Staunton, February 28 – One of the most powerful constraints on demonstrations and protests in the Russian Federation today is the assumption that such actions do not have an impact on the powers that be and thus participation in them involves high risks with low chances of making a difference.
Most Russians and most specialists on the Soviet Union and Russia today believe that the top leaders make their decisions exclusively in terms of their own interests without regard to the actions of the population. Indeed, Russian history since 1953 has been written and accepted as the record of what particular leaders wanted, with the attitudes and actions of the people.
Thus, Khrushchev moved to de-Stalinize to protect himself and his comrades a recrudescence of terror, Brezhnev pursued policies intended to avoid rocking the boat, Andropov sought to remobilize the country, and Gorbachev concluded that “we can’t continue to live like this” and ushered in perestroika, glasnost and the demise of the Soviet system.
Since 1991, Yeltsin first loosened the constraints on the population and then began to tighten them again, a process that his successor, the current Russian president Vladimir Putin is pursuing with renewed vigor.
No one could or would deny that the personality and goals of particular leaders were irrelevant to the directions Moscow has taken. These things are obviously critical. But to say this does not mean that protests and demonstrations by the population were irrelevant. In many cases, those protests helped to shape the attitudes of the Kremlin leader.
Once that is understood, it can be seen that protests and demonstrations in the future may also have a profound impact on the individual in office even if he is a committed authoritarian like Putin because anyone interested in maintaining power has to recognize certain limits to his freedom of action given the reaction, real or likely, of the population.
In the course of a long essay in which he considers the evolution of the Putin regime, Yakov Azimandis says that “the thaw in the 1960s did not come by itself. Many rights and freedoms were won not by Khrushchev’s voluntarist desire but as the result of a wave of protests and risings, first in Stalin’s camps and then in Soviet cities (rufabula.com/author/azimandis/1512).
Most people remember only the Novocherkassk rising in 1962, he says; but there were many more; and he urges Russians to familiarize themselves with F.A. Kozlov’s 543-page study, Mass Disorders in the USSR under Khrushchev and Brezhnev (in Russian; Moscow, 3rd edition, 2009. The full text is at eland.ru/dirty/kozlov_massovyie_besporiadki_2010.pdf).
Among them were protests and risings in Podolsk in 1957, Temirtau in 1959, Kirovabad in 1961, Biysk in 1961, Murod and Aleksandrov in 1961, Beslan in 1961, Sumgait in 1963, Bronnitsy in 1964, Moscow in 1966, Frunze in 1967m Chimkent in 1967, Priluki in 1967, Slutsk in 1967, and Nalchik in 1968, not to mention the many in Gorbachev’s time.
The powers that be were simply “forced” to make certain concessions to the population and open the way for more working class people to enter the government, something that is less likely to happen now, Azimandis says, because “generals have their own children.” As a result, the elite has become “incestuous” and thus “condemned to collapse.”
The Putin regime “doesn’t want and cannot renew itself,” he continues, and thus “it is useless to wait for a thaw or even more a spring.” Russians need to take things into their own hands because “spring will come when anger breaks out in the hearts of people … No one gives anyone any rights; they have to be taken.”
That means that Putin’s plans for the future elections are “good news” for Rusisanns because they show that he no longer has any room for maneuver. He simply wants to keep power. And that in turn creates a situation where demonstrations and risings by the population can have an effect, perhaps one even more powerful than in the 1950s.