As sanctions continue to restrict Russia’s economy, the future of the country and its despotic President, Vladimir Putin, remains uncertain. Reports of dissent among the oligarchs have spurred speculation over a possible ousting to oust him from power, but Putin’s iron grip on his position and the fear he instigates have tempered any prospect of a coup.
Yet history has shown that political change is often organic, and the possibility of such transformation is not inconceivable. Russia experienced an abortive revolution in 1905 and another successful one in 1917. Given these facts, the vicissitudes of turmoil cannot be discounted as a factor in the establishment of a new leadership.
There are similarities between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the current situation.
The 1917 uprising was spurred in part by the country’s disastrous participation in World War I, as well as food shortages and the discontent of an impoverished population. He ended the oppressive and ineffective rule of Tsar Nicholas II and supported a new Bolshevik government in his place. The Tsar’s narcissism and apparent indifference to the suffering of his people endeared him to the Russian population, and his military blunders, during which many of his soldiers were sent to the front unarmed so that they can recover those left by fallen comrades, accentuated his bad reputation.
The Bolsheviks eventually executed Nicholas II and his family.
Like the unfortunate tsar, Putin is currently engaged in a war that has claimed many casualties among its soldiers. Poor strategies and logistics led to the destruction of hundreds of vehicles and equipment, including tanks, helicopters and planes. Meanwhile, reports of outdated and substandard protective equipment being issued to Russian soldiers have shed light on the lack of preparedness and quality of its army. The recruitment of inexperienced conscripts further underscores Putin’s desperate attempts to improve his capabilities.
With such problems, morale plummeted, as before the 1917 revolution. The economic repercussions of Russia’s war on Ukraine, illustrated by the sanctions-induced unavailability of goods and services across the contribute to feelings of discontent. Videos of Russian shoppers fighting over packets of sugar in stores have appeared on social media, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg. Combine these and other concerns, and Putin has a recipe for revolt in the making.
One element that may be missing, however, is a charismatic alternate leader. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but the current political climate lacks a personality who could replicate Lenin’s impact. Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny is a candidate for the role, but his power may be limited as he is currently incarcerated. Moreover, any revolution would need the support of the army, and the Russian general staff does not seem to stray far from Putin’s camp. Although many Russians apparently do not support the invasion of Ukraine, there is no unity reinforced by a specific political ideology (eg Bolshevism) linking would-be revolutionaries. With this in mind, connecting people in hopes of generating a cohesive and comprehensive uprising could be a difficult task.
Still, the “Navalny effect” could be a catalyst for social and political rumbles as efforts to spread his story to the world take hold. The American cable network CNN will premiere on Sunday a documentary it produced entitled Navalny this should make more awareness of its importance to viewers in the United States. Social media is also full of content highlighting Navalny’s courage, which can be an important ingredient in the development of any insurgency.
The likelihood that a confluence of all these elements will lead to Putin’s exit remains slim. That said, history is saturated with slim chances that have led to new, better realities. The Russians have already faced tyrannical governments. It is not excluded that they can start again.
They just need to remember something from the past to help get them on the right track.