Staunton, May 20 – “A revolution in the mass consciousness of Russians is taking place,” Anastasiya Nikolskaya says, one no longer nearly as Moscow-centric as it was in the past but instead is focused on the regions and their needs and increasingly seeks autonomy for them of a kind like states have in the US.
The senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service who has been part of the Belanovsky research team that attracted attention by predicting the 2011 protests says both the extent and speed of these changes have been “unbelievable” (znak.com/2019-05-20/proishodit_revolyuciya_v_massovom_soznanii_rossiyan_intervyu_s_sociologom).
“People in Magadan, Vladivostok, and Yakutsk say practically one and the same thing,” Nikolskaya continues. “Moscow takes our money while we here in a literal sense simply survive. They do not want to help Syria, they do not want to forgive the debts of Cuba. Instead, they say that these are our taxes and we have the right to know how they are being used.”
Russians say that “their regions need to be given the same rights which the states have in North America. There, for example, there is a single army, federal taxes and so on. But what is most essential, the states have many of their own powers,” she says.
And they are not just “dreamers. They understand that in acquiring such autonomy they will not immediately acquire all the goods from a horn of plenty.” They recognize they will have to work hard as do people in the regions of other countries. They aren’t seeking “separation for separation’s sake: there is the view that they cannot continue to live as they are now.”
“We have a pseudo-federation and a pseudo-democracy: we have total violation of the Constitution. This is not a new conclusion,” Nikolskaya says. “We are approaching the degradation of the state as a whole.” According to her research, “88 percent of those surveyed believe that the economic and political situation in the country is becoming much worse.”
In the past, desires for autonomy generally came from the regional elites, she continues. Now, it is emerging from the population at large who do not trust elites in Moscow or elites in the regions either. But precisely because it is an idea among the population, these regional ideas are not yet fully formed.
Moscow’s efforts to win back support have failed, Nikolskaya says. In Yakutsk, “only two people recalled anything about Crimea and about the Olympics not a single person remembered that.” Instead, as conditions have deteriorated, Russians are focusing on their own immediate lives and problems
According to the sociologist, people in the regions do not want anything from the center except a change in regime there that will give them autonomy. And in her view, “the point of no return” on this issue has already been passed. A year ago, Moscow might have been able to buy off the population but no longer.
So far, however, this new consciousness has not found any leaders to organize people into a movement. If there is to be a revolution, someone has to lead it, Nikolskaya observes, but as of now, Russians do not see anyone capable of that. Asked what kind of a person they are looking for, many now say a new Lenin who could inspire people and destroy the system.
Such a person may in fact emerge, she suggests, because the people aren’t prepared to put up with things any longer. They have already begun to move. “Already last year, we saw protest voting; In this one, we are seeing mass street protests.” And these have one key feature: people want to achieve what they are seeking not simply protest for protest’s sake.
What has happened in Russia, she concludes, is the formation of a certain new civic culture,” but as of yet, it does not have clearly defined ideas, established leaders, or well-organized movement. The ground for all three, however, has now been prepared, a major change from only a year ago.
Other observers are picking up on the same idea. Yelena Mukhametshina in today’s Vedomosti, for example, suggests that Russia is experiencing “a third wave of regional patriotism,” one that neither the authorities nor the opposition has figured out how to cope with (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2019/05/19/801760-rossii-tretya-volna).
Mukhametshina’s comment does point to one conclusion somewhat at odds with that of Nikolskaya. While the sociologist sees the shift toward regionalism as an irreversible change in the identities and attitudes of Russians in many parts of the country, the commentator suggests that it is a wave of a kind Russia has seen before, one that may pass just as two earlier ones did.
Whether that happens, it seems likely, will depend not only on the emergence of new leaders who can rise this wave but on the reaction of the powers that be at the center. If they work to cooperate with it, Russia will be transformed; but if they seek to suppress it, their most natural inclination, the likelihood is that regionalism will be radicalized into separatism.
That is a lesson they should draw from Gorbachev’s time when the Soviet Union fell apart not because of his liberalization in 1988-89 but rather because of how he tried to reverse course in 1990 and 1991.