The Russian Winter. To history aficionados, the term is the simple explanation for the defeat of autocrats attempting to conquer the Russian people. Napoleon and Hitler saw their vaunted militaries decimated when their invasions of Russia stretched into the brutal season. Now The Russian Winter may frame the reversing fortunes of an internal strongman as Vladimir Putin faces unprecedented challenges following charges of voting fraud in parliamentary elections. No frostbitten armies on the march. No tanks trapped in the frozen mud. This time, the Russian people are taking a stand in the virtual battleground of social media, invoking the Arab Spring and its use of Web 2.0 to inform, organize and protest.
When Russia was the Soviet Union, information was controlled rigorously. The United States spent decades and huge sums trying to penetrate the Iron Curtain with news and opinion through programs such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Western pop culture made a similar assault on the communist blockade, with the documentary “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” asserting that John, Paul, George and Ringo were the vanguard of the Cold War as their music and message countered the Party line. In the 1980s, the policy of glasnost, or “openness,” under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reduced censorship and propaganda. The rest, as they say, is history as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
On the last day of 1999, Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, handed the presidency to Vladimir Putin. During the past decade, there has been a rollback of media freedoms consistent with what critics have called Putin’s reinstatement of Soviet-style autocracy. This control of traditional channels served Putin’s agenda for several years as he promoted “stability” and Russia enjoyed economic growth and an improved standard of living for many of its citizens. More recently, Russians who disapprove of Putin’s regime have used social media to circumvent state-controlled media, just as people did in the Middle East during 2011 uprisings in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Forty percent of Russians are online, according to a Voice of America article. This provides the foundation for social media opposition to Putin following parliamentary elections on December 4 that produced unexpected losses for his United Russia party. There have been widespread accusations of voting fraud to help Putin maintain plurality. YouTube figured heavily in the charges with videos purportedly showing ballot box stuffing and other election irregularities in favor of United Russia.
In the most vivid resemblance of the Arab Spring, Russians have used social media to organize protests. Facebook, Twitter and the homegrown VKontakte have been the announcement systems for live demonstrations. At the same time, Russia’s leaders have not been oblivious to social media, but their Web 2.0 activities have been less than effective.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev used Facebook to criticize protesters, only to have the move backfire when thousands of people responded with negative comments on his page. Earlier, an obscene message insulting protesters had been retweeted from Medvedev’s Twitter account. His office claimed the retweet was a mistake and not perpetrated by Medvedev.
Vladimir Putin is making his own case on Twitter, in the process engaging in a tweet war with U.S. Senator John McCain. Reacting to McCain’s tweeting that the Arab Spring is coming to Russia, Putin declared that McCain has blood on his hands by serving in the Vietnam War and is mentally unbalanced due to his treatment while a POW. In the same tweet stream, Putin denounced the depiction of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s final moments in online video. In short, Putin has acknowledged the barbarity of the Soviet Union’s North Vietnamese allies and appeared sympathetic toward a notorious dictator who was a Soviet client.
It remains to be seen if protests in Russia will have the size and effect of those that marked the end of the Soviet Union. Having sat out the presidency for a constitutionally mandated single term, Putin will run for the office again in March 2012. With social media playing a continuing role, the actions of Putin, pundits and protesters during this Russian winter will determine the nature of the coming spring.
POSTSCRIPT 1: The New York Times reports that the Kremlin’s chief political strategist, Vladislav Y. Surkov, aims to “defuse discontent and undermine the protesters’ leaders.” Surkov’s background is in advertising. At the same time, the leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, warns against placing trust in social networking sites, which have been used to organize protests against the Putin regime.
POSTSCRIPT 2: Vladislav Y. Surkov is reassigned in what observers call a “symbolic sacrifice to the growing ranks of protesters.” The New York Times notes Surkov’s command of traditional media and organizational structures has made him “a lightning rod for a rising generation of Russians raised on the Internet.”