One of the popular protests in St. Petersburg demanding larger food rations for families of soldiers that ignited the February 1917 revolution in the Russian Empire (Image: Wikimedia)
A century ago, Nicholas II looked all powerful and yet he was overthrown and his country disintegrated, Yevgeny Gontmakher says; and today, Vladimir Putin looks even more powerful and with far greater popular support but because of the shortcomings of his system, it could “fall apart in a single day.”
In an interview with Igor Pushkaryov of the Znak news agency, the Moscow economist and commentator argues that there are too many parallels between 1917 and 2017 to be comfortable, most the result of Russia’s failure to change with the times.
Like the tsar and most of the world a century ago, Putin and his regime still operate under the principles of zones of influence defined in territorial terms. They have failed to recognize that in the world today, the true zones of influence are not about territorial acquisition and control but rather about the spread of influence. As a result, Moscow has frequently miscalculated and alienated others.
In addition, the Russian government has once again allowed the trend lines of economics and politics to diverge, supporting many of the right things in the economy, although keeping it more dominated by the state than is a good thing, but opposing the political changes such as democracy and local administration that economic development requires.
And third, Gontmakher says, both the regime of Nicholas II and that of Vladimir Putin operates on the principle that only one individual has all the answers. No matter how competent that leader is – and Gontmakher says the current Kremlin leader is quite competent in many ways – he will and does make mistakes and there is no one to correct him. This gives rise to maximalism and a Bolshevik-like spirit.
Because of all these things, the economist continues, a single unexpected event can bring the entire system crashing down. In 1917, it was the problem of the distribution of bread in Petrograd. Now, it could be a reaction to the poorly-thought-through plans at demolition and renovation of housing in Moscow.
At the same time, Gontmakher says, it is clear that Putin doesn’t want to restore the monarchy and make himself tsar. He “thinks he is a democrat. We have no mass repressions. In this regard, he isn’t Stalin; otherwise we wouldn’t be talking now. We can travel abroad. We can read almost anything we want. [And] in the narrow sense, he is not a nationalist … In economics, he also remains quite liberal.”
Putin “doesn’t want a return to the Soviet system.” For him, the ideal system is “state capitalism.”
There are thus three possible scenarios:
- First, “chaos of the type of February 1917,” when everything fell apart and power lay in the streets. “The probability of this scenario isn’t zero, but it isn’t that large.
- Second, Putin himself comes to the recognition that reforms are needed and moves to introduce them like a second Gorbachev.
- But third – and this is “the most probable scenario,” Gontmakher argues, “nothing will be changed.” In that event, Russia will fall further and further behind the rest of the world which will view it as a backwater. It isn’t going to fall apart. Putin will rule and things won’t be that disastrous at least during his lifetime.
But there are a few reasons to think that this scenario won’t be allowed to proceed, Gontmakher says.
“Social lifts are now destroyed. We have a new nomenklatura in which the sons and daughters of those who rose in the 1990s now occupy good posts at all levels and even with good education to get into this caste is now practically impossible.”
Those who can’t see no future for themselves, and the regime has not addressed this. They thus could become a revolutionary element just as was the case in Russia a century ago. Yes, there were peasants and workers behind what happened in 1917, but “the majority” behind those events “were from privileged urban strata, many with university educations … and discomfort arose among them.”
At the end of the imperial period, “they suddenly saw that in Russia social lifts just like now did not work or were stopped and that there were no particular prospects to correct this by evolutionary means.” If that happens again, the Putin system is going to be challenged, even threatened, however powerful it now appears to be.
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