Historian Mark Steinberg Explains Why Russians Protest: from Kievan Rus to Vladimir Putin

A history professor at the University of Illinois and author of many books about Russia (including The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921) speaks with ReForum on why a revolution can never succeed or fail, but what it can reveal about a society.

ReForum: In your series of lectures you begin with defining what time period you will talk about and why this period precisely. If we are talking about the history of Russian protest, where should we begin? Do we take into account even Kievan Rus, or do we just start with 1991?

Steinberg: Where and when is Russia is actually a very complex question. There is Rus, and there is a Rossiya, and the Rossiiskaia Federatsiia, and Rossiiskaia Imperiia… Not to mention Sovetskii Soiuz!The very fact that the name of the country has been in a perpetual flux is already a sign of what an interesting place Russia is.

The creation of a place that uses the name Russia was gradual, but from the very first moment, it was a place of intersections of multiple peoples, a multinational, multi-ethnic space. That is true from the arrival of the Varangians – who, after all, as the myth goes, were called to “come and unite” different peoples, different tribes of Slavs, and of Finno-Ugrians. That is a leitmotif of Russian history: we have always been divided, we can’t agree – we need some assistance, some unity. Otherwise, we will be defeated by others, whether it’s Mongols or Pechenegs, or you know, Germans or Americans. 

It’s also the history of politics because from the Varangians to Putin there have been efforts to say “What holds us together? Is it our religion? Is it our ethnicity? Is it our attempt to create a nation?” And usually attempts to impose nationality, some narrow definition of it, fail – because Russia is too complex and diverse for that.

To me Russia is this multi-ethnic, multinational space. Even the boundaries have never been stable. Even now: What’s Crimea? Where does eastern Ukraine belong? Russia is an unstable place and that’s what makes life complicated and rich and historical.

Then there’s the question of protest within that space and this depends on what one defines as a protest. When Vladimir insisted everybody became Christianized (which was a very important step toward creating a type of almost modern nation – we have to be united around something and it isn’t enough that the elite has converted to Orthodoxy, we need the people), there were huge numbers of people who said “Why? I don’t need Christianity! I have religion already. I have a chance and I have herbs and I have many gods”. Of course, gradually, ordinary Russian peasants, farmers, fishermen, hunters said “Well, whatever”, but the extent of Christianization of Russia has always been partial.

And so one might say the history of protest, not organized protests in the sense of people marching with demands, but often those everyday forms of protest where people deviate from what they are told is the norm because they disagree with it, begins with the very creation of Russia. There’s always been some form of protest and that was true under Vladimir, and when the Varangians showed up, and it’s true under Putin and it’ll be true under his successor. Resistance begins from the very first moment anybody tells anybody what to do, even if it’s by just paying no attention to what the state wants. 

ReForum: So putting together your own transmitter and listening to The Beatles in the Soviet Union would be a form of resistance and protest as well? 

Steinberg: Absolutely. At the very least one could call it a refusal to conform when the rules have been laid out for you. Not usually in a risky way. 

If you went to Soviet Moscow and stood in front of the Pushkin Monument with a sign – you were going to get arrested. Everybody knew that. But if you listened to The Beatles or bought some jeans to wear, or hung out at some club with an atmosphere of freedom and deviance – that safe way is absolutely a form of at least nonconformity, but I would say it’s part of the long history of resistance and protest.

ReForum: What would you highlight as the most important protests and insurrections in Russian history?

Steinberg: This is a quick and short list – there are many more of various sizes that I consider revealing about the dynamics of Russian history.

The Bolotnikov uprising against serfdom during the Time of Troubles. It was a much wider uprising than the name of the leader, who was a former slave, a kholop.

Stepan Razin later in the 17th century. This was a movement started by Cossacks (worth noting, for they were not always defenders of the status quo) but a great many other groups joined. The goal was simple: the common man should be free of the authority of the rich and of the state.

The even larger Pugachev rebellion under Catherine the Great – which finally made the government begin to address serfdom as a serious problem. The Pugachev rebellion was perhaps the most important popular rebellion in Russia before 1905, including in its impact.

The Decembrist Uprising in 1825 was relatively small compared to previous uprisings. But it was important, because it was the first real insurrection by elites, though the liberal ideas the advocated had been emerging for some time.

There was a new wave of serf protests (localized) in the years leading to emancipation – a danger to the social order that was one of the reasons the government abolished serfdom.

Of course, the 1905-06 Revolution: when almost every class came together to demand “freedom”, civil rights, and a democratic government. This was a very important event, though it has fallen in the shadows of 1917. It was much more than “a dress rehearsal for 1917”, as Lenin dismissively put it (but Lenin often annoys me!). The 1905 Revolution had a complex history and many possibilities, albeit mostly unrealized due to the state’s conservatism and the liberals’ fear of the masses. That was one of the big and harmful lasting effects of 1905, liberals fearing the masses. That revolution was the biggest statement yet, by huge numbers of Russians, that, as it was often said “we can’t live like this any longer” (“так больше жить нельзя!”)

The February Revolution in 1917, where everyone from liberals to socialists, professionals to peasants, agreed that Russia needed “freedom”, though there was little agreement across classes about what that meant. Of course, WWI was part of the context for this revolution. But the main reason was frustration and disappointment that the changes following from 1905 (the Duma and limited freedoms and rights) did not really change people’s lives for the better.

The October Revolution, which was driven by widespread demands for “Soviet Power”, meant different things to different people. But for most people, even for radicalized urban workers, this did not mean Bolshevik party power. The Bolsheviks were supported because they supported this demand. The soviets represented a radical vision of people’s power, from below.

At the end of the Civil War, when it was clear that the White armies were no longer going to win, there were huge uprisings among peasants; the Kronstadt rebellion by sailors and workers who had been “the pride and glory of the Russian revolution” (as Trotsky called them) but now demanded an end to one-party rule (which they criticized as “commissarocracy”); workers’ strikes against Bolshevik authoritarianism; and dissident factions within the ruling party, such as the Workers’ Opposition. Again, we see a commitment to “freedom” and people’s power.

Finally, August 1991. I arrived in Moscow for 4months of research in January 1992. What a time! I felt that so much of the history of Russia I had studied (and experienced when studying in Moscow and Leningrad in the 1980s) was part of this story, this new historical turning point. And yet, these were very difficult times for everyone.

ReForum: Very curiously my perception of historically important protests of Russia was different. Would you say that there is a difference in perception of the history of Russian protests as seen from within Russia and as seen from outside of Russia?

Steinberg: I have friends in Russia who are professional historians who write about the Russian Revolution and are deep in the archive. They and I tend to agree – as much as any historian will ever agree on anything. Historians argue about interpreting questions of protest and history: some believe the state matters more, others that the people matter more. Some people think that the outcomes of certain events were more likely than other people. But these are professional arguments, and fundamentally historians approach history in a very similar way.

Among my non-historian friends, the thing that I find really striking is the sense of hopelessness in looking at every form of revolution, any form of protest other than deviance. Like, “Yes, I’ll stay home with my friends and we’ll listen to The Beatles we’ll talk about music. We’ll talk about ideas that give us a sense of” – as one of my friends put it – “we can live as if we’re free”. Even though we are not free, we can live in these sorts of little liberating cells. This was true in Soviet life and it’s often true now. 

Most of my friends are from an older generation, I think my youngest friend is about 45. These are people for whom the Soviet experience was formative, and I would say that almost without exception the idea that protest will do any good is very low and so they say, “look at our history!!!” I could tell them, well, let’s talk about the Decembrists. Let’s talk about the 1905 Revolution. Let’s talk about Belinsky and Herzen and let’s talk about February 1917. Let’s talk about Kronstadt. You know, let’s talk about the rich history of democratic humanistic protest in Russia. And they say, “Yeah, but it always fails, it always fails! Why bother? We are doomed to this sort of life”.

And when I talk to them of Petr Chaadaev, who at one point in his despair about the situation in Russia said “Russia is nothing but a lesson to humanity what to avoid”, many of my Russian friends – not professional historians, – say “Exactly. The only thing Russia is good for is showing you how bad things can get”. 

I personally disagree with this point of view. I believe in the value of human protest against the odds of success because that’s one of the richest things about humanity. For me, it’s much easier to go back to 1905, or 1917 and say: “Look at the positive things people were trying to create! Look at the human impulse to transform the world into a humanistic, free, just direction!” Don’t let outcomes – I sometimes call them “the tyranny of outcomes” – dictate to us how we interpret history. Just because it turns out badly doesn’t mean it had to! I’m much more optimistic, I’m much more willing to embrace the positive side of even revolutions than most of my non-academic Russian friends, and even many of my academic friends.

It’s one of the ironies… If you asked Lenin he would have said, “this was a revolutionary state and a revolutionary society”. And yet one of the effects of Soviet political culture was to make people anti-revolutionary, deeply anti-revolutionary.

ReForum: What makes people protest?

Steinberg: It’s a complicated question, but one of the answers is people usually protestwhen there’s hope.People don’t go onto the streets when it’s hopeless.

ReForum: When we were preparing for the interview, you said “No protest is a complete failure and no protest is a complete success”. But what tools can we use to assess protest? How can we assess what happened?

Steinberg: As a historian, I always start with the sources. The revolutions of 1917 and 1905 are the ones that I’ve studied in the archives and spent months and months and months reading what people were saying and what they were doing. I wrote a book called “Voices of Revolution” about 1917, which consists of a worker, peasant, and soldiers’ statements about what they dreamed of, what they thought the revolution meant. That is where I always start, with the question: what did people desire?

To be sure, people desire a lot of different things. To me, however, the core and the heart of almost all social protests “from below” has always been this idea for a more human life. Not just a “нормальная жизнь”, but “жить по-человечески”. This idea that you want to be treated like a human being. The “Rights of Man” idea. This is core. It’s what started the American and French revolutions.

What is a humane life? People have different ideas. Some will say “in order to live like a human being, the necessities would be food, security, prosperity”, you know, material good. For others it would be “leave us alone and let us be individuals and do creative things, let us be artists”. In 1917 I found workers who would say, “What do we want from the revolution? We want you – you, the state, the party, whoever –to give us the good things of life”. And others are saying exactly the opposite – still workers with very little education, – writing “Get off our backs! Just let us be! We know what we’re doing!”

And so you begin with what people desire – and that is a mess, basically, for there are so many desires. And then you try to ask, try to figure out what is it most people want. There are different ways you can measure what large numbers of people want (voting is an example). When people take to the streets – the slogans are compelling; you can try to interpret these. And eventually, you can figure out what most people wanted in 1905, or 1917, or 1991.

Did they get what they wanted? No, nobody ever has in any revolution in history. Not the American, not the French – pick a revolution – of course not! But then you can also ask was it a complete failure? Did they go back to the old world that they were protesting? Usually not.

Of course, in the Russian case, it depends on where and when you ask. If in 1923 you went into a village and asked “How are you doing?”, they would say “Great! No landlord, fewer taxes. We can grow our crops! We can sell it at the market! Not bad!”.You would go to your average worker and they’d say “Yeah, you know, the foreman is still mean to us! But we have wages, we can buy things. Not everything we like, of course, we can’t go to the fancy cafes where NEPmen are going, the party has got too many rich apparatchiki and there’s too much bureaucracy, but overall it is getting close to normal life”. In 1923 most people in Russia would say that the revolution wasn’t the dream that was imagined, but they had achieved a lot, life improved. And it was the duty and obligation and necessity of the Bolshevik state to make sure that that was true or they would lose power.

In 1936 if you asked people how they were doing – oddly, under Stalin, most people would say “Not bad”. I mean they forgot what the Revolution was about, they became focused much more on material security. But then, material security is always what people most want and most people were probably pretty satisfied even under Stalin.

You ask in 1956 or 57 – most Soviet people thought “Could be better but it’s not a bad life”. 

When the economy begins to stagnate in the late 80s, that’s when people say “All we had was a certain standard of living and now we are even losing that!!”.

So one might actually argue – and not everybody would agree, certainly many of my Russian friends who grew up in the Soviet Union wouldn’t agree – that the Soviet Union delivered on a fair number of the promises of what people thought they wanted at that moment. Even without the realization of the goals of the Revolution. 

So was the revolution a failure? Was it a success? Some of both. Certainly, it wasn’t what people dreamed of and their most utopian ideas. But people accept compromises, people begin to accept limitations as “better than nothing”. 

ReForum: Do you think that how a certain event is remembered depends a lot on who gets to tell it? 

Steinberg: In German, there are two words for the experience. One is Erfahrung, which means the experience as a kind of coherent narrative, a tale (it’s sort of what history is). And then there’s Erlebnis which is the everyday lived experience.

The first one, Erfahrung, includes the German word for “to journey”, “to move”. It’s directional. Erfahrung is often very controlled by…let’s start with schools. What they teach you in school is controlled in every society, the curriculum is not up to the individual teacher to just make up. There are textbooks. There are standards. And in Russia and the Soviet Union, there’s been a long history of centralizing that process. Control over textbooks is very strict. None of my friends, none of the good historians I respect, who I’ve known for years, who do great work, have ever been asked to participate in a textbook. And the people who do write history textbooks, it’s like – who are those people? They’re bureaucrats. They’re not respected, major historians. 

So the telling of the story is very controlled in most countries in one way or another. It’s true in the United States too. 

And that has an effect on people. If you’re told “our country has been assaulted by enemies and we resisted enemy after enemy” – which is one of the very important leitmotifs of Imperial Russian and Soviet history and it isn’t untrue – it becomes a very powerful self-definition. One believes Russia always is going to be assaulted by enemies, the world hates Russia, and we need to be independent, sovereign and be willing to stand up for what we are. That’s a very powerful trope and it has supported a lot of states over many years, from Nicholas I all the way up to Putin, who understands the power of that narrative. Gorbachev never understood it, Yeltsin never understood it. But Putin has a strong understanding of the power of this historical narrative and he uses it. He speaks of it all the time.

But then there is the everyday lived experience, the Erlebnis. And that tends to be much more concrete and much more rooted in people’s almost instinctive understanding of what makes an acceptable life. This is why whenever people’s lived experience tells them “This is intolerable” – that’s the inspiration for most revolutions. You know “так больше жить нельзя!” was one of the slogans heard in 1905, in 1917, in 1991. The exact same words. And maybe in Pugachev’s time they said it too!

It’s when our lived experience says that the narrative isn’t working anymore, “так больше жить нельзя!” – and revolutions happen. But you never know when people get to that point. Looking back at history – Lenin himself couldn’t predict the October revolution in September. He said, “We won’t live to see the next revolution!” Nobody can ever predict. Nobody sees it coming. So, when it happens, we will be surprised.

ReForum: I want to talk about one specific event, the 2011 protests. Nine years later. In what sense did it succeed? And what sense did it fail? 

Steinberg: I’ve been going to Russia, either Moscow or Petersburg, constantly since 1984 and especially after 1992 when things became much more open. I went almost every year. I have seen a lot. Naturally, I’m a historian. But I also observe emotion and it’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed writing about – because it’s the most elusive history. History is not just what people say and do, but what they feel.

When I was writing my dissertation one of my advisors said “We don’t know what people felt in the past”. And I replied, “You’re probably right but I’m determined to figure that out”. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve studied poetry, working-class poetry, I have written about emotions and how we study emotions, trying to get deeper into how people feel.

So what does a revolution feels like? Spring, Easter, drunkenness. I read people’s accounts of what it felt like to go out into the streets in 1917, and “I feel like I’m drunk” or “I feel like it’s Easter” are very common descriptions. I also remember a memoir by a young woman. She’s about 20, a factory worker in 1917, and she went out with her girlfriends onto the streets and they’re running around just after February, after the Tsar fell and she said: “We felt like we suddenly turned into adults today”. It’s like your whole life is transformed, and that mood is part of every true Revolution. If you don’t get that mood is probably not a revolution. 

And the mood in December 2011 – briefly, not for very long – was “anything is possible in this country”. There was an excitement of possibility! Every conversation was about transformation. And so 2011 had the atmosphere of revolution. 

In 2019 I was in Moscow and Petersburg for three months. Nobody had that mood anymore. Everybody said, “Back to the routine. Let’s do our work. Let’s organize our conferences, let’s have our jobs. Let’s have children”. This is a good sign – people don’t have children if they see the world is going to get worse. And there are a lot of children that you see now in Russia, which is an important change. In the 90s nobody had children except by mistake, practically.

So did the 2011 protests succeed or fail, to go back to your original question? Obviously, it didn’t achieve the change people sought. The same government is still there. Russia is more and more of a one-party state. Media is much more controlled. Corruption is still there, kept within very strict bounds of serving the state. This does not feel like what people sought. It is not success.

On the other hand, has anybody lost their belief in what a world should be like and what’s desired? If anything, that belief has grown. There are polls (for example, this one by Levada-centre) that after 2011 there was the mood of enormous possibility which stimulated a lot of creativity. Pussy Riot is just one that the world knows, but there’s so much beyond Pussy Riot. The sense that we can be daring, we can be bold. I know school teachers in Russia and they say the atmosphere in schools is not as conformist as it used to be. Kids, teenagers, 12- and 13-year-olds have this sense “This is our life now!” The level of conformity, “Just whatever the state says is what I believe” is less and less. And so something will happen. We don’t know when we don’t know how we don’t know what the catalyst will be.

For the end of the Soviet Union, there were all sorts of arguments about what was the catalyst. One is that Chernobyl was a catalyst, not the most important factor, but without it maybe things wouldn’t have unfolded the way they did. And you couldn’t have predicted Chernobyl. Impossible! So we don’t know what’ll happen. I hope I live to see the change.

I’ve often said to my Russian friends that when my son performs as Sasha Velour in Moscow before a big audience – that will mean the revolution has happened. 

ReForum: The audience for Sasha’s show would be there today if it happened. The people are there.

Steinberg: And that’s also the sign that 2011 was not a failure. Because the spirit is still present.

And that’s been true throughout Russian history, going back at least to the 18th century. This humane, human rights type of vision of the future has existed in Russia from at least Novikov on. That ideal never got crushed. You could crush the Decembrists and hang the leaders, you could crush the Pugachev Rebellion, you could crush 1905, but the vision, the ideal remains.

You know, there is this popular cliche about Russian history – “Russians will never have democracy because they don’t understand it because they never experienced it”. It’s not true! Russians may not have had a truly fully democratic state. But the democratic spirit, democratic ideals, even an understanding of the institutions needed to build a truly democratic and humane society, – that has been in Russia as long and as strong as anywhere. Maybe stronger than in countries that actually have democratic parliamentary states! In that sense, Russia is a deeply democratic country in its aspirations for people and what the world could be like.

ReForum: Is there anything in common between the protests that you listed as the important ones? Would a unifying idea be “living like Europe”?

Steinberg: Let me go back to the concept “жить по-человечески”. Because ultimately that’s what people begin to know, partly instinctively. A serf who is constantly beaten and mistreated doesn’t have the language to say: “You need to treat me with respect for my human dignity!” But the feeling is, and you sometimes hear “I’m not a machine! I’m not a cow!” We are not property, we are humans. Even without the enlightenment vocabulary of human dignity, people have this fundamental sense that you can’t treat me like an animal, or a machine, or a rock. And people said that.

This idea of human rights comes from the French Enlightenment, very heavily. Although the United States of America picked it up during the revolution, fundamentally this idea was a European ideal. It has now spread all over the world. I mean, communism exists because of that European idea, it grew out of it, and socialism, and anarchism, and liberalism. These are all products of that fundamental humanistic idea of the Rights of Man as they called them in France. And the core aspiration for most of modern Russian history was that standard.

Europe was not perfect. There was Napoleon, there were problems. Alexander Herzen went to Europe and said “what a disappointment Europe is, they don’t live up to their high ideals!” But then he still would rather be sitting in London than return to Moscow. And you get a similar story with Russian emigres throughout history: yes, Europe’s imperfect, but it’s much closer to the ideal and what Russia would like to be.

There were a couple of moments when the United States was seen as a better model. It’s quite striking with the Decembrists, for example. In the decades prior to their rebellion in December of 1825, one of the things they kept discussing was America in the wake of the Revolution. They acknowledged slavery was an abomination just like serfdom. And yet it felt like America was fresher, newer, younger, and that while Europe was trying, it wasn’t succeeding. America was this sort of new world full of possibility, the land of immigrants where people flee the inadequacies of Europe.

The other time America rises as a role model is after World War II. Europe was a disappointment. Germany was the model of enlightened culture. It was the land of Goethe, and Beethoven, and Mozart, etc! Russians said this all the time – and suddenly they find Germany has become a savage, monstrous country. France just lay down on the ground and said, “Please, step all over us”. What a disappointment! Russians always liked Italy because it was sunny and warm and Italians were relaxed – and Italy became fascist in World War II. Hard not to be disappointed in Europe.

Where to look to? There’s America. Dynamic economy. It seemed to play a positive role in the war. It showed up very late, the war was almost over when the US showed up. But nonetheless, it created this myth, there were all these Americans driving all over Europe laughing, singing, handing out chewing gum to young people. Then comes the music, rock and roll. America became this mythos, just as the Decembristsput it: “Young, vital, full of dynamism. The only hope for the world!”

And then what happens? America gets mired in the Vietnam War. Becomes too preoccupied with showing its power in the world, yet another imperial power. And recently there was Trump whose goal was to “Make America Great Again”. I think his goal was exactly the opposite: to make America no longer that vital, dynamic, diverse exciting place for the world, but inward-looking and backward. And that has done us no good.

So one looks to Europe again, perhaps. Or maybe Russians will just look to their own history, which is even more full of possibility and optimism: sometimes from the state, though most rulers have tended to be more fearful than optimistic and forward-looking, but very often from what might be called civil society: the dissident intelligentsia from Novikov to Belinsky to Sakharov and beyond, avant-garde artists, humanistic writers, peasant and worker rebellions, student movements, opposition parties, undergrounds of all sorts, and more. And moments like December 1825, October 1905, March 1917, August 1991.

ReForum: Our project is about reforms that Russia needs to become the great Russia that we hope to see. In the sense of reforms, what lessons can we take from Russia’s history – and specifically the history of protests?

Steinberg: Historians tend not to draw lessons. We tend to try to find explanations and reasons to think everything isn’t a disaster.

But if I take a chance and reach for lessons, it would be: don’t rely on your leaders to solve your problems. This is not only true of Russia, it’s true of every protest movement that I can think of, from Europe in 1848 to the recent protests in the modern US. Ironically, this rule is understood very well in Russia and Eastern Europe because of the 20th-century history of communism. And it’s understood very well in Germany because of the history of fascism.

The only way to ensure that whatever you accomplish and achieve through your protest is solidified is through collective action. You can’t do it as an individual. Through different forms of community, collective activity, and cooperation – you can call it anything you want; structures, where power, decision-making, protection of rights grows more from below than it does from above. It can take all sorts of forms: little political parties that aren’t necessarily even going to get seats in the Duma, but which are active locally, creating communities, creating initiatives, petitioning authorities. Reform, not revolution.

The usual definition of a full revolution is having a new government: you have overthrown one and are bringing in another one. In each case where things are going bad after a revolution, it’s because civil society – all those forms of power, organization, and activism from below – gets tired, apathetic or is silenced. Usually, the two go together.

I think in Russia both happened: both that people got tired of always working from below, and that the government slowly but surely silenced the activists. Limiting NGOs, calling them “foreign agents” – all those various laws limiting the media. The media is really important: if you don’t have an open discussion of ideas, you can’t go anywhere, because knowledge is power. And so media, and increasingly social media, is the way in which you build power and networks from below. 

When revolutions turn into reform and reform from below not from above, that’s what leads to durable results. Curiously, at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, that was the most ubiquitous demand you heard; from communists, from non-communists, from anarchists, from people who didn’t know what they were – that the Soviet power and state needs to grow from below, not from above. And that, as we know, is not how it went in the end. 

To me, that’s the lesson, and if people don’t organize locally, then the goals and the achievements are going to get lost. That’s a little bit me as a historian, but it’s also just me observing the world for most of my 67 years.