In February 1917 bread riots, led by women, many of them elderly, broke out in the center of St. Petersburg. The protests quickly led to the sudden collapse of the czarist regime and eventually, later that year, to the Bolshevik Revolution.
In January 2005 few Russians anticipate actual revolution–or even a change in Kremlin leadership. But in one of the most significant developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railroad tracks to protest unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country, protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. What makes these protests potentially more powerful than those of 1998 is that so many Russian families have a pensioner–often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren. And adding poignancy to these developments, many are World War II veterans, whom Putin had promised less than a month before to honor during this sixtieth anniversary year of the Soviet victory.
The source of the pensioners’ anger is a law that came into force on January 1 replacing longstanding social benefits–free public transportation and healthcare as well as heavily subsidized medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services–with inadequate monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable, Russia’s 34 million pensioners, veterans and disabled people. The spreading protests, 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 and even to Putin’s hometown, the still-iconic capital of 1917, St. Petersburg. On January 10 pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow’s city center to one of its main international airports; the Russki Kurier newspaper reported that “the angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces.” By that weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets of St. Petersburg. In a sign of the pensioners’ radicalization, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored; at the St. Petersburg march, protesters shouted “Shame!” “Power to the People!” and “Putin–resign!” Similar protests have erupted in scores of towns and cities, and at most of them people have massed in the main square calling for Putin’s resignation.
So far the security forces have barely intervened, and–ominous for the government–there are reports that in several towns local military and police joined the protesters. There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhny Novgorod two pensioners beat up a female trolley conductor, and according to Channel 3 TV, dozens of trolley conductors across the country have been assaulted. Perhaps because these protests are hard to hide, Russia’s normally tightly controlled 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, the pensioners’ protests ignite a general strike. Yet that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as December, 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 Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, fiery nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as “pre-revolutionary,” and he has called for Putin’s removal.
It’s clear that the deepening political and economic crisis threatens Putin’s Teflonlike popularity. In one poll taken a few days into the protests, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. Another showed that trust in his leadership has plummeted. “Putin may have been adept at liquidating his political opposition as well as the institutions that limit his presidency’s power,” a Russian commentator observed, “but he forgot about Russia’s people.”
The central question now is, Will pensioners be joined by other (including younger) discontented segments of Russian society–unpaid schoolteachers, miners, soldiers, doctors and university students, whose already meager stipends are also being cut? In the past few years teachers and doctors have staged small-scale strikes over unpaid or miserly wages, and nearly destitute officers and soldiers are also grumbling about new cuts in their medical and housing benefits.
On January 17 the Kremlin broke its panicky silence: Putin promised a moderate increase in pensions and blamed federal and regional officials for poor implementation of the changes. But the government’s token concessions have done little to assuage pensioners or defuse the protests. A leading parliamentary deputy has predicted, “The demonstrations will reach their peak in February, when people will have to pay their utility bills for the first time.”
Another February revolution? Unlikely. But for now, the elderly of Russia are showing that they’ve had it with a government that treats them without the dignity they’ve earned. Babushkas of Russia–Unite!