20 years under Putin: a timeline

In his address to the new Russian opposition, Prof. Alexander Yanov analyses the lessons of all three Great Russian Reforms, arguing that regional governance should still be considered as an important tool for the implementation of democracy and progress.



The well-known Russian writer Boris Akunin is certain that “in 2012, Moscow (and Russia in general) will become the most interesting place on the planet. Just as they were a quarter of a century ago, during

Naturally, as a historian, I can’t help but immediately question a number of issues. First off, at the outset of an apparent fourth era of Great Reforms, one cannot help but remember that the preceding three Great Reforms in Russia ended in defeat. Secondly, what lessons are we supposed to learn from these defeats? Lastly, what should this Fourth Great Reform be like, so that we won’t have to resort to a fifth one soon after?

Surely the reader must also be considering some questions. Like, when did the preceding reforms occur, and how do their failures relate to our present? Will this narrative indicate whether or not Putin will win the presidential elections on March 4, 2012? And if Putin does win the elections, then how will that happen, exactly? Last, but not least, if history can’t help us make these kind of predictions, should we bother digging up this long forgotten past at all?

But we should. I am absolutely convinced – and I do reiterate that in all of my books – that history is a science not only of the past, but also of the future. This essay is going to prove it once again.

Akunin made a comment, albeit an overt one, about the Third Great Reform (meaning the Gorbachev-Yeltsin reform, which first enacted glasnost and then private enterprise). Some of the ramifications of this Third Reform could be witnessed last December, when Russians poured out to protest on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharova Avenue, finally deciding to become citizens of their own country. I should remind the reader that the USSR had no citizens, merely subjects.



I doubt that anyone bothered to conduct a social analysis of the so-called “new Decembrists” [Moscow’s protestors – trans.] But even without such an analysis, it is not a stretch to assume that there were very few government employees among the protestors. [Editor's note: Actually, such social analysis was conducted by the Moscow Levada-center, its results presented here in Russian, in a rather entertaining way.] Whatever [communist politician Gennady] Zyuganov might say, along with private property, the Soviet Union crushed all remnants of human dignity. Thus, in the pre-perestroika USSR, the events of Bolotnaya and Sakharova could never have occurred.

Akunin is right: civil society did awaken after all, meaning that the lessons of the Third Great [Gorbachev-Yeltsin] Reform were not entirely forgotten.

The Second Great Reform, initiated by Tsar Alexander II in the mid-19th century, is well remembered (since it’s taught in Russian middle schools) but rarely brought up in discussions about modern times. The Second Reform’s right to be called “Great” is typically associated with the liberation of 50 million serfs previously owned by landowners and the government. Freedom – undeniably – is a great thing. However, it is often forgotten that the freed serfs were immediately locked into a kind of peasant ghetto, and in addition to being robbed, they were also denied ownership of the land they had been given along with all other civil rights. In short, Russian peasants were cut off from society, like lepers.

This cruel paradox of the Second Reform consisted of the fact that Russian peasants were deprived of all their civil rights by the urban “educated” minority who had just acquired the very same rights – at least in the form of an independent judiciary. The ancient chasm between the two Russias – “the one educated in academies,” as put by Mikhail Speransky, and the other one, the one that studied the bible, was being conspicuously widened. If you pick up Chekhov’s "A Malefactor," you wouldn’t doubt that the two Russias we are talking about spoke different languages and could not comprehend each other, quite literally.

Of course, a century and a half ago there were those who understood that this fatal error would bring serious consequences: sooner or later, the masses left in “the power of darkness” would rise up and sweep away the educated minority in the fire of a new Pugachev Rebellion. But back then no one would listen to those demshiza [a Russian derogatory term for liberals]. Then, when 1917 exploded, Russia paid dearly with a severe civil war for its reactionary Slavophile belief that liberated serfs don’t need human rights: “Peasants are collectivists,” “Russia, you see, is not Europe.”

So why should we scrutinize bygone mistakes of the architects of the Second Great Reforms? Once again, yes, we should, since these mistakes still influence current events in Russia. Today’s villagers, along with the majority of the so-called “TV-people” (yesterday’s peasants) will vote for Putin on March 4, 2012. They will vote against the “Internet people,” and they will do so legally. Which side, then, will gain legitimacy from the March elections?

Putin, by the way, won’t hand the Internet over [to the opposition] without a fight. That’s exactly what the Prime Minister recently stated in a televised Q&A session: “If the government (or anyone else) doesn’t like what is happening, there is a way to counter it – for example, by offering other Internet platform options […], by making it more creative, interesting, thus gathering a greater number of supporters.” So, February 2012 will be a month of active presidential campaigning not only on television - the Internet will also be flooded with Putin’s “creative directors” trying to “gather a greater number of supporters.”

In fact, the process has already begun. One example of the government’s Internet campaign: on the Ekho Moskvy [a popular radio program] website, the comments section included a statement from someone arguing that while the cost of living in Moscow has risen from $3,205 per square meter in 2000 to $40,005 in 2010, in Russia (meaning in the rest of the country, except for Moscow) the average salary during those same Putin years rose from 2,223 rubles to 21,898 rubles. “The average salary grew 9.8 times! Moscow has gorged itself, so now it is protesting,” he concludes.

That is why with the support of the so-called “TV people,” intimidated employees of state corporations (especially in Russia’s regions), as well as the active Internet demagogues, the probability of Putin winning the first round of the presidential elections is high. The Moscow protests and the “Internet movement” cannot prevent it from happening.

The above is a direct result of a long-forgotten 150-year-old mistake made by the architects of the Second Great Reforms, and it has nothing to do with, “Orthodox humility” or the “Russian genes,” as some Russians believe.

Whatever the descendents of the Slavophiles might say, Russia is part of Europe after all. That is why a very different Putin will emerge from a victory in the March elections. Though elected by popular mandate, he will be declawed and despised by country’s cultural elite. But we must realize that, just like his predecessor, even a declawed Putin will still be capable of dragging the country into a new troubled times.

The goal of the new opposition should be preventing this from happening, applying the valuable lessons learned from all the previous Great Russian Reforms. This can be only achieved by a measure rarely considered nowadays: if the chasm between the two Russias created by enslavement of the peasants during the reign of Ivan the Terrible and later amplified by 19th century ghettoization and the 20th century defeat of Stolypin’s reforms, cannot be destroyed, then it should at least be minimized.

Is then the Second Russian Reform entitled to its “great” status? I believe it is. This takes us back to some of the consequences of the Second Great Reform, which many still considered irrelevant. People forget that the Second Russian Reform left us a legacy of the first independent judiciary in modern Russia and, more importantly, started building a bridge between the two Russias in the form of the local [regional] governments.

The judicial reforms of 1864 transformed the country. The old, infamously corrupt court of law, “the sole memory of which - according to Ivan Aksakov – can raise hairs on one’s neck” described in details by Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin, the very court of law that made Russia a European model non-legal state, was destroyed. Even though it only lasted two decades, practically overnight Russia enjoyed the best justice system in the world, not least because an excellent group of first-class lawyers emerged.  This rather unexpected renewal of Russia meant that it no longer served as a laughing stock of the Europeans. Instead, they held it in admiration.

The introduction of local government in January of 1864 possibly played an even more important role for Russia’s future. The authorities were (at least, according to the official version) encouraging local initiatives and activities. This represented the very first real attempt to build a much-needed bridge between the two Russias: the peasant Russia and the urban Russia, the same as the currently nicknamed “TV-watching Russia” and “Internet-using Russia”

The elected institutions of local government were called Zemstvo. Zemstvos were created at both county and regional levels, and were responsible for all local needs: public health, education, roads, public utilities, insurance, and magistrates' courts.


A Zemstvo gathering. From a painting by Trutovsky


Very soon it became clear that the funds allocated by the state budget did not even come close to covering zemstvos’ costs, and so the zemstvos were forced to introduce production and sales taxes on local goods. It was these taxes, however, that suddenly turned into a guarantee of their independence from the state.

Though most of the zemstvos were seriously in debt, and the Tsar’s administration still maintained considerable control over things, zemstvos still had enough funds to build Europe's first free health care system. Thanks to the Zemstvos, village intelligentsia grew, which was independent from the state and gradually started filling the chasm between the two polarized Russias.

It is a well-known fact that the bridge across the chasm was unreliable and shaky, and the creation of an all-powerful bureaucracy largely detracted from its positive effects. The fact that it was only introduced just in 34 strictly "Russian" provinces [out of how many – editor’s note, will call the author and ask] also diminished its success.

The Second Russian Reform obviously cannot be compared to the [First] grandiose reforms of 1550s, which made peasant districts truly sovereign and allowed them to be governed without any kind of federal government control. But we must remember that in the 1550s the autocracy simply did not exist.

The architects of Zemstvos were probably not thinking about the experience of reforms in the 1550s, but they intuitively understood something today's reformers do not. Russia will not evolve from a dictatorship and will not achieve political change until a bridge is finally built between the European minority and the Muscovite majority, until the day the TV-crowd and the Internet-crowd begin, once again, communicating in the same language.

The paradox consists of the fact that the current regime, in its repression of freedom, successfully employs those very same freedoms – meaning democracy and the voting system – to its advantage. Of course, such a method isn’t new. A century and a half ago, Napoleon III came up with the idea, later also practiced by [Otto Von] Bismarck. And now Putin, along with Hugo Chavez and a half dozen of Latin American dictators, is keeping the “tradition” alive.

Let us assume the best-case scenario: the opposition succeeds in overthrowing Putin along with his voracious clique (which currently enjoys monopoly access to the country’s resources). Yet, until the authoritarian syndrome of Moscow’s majority is dealt with, there are no guarantees that a new Putin and a new clique could emerge -- the temptation [to grab the power along with the country’s resources] is simply too great.

I see no other cure for this insidious syndrome but a return to genuine local self-governance:  the Europeanization of Muscovite Russia.  Zemstvo officials understood this on an intuitive level. This is why zemstvos can teach a fundamental lesson to the today’s reformers, and this is why the Russian reforms of the 1860s are entitled to be considered “Great Reforms”.

Whether we like it or not, after the March elections the president’s office will be occupied by a “declawed” version of Putin. And for as long as this much weaker Putin is “presiding” over Russia, the opposition will have the opportunity to learn from the important lessons of the Second Great Reforms. That is, of course, unless the opposition leaders have completely lost the ability to learn from the Great Reforms of the past.