Olga Maltseva/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
There is a word in Russian that has no equivalent in the English language: terpeniye (терпение). Something between patience and grit, terpeniye is the endurance of daily, mundane misfortunes, annoying relatives or a faltering career. It’s also the bearing of suffering from melancholy, poverty or true hardship. It is the beating heart of what Sarah Ashwin called “Russians’ endless patience.” As George Friedman said, the “Russians’ strength is that they can endure things that would break other nations.”
And it was this endless patience that was tested on March 26, 2017. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation investigated Dmitry Medvedev, chairman of the government of the Russian Federation and the United Russia party (and former president). What they uncovered was mass corruption and a personal laundered wealth accumulating in millions of U.S. dollars, manifesting itself in the form of yachts, foreign capital and exclusive Russian country houses.
Russians are no strangers to the blatant corruption of their leaders: there was a muted reaction when the Panama Paper leaks hinted at Putin’s hidden wealth. In fact, many Russians met such proof of their leader’s corruption with bemusement.
So it’s unclear what made the Medvedev investigation, nicknamed “Don’t call him Dimon,” the final straw. Perhaps it is because Medvedev is seen as the leader of domestic policy, something of immediate concern to Russians given the country’s economic decline and worsening living standards. But whatever it was, it led to mass protests against Medvedev, Putin and the “corrupt and thieving” leadership across Russia, the likes of which have not been seen since the 2011-2012 mass protests (which themselves were unprecedented since 1991).
No doubt there is Western hope that this rare spate of mass protests signals the end of Russia’s love affair with Putin. Within days, the Western media labelled the 2011-2012 protests the “Snow Revolution,” just one in a line of uprisings around the world named after colors and flowers (the Cedar, Orange, Rose and Tulip Revolutions for example). After this Sunday, Forbes was already asking if Russia was on the brink of a new Bolshevik Revolution (perhaps the 1917 revolution’s centenary this year was too good a journalistic quip to miss). But already there is an emerging granularity in the discussion on the protests. Russia pundits on social media are debating whether the protests were really about Putin himself, or about the widespread corruption of the ruling elite, embodied by Medvedev.
While the West may have a romantic fascination with democratic upheavals, Russians do not. The Russians’ fear of chaos and destabilization during “democratization”—so prominent in living memory of the “Wild 90’s”—was arguably the reason for Putin’s election in the first place. And in this lies the dual side of the protest coin: Russian civil society is notoriously weak. Russians do not organize protests, are difficult to mobilize and don’t tend to join civil movements. For Russians to come out to the streets and protest against the regime like they did on March 26 betrays an overwhelming frustration with the Russian leadership and state. If the Russians are protesting, something must be very wrong.
The dangers are yet to come. Russians are not well equipped to push through social change. Navalny is the only real opposition leader, and he is not allowed to run in the presidential election of 2018. There is no ballot box through which to demand alternatives. In the following weeks, with 11 months until the presidential election, the Kremlin will plan its strategy meticulously. Expect social media clamp downs, media blackouts and the discrediting of any political dissidents. Equally, in the panic that social scarcity and political disenfranchisement brings, outright rebellion becomes a viable option. With the 2011-2012 protests and those that occurred this past Sunday, the Russians have expanded their political alternatives. The protests were a form of “imagination watershed” that showed the true possibility of a different life.
There is another phrase in Russian—terpeniye lopnulo (терпение лопнуло)—used when the patient, suffering-bearing terpeniye has burst. As Dmitri Trenin argues, “Russian people do not change their leaders every four to six years through the ballot box, but they bring down the entire state…on average every fifty years.” It’s not clear whether the Russian state is in danger yet. But what is clear is that Russians’ patience is wearing dangerously thin.