In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.

In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution–or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country–protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner–often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)

The source of the pensioners’ anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits–free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services–with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia–the country’s 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)

The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia’s Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they’ve brought vital transport arteries to a halt.

Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow’s city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, “The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces.” This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, “Putin–resign!” they also called for the regional governor’s resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, “Down With Putin.”

In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government’s hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year’s greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans–the very ones his “reforms” will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, ” The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age.” )

There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow’s center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.

The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin’s regime–unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that “the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime.”

On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about “the despair syndrome,” suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as “pre-revolutionary.” Writing in Zavtra (“Tomorrow”) , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin’s head will be “cut off,” and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including “the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole.”

While Russia’s newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin’s personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin’s leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public’s mood about the country’s direction.

The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters–students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners’ general strike? Will demands escalate–as they already seem to be–and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin’s reaction? It’s already clear that the regime–from the parliament to the ministries–is in a panic.

For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.

Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus–or what is called the “stabilization fund”–of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year’s presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn’t be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia’s economy.)

What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, “The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time.”

Babushkas of Russia–Unite!