Putin’s Final Act

MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin’s new presidential term is just beginning, but it increasingly looks like the beginning of the end. Whenever Russia’s people pour into the streets en masse, as they currently are doing, from that point on things never work out well for the authorities.

In 1917, Russian Emperor Nicholas II had to abdicate in the wake of mass street protests, clearing the way for the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1991, the Soviet Union – then seemingly an unbreakable monolith – collapsed in just a few months. Hundreds of thousands went into the streets to confront the hardline coup against Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Now it is Putin’s turn. Moscow boasts Occupy Abai, modeled on the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States (and located on a boulevard next to a statue of Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev, whose work has gone from regional obscurity to one of the top Russian Internet downloads in a month). Other cities are witnessing protests as well, all echoing the same call: Putin must go.

Russians are famously patient and slow to rebel. And who would blame them? If protests have turned out badly for Russian governments over the centuries, they have ended even more disastrously for the protesters. In 1917, liberation from absolute monarchy ushered in an even more despotic form of absolutism. After 1991, Boris Yeltsin’s unruly privatization reduced millions of people to penury, and elevated a corrupt oligarchy into virtual rulership.