Staunton, August 8 – The protests in Khabarovsk are fundamentally different than last year’s demonstrations in Moscow by the forces driving them and the way the powers that be are responding, Vladimir Pastukhov says; and they suggest that Russia may again be heading against the grain of history with Khabarovsk being “a peasant war in the 21st century.”
The Moscow protests “were small and elite. Only a small fraction of residents, primarily residents of the educated classes took part,” the London-based Russian commentator says. “The Khabarovsk protest is massive, with a significant share of the population taking part, including representatives of the most varied strata” (mbk-news.appspot.com/sences/rossiya-v-ozhidanii-atatyurk/).
“The Moscow protest was ‘mental;’ in it was a marked ideological and political vector with on the whole a clearly expressed liberal (in the Russian sense of the word) profile,” he continues. “The Khabarovsk one is ‘emotional,’” without those characteristics but driven by the widespread feelings about the situation.
Because the Moscow protests was small and reflected an alien group as far as the Kremlin is concerned, Pastukhov says, the powers that be knew what to do and repressed it quickly and brutally. But because the Khabarovsk ones are large and reflected the views of its own constituency, the Kremlin has been far less certain about how to respond.
In Khabarovsk, “the Putin majority became agitated,” the very same group which six years ago completely backed the Kremlin’s “neo-imperial course.” One could even say that last year’s protests in Moscow were those of “the 14 percent” who oppose that course, while this year’s in Khabarovsk are “a protest of the 86 percent” who backed it.
That is why the events in the Siberian city are so “dangerous for the Kremlin,” Pastukhov argues, and why it has responded so slowly and as it has.
Khabarovsk is not something entirely new, he suggests; it is only something so “archaic” that few have drawn the appropriate comparisons. This isn’t a 1917 or a 1991, this is a peasant rising like those in earlier centuries. And because it is so, the current demonstrations have both “strong and weak sides.”
Peasant risings have always seemed to come out of nowhere and grow with extreme rapidity, only to collapse largely on their own when the wind changes course. That much Putin and his team understand, and they have thus adopted a wait-and-see approach, biding their time until intervention will work for them rather than make the situation still worse.
The powers that be are right to think that this peasant rising like most of its predecessors will fail, but there are exceptions – and it is far from clear whether today’s Kremlin has thought about the possibility that this may become one of them.
The exceptions have occurred, the historian says, when peasant uprisings link up with urban revolts. Indeed, if that happens, the powers that be have typically been incapable of responding adequately or even surviving. Alone, Khabarovsk doesn’t threaten the Kremlin; together with protests in the capital, it could prove decisive.
The Khabarovsk demonstrators reflect “the road of the tribe,” as V.N. Muravyev of Vekhi fame wrote a century ago. Responding to it will require more than “’the stabilizing repression’” the Putin regime has used up to now. The political game has changed, and the Kremlin is clearly uncertain what move to make next.
The Kremlin can’t decapitate the Khabarovsk protests because there is no “head” there. And even though Khabarovsk may fail, it has opened a new era, one in which “today, practically any region is a potential ‘Khabarovsk.’” Putin and his team have often talked about wanting to meet up with “the deep people.” But the new events show they won’t like what they find.
It is possible that Vladislav Surkov is correct that “’the deep people’ do not dream about a kingdom of freedom, do not share liberal values, and do not understand why they need democracy [and that] they believe in a tsar.”
The problem for the Kremlin, however, is that they may be seeking “a different tsar” than the one now on the throne. They may want one that is even more consistent in rejecting modernity than Putin is and more ready to have Russia move back to the world of Purishkevich and the Black Hundreds movement of pre-1917.
It is also possible, Pastukhov says, that “the masses in Russia are not ready for a national or a legal state. It is possible that the idea of autocracy is closer and more understandable to them than the idea of a constitution.” But today “they want change – and this is the main thing that Khabarovsk shows.”
Putin came to power as a restorationist, “but the time of restorers is passing. The masses want changes and movement. They are unconsciously seeking a Russian Ataturk who will pull the tribe from its past and lead it into the future,” and that future “won’t correspond very closely to liberal ideals.”