Yesterday’s legislative elections in 14 regions of the Russian Federation have not been the focus of political debates in Moscow during the last few weeks. Rather, it was an historic event that was typically downplayed by Soviet historiography – the Revolution of February 1917. Indeed, the tightly controlled March 11 elections offered little food for thought, except for an interesting anomaly: the order in which parties are listed in the bulletins was supposed to be random but in eight regions United Russia, the party of ruling bureaucracy, happened to be listed first (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 8). But the revolution that dismissed the Romanov dynasty and put the end to monarchy in Russia exactly 90 years ago remains open to interpretation.
The tone for the debate was set by a lengthy article written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn some 25 years ago and reprinted by the official Rossiiskaya gazeta on February 27. True to his vision of Russia’s destiny, Solzhenitsyn condemns the February Revolution as the fatal error that paved the way for the usurpation of power by the Bolsheviks and pushed the state to the brink of near catastrophic self-destruction. A strictly opposite reading of history was offered by Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which was banned under various pretexts from partaking in the elections in several regions, including St. Petersburg (Izvestiya, January 23). Yavlinsky argues that the collapse of the dilapidated monarchy granted Russia a chance to build a modern European state, a chance that was lost due to the colossal pressure of World War I.
A legion of semi-official and patriotically inclined commentators, including Vyacheslav Nikonov, Vitaly Tretyakov, Maxim Sokolov, and Vitaly Ivanov, rushed to embrace Solzhenitsyn’s thesis and excoriate the “national disgrace” (Izvestiya, March 5, 7; Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 5; Expert, February 26). Their emotional castigation might appear odd against the background of the Putin regime’s ideological “neutrality,” which embraces the tsarist two-headed eagle as naturally as it adopts the Soviet-era anthem or the tricolor of the Provisional Government. This zeal has little to do with the errors or chances of the historic past and is driven entirely by the tensions of the deepening contemporary political crisis.
The scare of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has left a deep imprint on the collective psyche of Russia’s bureaucracy, so February 1917 is seen as the “mother” of all “color revolutions.” Solzhenitsyn is exploited as a moral authority who could deny legitimacy to any and all attempts to challenge the established order by mobilizing “street power” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 9). This broad condemnation is directly translated into a readiness to suppress such challenges by force, as was demonstrated in St. Petersburg on March 3, when a 5,000-strong “march of the discontented” was brutally attacked by OMON special police units gathered from neighboring regions (Novaya gazeta, March 5). Valentina Matvienko, the governor of St. Petersburg, tried to explain away this over-reaction as a justified response to the “provocation” organized by “guests from Moscow,” but the opposition claimed an important moral victory (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 5). It is easy to see the same desire to eliminate any irritant that might trigger public discontent in Putin’s recent “presidential” decision to revise the commercial arrangement according to which Russian Football League games would be shown only on the subscription TV channel NTV Plus (Kommersant, March 10).
This apparent uncertainty of executive control over the masses relates directly to the theme in the debates on the February 1917 Revolution that Solzhenitsyn elaborated but the pro-Kremlin spin-meisters try to downplay: the decomposition of the ruling regime (Vedomosti, March 9). In the limited media space available to them, liberal commentators and historians argue that the bitter rifts in the old Russian elite were caused not only by the traumas of protracted war but arose from the very heart of the ultra-conservative and essentially dysfunctional monarchy (Globalrus, March 9; Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 2; BBC Russian Service, March 6). Their conclusion — that the unaccountability of the rulers and their isolation from the disenfranchised population combined with the reluctance to launch overdue reforms is a recipe for disaster — is directly relevant to Putin.
It might appear that the current squabbles inside the Kremlin are caused primarily by Putin’s stubborn insistence on following the letter of the Constitution and stepping aside after the end of his second presidential term. It might also appear that Putin’s “courtiers” have finally granted their consent for a safe “retirement,” so his final year could be spent primarily on hammering out a consensus on the next overlord (Grani.ru, March 2).
The problem, however, runs deeper and pertains to the inefficiency of the over-centralized quasi-monarchical system of power. Expanding state domination over the economy all but guarantees a protracted depression when oil prices slide down to a more reasonable plateau, but the new boss would have to deal with the greatly increased popular expectations of bonuses and benefits. It would be hard for the next president to pin the blame for the painful reforms on his predecessor and equally hard to reshuffle the “old guard” to promote loyalists. The deeply corrupt system based on fusion between power and property is so rigid that a crisis could trigger its collapse before overcoming its resistance to change.
Russia today shows few symptoms of a revolutionary situation, but when Solzhenitsyn finished his article in 1983, the Soviet Union looked as solid as the Russian Empire did in 1913. The Kremlin’s current motto – “Putinism is here for the long term” – is clearly a self-hypnosis that might stop working without the man himself, so the reluctant “monarch” might still be forced to stay and weather the storm in his house of cards.