Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
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It is no wonder that the arrest and trial of the Russian Pussy Riot singers have garnered so much more attention and sympathy in the West than many of President Vladimir Putin's other opponents. After all, these three female vocalists are young, likable and also very Western. What's more, rock is the popular music of the people - and Putin, meanwhile, is perceived as stomping out the last shreds of freedom of expression in his country.

While Pussy Riot's musical rampage in the main Moscow cathedral would not have gone by without at least a reprimand in any democratic country, a two-year prison sentence nevertheless attests to cruel repression. Their protest is a manifestation of what was already evident this past year in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg: opposition on the part of many among the Russian middle class and intelligentsia to Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime.

After years of submissiveness to Putin and his minion Dmitry Medvedev, it turns out that Russia's economic success - mainly thanks to the export prices of oil, gas and mineral resources - has created a new educated middle class open to Western ideas, adept at using social networks, and eager to translate its social status into political power and to take part in government. These are the men and women of the new Russian civil society who want to stop being subjects and start being citizens. Such is the driving force of every revolution against an authoritarian regime.

However, it is hard to be overly optimistic about the opposition's chances of toppling - or significantly altering - Putin's neo-czarist regime and establishing a functioning liberal democracy in Russia. These things are not only a consequence of Putin's character but also of Russian society and its character. Even those who would like to find parallels between the protest movement in Russia now and the fall of the Communist regime and the breakup of the Soviet Union in their day is liable to prove mistaken.

The excitement that seized statesmen and thinkers in the West upon the fall of Communism, which found its most extreme expression in Francis Fukuyama's book "The End of History and the Last Man," sprang from the assumption that Communism's failure would inevitably lead to democracy and a free market economy. This deterministic view of an historical and predictable inevitability resembles - in reverse - the belief in Marxism that humanity is heading toward the breakup of capitalism and the rise of a universal socialist regime.

More than one path to democracy

It has become clear that the reality is far more complex, and the events in post-Communist societies indicate there is more than one trajectory for historical development. Twenty years after the collapse of Communism, it turns out there are societies - like those Poland and the Czech Republic - that have successfully made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Meanwhile, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, nevermind the former Soviet republics in central Asia, the development has taken a different route.

It turns out that in countries where there was a tradition of civil societies, of representative institutions and of pluralism, the transition to democracy had historical roots in the population's behavior and institutional memory. In Russia, however, where there is no tradition of a civil society and pluralism, the attempt to develop a democratic regime turned into a farce in Boris Yeltsin's day that threatened to tear apart the very existence of the Russian state.

Moreover, it is necessary to remember how different the process of democratization has been in various countries. In Poland and the Czech Republic, and a number of other countries in Central-Eastern Europe, the breakup of the Communist regime stemmed from the rise of extensive protest movements that, over the course of a number of years, questioned the legitimacy of the communist regime (such as the Solidarity movement in Poland, headed by Lech Walesa, and the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, led by Vaclav Havel ). These movements gave expression to extensive support and social strength, and became the basis for the formation of democratic political parties after the breakdown of the Communist monopoly on power.

In the Soviet Union, however, despite the existence of an anti-Communist protest movement (mainly in Moscow and what was Leningrad at the time ), the changes came from above in the wake of a decision by the Communist leadership, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, to embark on the perestroika process.

Despite the prominence of impressive individuals like physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, these developments did not lead to the formation of organized and established protest movements, and no serious opposition parties were founded. Those who ultimately came to power were former Soviet bureaucrats and apparatchiks - such as in the cases of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Reforms from above

It was not the civil society that advanced the reforms, but rather a bureaucracy that tried to be more open and less tyrannical. In the absence of any tradition of a civil society, the bureaucratic nature of the reform in the Soviet Union also contributed to the difficulties in transitioning to democracy and a free market economy.

To this day, there has not been a president or prime minister in post-Communist Russia who did not come from the top echelons of the former Communist Party. A truly liberal figure like Grigory Yavlinsky, who was not part of the party machine, stood no chance. His reform party, Yabloko, didn't even win a sufficient percentage of the votes to get into parliament in the last elections.

Perhaps it is not by chance that Putin sees Peter the Great's form of governance as his model, which links reforms from above to the restoration of Russia's geopolitical standing as a major power. Russia does not have historical models of freedom fighters and liberal leaders like Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Poland or Lajos Kossuth in Hungary - though there is no dearth of examples of those who tried, with varying degrees of success, to carry out reforms from above, like Czar Alexander II or Pyotr Stolypin, the president of the council of ministers of Czar Nicholas II. There were also intellectuals and highborn people (like the Decemberists ) who wanted to make changes in the regime in Russia, but none of them came to power.

It did happen that in the last years of the Soviet Union, at the same time as Gorbachev's reforms from above, there were popular protest movements from below, which also contributed to the breakup of the Soviet state. These, however, were nationalist protest movements in the Baltic countries and Georgia. Their success - the threat of further unraveling the fabric of Russia itself, in the image of the Chechen Revolt - brought about a strong nationalist counter-reaction in Russia. Putin gave expression to this in the brutal way the Chechen nationalist movement was suppressed - a matter that to some extent explains Russia's support for Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.

It would be mistaken to seek the reasons for the broad public support for Putin today too - even after the disgraceful ploy by which he exchanged his position with Medvedev - solely in the repressive character of his regime.

Putin steps in

After Yeltsin's period of chaos, which was characterized by the regime's weakness, alongside the theft of national assets by rapacious oligarchs, Putin managed to stabilize the patterns of governance, to strengthen the central government vis-a-vis corrupt provincial governors who threatened to break up the state, and also to re-establish Russia's strategic status as a major power.

To a large extent, he has restored to millions of Russian citizens pride in their native land and state. And, since in Yeltsin's day they also had no real role in shaping the character of the regime, today they do not feel that anything has been taken from them.

Unpopular protests

It is impossible to ignore the fact that the protest against Putin - which began to gather momentum with the mounting accusations regarding forgeries in the latest parliamentary and presidential elections - is pretty much limited to the two historical Russian capitals: Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the huge expanses of Russia - from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok - some protests might be seen here and there. But these are limited, and in many cases they are narrowly focused on local issues. There does not seem to be a pan-Russian phenomenon sweeping the masses in the vast country. It is also clear that as long as the citizens of Russia are enjoying relative economic prosperity, the chances of a mass protest aren't so rosy.

Some of these processes are not getting sufficient attention because of the media prominence won by the Pussy Riot singers. At the personal level, too, more promises are expected: Putin himself has hinted, even though he sharply condemned their behavior, that perhaps there is the possibility to reduce their punishment, and the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church have already forgiven them. In the best Russian tradition, the czar is capable of being both cruel and mercifully generous toward his subjects.