Russia's intellectuals, creative class and Golden Youth – Russia’s modern-day Decembrists - failed to bring about revolutionary political change this weekend in Russia despite an enthusiastic past three months that culminated in some of the greatest shows of political opposition since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago. Embracing tools like Twitter, V Kontakte (the Russian Facebook), YouTube and Live Journal, these young idealists organized massive rallies in the center of Moscow and energized a heretofore politically apathetic middle class.
Yet, Vladimir Putin still emerged with an overwhelming majority of the popular vote on March 4. Is there something to Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial thesis that Twitter is simply not a revolutionary tool, and that social media can not actually topple governments?
Certainly, first-hand accounts of crowds of the big cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg - revealed a young hipster scene that found it as fashionable as politically expedient to demonstrate against Putin’s government. “Are you going to Bolotnaya?” became as common in some circles as asking, “Are you going to the new art gallery opening?” These Twitter revolutionaries sang along to the song “Peremen" ("Change") by Russian rock legend Victor Tsoi, they blogged about their ideas in full view of the authorities, and they fully embraced their new-found freedom to do things like make satirical YouTube videos of the Russian government - but could they actually bring about revolution?
In the end, Putin's "vertical of power" was simply too powerful, the nation’s expanse was just too vast (stretching across nine time zones) and the system was simply too rigged for any type of immediate political change. In the end, the only Russian political candidate who could have been seen to represent the interests of the Russian street – Mikhail Prokhorov – turned out to be a billionaire Russian oligarch who, one suspects, would rather hang out with his partner Jay-Z (co-owner of the New Jesey Nets) than spend any significant time changing the Russian political system.
While Putin still grabbed a majority of the votes, these brave young Twitter, Facebook and YouTube revolutionaries forced the Putin regime to take them seriously. They mounted the biggest protests seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and when viewed in the context of the Arab Spring and the Orange Revolution closer to home in Ukraine, loomed as a very threat to the legitimacy of the Putin regime. For the first time ever, the Russian government needed to take the Russian Internet seriously. In Soviet times, the government simply shut down media by taking over state-run TV and broadcasting Swan Lake. That's no longer possible - or desirable.The bloggers, the Twitter users, the YouTube videographers – suddenly, the Russian government was faced with a force that it had never encountered before.
In one symbolic win, the protesters forced the hand of the Putin government, compelling it to install a Web-based election cam system across the entire country, at a projected cost of nearly half-a-billion dollars. This ensured that objective poll watchers could watch for instances of ballot stuffing in real-time from the safety of their laptops at home. This was unprecedented on a national basis, and could be traced directly to the allegations of vote-rigging in the Russian parliamentary elections in December. The lesson was clear – the Russian people needed to see that no electoral fraud was taking place.
Russia's Twitter Revolution has lessons for the current Occupy movement in the United States, which similarly excited the nation’s youth and brought national attention to the fact that the system is terribly rigged for the powers-that-be. Similar to their Russian compatriots, the Occupy crowd learned that, by occupying physical space, they could speak with a common voice. By doing so, they forced the establishment to listen, to take heed, and adopt some of the language of the Occupy movement. And, vice versa. There is now talk of constructing an Occupy-style encampment in the center of Moscow. In Russia, where national tragedy seems to lurk behind every major historical event, one only hopes that things do not turn out as badly as for these modern-day Decembrists as the original Decembrists.
image: Protest "Big White Circle" in Moscow/ Shutterstock