By Jonathan Power*
Change is absolutely necessary in Russia, but how to bring it about? One doesn’t have to be a prejudiced Western ideologue to point this out. As the weekend’s demonstrations in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk underline, there are a good number of people, mainly young, who feel the political system, as is presently organized, doesn’t give them the chance to express their feelings.
Even more illuminating are the concerns of the 34% of Moscow voters who voted against the new constitution. Despite it having many good things in it – like indexing pensions – it gives President Vladimir Putin the chance to stay in power until he’s in his eighties. That is not democracy in the Greek meaning of the word.
Fortunately for America, President Donald Trump would have to leave the White House in four and a half years’ time even if he wins a second term in November’s election. That is democracy, even though it is a seriously flawed one, captured in part by the big money of rich donors together with the Republican gerrymandering of voting districts plus the unfair weight given to less-densely populated states (mostly Republican) in the Senate plus the conservative bias of the press’s coverage.
Winding the clock back – not very far, just to the 1960s, blacks didn’t have the vote in the south. Neither could they sit in a coffee bar or restaurant unless it was segregated. Thanks to Martin Luther King’s non-violent marches and confrontations, together with his uplifting oratory, the kind of which America had never heard before, profound changes were made. Ex president Jimmy Carter said that without the black vote organized by Martin Luther King’s chief lieutenant, Andrew Young, he would never have won. Neither would Joe Biden be where he is today without the disciplined black voting block in North Carolina during the primaries.
Non-violence can work. It worked against the British in India under the leadership of Gandhi. It could work in Russia today. Indeed, it works already on a small scale. Dissident journalists have been freed after public protests. Assassins of dissidents have similarly been arrested and sentenced after non-violent lobbying and pushing by protestors. Today I wouldn’t be surprised if the demonstrators in Khabarovsk don’t win what they want- the reinstatement of their governor.
Violent revolution would be counterproductive in Russia – the outcome would be less democratic than the government is today, as the French found out after their revolution in the late eighteenth century.
A model in today’s Russia would be the “Shies” ecological movement which came into existence in reaction to attempts to send garbage and rubbish from Moscow and other cities to a massive new waste centre in Arkhangel’sk. The protest has coalesced into a network of opposition and ecological groups spread across three regions and has prompted defections from the Kremlin’s United Russia Party.
There was also in 2011-2012 the white ribbon movement with its joyful, peaceful, tenor. It demonstrated that Putin can be pushed to engage in negotiations with a democratic opposition movement when it can muster substantial public support.
A lot depends on the intelligentsia becoming united in the call for change. So far it appears it has lost its capacity to produce a moral voice on the scale of Tolstoy. His greatest novel “War and Peace” was a hymn to non-violence. Or on the scale of Pasternak who won the Nobel Prize for literature (his novel Doctor Zhivago is a magnum ode to peace), Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago) or Sakharov (the creator of the Russian H-bomb and born-again human rights leader).
Not only that, the pro-democracy movements of today are largely factions and dominated by a single leader. These leaders are not particularly tolerant of political pluralism. This is beginning to improve, but is limited to municipal council and regional election coalitions. It has not become a national-level practice.
There needs to be cooperation with moderate socialists and some of the other opposition parties (but not the Nationalists and Communists) which have a small number of Duma deputies but more representation in municipal elections, as with Yabloko in St Petersburg. They have a chance of building a broader regime- transformation coalition.
According to a poll in May, 28% of the Russian population expressed a willingness to participate in street demonstrations. This was up from 24% in a February poll. Putin’s base is in the small towns, villages, pensioners, police, bureaucrats and others who live off state budget funds. If there were large–scale protests in Moscow and St Petersburg and the larger regions’ capitals the base would not be strong enough to protect Putin.
Russia does have a strand in its culture that supports pacifism, humility and forgiveness, writes the respected American Russian scholar, Gordon Hahn. “Most ancient Eastern and Russian Orthodoxy valued meekness or smirenie”. Hahn writes that one of the most read daily texts in the church is that of the 7th century Eastern Orthodox monk, Isaki Siriyanina. He taught humility, love and the “tender heart”. This teaching was carried forward by the 14th century monk, Sergei Radonezh and the great icon painter, Andrei Rublev, memoralized in Andrei Tarkovskii’s great Soviet-era film.
Similarly, one of Russia’s greatest philosophers, Vladimir Solov’ev evolved into a prominent proponent of universal peace, world unity and brotherhood, and Christian mercy and reunification. He urged Tsar Alexander 3rd to forgive the socialist revolutionary assassins of his father. He also often spoke out against anti-Semitism.
The West needs to stop meddling in Russian politics. It only serves to discredit the oppositional movements, some of which they have in the past funded. If it hadn’t been for American financial aid and expertise, Yeltsin would not have won his final election. (In fact, Western meddling has been on a far greater scale than its Russian counterpart which has been accused of aiding Trump to win his election.)
The non-violent opposition will ripen in its own time. One day, hopefully not before long, given the brains, cultural prowess and humanity of the Russian people, the country should be able to produce a leader clever and smart enough to replace Putin -– one with the power of a moral voice.
*Note: Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.