Wednesday, March 02, 2011


I’ve been reading Alexander Kerensky’s memoirs most recently, and two Bruce Lincoln books before that. I’m impressed with some parallels between Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Arab unrest today. I say “unrest” because, as is clear in that Russian history, revolutions take some time to make.

Kerensky was a member of the Russian Provisional Government between the Tsar’s abdication and the Bolshevik takeover. He was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, less radical than the Bolsheviks of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. Obviously tries to make himself look as good as possible and others (like the Bolsheviks) look bad. The book was published in 1965 in the United States. As correctives, I’m also reading the first few chapters of How the Soviet Union is Governed, by Jerry F. Hough and Merle Fainsod, and parts of Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie.

I’ll probably do this in more than one post.

I’ll start with the obliviousness of autocrats and the mobilization of the people.

An autocrat rules by himself (and it’s usually himself) and possesses unlimited power. He may take on advisors, but he is the one and only ruler. The analogy to God is always tempting, and many autocrats are referred to parentally. The tsar was the “little father,” whose power was believed to come from God. That kind of power makes it likely that the people surrounding the autocrat, and nominally advising him, will bring only good news. The autocrat may reinforce this tendency by eliminating those who do otherwise. There is no constitution to serve as a contract between the autocrat and the people; laws may exist, but the autocrat’s power supersedes them.

The autocrat lives very comfortably and has no contact with the people. The Tsar had a number of palaces, including a very nice estate, Tsarskoye Selo, and palaces in St. Petersburg, then the capital of Russia.

Absolute rule by a single leader results in poor economic development. This, in turn, results in desperate living conditions for most people. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russia lagged behind Europe in development, as the Arab world lags much of the rest of the world today. Corruption is likely. The controls deemed necessary by the autocrat to maintaining his power, include limitations on free speech and assembly, harsh policing, and highly controlled or nonexistent elections, making life difficult and unpleasant. When and how the privations and indignities add up to movement by the people seems inherently unpredictable. The balance is different in every situation.

In Russia, discontent with the autocracy surfaced throughout the nineteenth century, from the Decembrists’ uprising in 1825 through the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 to the continuing activities of the anarchists and others. In 1905, after the loss in the war with Japan, a group of about 120,000 people peacefully marched toward the Tsar’s palace (photo at the top; link has many more photos and a short history), intending to demand better working conditions, “a constituent assembly, universal suffrage, universal education, separation of church and state, amnesty for all political prisoners, an income tax, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour day.” [Nicholas and Alexandra] Troops were deployed, and they fired on the people, killing ninety-two and injuring several hundred.

The autocrat may respond by conceding to some of the demonstrators’ demands or with violence intended to end the demonstrations and restore his repressive order. The Tsar responded to the tragedy by making concessions: forming the Duma, an assembly with severely limited powers, and promising “freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, and association.” The Tsar dissolved Dumas and reformed them over the next several years. Limited reforms in 1906 gave peasants the opportunity to buy land. The promise of various freedoms was not completely fulfilled, leading to discontent, the Tsar’s forced abdication in 1917, and another revolution, about which more in later posts.

In Russia, there were eighty years of unhappiness with the autocracy between the Decembrists’ uprising and the 1905 march. Someone has recently pointed out (I think it may be Timur Kuran, but I can’t find the link) that the immediate process of mobilization of the people depends on multiple individual decisions, as people see others willing to risk themselves and decide that their balance favors action.

The grievances have piled up in the Arab world, over centuries. We can consider the slowly decaying Ottoman Empire or the military takeovers of the twentieth century. Turkey managed to mount a successful revolution in the 1920s and a transition to democracy, but it is an exception. Colonialism complicated matters in many Arab countries, as did the formation of Israel in 1948 and the Cold War rivalry for influence in the area between the United States and Russia. There have been abortive uprisings, but this year is the first time that uprisings have become so general.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the autocrats have been removed, but the revolutions are far from over. More about that in later posts. Both autocrats attempted to placate the people and failed. Hosni Mubarak’s three speeches, told the people how much they needed him and that chaos would follow. He made Omar Suleiman his vice-president and presumed successor, the first such. Mubarak’s short-lived use of thugs against the demonstrators and property was similar to the Tsar’s use of troops in 1905, as were the results: the people see their good-faith requests for change met with violence. This causes a reconsideration of their relationship with the autocrat; enough such encounters eventually convince the people that the autocrat must go.

In Libya, Muhammar Gadhafi refers to himself as the father of his people. Gadhafi feels that he is indispensable to maintaining peace among the tribes, and that the people love him.

Gadhafi has chosen to use violence to maintain his power. This can quash the current uprising, although an opposition will remain whose objective is to remove him from power, and they will use any means available.

Other Arab countries are responding to demonstrations with various concessions. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is offering his subjects money to pacify them, as the Tsar offered the Duma and reforms. This opinion piece lists what the monarch is missing in the people’s demands, the same denial the other autocrats have been guilty of. Algeria has lifted its 19-year state of emergency. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has offered to form a national unity government with the demonstrators, but they have rejected his offer.

It appears that social media have done three things to give the people more power: 1) provide a way for people to organize with less scrutiny from those in power, encouragement that there are others who share goals, and 3) improve communications while the campaign to remove the autocrat is in progress, thereby speeding up the process. It was twelve years from the revolution of 1905 to the Tsar’s abdication in 1917, and only a few days from Mubarak’s appointment of Suleiman as vice-president to his departure for Sharm al-Shaikh.

Autocrats isolate themselves, which makes them unresponsive and oppresses the people, who then protest. The protest may be met with concessions or violence; the latter quickly leads to either repression of the protest or determination on the part of the people to remove the autocrat. More about concessions, the removal of the autocrat, and the transition later.


troutsky said...

What, if any, links do you see between foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and the uprisings?

Cheryl Rofer said...

Not many.

The one I can think of just now is the request from some involved in the uprisings that the United States NOT intervene, because that would tend to discredit the uprisings.

But that comes from a broader background than just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States hasn't had a lot of credibility in the Arab world for some time.

I'll keep your question in mind as I continue with this series.