Staunton, May 5 – One of the very best anecdotes from Gorbachev’s times runs as follows: A man goes to the store to buy meat, waits in line two hours and is told there is no meat. He then goes to another store to buy toilet paper, waits again for two hours, only to be told there is no toilet paper.
On his way home, he mumbles to himself about what a horrible country he lives in, always waiting in line and then getting nothing for it. A Soviet militiaman approaches him and says he shouldn’t be saying such things. “In the old days,” the militiaman says, “we’d have had you shot or at least sent to the camps. But now, I’ll let you off with a warning.”
The man, humbled, heads home where he tells his wife: “Masha, it’s worse than we thought. Not only have they run out of meat and toilet paper, but they have run out of bullets as well!” In fact, that was never a problem; but there was ultimately a problem that those who had them weren’t prepared to use them or feared giving an order to do so that wouldn’t be obeyed.
That story springs to mind whenever anyone suggests that protests in Russia will grow in number and size to the point that there won’t be enough reliable siloviki to control the situation, as some Russian demonstrators are now saying, according to Mark Krutov of Radio Liberty (svoboda.org/a/29919609.html).
Andrey Borovikov, one of the leaders of the anti-Moscow trash Arkhangelsk protests, is very clear that that time has not yet come, but he sees it as a possibility as ever more Russians follow the example first of Ingushetia – “the flagman of Russian protests now,” he says – and then the anti-trash demonstrations in the North.
He says that he and his fellow demonstrators very much fear provocations by officials because “we understand that given the slightest provocation very harsh measures will be used against protesters and there will be arrests because unfortunately in our country, power in our country now belongs to the siloviki and not to the humanitarians.”
But there is a tactical reason why the regime may not have enough siloviki in particular places to carry out its will. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the powers that be can always bring in outside police whom no one in the cities knows and who do not know anyone. But in a place like Arkhangelsk, there isn’t that opportunity in many cases.
As a result, the protesters and the police each contain people who know members of the others, something that encourages the protesters and makes the police less willing to fire on those who may be their neighbors, friends, or even relatives, Borovikov says. And so as protests spread in the regions, the regime really may have difficulty countering them.
Demonstrations like those in Ingushetia and Arkhangelsk “can break out” anywhere now “because the authorities do not listen to the people. They don’t want dialogue with the people. The powers that be speak with the people only via police batons and orders.” But that won’t continue forever or even for every long.
When there will be protests not in one or two regions but “in 10 to 15,” Borovik says, those in power “simply won’t have enough siloviki to shut our mouths. They will be compelled to listen to our position – or we’ll make even more serious demands.”