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Russia's anti-Putin protests are more than just a generational temper tantrum

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 18, 2012 05:27 PM

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What should we make of the protests in Russia? In a recent Globe article, Paul Starobin gets it wrong when he writes that Western observers shouldn’t expect a kind of democratic “Russian Spring” to come out of the wave of protests against corruption and electoral improprieties in Moscow and other parts of Russia. His reasoning is that Vladimir Putin has been too much of a “father figure” — and, here’s the real rub — that observers shouldn’t expect too much of Russians whom he compares to “a flock of discontented children.” Borrowing from Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Starobin argues that historically, Russians — especially, the younger generation — have rebelled against their fathers, but they have not necessarily brought in new and positive change. “The anti-Putin movement appears to be motivated most of all by a generation’s rage — and not by a vision of a democratic society,’’ he writes. (Putin himself has offered a similar opinion, deriding protesters and bemoaning “the desire of a part of its elites to make leaps, to embrace revolution” as a “recurring problem in Russian history.”)

At root, Starobin is asking the question that is on the minds of many Russia observers: will these protests lead to regime change, or will Putin hold on? Will they have long-term effects on the Russian political scene, or will they fizzle out?

Starobin thinks the protests are unlikely to succeed, but the core problem with his analysis is his reliance on a piece of literature written 150 years ago in a completely different context.

In 1862, when the novel Fathers and Sons was first published, 90 percent of Russians were illiterate. A tiny band of the intelligentsia imagined themselves as the chosen ones to face Russia’s long-term problems. The sons in this case were arguing against their own elders in the salon movement of the 1830s and 40s, suggesting that they (the putative fathers) were old hat. Of course, they hated the autocracy, but the fathers they were rebelling against were their own elders, not the tsars.

In contrast, today nearly 100 percent of Russians are literate, and the discontent is broad-based, not confined to a narrow slice of the elites. And instead of taking aim at the older generation, the protesters are clamoring against a more specific political target: the dominant United Russia party, which they believe has become “a party of crooks and thieves,” to use opposition figure Aleksei Navalny’s popular expression.

If the mass demonstrations aren’t the “familiar drama” of generational strife that Starobin describes, then what are they? The protests in Russia have sparked a number of theories about the dominant forces and motivations of the protesters. One theory casts them as middle-class Russians who are growing fed up with the daily irritations of Russian corruption and inequality and are demanding political change. Another theory depicts them as youths coming of age and demanding their own say in politics. In another reading of the protests, splinter groups dominate the opposition, with a moderate left passively following the liberals who are in turn too timid to raise genuine social protests. Finally, some see them as Russians who are being duped by Western funders, who have manipulated concerns about the election for their own purposes (this is the Russian government’s view).

I’d like to put forward another theory — that the protests are neither a doomed tantrum against a father figure, nor a product of Western manipulation. What if the protests are a direct response to the specific kind of political spectacle that the Putin regime has been creating since he came to power in 2000? The regime has fostered a political culture in Russia centered almost entirely on the person of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, creating for him a masculine image of the Marlboro Man riding horseback bare-chested, flying in fighter planes, engaging in deep-sea diving, and the like. In this image it appears that he personally makes all decisions and rules with hardly any assistance from others.

At the same time, the regime has glaringly failed to make a long list of substantive changes. Journalist Yulia Latynina has just given exactly such a list in The Moscow Times last week, under the title “Putin: Results 2011.” Her list includes the brain drain caused by Russian emigration; the rise in the number of politician billionaires; the regime’s failure to build a single highway despite huge oil revenues; massive popular distrust of the police and anger over elite privileges (for example, the use of blue flashing lights that elite officials can use to get out of following ordinary traffic rules); Russia paying tribute to Chechnya (instead of vice versa); and the failure to develop new oil fields.

Against this backdrop of masculine posturing but ineffective government, Russians took their iPhones and cameras to polling places on Dec. 4 not because they expected they might find flaws in the Duma elections. Most already knew they would find election flaws. The Russian election process had been flawed for that last 10 years, and possibly the last 20. What Russians wanted to do was prove that it was flawed. And the reason they wanted to prove that the election was a pretense was because they were mad about the failure of so many of the other aspects of the Putin spectacle to match reality.

To understand the failure of the Putin spectacle, we have to understand Putin’s announcement on Sept. 24 that he would run for another term, which undermined the semblance of democracy the regime had worked to inculcate along with Putin’s dominant image. Russians knew that Putin’s announcement meant he would in fact run for another two six-year terms. And they knew that that meant he would be elected for another 12 years. Twelve more years with no prospect of change, no prospect of accountability, would mean that Putin would have ruled as long as Joseph Stalin. It would mean that Russia had failed to join the modern era, and failed to become an electoral democracy.

Moreover, the form of Putin’s announcement was galling. He said not only that he and Medvedev would switch places, a move which immediately became known as “castling” in chess parlance (after the practice of switching the places of one player’s king and rook), but also that he and Medvedev had known “for a long time” that they were switching places. In 2008 when Medvedev was elected, many observers (including me) believed that Medvedev was probably acting as a place-holder until Putin could be reelected. But no one knew this for sure. And that created a certain drama: was Medvedev a genuine politician in his own right, or was he a stand-in for Putin? Now with the announcement that Putin had known all along that Medvedev was just a stand-in, it became outrageously apparent that Putin (with Medvedev’s assistance) had been conniving against the Russian public all along.

Furthermore, the Achilles’ heel of the Kremlin’s “Putin” strategy has now become apparent. If the ruler (be it Putin or Tsar Nicholas II a century ago) is pictured as personally and entirely responsible for Russian internal and foreign policy, then a general failure in that policy (in this case the policy of electoral democracy) has to be laid squarely at the foot of the ruler. The ruler who has received endless accolades cannot then refuse to accept the blame for failure. The ruler who has failed to diversify his image as single autocrat now takes the fall as the one to blame.

This is not about Putin being a “father figure,” though he has tried to be that. And it is most certainly not about Russians being discontented children. Rather it is about Putin attempting to portray himself as the sole ruler. As the sole ruler, he then becomes the fall guy for popular anger.

No one knows, of course, what will happen with the protests. They may well peter out. Or they may escalate. The regime may respond with accommodations or with threats (so far it has responded with some of both). One long-shot possibility is that the oligarchs and other powers behind Putin may decide that the Putin “brand” is so damaged by the controversy that they will try to bring forth a new leader with a new image. In the short run, they have already found a fake alternative, Mikhail Prokhorov, whom many Russian remember dropping out of the race last summer and calling the whole process a fraud. If the protest rallies grow too large, the Kremlin leaders may decide to postpone elections in order to retrench and regroup. They might decide to declare Putin a dictator and be done with the façade of democracy. Whatever happens, that façade is badly cracked at the moment.

In the meantime, observers should take very seriously Russian complaints. I am convinced that Russians went to the polls in December not because they feared they might find election fraud, but rather because they were convinced that they would find it. They knew it was there. And they knew they did not want 12 more years of same old same old.

In the months to come, Western observers should be extremely wary of dismissing the protesters as “discontented children.” Citizens of Russia of all nationalities, walks of life and ages are fed up with the pretense of democracy, the spectacle of a man who would be tsar. It is important that observers in the West give them moral support instead of dismissing their chances. Putin may charge that we are giving material support. He has often charged that the West is actually causing the protests. Those in the West who care about Russia can best support the protests, I think, by supporting the notion that democracy is growing slowly but surely for reasons that have everything to do with the failure of the Putin spectacle itself, not because of anything “outsiders” are doing.

Elizabeth Wood is professor of Russian and Soviet History at MIT.

Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images: Protester carry a model of a prison cell with the cut-out figures of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin inside during a protest rally in St. Petersburg in December.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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