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Russia's Liberals Are Watching Ukraine's Revolution Very Closely—And So Is Putin

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Kiev has been exploding over the last few days. Hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets over the weekend—both in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine—to protest President Viktor Yanukovich's last-minute decision to scuttle the signing of a vaguely worded agreement that would have begun to pull Ukraine into the European orbit—and out of Russia's. The police can't clear the streets. The protesters have taken over city hall, as well as some other buildings, and forced a high-level resignation over police brutality. They've also caused a split in Yanukovich's Regions party and forced him to retreat back to the Europeans' negotiating table. (Given that the protesters are now calling for his ouster, well, it's a small price to pay.)

There are some legitimate questions about whether the move toward Europe is a wise one for Ukraine. They encompass everything from the country's own economic health, to the wisdom of alienating Russia, a neighbor that is both so vindictive and so close, and to whether the Ukrainians overestimate what they'll get out of this pact.

But tune in to the reaction in Moscow and you won't hear much about that. What you'll hear is Moscow talking mostly about...itself.

Two years ago this week, falsified parliamentary elections brought thousands out into Moscow's streets. But, after a euphoric winter and spring, the protests collapsed, having forced no real concessions from the Kremlin. Putin remained in power, the system remained in place, and both went after the opposition with renewed viciousness and vigor. Moscow's revolution is dead.

Now, liberal Muscovites are watching the events in Kiev with rapt and joyous attention—but also a hint of jealousy. Here is another Slavic nation burdened with the cross of Soviet history, bucking their goon of a leader—and Putin, too—and falling into Europe's civilized embrace. Kievans went into the streets in numbers far greater than Muscovites summoned even at the peak of their failed revolution. When the police came, unlike the Muscovites, they didn't leave. They swung chains and threw Molotov cocktails and built barricades in the streets. They took over municipal buildings. They nearly toppled the city's main statue of Lenin. They sang the national anthem and chanted "Revolution!"

They did all the things, in other words, that the Muscovites did not do.

The Russian social networks are full of vicarious living these days. "Jealous," wrote one Moscow editor on noting that some estimates put the crowd in Kiev at one million—"not 40,000 or even 100,000" like in Moscow two years ago. One Moscow journalist departing for Kiev wrote "for our freedom and yours" on his Facebook wall, quoting a slogan oft heard in the Moscow protests. Others debated in excruciating—and excruciatingly long—Facebook posts why Kievans were successful where the Muscovites failed.

"How many national flags have you seen hung from the windows of Russian buildings and cars?" spat one Russian journalist in response to the question on everyone's lips: "Why not us?" "How many Russian flags have you seen in the hands of the youth and all kinds of other people? We're more likely to draw a cock on a fence than the tricolor on our cheek."

Though many Muscovites made the argument that it was the Russian "mindset" that hobbled its quest to fell Putin, I would argue that there are far more answers to the question of why not Moscow.

  • Russia is a police state; Ukraine is...not quite. According to Bloomberg, Russia is the most heavily policed country in the world, Ukraine is 12th on the list. (The U.S. is 32nd.) Moreover, the security services have much more political power in Russia than they do in Ukraine. This is in part why, when a cry went up about police brutality, the Kiev police chief resigned (though his resignation wasn't accepted). When this happened in Moscow, in May 2012, injured policemen were rewarded for their suffering with apartments and the unarmed protesters who attacked them were arrested and hauled to trial. 
  • Ukraine has a real, if often raucous, poorly functioning, political system; Russia does not. While both countries technically have a multi-party system, only in Ukraine do the parties have an adversarial and competitive relationship with one another. The discontent in the streets, in other words, has somewhere to go, and something more organized and powerful with which to ally itself. In Kiev, there are reports of protesters aligning themselves with existing parties who are already in opposition to Yanukovich and have the money and the national organization to be effective. In Moscow, except for three or four parliamentarians who came out to protest (one of whom turned out to be a Kremlin plant), the extant political system remained closed to the protesters. Not coincidentally, the protests didn't go much farther than the streets. 
  • The phrase "opposition leaders" is all over reports from Kiev. It was totally absent in Moscow. In Kiev, there's heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, there's nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok, and others. They are front and center in the protests, organizing people around them and helping direct the protests. In Moscow, until far too late, there was no one. And then it was just Alexey Navalny, pulling everyone on his back. 
  • The economic elite in Ukraine fight each other to install their politician in power; in Russia, they serve—and fearone leader. Call it a competitive oligarchy, but Ukrainian oligarchs fight for power—against Yanukovich or for him; they line up behind this or that party. In Russia, oligarchs still keep their wealth at Putin's pleasure and do his bidding—like building national projects like the Olympics or fake-running for president. They fight with one another for economic gain and influence, but Putin is the arbiter, rather than a player. He is above the fray and they need him. The fact that they still feel too threatened to throw their weight behind any opposition group makes the Moscow street's a steeply uphill battle.
  • This isn't Ukraine's first time. Yanukovich, the man the people in the streets are fighting, is the one they came out to fight in 2004-2005, in what came to be known the Orange Revolution. Those protests, in which Ukrainians camped out in the streets in the rain and the snow until they got fair elections that overturned Yanukovich's falsified victory, were seminal. They altered the Ukrainian political order and ushered in an era of more competitive politics, which, in turn, set the conditions aiding the people in the streets of Kiev today. When Muscovites came out into the streets two years ago, it was their first time. Their discoveries—that they were many, that they were not alone, that political change comes through slow, meticulous deeds like election monitoring—were too basic and fluffy to topple Putin's regime. This is probably for the best. The last time the top fell, in 1991, the rest of the system—and the mentality—stayed the same, and it gave Russia today's Putin. Maybe in ten years, Moscow will be ready to storm city hall, too.

But here's a major problem my Moscow friends face: Much of the stringency and verticality of the Russian political system is a direct result of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Terrified that they too might be toppled by a crowd with some tents, Putin and his advisors really stepped up their campaign of coopting and buying the political opposition, destroying civil society, and wiping the political playing field clean of real, competitive alternative. Putin and his advisor Vladislav Surkov also cooked up the term "sovereign democracy"—the truncated, managed type that Russia ostensibly needed as training wheels—and created Nashi, the vicious pro-Kremlin youth group.

The reason the middle class Russians were so surprised to learn they were not alone in 2011, the reason they had been so atomized and isolated from one another, in other words, has a lot to do with the revolution in Kiev in 2004.

Both Nashi and sovereign democracy are now, blessedly, largely a thing of the past. But the Putin administration is already busily tightening the screws after the fright it received with the Moscow protests two years ago. What will it do now that the revolution has come to Ukraine again? Perhaps the jealousy in Moscow is just the right emotion: Revolution in Kiev tends to make revolution in Moscow that much more difficult.