Can Russia’s Democracy Movement Lift the Weight of History?

Posted January 12th, 2012 at 4:07 pm (UTC+0)

Still from a 1925, Soviet-era film, 'Devyatoe Yanvarya,

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?

At first, Russia’s Omon riot police were tough. Here, a protester in St. Petersburg tries to wriggle free as riot police detained opposition activists during the first protest against alleged vote fraud, on December 5, 2011. Photo: AP

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.

Russians celebrate the 'October Manifesto

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.

Separated at birth? No, separated by a century. Pyotr Stolypin (beard), Prime Minister to Czar Nicholas II, is hailed as a role model by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (no beard). Serving from 1906 to 1911, Stolypin left a legacy as an authoritarian modernizer.

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.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Christ The Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Friday, Jan. 6, 2012. The next day, on Orthodox Christmas, he made a televised appeal for Russian authorities to listen to reformers to head off a disaster similar to the Communist revolution of 1917. AP Photo: Misha Japaridze

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.”

On a snowless late December day, James Brooke and sons pause on the history trail, Palace Square, St. Petersburg. Photo: Drew Kirchhoff

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.

9 responses to “Can Russia’s Democracy Movement Lift the Weight of History?”

  1. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Readers: this comes from Gennady, in Siberia, who says (below) that his home internet has been blocked since the opposition rallies began one month ago. James Brooke

    From Gennady:
    The article is an outstanding one as it touches upon the most painful sores in Russia’s turbulent history. My answers to the article’s questions.

    1. Can the Democracy Movement lift the Weight of History? Yes, there are macro economical, human rights, informational and psychological reasons. At the time when Russia was awashed with petrodollars, 11 years Putin’s rule was unsustainable and a deadlock for Russia’s economy, manufacturing, agriculture, science and education. Corruption and budget theft have become the leading branch of the economy accounting for dozens billion losses. There was an astronomical flight of capital abroad. Numerous tragedies accounted for hundreds deaths. Country’s infrastructure is falling apart. Number of Russians dropped by 4, 31% (4, 87 mln) keeping in mind that under the regime whole Russia’s population died out just by 1, 59% (from 145, 17 to 142, 86 mln). There is a huge discrepancy in incomes. Violations of human rights are numerous; the Constitution is suspended all the time, dozens journalists maimed and killed without justice done. With the advent of the Internet and global village, Putin’s palm can’t cover the sun.

    2. Will history repeat itself? Putin and his cronies will try to keep their grip at any cost and will stop at nothing to smear/intimidate all of those opposed to the self-proclaimed FSB-Tsar of Russia. A few grass root examples. They smear Navalny as if he was conspiring with Mr. Beresovsky. In Saratov they sacked the director of internationally recognized lyceum where the percent of votes opposing the ruling party of thieves and swindles was in a sharp contrast to “unanimous” support all over the Saratov region.
    Before the anticipated 24th Decenber rally my humble Internet connection was DoS attacked and later turned dead although fiber-optic cable radiated light looking as sound as it could be. Nothing of the kind happened in my six-year long experience with the same Internet provider. Very reliable technical support group completely disappeared in thin air try as I could. Once again it was very unusual that my visit in person to the Provider’s office didn’t promise quick fix. I was reassured that in four day time (!!!) “the problem” would be solved. So the State security looked deadly serious when it came to hush all those being unsympathetic with Mr. Putin. It’s an example of FSB-type freedom of speech.

    3. Will Russia’s current autocrat prove flexible? No, as he was nurtured by dogmatic Soviet version of Russia’s history. In his “alpha dog” mentality he admires bloody tyrants’ rule and can’t accept the fate of late Kaddafi. On numerous occasions he insulted Russia’s citizens who have revealed that the Emperor is “naked”

    4. Separated at birth? Mr. Putin pulls more faces than the Roman god Janus. How can a Saint-Petersburg’s backstreet boy, as he grew up, pose himself as Czar Nicholas II of Romanov’s dynasty well placed in 300 years Russia’s history? Mr. Putin can raise dozens Stolypin monuments, the comparison PM Pyotr Stolypin, the visionary, with him looks way off.

    Kind regards

  2. H. D. Schmidt says:

    However this report about present Russia, this question for us as Americans: What would our own Founding Fathers say about their America, they gave birth at great sacrifice, over two centuries ago? Would they be pleased or ready to go back to their graves seeing their America now the New World Empire with the homeland, in reality, fast falling apart? The National Debt getting bigger and bigger like a snowball rolling down a steep hill. Yes, there are some very serious and troubling things developing in present Russia under Mr. Putin as the article indicate. Question to us as Americans: Which develpoment troubles you more or less, our present condition or what is going on in present Russia? Russia never did have the great blessings the USA was blessed with, right? I said my little piece!

    • Ruslan Amirkhanov says:

      You’re right, the Founding Fathers probably would be upset to see America today. When they saw that black people are treated like human beings and not property, that women have rights, and gay and lesbian people are finally starting to get a taste of equality, they’d probably collapse from heart failure.

      America’s got problems now, but it’s still a lot better off than in the 19th century.

  3. Ben says:

    West choses nationalist “rising star” of Russian opposition?

  4. […] Can Russia’s Democracy Movement Lift the Weight of History? « Russia Watch This entry was posted in Vladimir Putin 2012 and tagged imperial guards, legislative power, political opposition, red brick walls, vladimir putin by admin. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  5. Pyotr says:

    Our family ancestors who were farmers and many others had got the right to own additional land in Siberia due to Stolypin’s agricultural reform. Though the whole land of theirs was taken back by communists later, this had boosted my ancestors families’ wealth and though they were all robbed of the land and property and many were killed and exiled later by communists I praise Stolypin for this. What do Putin does even slightly akin to what Stolypin did? Not a thing! He only talks, talks of this, talks of that. Promises, promises… Even the most simple Russian minds begin to understand now after 12 full years of Putin’s rule that these promises will never be fulfilled. NEVER while Putin has power. But really Stolypin is not a hero for me, he was anti-democratic, first Dumas had been shut down partly because they tried to oppose him. He had assumed a position of a dictator and that is, to say the truth, really something in common with Putin. The railway carriage for prisoners is still called “stolypin’s vagon” in Russia, and this is kind of a controversial fame for the polititian.

  6. Ben says:

    Excess public waiting and self -apprisal by Kirill often changes for private understated one.

    Acsidental event- Revolution of 1917 prevented Russian Empire to outrun America! It seams to me that the liberal author hesitate in evaluation of this opinion.

  7. Ruslan Amirkhanov says:

    The author really should have been more critical of Patriarch Kirill’s idiotic claims. Kirill and other Russian nationalists, whether for Putin or against him, are selling a ridiculous myth which falls apart the second one looks at the basic historical record both before and after WWI.

  8. Ruslan Amirkhanov says:

    Then again, VOA is basically a propaganda network for the US, so it’s not surprising that they would support Kirill’s historical revisionism.



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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