In the years after the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Russia (along with Prussia and Austria) set itself out as the enforcer of stability and the enemy of liberalism throughout Europe. Russian anti-revolutionary actions climaxed with the crushing of the Hungarian Revolt in 1848 under the heels of tens of thousands of Russian boots. Russia also crushed an uprising in Wallachia.
Russian fondness for the “stability” of authoritarian rule apparently has passed from Alexander and Nicholas to their modern day imitators. Yesterday Igor Sechin, arguably Putin’s closest ally, blasted Google for its role in catalyzing the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s deputy blamed Google Inc. in an interview published on Tuesday for stirring up trouble in the revolution that ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
“Look what they have done in Egypt, those highly-placed managers of Google, what manipulations of the energy of the people took place there,”Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin told the Wall Street Journal.
Such strong comment from one of Putin’s most trusted deputies is a clear signal of growing concern among Russian hardliners about the role of the Internet in the unrest which has swept across the Arab world.
One can hope the last sentence is true, that is, that uneasily lies the head that wears the crown. (And no, I don’t mean Medvedev.) I have my doubts, but know that Putin is likely to err on the side of caution. As I’ve written many times, he at least intuitively understands that mass protest and revolution require overcoming a coordination problem. This is why he is so intent on controlling the traditional media, cracking down on even the smallest opposition protests, and encouraging the atomization of Russian society. A demonstration of the coordinating potential of the internet and social media may lead him and his minions to recalibrate their strategy of atomization. It will be interesting to see whether the siloviki change their approach to the internet, which has been until recently relatively hands off. I would anticipate an attempt to shape, constrain, and monitor the internet along the lines of what is done in China. (Funny story. One time while teaching in China I attempted to reach SWP–but the Great Fire Wall prevented me from doing so. I was so flattered.)
I wrote quite a bit during the crisis about the coordination problems inherent in any mass anti-government activity. Interestingly, one theory about the lack of revolutionary activity in Russia in 1848 while the rest of Europe was exploding was that the tyranny of distance and the tyranny of the secret police combined to prevent coordination. No doubt then, and today, the relative inertness/passivity meant and mean that achieving coordination was/is harder in Russia than elsewhere.
For an interesting take on the role of the internet in facilitating coordination and facilitating revolution, take a look at this article which sets out Daron Acemoglu’s views.