Amid the apocalyptic news about Russian pensioners being unable to afford any medicines beyond traditional folk remedies, Russian workers not paid salaries for months and Russian children in the on the verge of starvation, one piece of news is conspicuously missing: reports of mass protests. It is true that nowadays Russian voters support only those political candidates who proclaim themselves fierce opponents of the federal government and its disastrous economic policies. An occasional Communist rally may assemble up to 10,000 volatile sympathizers. In a local grocery store, one is very likely to come across an old lady liberally sharing her views on “these scum in the government” and her nostalgia about the Soviet past when she used to be able to pay her bills. However, this is a far cry from the antireform mass movement that was predicted by many experts after the financial collapse of Russia last August.
It goes without saying that Russians themselves feel cheated and discouraged. It is the second pauperization in the last 10 years — the first one occurred in 1990-1991 when the Soviet Union was convulsing in agony of mismanaged reforms put in to place by Mikhail Gorbachev. To lose three-quarters of your income and savings twice in one decade is more than a person can endure without feeling frustrated, abandoned and betrayed by the state.
Current Russian apathy is even more remarkable in the historical retrospective: Patience has never been one of Russia’s national virtues. Tyrannized by the despotic Czarist regime before 1917, Russians used to find an outlet for their rage and discontent in periodic riots and mutinies against the arrogant ruling class. Those massive riots were invariably extremely violent and atrocious. Thousands of landlords and Czarist generals died the most terrible deaths in the hands of the mobs.
Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, terrified by the simmering hatred of the lower classes toward Russian aristocracy and bureaucracy, wrote a historical study of one of the most ferocious peasant uprisings of the 18th century, “The History of Pugachev’s Mutiny.” In this landmark writing, he labeled Russian rebellion typically “blind and merciless,” and called it one of the national calamities of Russia.
This scenario was and still is very much on the minds of experts forecasting Russia’s future. Why various calamities of the recent decade did not result in any spontaneous massacre, or substantial social unrest at the very least, is puzzling, especially in a country that has almost zero experience in democracy, tolerance and pluralism (the first free election in Russia’s millennium history occurred in the spring of 1989). Even the awesome dictator Josef Stalin was scared of a spontaneous rebellion by his subjects, no matter how effective his machine of terror was.
A popular explanation of Russian passivity these days is Stalin’s legacy: Having turned Russians into obedient flock of sheep, Uncle Joe’s rule allegedly destroyed any sense of initiative in the nation. However, this argument does not hold together: In August 1991, when the Communist hardliners attempted a coup against democracy, at least half a million Muscovites went into the streets to drive the army units away from the capital — and stayed in the streets vigilantly, armed with stones and Molotov cocktails, until the army withdrew.
A more optimistic theory holds that in the last 10 years, Russians have tasted the sweet fruits of freedom and tolerance and liked the taste so much that they now prefer stability and patience to mutiny and revenge. This assumption is definitely far-fetched: To master the basics of civil society in just 10 years is unheard of in history, and Russians are hardly the pioneers of fast learning.
The third concept is almost physiological in its premises: Russians reportedly are so exhausted by the turbulent reform that they have absolutely no energy left for any protest, no matter organized or spontaneous. Yes, but by 1917, their great-grandfathers had also become exhausted by poverty and arbitrariness of the government — and that was exactly why they rebelled, and in a most violent way.
The adepts of market-style social engineering suggest that practically every family in Russia has at least some vested interests in the newly born Russian capitalism and, therefore, is willing to take the costs of the painful transition period. No statistics can support this point of view, but its empirical rationale is that “almost everybody” has a son, a brother or a nephew running his own successful business, and therefore is interested in social stability. This is hardly so, and this concept might be working only for certain oases of downtown Moscow with the high concentration of the new bourgeoisie. On the contrary, in Moscow suburbs — to say nothing about the rest of the country — almost everybody has a son, brother or nephew who has lost everything in the last few months.
Of course, a likely explanation to the amazing quiet of today is that it is a lull before the storm, a prelude of confusion and disorientation before the tempest. If this is so, it is high time to send the volumes of Pushkin to the Kremlin offices to let the self-assured bureaucrats read his description of the Russian mutiny, “blind and merciless” in its volcanic atrociousness. Nothing is predetermined in history, and any storm can be prevented. Especially if it’s preceded by a lull.
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