petersburg expects that his office will issue nearly 1 million visas to Russians this year, making it the busiest consular office in the world.
Then there’s virtual travel. Fifty-one million Russians – about 40 percent of adults – now regularly cruise the world on the Internet.

Never in history, has there been such a massive, peaceful exposure of Russians to the West. (Note, I stress peaceful: I rule out Polish invaders in the 17th century, French in the 19th century, and Germans in the 20th century.)

Prime Minister Putin knows Russian history very well. He knows the story of Russia’s last December rebels, the “Dekabristi.”

In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian officers returned from occupation duty in Paris and chafed under the autocratic rule of the czar. They demanded a constitutional monarchy, freedom for serfs, and equality under law. After a decade of debate and organizing, they rose up in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1825.

The revolt failed. The top leaders were publicly hung. Others were exiled to Siberia.
Although the revolt failed, these first Dekabristi occupy a beloved place in Russian history.

Nearly two centuries later, experts on the Dekabristi generally agree that the key destabilizing element was direct and prolonged exposure of a group of Russian elites to the West.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “Russia’s Protesters for Reform: 21st Century Dekabristi?”

  1. Gennady says:

    As it happened before, James’s analogy of Russia’s protests in XXI century with Decembrists of XIX century held my breath.
    The same was when he compared Russia with Brazil, when reported about Georgia and Libya’s crisis in the “Russia Watch” blog. But the brave and wide-span bridges and analogies need to be taken cum grano salis (with a grain of salt).

    1. I suppose there is just time coincidence between Russia’s protests in XXI century with Decembrists of XIX century. It’s to imaginative to compare protests against 300 years old Romanov dynasty (well placed in Russia’s history) and protestd against 11 years lasting corrupt regime of mister Nobody that by accidents, murky blasts of block houses and under-carpet intrigues came to power in Russia in the threshold of XXI century.

    2. Beloved place in Russian history of the Decembrists of XIX century was created in the Soviet version of Russian history as it looked for an inspiration. Actually the Decembrists were idealists of upper class noblemen willing to introduce western enlightenment and bourgeois freedoms into medieval Russia. They had nothing common with the problems the majority of serfs had to endure, while industrial workers in Russia were nonexistent.

    3. The phrase of “Nearly two centuries later, experts on the Dekabristi generally agree that the key destabilizing element was direct and prolonged exposure of a group of Russian elites to the West” needs to be specified. The destabilizing effect was caused by the AWARENESS that had come while compare successes achieved by the young Western capitalism with the backwardness and lack of perspectives in the monarchist Russia, rather that just by the exposure to the West.

    In the contrast, Russia’s protests in XXI century are initiated by thousands upon thousands grass-roots educated people fed up with the lawlessness of the FSB regime that has spokesman by the name of Mr. Putin, with stealing millions votes and vote-rigging. The educated people have got the access to the power of the Internet seeking for proper place for Russia in the global village.

    4. The real analogy of Russia’s protests in XXI century with Decembrists of XIX century may be the same demand for enacting the Constitution, restricting autocracy/monarchy, fair and clear election, and equality under law.

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James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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