Russia's Liberals Are Watching Ukraine's Revolution Very Closely—And So Is Putin

by Julia Ioffe | December 2, 2013

In case you missed it, Kiev has been exploding over the last few days. Hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets over the weekend—both in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine—to protest President Viktor Yanukovich's last-minute decision to scuttle the signing of a vaguely worded agreement that would have begun to pull Ukraine into the European orbit—and out of Russia's. The police can't clear the streets. The protesters have taken over city hall, as well as some other buildings, and forced a high-level resignation over police brutality. They've also caused a split in Yanukovich's Regions party and forced him to retreat back to the Europeans' negotiating table. (Given that the protesters are now calling for his ouster, well, it's a small price to pay.)

There are some legitimate questions about whether the move toward Europe is a wise one for Ukraine. They encompass everything from the country's own economic health, to the wisdom of alienating Russia, a neighbor that is both so vindictive and so close, and to whether the Ukrainians overestimate what they'll get out of this pact.

But tune in to the reaction in Moscow and you won't hear much about that. What you'll hear is Moscow talking mostly about...itself.

Two years ago this week, falsified parliamentary elections brought thousands out into Moscow's streets. But, after a euphoric winter and spring, the protests collapsed, having forced no real concessions from the Kremlin. Putin remained in power, the system remained in place, and both went after the opposition with renewed viciousness and vigor. Moscow's revolution is dead.

Now, liberal Muscovites are watching the events in Kiev with rapt and joyous attention—but also a hint of jealousy. Here is another Slavic nation burdened with the cross of Soviet history, bucking their goon of a leader—and Putin, too—and falling into Europe's civilized embrace. Kievans went into the streets in numbers far greater than Muscovites summoned even at the peak of their failed revolution. When the police came, unlike the Muscovites, they didn't leave. They swung chains and threw Molotov cocktails and built barricades in the streets. They took over municipal buildings. They nearly toppled the city's main statue of Lenin. They sang the national anthem and chanted "Revolution!"

They did all the things, in other words, that the Muscovites did not do.

The Russian social networks are full of vicarious living these days. "Jealous," wrote one Moscow editor on noting that some estimates put the crowd in Kiev at one million—"not 40,000 or even 100,000" like in Moscow two years ago. One Moscow journalist departing for Kiev wrote "for our freedom and yours" on his Facebook wall, quoting a slogan oft heard in the Moscow protests. Others debated in excruciating—and excruciatingly long—Facebook posts why Kievans were successful where the Muscovites failed.

"How many national flags have you seen hung from the windows of Russian buildings and cars?" spat one Russian journalist in response to the question on everyone's lips: "Why not us?" "How many Russian flags have you seen in the hands of the youth and all kinds of other people? We're more likely to draw a cock on a fence than the tricolor on our cheek."

Though many Muscovites made the argument that it was the Russian "mindset" that hobbled its quest to fell Putin, I would argue that there are far more answers to the question of why not Moscow.


But here's a major problem my Moscow friends face: Much of the stringency and verticality of the Russian political system is a direct result of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Terrified that they too might be toppled by a crowd with some tents, Putin and his advisors really stepped up their campaign of coopting and buying the political opposition, destroying civil society, and wiping the political playing field clean of real, competitive alternative. Putin and his advisor Vladislav Surkov also cooked up the term "sovereign democracy"—the truncated, managed type that Russia ostensibly needed as training wheels—and created Nashi, the vicious pro-Kremlin youth group.

The reason the middle class Russians were so surprised to learn they were not alone in 2011, the reason they had been so atomized and isolated from one another, in other words, has a lot to do with the revolution in Kiev in 2004.

Both Nashi and sovereign democracy are now, blessedly, largely a thing of the past. But the Putin administration is already busily tightening the screws after the fright it received with the Moscow protests two years ago. What will it do now that the revolution has come to Ukraine again? Perhaps the jealousy in Moscow is just the right emotion: Revolution in Kiev tends to make revolution in Moscow that much more difficult.

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