Russia’s ‘White Revolution’: why Putin failed and the Russian democrats may follow


By electing to follow an aggressive policy of imperial nationalism, Putin and his inner circle missed the emergence of a serious domestic crisis that threatens the very existence of their regime. These same factors may also, however, subvert the country’s growing pro-democratic protest movement, says Andreas Umland.

Andreas Umland
12 January 2012

It is unclear what the exact outcome of the current upheaval in Russia will be. While change seems inevitable, it does not follow that the growing protests will make Russia more democratic and free.

That said, we can begin to speak about a ‘colour revolution’ of sorts, or at the very least an attempted one. Russia’s ‘White Revolution’ is not a fully-fledged revolutionary upheaval, as neither were the other colour revolutions. But it does follow a typical pattern: mass protests following a falsified election on the one hand; on another, the partial delegitimisation of the incumbent leadership, if not the entire regime. This is a sequence similar to, though not (yet) identical with what we observed in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 – as well as, perhaps, in the Arab world more recently.

Why, then, is the Putin system which looked stable as recently as a year ago currently failing? And what are the risks for the re-emerging democratic movement in Russia?

Putin’s mistakes

I argue that Putin made one major strategic and one crucial tactical mistake. Strategically, Putin’s preeminent failure was that his ‘power vertical’ did not fulfil one of its major purposes: to end or, at least, limit corruption in post-Soviet Russia. Instead, of producing a modernising authoritarianism along the lines of post-war South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, Putin’s rule deepened rather than erased certain pathologies of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society. Above all, it did not reduce the massive bribe-taking/giving that goes on in all spheres of Russian public life. Corruption seems to have become even a problem for the security organs that grew out of the KGB – from where Putin once came.

'Strategically, Putin’s preeminent failure was that his ‘power vertical’ did not fulfil one of its major purposes: to end or, at least, limit corruption in post-Soviet Russia.'

This failure has discredited the rationale of Putin’s social contract: rather than trading political freedom for effective governance, the ‘national leader’ took away Russians’ civil and political rights without delivering what he had promised in return. Neither did he end the collusion between the state and the so-called ‘oligarchs,’ nor did he fight bureaucratic arbitrariness effectively. It is no accident that one of the leaders of the current protest movement, the nationalist Alexei Navalny, initially made a name for himself by blogging about prominent corruption cases in Russia’s elite.

The major tactical blunder of Putin was that he refused to comprehend the reasons and nature of the post-Soviet colour revolutions, above all of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. At the very least, he drew the wrong lessons from them. He should have been alerted by how quickly and easily Kuchma’s semi-authoritarianism was brought down by the citizens of ‘Little Russia’ (as Ukraine is sometimes labeled in ‘Great Russia’).


The right to address the Moscow opposition rally on Dec. 24th was determined by a Facebook vote. Writer Boris Akunin and TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov got significantly more votes than many oposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov.

Undoubtedly, Putin’s huge investment into the 2004 presidential campaign – both financial and political — was behind his obvious misunderstanding of the Orange Revolution as a US-inspired subversion. Clearly, a number of Western and other international organisations - from the US National Endowment for Democracy to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – played a role in discovering and publicising electoral fraud. They also helped ensure the protests that followed were peaceful and effective. But this Western support – largely going to Ukrainian NGOs rather than parties – played, if at all a significant, only a catalysing role. The main problem was the fraudulent election in November 2004, and the purpose of much of the talk about the West’s role at the time was a smokescreen to distract from this. As Yanukovych’s victory and Tymoshenko’s loss (as well as Yushchenko’s humiliation) in the largely fair 2010 presidential elections has shown, the West is neither able nor willing to secure the victory of a pro-Western candidate against the will of a country’s population.   

In time, Russia's neo-Soviet leaders – just like the Soviet ones before – fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda. The falsehoods were widely popularised and creatively elaborated upon by Russia’s numerous conspiracy theorists, political sensationalists and ultra-nationalist publicists. The record that has been left by Russian journalistic and academic analysis has likewise been thoroughly corrupted.

The lesson for the Kremlin should have been to open Russia’s political system, broaden its social base, and soften the authoritarian rule. Instead, Putin ‘modernised’ his autocracy in the opposite direction. In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution in 2005, a whole array of new institutions, organisations, and concepts were introduced in Russia that partly reminded of propaganda instruments of totalitarian regimes. These innovations included various youth organisations such as Nashi [‘Our people’], the Young Guard of United Russia, Eurasian Youth Union, Molodaya Rossiya [‘Young Russia’], or Mestnye [‘The Locals’], and new state TV stations, i.e. the English-language Russia Today, Orthodox Spas [‘Saviour’] or military Zvezda [’The Star] cable channels. The response also included the creation of the so-called ‘Public Chamber’ as a transmission belt between the Russian authoritarian state and semi-autonomous intellectual elite, or the Day of Unity holiday on November 4th – quickly hijacked by Russia’s extreme nationalists and their ‘Russian marches’.

It is remarkable that all of these and some other new initiatives took effect in 2005, i.e. in the year that followed the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Just as significantly, in spring 2005 Putin’s chief behind-the-scenes-schemer Vladislav Surkov introduced the concept of ‘sovereign democracy.’ This misnomer became the ideological centrepiece of the Putin regime’s world view, and purported that Russian political stability is threatened by foreign rather than domestic factors. Much of Putin’s and his collaborators’ post-Orange rhetoric consisted of anti-Western hysteria, imperial megalomania, neo-Soviet conservatism, as well as nationalist jingoism.

The Russian democratic tradition

Not only did Putin and Co. allow themselves to become engrossed in their own propaganda, they also fostered an idea that the idea of democracy is rootless in Russia. In fact, the Russian democratic tradition goes back at least as far as December 1825, when a group of young Russian aristocrats who became known as ‘the Decembrists’ unsuccessfully tried to end Russian autocracy. This democratic tradition was, in the 19th century and early 20th century, continued by the Westernisers (and, partly, even by the Slavophiles), social revolutionaries, social democrats (Mensheviki), as well as constitutional democrats of the declining Tsarist regime. During Soviet rule, the shestidesyatniki [‘Men of the Sixties‘] within the Soviet intellectual elite, the anti-Soviet human rights activists of the 1960s-1970s, and so-called ‘informals’ of the glasnost-induced Soviet civic movement of the late 1980s helped to prepare Russia’s democratisation that began around 1990, as a result of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Most of the older activists of the current protest movement were either themselves members or have been inspired by the ideas, spirit and activities of this earlier generation of late Soviet and early post-Soviet democrats. Symbolically, the 24 December 2011 demonstration took place on a Moscow street named after Andrei Sakharov – Soviet Russia’s most prominent human rights activist who, shortly before his death, played some role in bringing down the communist system.

‘Russia will become a law-ruled democracy once it stops seeing herself as a civilisational centre engaged in a geopolitical struggle beyond her borders. Once the Russians discard the mirages of ‘The Third Rome’ and imperial greatness, they will finally become free.’

While the historical rootedness of the current protests may look encouraging, the actual history of the Russian democratic movement, however, is not. Whether in 1825, 1905-1918 or 1987-1999 – all of Russia’s democratisation attempts have failed miserably. The current re-democratisation drive may become victim to factors similar to those which subverted, for instance, Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s introduction of political pluralism: disunity among the liberals, anti-Western paranoia, and imperial nationalism.

The challenges of Russia’s ‘White Revolution’

First, as in the early 1990s, Russia’s democratic movement may turn out to have too many rather than too few charismatic leaders. A possible strategy of the ancien regime during upcoming elections may be to register several pro-liberal candidates who would split the liberal vote among themselves. As in previous post-Soviet Russian elections, this would ensure that the most serious alternative to the Putin and his ‘United Russia’ party would again become the Communists. Whether this will happen or not, one fears that – as in 1917 or the 1990s – Russia’s democratic movement will again become victim to its disunity, and the personal ambitions of its leaders.

Second, paranoia with regard to the West may also undermine Russian democratisation. Taken with the 1999 air raids against Serbia, NATO’s expansion to the East seriously weakened the hand of pro-Western Russian liberals who themselves turned against the West in considerable numbers during the late 1990s. What was overlooked at the time was that the major driving force for NATO expansion was less American eagerness to include, for example, the three Baltic states into NATO, as it was the pressure these countries exerted on the West to be included. In August 2008, Russia vividly demonstrated in Georgia what the Baltic countries had been so afraid of, and why they had been so insistent to become parts of the Western defence community. Without NATO enlargement, today we might have been witnessing not only a pseudo-state called Republic of South Ossetia, but perhaps also ‘The Free City of Narva.’


‘Domestic enemy: United Russia. Foreign enemy: NATO.’ A poster from the December 24th demonstration on Sakharov Prospekt

Even in 1999, Russian hysteria about NATO’s bombardment of Serbia seemed strange.  After all, the air raids were, to significant degree, carried out by German, French and Italian war planes, i.e. countries with which Russia was trying to build special relationships. The whole episode looks even more bizarre today: Serbia has now for months been knocking loudly at the doors of the European Union, demanding entry, even though several member countries of the Union had been bombing Serbian military targets some 12 years earlier.

Anti-Westernism, in particular anti-Americanism, is still a major current in the Russian collective psyche, especially in intellectual discourse. It was a major source of legitimacy for pre-revolutionary Tsarism (despite Russia then being an ally of France and Britain), Soviet communism, and neo-Soviet Putinism. Official nationalists in the ancien regime and extra-parliamentary ultra-nationalist groups will most probably use fear of a possible Western subversion of Russian identity to attack the liberal movement and question its patriotism. We may soon observe that anti-Westernism becomes the basis for a rapprochement between Russia’s authoritarian state and ‘uncivil society’, i.e. the multitude of semi-political Russian groupings and grouplets that are impregnated with, or only propagate racist, xenophobic, fundamentalist, occultist, differentialist, ethnocentric, and/or similar ideas.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Russia’s imperial temptation could become a major challenge to the new Russian democratisation. A popular saying in Ukraine has been that ‘Russian democracy ends where Ukraine’s independence begins.’ Will Russia’s new revolutionaries resist the imperial temptation, focus on their own country, and let the other post-Soviet nations go? Will democratic leadership manage to prevent ultra-nationalists form hijacking the current protest movement, and from leading the upheaval ad absurdum?

Will Russia become a democracy?

The historical namesakes of Russia’s today would-be revolutionaries, the Decembrists of 1825 as well as the ‘Whites’ of 1918-1922 were unable to discard the imperial paradigm. The historical Whites, for instance, remained mostly staunchly imperial nationalists. During their Civil War against the Bolsheviks, they insisted that Russia should be ‘united and undivided’. By that, the Whites meant that the national minorities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia would not gain independence, but continue to belong to the Russian empire.

During the December 2011 protests, there has been a worrying alliance between Russian democrats and ultra-nationalists. In spite of their dubious reputation, the latter were permitted by meeting organisers not only to take part in the demonstrations, but also to make speeches to the protesters. One wonders how far the democratism of these right-wing extremists goes, and how they would behave in case they were to achieve power. Granted, even radical nationalists such as Vladlen Kralin (a. k. a. Vladimir Tor) and Ilya Lazarenko spoke out in favour of political liberalisation as well as free and fair elections. However, their deeper beliefs and political past suggest that what the ultra-nationalists would prefer instead of Putin’s authoritarianism is not exactly a liberal democracy. Rather, one suspects, that what they have in mind is an illiberal ethnocratic, if not an eventually also autocratic regime to be headed by somebody who is even more nationalistic and anti-Western than Putin. The anti-Putinism of some of the nationalists may certainly be as radical as — or even more profound than — that of the democrats. Yet, it has other sources and is of a different kind than that of the various liberal, conservative, Christian, social and other democrats that the protests brought together. With their provocative nationalistic slogans during the demonstrations, the ultra-nationalists have already significantly discredited the Russian protest movement. (link in Russian)

'Russia’s democratic movement may turn out to have too many rather than too few charismatic leaders. A possible strategy of the ancien regime during upcoming elections may be to register several pro-liberal candidates who would split the liberal vote among themselves.'

Just like Russia’s pre- and post-revolutionary elites, and the Communist apparatchiks of  Brezhnevian Stagnation, Putin’s team has failed. While failure has come about in different ways, the declines of Russia’s authoritarian regimes were fundamentally similar: they all happened against a background of excessive attention to the outside world and an ignorance of problems at home. The Russian White revolutionaries of the early 21st century would be well-advised not to step in the same trap as the Whites of the early 20th century. They should concentrate on Russia’s own internal problems, and raise awareness of them. Russia will become a law-ruled democracy once it stops seeing herself as a civilisational centre engaged in a geopolitical struggle beyond her borders. Once the Russians discard the mirages of ‘The Third Rome’ and imperial greatness, they will finally become free.

This is a revised and updated version of an article originally published in Kyiv newspaper ‘Den’

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