April 1, 2011  

The next revolution

Those who launch revolutions in the modern era usually offer grand slogans as the reason for the revolt. Still, whether it was the American populace demanding the end of King George III’s autocratic arbitrariness or Cairo’s crowd demanding the resignation of the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, the real driving force of the multitude is economic grievances. Those who study the chances for violence in Russia should look at that side of Russian life; it is not pretty for many segments of the population, despite the bonanza of gas and oil money that flooded Russia for several years.

With all its idiosyncratic features, Russian capitalism finally arrived, bringing most of the vagaries well known to people in the West. For example, the almost-free utilities of the Soviet era became a thing of the past. A law was announced and implemented that those who cannot pay their utility bills would have their property confiscated. Those who owe taxes, alimony or other money to the government are not allowed to leave the country. The old social security arrangement — that is, the pension system — is in a process of constant erosion. The officials state that in the future, pensions will, in many ways, depend on individual contributions.

The most serious problem, which Russians did not experience during the Soviet era or even the early post-Soviet period, is the beginning of full-fledged Western-type unemployment. The economic slowdown/recession that has affected Russia, along with other parts of the world, has made the situation worse. Prices are constantly rising, and cheap goods and services are disappearing. For example, the “obshchie vagony” (“common train car”), the cheapest train transportation, is mostly gone.

One can see society’s problems by walking around big cities such as Yekaterinburg in central Russia. Yekaterinburg had become an attractive city in the last few years, with many restored old buildings. Now huge, luxurious buildings stand empty, hundreds if not thousands of apartments are unoccupied, and building construction has stopped. There are unmistakable signs of economic stress. For example, a subway advertisement for “anti-crisis loans” indicated the bank’s readiness to help those with economic problems.

A boy who sold watermelons on the street said to me that people have started to rent their apartments and sell their plots of land. Similar to Egypt and other countries, the misery of many goes along with the luxurious life of the elite, which its members have not even tried to hide.

In the view of many, if not the majority, these tycoons, with their luxury homes in London, are the people the regime represents. Most Russians do not expect much help from the government; they see it as concerned with its own interests and the interests of the elite, leaving ordinary folk out in the cold.

One of my casual acquaintances told me what seems to be a popular joke. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asked President Dmitry Medvedev, “Do we have enough money to survive this crisis?” Medvedev responded, “Yes, we do.” Putin asked for clarification: “And what about the people?” The point is clear. The elite might accumulate enough money to withstand the pressure of a long crisis, but the average Russian would not be so lucky. The elite are not only oblivious to the needs of average Russians but quite confident in their own position. Most ordinary folk believe neither that the authorities would really help nor that violence would lead anywhere.


Still, despite the passivity of the majority and cynical disbelief that change would have any positive result, the authorities clearly worry about possible unrest and do their best to prevent it. A TV announcer said that Yekaterinburg officials were preparing local law enforcement for possible mass disturbances and other acts of violence. Also, if one trusts local TV, a special research section of the militia has been created to trace the public mood and inform authorities about possible social discontent. One, of course, wonders whether the authorities are justified in their apprehension, as it is known that revolutionary violence can be started by the most unexpected people. And quite a few would be disappointed by the revolution’s results. In Egypt, the spearhead was not starving residents of urban ghettos but well-educated young people.

In Putin’s Russia, the carriers of the revolutionary tradition are not the young but, paradoxically, elderly pensioners. They organized the only nationwide protest in Putin’s time, when, in 2005, they rose against the government’s decision to end their benefits. They bemoaned the end of the regime and the masses’ passivity and cherished dreams of a revolutionary messiah. Still, most elderly folk I met during my trip, while deeply hating the regime, were pessimistic about the future.

While most of my elderly acquaintances are skeptical about the potential for violence, they do not discard the notion completely. One noted that the problem with unemployment is, indeed, serious. Another rejected with indignation official claims that unemployment is just a problem of educated youth with useless degrees in the humanities. She said her sister’s sons are highly skilled workers but cannot find work. I noted that there is no sign of violence. She responded that one should wait a little longer. When the situation became really horrible and people begin to starve, they would rise up.

Although most workers have been passive, others have gone on strike, and these cases are sometimes reported on TV. One channel informed viewers that there were serious problems in many enterprises: workers do not get paid and are threatened with loss of jobs, and there is no hot water in worker dormitories. This was especially painful for the steel mill workers, who, the commentator noted, finally struck. Management tried to hide the event so as not to irritate Moscow. The commentator implied this was not the only case where local authorities have hidden strikes from the Kremlin.

Some strikes became serious, such as a recent miners’ strike that led to violent clashes with riot police. One might add that some workers can be influenced by the news. One commentator pointed to the way French workers defend their rights: They take company officials hostage.


The major potential threat for the regime comes not from middle-aged workers but from other groups, mostly post-Soviet youth. Different from their parents and grandparents, they have neither respect for nor fear of the state. In their view, the regime — and the country, in general — belongs to alien forces, mostly identified with Jews and Muslim minorities. They have been influenced not just by the wide gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” and the culture of violence, especially criminal activity, but also by the generation-long war against the North Caucasian resistance, now mostly jihadist. Their views have no legal outlet besides graffiti and the Internet, where their comments are quickly removed.

The frequency of politically loaded graffiti could indirectly provide information about the mood of Russian young people. A few years ago, when I was in Russia, I was surprised at the practical disappearance of politically loaded graffiti, whether radical or nationalistic. During my entire trip, I found only one such slogan, written in functional English: “F—- the police state.” In a section of Yekaterinburg, possibly never visited by foreigners, it looked more like abstract art than a real political slogan.

Now such slogans have emerged once again, prompting the authorities to issue a law that would prosecute those who write “extremist” graffiti. The disenfranchised youth do not just write graffiti but engage in increasingly violent actions. Last summer in the Maritime province, in Russia’s Far East, groups of youth, who became known as “Maritime Guerrillas,” engaged in systematic killings of members of law enforcement. In December, youth clashed with police in downtown Moscow.

This incident is especially telling. Moscow residents seem to have an extensive safety net, and the Moscow government seems to care about the unemployed. There was, for example, a notice that informed citizens of the existence of public work. The Moscow government not only takes care of the locals better than regional authorities take care of their areas, but it seems to control them more tightly. For example, an automatic voice in the Metro pointed out that a video camera records all cases of vandalism. Yet this tight control did not prevent several thousand youth from emerging from what seems to be nowhere and clashing with police. The danger for the authorities is that these local episodes could be embraced by a considerable number of the population. In both the Maritime province and Moscow, a survey of public opinion indicated that many are on the side of the rebellious youth.


Even more dangerous is the potential involvement of the Russian Army. The morale of the Army — poorly paid and maintained — remains low. The Army also continues to shrink, and a radio commentator pointed out that planned cutbacks would make many officers unemployed. He noted that criminal cases involving officers are frequent. It is not surprising that, according to some, Army units were actually ready to join the “Maritime Guerrillas” instead of fighting them.

There are many indications that Russian law enforcement and the Army are not solidly behind the regime. In 2009, when demonstrations in the Maritime province were violently suppressed, the Internet site of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had a discussion between military men. And some of those who were engaged in the discussion made it clear that they would defend the government that represents the rich. (The discussion was almost immediately removed from the Internet site). During last winter’s protest in Moscow, representatives of law enforcement also engaged in discussions, and some of them noted that if a protest became too big and violent, they would either desert or join the protest. The sense that Moscow does not rely much on local law enforcement or the Army could be seen by the fact that Moscow does not believe that either could deal efficiently with protests. And, in the case of disturbances, the Kremlin brought in riot police from other regions.

There is other anecdotal evidence that the Kremlin does not put much trust in law enforcement and the Army as a stabilization force in the case of an emergency. There are continuing reports that Russian authorities have increasingly employed ethnic minorities in law enforcement. And a recent Russian law makes it possible for foreigners to serve in the Army. One could assume that Moscow has been forced to create law enforcement/Army internal troops as a force ethnically foreign to the local, mostly Slavic, population and, therefore, more easily used against rebellious folk.

This practice — using forces made up of people alien to the majority — is not a Russian invention. Turkish janissaries, made up of Slavs converted to Islam, are one of the most well-known examples. And in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi has used black soldiers from mostly sub-Saharan African countries as shock troops. The fact that Russian authorities have followed the same “janissarian” strategy indicates the government is not sure about Russian troops and law enforcement in the case of a mass upheaval of the Slavic majority. Indeed, it is questionable whether in a major upheaval, the Army or even the police would be unquestionably on the side of the Kremlin.

While the big riots of the Slavic majority, or even a considerable segment of this majority, are still problematic, the situation is different with the North Caucasian, mostly Muslim population. The war in that region has continued for generations, and nationalistic animus transformed itself into jihadism some time ago. The response of these jihadists to events in Libya played an important role both in the Russian authorities’ vision of the events in the country and their approach to Libya.

Doku Umarov, the leader of the jihadist “emirate” in the North Caucasus and recently recognized by the international community as a major terrorist practitioner, proclaimed in an address that he was watching events in Libya with great attention. He said that the revolutionary movement could well degenerate and other pseudo-Muslims, like Gadhafi, would be installed. Still, he said he hoped that jihadists would finally be at the helm and, in this case, he and the mujahedeen would render help to the rebels. Umarov also implied that he was encouraged by the signs of the revolt and that it provides the mujahedeen with new hope of overcoming their enemies.

This response from the jihadists has reinforced most of the Russian elite’s views of the situation in Russia and elsewhere in the world. Although a considerable number of American pundits regard the events in the Middle East in the context of the old Fukuyamian notion about the “end of history”— an unstoppable drive toward liberty — quite a few Russian pundits approach the events in Libya quite differently. For them, the end of Gadhafi’s regime would not lead to the triumph of democracy but an invitation to anarchy, where jihadism would thrive and would reinforce the movement’s spiritual brethren in Central Asia and in Russia.

In addition, quite a few members of the Russian elite deeply distrust the U.S. and its intentions. Some even believe that the upheaval was created by the U.S. for various geopolitical and economic schemes. For this reason, Russia would not send troops to Libya or elsewhere, even as a member of a multinational force, and would object to the use of any Western force.

It is true that the Russian public is more passive than the public of Egypt. But recent events — particularly the December riots in Moscow — suggest that a repetition of Egyptian events is quite possible. But the outcome could be very different. Rebellious Russian youth are driven to violence by a sense of social displacement and poverty, but they direct their hatred mostly toward ethnic minorities — predominately Muslims from the North Caucasus. They demand the minorities be expelled from Russia — and even the shedding of the parts of the Russian Federation in which ethnic Russians cannot dominate completely. They are not imperialists but “parochial fascists” and a brand of separatist isolationists similar to Pat Buchanan’s “paleo-conservatives.” In Russia, this anti-imperialism/parochialism is related to a strong sense of regionalism, in a way, as is the Maritime province with its strong dislike of Moscow.

It is here where the fate of the Russian revolt — if it happened — would be quite different from that of the Egyptians. One can wonder about the regime that will emerge in Egypt, but no one questions the unity of the country. The story could be quite different with Russia, which could fall apart in a way similar to the USSR and create an entirely different arrangement in Eurasia. The possibility of this scenario is perhaps the major outcome of the Egyptian revolution in relation to Russia or, indeed, to any country. Upheaval could emerge practically out of nowhere amid general calm, and lead to drastic and irreversible changes almost overnight.

DMITRY SHLAPENTOKH is associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend, with specialist expertise in the Bolshevik revolution.