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.” )