A Further Perspective

Russian Thunderclouds

How do you say "tipping point" in Russian?

By 1.14.11

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A series of violent street clashes across Russia in the past few weeks may be mere thunderclouds destined to dissipate, but one leading historian, Anatoly Bernshtein, wonders in print this week whether something more grim is happening to his country. I think he has a point.

"It's like modifications in the weather -- I can feel it," he writes in a recent edition of the newspaper Ezhednevny Zhurnal. "Change is hanging in the air."

Bernshtein cites three major clashes with authorities in the month of December, most prominently the Manezh Square riots of some 5,000 nationalists and religious groups. City center and access roads were blocked off by police as sporadic violence broke out and participants chanted "Russia for the Russians." Similar clashes erupted in St. Petersburg.

Other incidents:

-- In the far eastern city of Vladivostok, the "Primorsky Partisans" have armed themselves and conducted urban guerrilla warfare against the police for the past few months, killing and injuring several officers. A video of their leaders, shirtless in the forest, was a popular Internet download in recent months. Their complaint is police brutality and they have gained quiet support across Russia. Such slogans as "Glory to the Partisans" has appeared on walls across Vladivostok.

-- And an ecological protest group clashed with police after demonstrating in the town of Khimki, near Moscow, to attempt to halt destruction of a historic woodland where a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway is planned. The project was given a final go-ahead in December and a wave of protests led to the arrest of leader Yevgenia Chirikova.

Finally, the recent draconian sentences of oil tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were also cited as prompting concerns of a tighter authoritarianism in the making and an end to President Dmitry Medvedev's reform plans.

Abroad, the implications are clear. Russia's economy is now considered an "extreme risk" by the UK risk-assessment group Maplecroft. Criteria include terrorist threats, the rule of law, and the regulatory and business environment.

Street violence was virtually unknown in Russia prior to the 1990s but occasional riots have erupted as Russians feel their way in the evolving political atmosphere. Conciliatory words but harsh reprisals have been the official responses, leading to fears that another period of oppression is imminent in the long history of Russian freezes and thaws.

Bernshtein addresses this eventuality with speculation that order could be restored by "extraordinary measures." Bernshtein half-apologizes for his "neurotic expectations" but says the "polarization of society is too great" to ignore any longer. Today in Russia, he wrote, some people live a life of luxury, like foreigners, and the only reality is "each man for himself."

Also contributing to the dissatisfaction, he wrote, is the failure of much-advertised Kremlin foreign policy initiatives to bear fruit -- the "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations and the efforts to obtain visa-free travel into the countries of the European Union.

Bernshtein sees the new decade as a turning point, "not only on the calendar but symbolically, ending an era of stable stagnation."

Mr. Johnson was a Moscow correspondent of Associated Press from 1967 to 1971. 

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.