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Why I’m Not Joining The ‘31’ Demonstrations In Russia

An opposition party supporter holds up a leaflet with the number '31' on it during a protest rally in Moscow
An opposition party supporter holds up a leaflet with the number '31' on it during a protest rally in Moscow
Civil rights and the struggle for them are sacred matters. But have there been cases when the struggle for civil rights ended with a decisive victory for totalitarianism? Yes, there have. In Russia, for instance, at the beginning of the last century, when the evenings were intoxicating, but not for everyone. How about a fresher example? Thirty years ago, everyone in Iran was tired of the shah’s regime, but no sooner was it defeated then we ended up with the folks who now are causing such trouble for the whole world.

Could these cases of victories that were indistinguishable from defeats have any bearing on the situation we face today? I think they do.

Here are the main components of such a failure:

We have some very greedy and larcenous people in power. And what’s worse -- they are really stupid too, incapable of learning from historical precedents. And what’s worse still -- they are extremely poorly educated, honestly believing that capitalism is a world of money for the taking and that democracy is just a screen for the ruling class -- just as they were taught in the Social Science Academy and the Higher School of the KGB.

The people who are opposing the authorities also seem somewhat intellectually unimpressive. Most of them think history started with Vladimir Putin, as if he were really the source of all our present-day misfortunes. As if the only response to cheap state propaganda that calls the 1990s “damned” is to say that they were “blessed.” As if this Putin had not been formed in part by their errors, illusions, and moral compromises.

On the one side, we have greed and poor education; on the other, we have sincerely held illusions. But the majority of Russians have another problem -- the most profound unenlightenment, magnified by many years of dedicated brainwashing. This is not their fault -- but it is our main common misfortune.
A rabid mongrel can be more dangerous than a trained attack dog

This is why the current struggle between the so-called anti-people regime and the so-called non-system opposition definitely does not mean that the ultimate victor must be one of these two. Didn’t the hysterical excitement around police Major Aleksei Dymovsky, which died down only after it became clear that we were dealing with a mentally unbalanced swindler, give anyone pause? Doesn’t anyone wonder about the large mass of people in rags who followed the hysterics of former Bishop of Anadyr and Chukotka Diomid? Am I the only one who thinks the soil of our country is very well fertilized for the success of demagogues, populists, political adventurists, and simple madmen?

About 1,000 people came out in Moscow on May 31 to protest against restrictions on the right of Russians to demonstrate. And there were another 1,000 in St. Petersburg. And the authorities violently dispersed them. The plan of those who are organizing these demonstrations boils down to the hope that with each demonstration the number of protesters will grow and at some point it won’t be possible to disperse them and the authorities will have to listen to them and reckon with them.

And what will the authorities be forced to hear? What are they accused of? This is less clear, but we can hope for the best: The masses (what else should we call them?) will demand that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev step down. They’ll demand equal access for all to state media and free elections. And -- since we are looking at the optimistic scenario -- it won’t matter who wins those elections, since it will be the choice of the people.

In reality, of course, it does matter who wins, but who can argue with the people’s choice? All we can do is hope that it is someone who will lead the country into the World Trade Organization and the European Union, who will free Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others, who will invalidate all corrupt deals (that is, all the deals), who will end conscription, and who will make public all documents about the Katyn massacre.

But what would the pessimistic scenario -- which all responsible people are obligated to consider -- look like? There are many possibilities. For one, the winner of the elections might seriously disappoint us. For another, we might not even get that far.

'Anti-People Regime'

The so-called anti-people regime -- is that a figure of speech or a realistic description of what we are confronting? And is it so “anti-people” that it would spill blood in order to save itself from popular anger and inevitable retribution? The protesters and police are beside the point -- if there was a desire to declare a state of emergency, the master of provocations and counterprovocations would find an excuse.

It is true that this regime cannot last long, that one cannot sit on bayonets. But I am disturbed by the idea of “the worse things get, the better,” an idea that appealed very much to Vladimir Ilych Lenin -- who some 100 years ago demonstrated the reality of this idea so convincingly that we are still feeling it today. Is anyone out there really looking for new confirmation?

I think the chance of finding it is out there -- in fact, it is large. There is an enormous number of people who were promised reform but who found themselves not better off, but worse off. There is a small number of people who gained everything from the reforms, but not legitimately. The former are accumulating hatred for the latter. Meanwhile, the authorities are viewed as inveterate thieves and are ready to undertake anything in order to bolster their ratings -- including war. And they are confident they can deal with public discontent using scenarios like those from the turn of the last century involving people like Georgy Gapon and Yevno Azef, who were both radical protesters and police provocateurs.

What ingredients are missing for the comparison between Russia 100 years ago and Russia today to be complete? Groups of half-literates and fanatics who have done prison time and who are ready to commit any violence necessary to take power? But that is the weapon that is fired at the very end of the play, when it is already too late to worry and there is only the sound of applause. When the presence of such people becomes a reality, that will mean that the course has been determined -- the fanatics will be victorious.

I have a lot of respect for the opinion of longtime activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva. But in this case, I think she is wrong. The Soviet authorities that she and her colleagues of 40 years ago successfully shook by going out onto the streets and demanding that it respect the law and the current parody of a state are two completely different things. A rabid mongrel can be more dangerous than a trained attack dog.

Possible bloodshed and its consequences, though, are not the only reasons against protesting today. Maybe not even the main one. What is more important is that we have nothing to go out onto the streets with. Do you want to repeat the experience of the late 1980s and gather 200,000 people on Manezh Square and wait for the Kremlin to buckle? Don’t go out. Not because the Kremlin now is so strong, but because 20 years ago the thirst for abstract freedom was bolstered by concrete, systemic demands. That is why those 200,000 people had leaders that they trusted. And that is why in the early 1990s, those demands began to be realized and then vanished in the wind. And the majority of those who the demonstrators trusted took part in this.

Let’s not kid ourselves – this is precisely why there are so few people today going out onto the streets. And the hope that those numbers will grow soon is based on the violence of the riot police. And the strong odor of Gapon-like collaborationism that is coming from some of those who are calling people into the streets isn’t very inspiring. And the fact that they don’t admit their responsibility for the 1990s is playing its part too.

Of course, I’ll go out for the next 31 rally. But only if some of those whom I respect and who were out there on May 31 tell me why this article is not convincing.

Mikhail Shevelev is a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.