“At least under the Communists I wasn’t hungry.”
—Zoya Ivanova, 73, pensioner, protester, (Moscow Times, Jan. 25, 2005)
It has been a year of colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union, and many pundits and experts are speculating whether Russia might get its own. For the last two weeks pensioners have been protesting across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the northwest to Khabarovsk in the Far East. These are the largest protests in Russia since the coal miner strikes in 1998. Vladimir Putin’s uncontested dominance over Russian politics suddenly looks like it stands on shifting sands. The issue: a new law that went into effect January 1 that stripped pensioners, servicemen, WWII veterans, victims of Stalinist repression, Chernobyl victims, and the disabled of their in-kind benefits for cash payments. In-kind benefits of free public transportation, medicine, reduced rents, and other state subsidized services were a hold out from the Soviet system. The Putin Administration decided to celebrate the New Year by removing all of these benefits in exchange for an increased monthly cash payment of 200 rubles ($6). The result: the possible emergence of Russia’s Grey Revolution.
Even in the wake of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” the protests caught everyone by surprise. After all, for the last few months experts routinely denied any such thing occurring in Russia. Putin had too much control, was too popular, and the Russian electorate was too passive. Moreover, as many Western pundits like to explain the Putin phenomenon, Russians are “naturally” tuned into the authoritarian personality. Its logic speaks to them in simple language. Despite the fact that Russia has experienced three revolutions in 100 years seems to escape most, though this is not to suggest the pensioner uprising will result in anything of the sort. Not even in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution.
Not even the most opportunistic anti-Russia pundits have jumped on the opportunity to spit venom on the Putin regime like they did in the Yushchenko affair. No Western foundations are pouring funds into any “pensioner” or youth organizations. No Western campaign strategists have arrived to coordinate the pensioner campaign. Even William Safire has yet to write a column declaring that “democracy was on the march” in Russia.
Perhaps “democracy” isn’t on the march according to Western pundits because pensioners are doing exactly what their brethren in the U.S. should be doing: flooding the streets against the Bush Administration’s swindle of social security privatization. Yet, we Americans are the more democratic nation, while the Russians are perfectly comfortable living with what their government dishes out. But the silence from the American Right is understandable. The whole pensioners’ revolt probably has their pro-market and anti-Russia personalities waging their own subconscious civil war. But, they are not the only ones that seem dumbfounded. These protests seem abnormal even to well intentioned journalists, like Fred Weir. “What’s astonishing,” he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “is that this is the generation that grew up under Stalin. The idea that someone who fought on the Russian and Polish fronts during World War II would now confront the Russian police is remarkable. You expect the post-Soviet generation, like the students in the Ukraine, to behave this way. But this is the first time we’ve seen such widespread demonstrations in the Putin era, and I certainly didn’t expect to see pensioners to be leading it.” Apparently, such actions are unfathomable to the pre-Soviet generation, who were thoroughly atomized by Soviet totalitarianism.
Many instances during the Soviet period could be cited to the contrary, but I will only point to one. These protests are not so remarkable if you consider the historical phenomena of “babi bunty.” In 1930, civil war loomed over the Russian countryside. The violence of collectivization was met with peasant uprisings, rumors of apocalypse, bands of peasants slaughtering any Communist they could find, and something called “babi bunty”, or “women’s riots.” In many cases, special military detachments of the NKVD (the then secret police) were sent to quell the uprisings. According to Historian Lynne Viola, in an article published almost twenty years ago, “babi bunty” were when women “physically blocked the carrying away of requisitioned grain or the entrances to huts of peasants scheduled to be exiled as kulaks, and forcibly took back seed and livestock, and led assaults on officials.” “Babi bunty” were tactical masterpieces because they played on the regimes own prejudices toward peasants. Since these “riots” were led by women, Soviet officials viewed them as expressions of the “dark masses” and tended to let them run out of steam rather than crush them with violence. Peasant men, knowing they would be thoroughly crushed if they participated from the get go, could join the protests by claiming they were “protecting” their wives and daughters. So much for that totalitarian atomization.
One can’t help view the current protests of the elderly as a contemporary echo of the “babi bunty.” Pensioners around Russia have spontaneously blocked intersections in the towns of Penza, Vladimir, Samara among others. In the Moscow suburb of Khimki, they stopped commuter traffic on the Leningrad Highway for two hours. Russian TV news show images of old people chastising local politicians and crowd the entrances of government buildings only to be held back by walls of police. (Ironically, the police themselves also lost their transportation benefits at the start of the year.) Veterans in Petersburg greet the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of the Nazis with signs that read: “Putin is worse than Hitler!” and “No to Genocide!” For people who survived WWII and the 900 day blockade of Leningrad, not only can these actions punch holes in Putin omnipotence, it shows that they aren’t going to be deterred with idle threats or cheated with verbal promises.
To free market reformers, the monetization of benefits was a long time coming. The in-kind benefits were yet another moribund legacy of the former system. Monetization would give the government flexibility that marketization had longed for: cash payments, unlike their in-kind variant, can be streamlined, more closely monitored in the government books, and slowly whittled down. Nothing indicates this more than the fact that the Kremlin only allocated $6 billion to cover $18 billion in benefits. Moreover, the center has shifted the majority of the pension payment to its provinces. As the law went into effect, two-thirds of Russia’s provinces could not afford to make the cash payments. Some opted out of implementing the law altogether, citing a provision that allowed cash strapped provincial governments to do so.
The unpopularity of the monetization law was well known before January 1, yet the Putin government decided to strip all in-kind benefits in one fail swoop. Some 40 million Russians (out of a population of 144 million) were affected. In St. Petersburg, where 15,000 protested, one out of four residents are pensioners. Interestingly, Moscow residents are exempt from the law. Pensioners in the capital retain full in-kind benefits. Perhaps this “exemption” is the reason why the Putin government is still standing.
The outrage over the law goes beyond the fact that compensation does not cover the costs of lost benefits. For residents of Moscow’s environs, free public transportation allowed many to travel to the capital to earn extra money. The entrances to the Moscow Metro are frequently occupied by old women selling trinkets, fruits, vegetables, nuts, clothing, and prepared salads to earn a few extra rubles. Now with the costs of transportation added to their expenses, whatever is earned is quickly siphoned away. Cash payments only cover about 20 one-way trips a month. To make matters worse a Metro ticket in Moscow was increased from 10 to 13 rubles ($.50) and a bus ticket from 10 to 11 rubles ($.30) on the New Year. Not only has Putin alienated the pensioners, who were a large portion of his political support, the law also strips servicemen of free travel. Reports indicate that the rank and file have been grumbling increasing concern that the soldiers might join the elderly.
Protesting old women plus angry soldiers makes the specter of February 1917, not to mention Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” haunt Russian pundits’ analysis and predictions. The more outlandish experts predict (or perhaps hope for) Putin’s demise before his presidency ends in 2008. Others, especially those tied to the liberal Yabloko Party, hope that this will spur the creation of a much desired “civil society.” While still others issue idle threats such as that from Duma Deputy Andrei Isayev, who promised harsh punishment to “those who seek to carry the orange illness to Russia.”
Such threats have done nothing to deter the elderly and the forces that now support them. There have been reports of the elderly attacking bus and train conductors. An anti-Putin student group called Marching Without Putin (a play on the pro-Putin group Marching Together) has emerged in St. Petersburg to protest not only the abolition of benefits, but also the Chechen War and the government’s plan to eliminate student exemptions from military service. A dozen WWII veterans who participated in the Khimki protest are to be prosecuted. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some pensioners claim the police have used dogs and beat them.
Even Russia’s political opposition of Communists, Nationalists, and Liberals has decided to step into the fray, as they did after the protests took down the Tsar in February 1917. Unfortunately, Marx’s remark that history occurs the “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” rings true in this situation. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s attempt to wrest control of the protests has only injected it with hyperbole that is usually reserved for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov declared on radio station Echo Moskvy: “We demand that this government be sacked, it couldn’t cope with Beslan, it still hasn’t managed to cope with it, and now it has created a quiet social Beslan here, in a country in which citizens are dying by the million, now they are putting this plastic bag over the heads of all the veterans.” The Communists are also collecting support to hold a no confidence vote in the Duma. Not to be outdone, five members of the Motherland Party, who until now supported Putin, have declared a hunger strike. All the opposition parties, who ironically formed an anti-Putin coalition a few weeks ago, are vowing to stage a day of mass protest in February.
Putin has made the typical response: blame subordinates and make compromises to defuse the situation. After coming out of silence last week, he immediately blamed the provincial governments and his lower functionaries for not implementing the law correctly. He also declared an increase in payments from the measly $3.57 scheduled for April, to an equally measly $7.14 now to begin in March. Also pensions would be pegged to inflation two months earlier.
The Putin government has since bended further. Free transportation has been reinstated, though only for those pensioners on the federal list. Although this is a great victory, the central government has stated it will only finance 30% of the costs, once again leaving the provinces in yet another bind. The Kremlin also announced it will fund any pension short fall with oil receipts from the recently nationalized Yukos. The government has also backed away from plans to eliminate student exemptions from military service, fearing that students might join the pensioners. Finally, the Russian Minster of Finance, Aleksei Kudrin, has assured citizens that the benefit payments would be pegged above inflation and all disbursement mistakes would be solved by the end of the month. Regional governments in Liptesk and Omsk, for example, have paid the cash payments and reinstated the majority of benefits. Despite these concessions pensioners persist, knowing full well that what the Russian government says and what it does are always two different things.
Should we be even surprised that the Russian government has made some compromises? Not really. No, because even Stalin compromised. Most historians recognize Stalin’s March 1930 speech “Dizziness with Success” as a retreat from full throttle collectivization. Collectivization remained but not without some permanent compromises: peasants were allowed private plots, domestic livestock, and limited direct access to markets. Viola argues that “babi bunty” played an important role in forcing these compromises. Peasant women didn’t back down from Stalin, so there is no reason to think Russian pensioners would let Putin run roughshod over them. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised by pensioners’ willingness to take to the streets or success in gaining some victories. For all we know, some of these pensioners’ mothers could have been participants in “babi bunty” or maybe they grew up with the folklore that now surrounds them. If not, they survived WWII, and anyone who thinks these people are going to let the State push them around, let alone the Russian police, then you haven’t been to Russia.