Russian protests – echoes of US civil rights movement
To see the December protests in Russia as primarily a political wave is to miss a more fundamental leaven at work in Russian society: a moral awakening akin to the American civil rights movement. An early test is Saturday, when a massive protest in Moscow is planned.
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To that end, FAR has worked hard to galvanize public support behind repealing flagrantly unequal – not to mention lethal – double standards in traffic regulations. Government officials of all kinds, both federal and local, are permitted to drive with blue flashing lights and violate the rules, including driving on the wrong side of the road.Skip to next paragraph
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One of FAR's most popular national campaigns has been the "blue buckets" protests: Drivers affix children's beach toys on car antennas and racks to mock the lights of the Russian mandarins' corteges. Bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans such as "I don't give bribes!" and "Flashing Lights are Russia's Shame!" underscore the indignity fueling the protest. In a letter to Putin, FAR demanded his resignation if he is unable to meet its demands.
Tellingly, FAR and other groups identified Russian society – not Putin – as the main culprit. Russian citizens have been reluctant to exercise the muscles of accountability. "Everyone thinks that if only they come to power everything will change," said FAR's president, Sergei Kanaev. "But I tell them: By the time you get to power, you will already be just as the 'system' wants you to be…."
"Where does the regime's impunity come from?" asked Maxim Vedenev, a regional leader of the human- and economic-rights watchdog group TIGR. "It is a function of our indifference. Indifference breeds impunity, and impunity destroys everything. If people respected themselves more, we would have never had such impunity."
The struggle to foster a self-respecting citizenry, says Chirikova, could last a lifetime.
She and others were confident that only a giant shift in people's attitudes – and, through it, of the country's political culture – would create a democratic and prosperous Russia. "The change of political regime is possible only through the change in people's mentality," said one activist. "The key is not to be afraid," another leader told me.
"Many [like-minded people] gathered in one place can change a great deal," added another respondent. "If people begin to self-organize, we won't need any revolutions. This will be the most peaceful revolution of all: People will simply stop submitting and begin to demand." That is a remarkable assertion for a nation with a long tradition of "great ruptures" midwifed through violent upheavals.
It is clear that we are present at the birth of something new in Russian political tradition, at least since its evolution was interrupted by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. No historical parallel is perfect, but it is hard not to hear echoes of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Like its US counterpart more than half a century ago, these grass-roots movements' ultimate goal is dignity and equality before the law. And just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, Russia's activists seek to effect vast political and social change by personal and deeply moral effort fueled from within. Both reject violence in principle. Both establish no time limits to the achievement of their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience to persevere as long as necessary.
Coinciding with the cracks in the icy carapace of autocratic and corrupt Putinism, the citizenship ethos spread by these and other grass-roots movements throughout Russia could provide the moral foundation for Russia's second breakthrough into democratic modernity in the past 20 years.
Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991," will be published by Yale University Press in June.