Russia had one of the world’s most famous revolutions nearly a century ago, in 1917. Yet for centuries, the country has seemed to prefer strong leaders who promised stability rather than revolutionary change. On a trip across Russia today on the Trans-Siberian railroad, NPR’s David Greene found many Russians who expressed disappointment with their current government. But most said they wanted changes to be gradual, and were not looking for a major upheaval.
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In 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin carried out his plan to build a reservoir along the Volga River. Thousands of people were ordered to move their homes or face being submerged. One of the towns that faced flooding was Mologa, where some villagers took their homes apart, log by log, piled them on rafts, and moved them to safer locations.
Among the former residents of Mologa was Maria Kuvshinnikova. She was 20 in 1941 and remembers people helping each other dismantle their homes, piling belongings onto rafts, and moving to higher ground.
“When taking the houses apart, they marked each log,” she says. “They had everything on these rafts — utensils, domestic animals, cows.”
Kuvshinnikova is now 91 and lives in a typical Soviet-style apartment building with her daughter in the nearby town of Rybinsk. But she says she still thinks back on what a nice town Mologa had been, and all that she was forced to leave behind.
“I was sorry for Mologa — it was such a nice town with big rivers,” she says.
Then, her eyes well up.
“My mother is still in Mologa. She died in 1934. My father is here, I could go to the cemetery. But there, even if it was long ago, a mother is a mother,” she says.
Nikolai Novotelnov was also forced from his home in Mologa. When he was 16, he and his mother took apart their wooden house and moved it to Rybinsk. Now 86, Novotelnov continues to live in the same house with his wife.
“I still have memories of the churches, the tombstones,” he says about Mologa. “There was just a simple command: Move it all, and start living in a new place.”
While Novotelnov rebuilt his home and his life, his father was in a gulag, serving a six-year sentence for telling a joke about Soviet leaders. He died before being released.
But despite all this tragedy, Novotelnov proudly served his country. He was a truck driver in the Red Army, fighting his way to Berlin in 1945. He still hangs Red Army and Communist Party posters on the walls of his living room.
Today, though, under the current leadership, that pride is faltering.
“The country is divided into rich and poor,” Novotelnov says. “Money has become the most important thing. Nothing good has happened in Russia during Putin’s time in office. I am his opponent.”
Ready For Change
The 86-year-old may not seem like a poster child for change. But if there is a fair election in Russia in March — and that’s a big “if” — Novetelnov’s vote will be counted against Putin.
The anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia last month were some of the biggest in the 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the capital, Moscow, thousands of people marched on the streets, demanding fair elections. Many were younger, educated, middle-class Russians.
They are not representative of the country as a whole — the majority of Russian citizens are older and much less well-off. Nor are many of them ready for wholesale revolution, along the lines of the Arab Spring.
But during our travels across Russia, we heard more and more voices that are ready for change. The village of Sagra is a case in point.
As with so many Russian villages, visiting Sagra is like taking a step back in time. Dilapidated wood houses are set along snow-covered dirt streets. Geese wander around, honking at passing trains. Many residents have outhouses and heat their homes using wood-fired stoves. And, with a population of only about 130, there is no local police force.
Last summer, Sagra residents became caught up in something resembling an inner-city turf battle. A criminal gang was heading to Sagra one night, and residents called the police from another community. Help arrived too late, though, long after the gang did. Villagers, including 56-year-old Viktor Gorodilov, fought the criminals off themselves, swinging pitchforks and firing hunting rifles.
In a twist of justice not uncommon in Russia, the government charged Sagra’s residents with hooliganism. It would have been a familiar story in Russia — the authorities decide who to blame, the courts agree, case closed.
But Gorodilov and others in Sagra found a lawyer, and a local nonprofit, to fight for them. They got their message out on the Internet, insisting they had been neglected by the police and let down by the government. They want something different — but not revolution.
Viktor’s 39-year-old son, Andrei, is a third-year graduate student in economics. He would seem to be the right demographic for joining the protests in Moscow. But, he says, they scare him. He lived through political upheaval in the early 1990s, and he’s not in a hurry to repeat the experience.
“I can see what’s happening in Libya,” he says. “That was our path in 1991 [with the dissolution of the Soviet Union]. The Libyan people will live much worse than they used to live. They had social programs, they got apartments for free. Now this will stop. I already lived through those kinds of changes.”
Andrei wants more from his government, but he’s patient. He was pleased to play a role in defending his father and other villagers against criminal charges.
“I have become an annoyance to our local government,” he explains. “We are each struggling as much as we can, each at our own pace.”
Collapse From Within
That pace is slow, but the momentum is growing. Yekaterina Stepanova is a professor of philosophy and law in Yekaterinburg, the closest city to Sagra. People out in Russia’s far-flung regions, she says, are unlikely to join a large-scale movement to oust a government. But Russia as it’s governed today isn’t sustainable.
Putin will become less popular and less relevant in places like Sagra. And sometime soon, Stepanova says, there will be new leaders who will figure out how to take Russia into the modern day. She calls it a collapse from within. But collapse is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Collapse,” she says, “is what has to come because what we have now is not the history of this new Russia. It’s still the history of the Soviet Union.”
She has a point. Russia, as we know it now, is only 20 years old — a young country with a long history that is hard to shake. But as the younger generation — a generation that has grown up without Soviet influence — comes to power, some kind of change is inevitable.