In Russia, Modern 'Revolution' Comes At Its Own Pace

Jan 12, 2012
Originally published on January 12, 2012 10:08 am

Russia had one of the world's most famous revolutions nearly a century ago, in 1917. Yet for centuries, the country has seemed to prefer strong leaders who promised stability rather than revolutionary change. On a trip across Russia today on the Trans-Siberian railroad, NPR's David Greene found many Russians who expressed disappointment with their current government. But most said they wanted changes to be gradual, and were not looking for a major upheaval.

Second of three parts

In 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin carried out his plan to build a reservoir along the Volga River. Thousands of people were ordered to move their homes or face being submerged. One of the towns that faced flooding was Mologa, where some villagers took their homes apart, log by log, piled them on rafts, and moved them to safer locations.

Among the former residents of Mologa was Maria Kuvshinnikova. She was 20 in 1941 and remembers people helping each other dismantle their homes, piling belongings onto rafts, and moving to higher ground.

"When taking the houses apart, they marked each log," she says. "They had everything on these rafts — utensils, domestic animals, cows."

Kuvshinnikova is now 91 and lives in a typical Soviet-style apartment building with her daughter in the nearby town of Rybinsk. But she says she still thinks back on what a nice town Mologa had been, and all that she was forced to leave behind.

"I was sorry for Mologa — it was such a nice town with big rivers," she says.

Then, her eyes well up.

"My mother is still in Mologa. She died in 1934. My father is here, I could go to the cemetery. But there, even if it was long ago, a mother is a mother," she says.

Nikolai Novotelnov was also forced from his home in Mologa. When he was 16, he and his mother took apart their wooden house and moved it to Rybinsk. Now 86, Novotelnov continues to live in the same house with his wife.

"I still have memories of the churches, the tombstones," he says about Mologa. "There was just a simple command: Move it all, and start living in a new place."

While Novotelnov rebuilt his home and his life, his father was in a gulag, serving a six-year sentence for telling a joke about Soviet leaders. He died before being released.

But despite all this tragedy, Novotelnov proudly served his country. He was a truck driver in the Red Army, fighting his way to Berlin in 1945. He still hangs Red Army and Communist Party posters on the walls of his living room.

Today, though, under the current leadership, that pride is faltering.

"The country is divided into rich and poor," Novotelnov says. "Money has become the most important thing. Nothing good has happened in Russia during Putin's time in office. I am his opponent."

Ready For Change

The 86-year-old may not seem like a poster child for change. But if there is a fair election in Russia in March — and that's a big "if" — Novetelnov's vote will be counted against Putin.

The anti-government demonstrations that took place in Russia last month were some of the biggest in the 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the capital, Moscow, thousands of people marched on the streets, demanding fair elections. Many were younger, educated, middle-class Russians.

They are not representative of the country as a whole — the majority of Russian citizens are older and much less well-off. Nor are many of them ready for wholesale revolution, along the lines of the Arab Spring.

But during our travels across Russia, we heard more and more voices that are ready for change. The village of Sagra is a case in point.

As with so many Russian villages, visiting Sagra is like taking a step back in time. Dilapidated wood houses are set along snow-covered dirt streets. Geese wander around, honking at passing trains. Many residents have outhouses and heat their homes using wood-fired stoves. And, with a population of only about 130, there is no local police force.

Last summer, Sagra residents became caught up in something resembling an inner-city turf battle. A criminal gang was heading to Sagra one night, and residents called the police from another community. Help arrived too late, though, long after the gang did. Villagers, including 56-year-old Viktor Gorodilov, fought the criminals off themselves, swinging pitchforks and firing hunting rifles.

In a twist of justice not uncommon in Russia, the government charged Sagra's residents with hooliganism. It would have been a familiar story in Russia — the authorities decide who to blame, the courts agree, case closed.

But Gorodilov and others in Sagra found a lawyer, and a local nonprofit, to fight for them. They got their message out on the Internet, insisting they had been neglected by the police and let down by the government. They want something different — but not revolution.

Viktor's 39-year-old son, Andrei, is a third-year graduate student in economics. He would seem to be the right demographic for joining the protests in Moscow. But, he says, they scare him. He lived through political upheaval in the early 1990s, and he's not in a hurry to repeat the experience.

"I can see what's happening in Libya," he says. "That was our path in 1991 [with the dissolution of the Soviet Union]. The Libyan people will live much worse than they used to live. They had social programs, they got apartments for free. Now this will stop. I already lived through those kinds of changes."

Andrei wants more from his government, but he's patient. He was pleased to play a role in defending his father and other villagers against criminal charges.

"I have become an annoyance to our local government," he explains. "We are each struggling as much as we can, each at our own pace."

Collapse From Within

That pace is slow, but the momentum is growing. Yekaterina Stepanova is a professor of philosophy and law in Yekaterinburg, the closest city to Sagra. People out in Russia's far-flung regions, she says, are unlikely to join a large-scale movement to oust a government. But Russia as it's governed today isn't sustainable.

Putin will become less popular and less relevant in places like Sagra. And sometime soon, Stepanova says, there will be new leaders who will figure out how to take Russia into the modern day. She calls it a collapse from within. But collapse is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Collapse," she says, "is what has to come because what we have now is not the history of this new Russia. It's still the history of the Soviet Union."

She has a point. Russia, as we know it now, is only 20 years old — a young country with a long history that is hard to shake. But as the younger generation — a generation that has grown up without Soviet influence — comes to power, some kind of change is inevitable.

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All right. We're continuing our travels today with NPR's David Greene on the Trans-Siberian Railway. To remind listeners, we heard the first of David's stories yesterday - an amazing journey that you were on here, David, but a lot of tragedy you encountered when you talked to people along the way.


Yeah, Russians have endured a lot over time. And that includes, I think, enduring tough leaders. I mean, Russians over history have survived czars, dictators, leaders who don't always seem to have a lot of compassion. And, you know, as you know, Steve, we saw people beginning to turn on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow with these street protests recently that erupted.

INSKEEP: In Moscow, but what about when you went further east on the railway?

GREENE: And that was the question that I really wanted to answer. I mean, in the capital, you had these protests. Many of those people were younger, middle-class Russians. The country as a whole is older and less well-off, I think you could say. And as I got out into the vast country, I didn't get the sense that people are ready for revolution, their own Arab spring. It doesn't mean that they don't want change.

And I want to take you now today to a village northwest of Yaroslavl, a couple hours from Moscow. A dog greeted me out in the snow as I was walking up to this little ramshackle yellow wooden house.

This house is the home of a man named Nikolai Novotelnov, and he's an elderly man with quite a story that he told me. When Novotelnov was a teenager, his father was sent to die in one of Josef Stalin's gulags. And his father's crime, Steve, was telling a joke about Soviet leaders. And so this man, Nikolai Novotelnov, was left alone with his mother and then Stalin struck again. He ordered this reservoir to be built, damming the Volga River. It meant flooding entire villages. And thousands of people were ordered to move their homes, including Nikolai Novotelnov and his mom. Alone, they piled the wood onto rafts and then they rebuilt the house where this man Nikolai still lives today.

NIKOLAI NOVOTELNOV: (Through translator) I still have memories of the churches, the tombstones, that it was just a simple command. We were all going to start living in the new place.

GREENE: Given all this, of course Nikolai Novotelnov was angry, and yet he went on to serve his country in World War II proudly. The Red Army and Communist Party posters still hang on the walls of his living room. It's just he's not very proud of his country today. As he puts it, Russia is now a place with no friendship, where people are divided between rich and poor, and he thinks Vladimir Putin could be trying a lot harder.

Putin is Russia's most powerful politician. He was president then prime minster, and Putin expects to return to president in an election this coming March. Novotelnov wishes there was a way to stop that.

NOVOTELNOV: (Through translator) During Putin's time, nothing good has happened in Russia. I'm his strong opponent. If we look at his policies and the state our country is in, I don't think we need such a leader.

GREENE: This 86-year-old man who was sitting in front of me on his couch might not seem like a poster child for revolution, but I heard voices like this every day as I traveled deeper into Siberia.

As I swung through the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, I stopped for tea and some perspective. I sat down with Yekaterina Stepanova, a professor of philosophy and law, spent years as a visiting scholar in the United States. She told me that Russians are slowly realizing that Putin's style of centralized power and control is not improving their lives.

YEKATERINA STEPANOVA: Because certainly Putin and his team are people from the past, because they just see the country from the lenses of '70s, I mean, the '80s.

GREENE: Putin, she predicted, will slowly lose popularity and relevance and eventually - eventually, she said - the system he has in place will collapse.

STEPANOVA: Collapse is not a tragedy. Collapse is what has to come. Because what we have now in not the history of this new Russia. It's still the history of Soviet Union.

GREENE: You seem to suggest that the end of the Putin is not going to be some big loud revolution. What is it going to be?

STEPANOVA: I think it's going to be just a slow collapse.

GREENE: Slow, because Russians aren't in a hurry to embrace change. It's a learning process.


GREENE: In the Russian towns and villages I visited, I had to forget all assumptions about democracy. For years, people have lived under this set of unspoken rule - life will be hard, the government will provide few services, people in power might be corrupt but there's nothing you can do about it. Today, people do seem to be realizing in small ways that maybe they can have a voice.

One such place is a village called Sagra. It's near Russia's Ural Mountains, the natural border between Europe and Asia. And it takes you back in time. Geese are wandering around snow-covered dirt streets, honking at the passing trains.

The dilapidated wooden houses in the village are heated by wood stoves, the people tough and gritty. And last summer, they faced something resembling an inner-city turf battle. This criminal gang was heading to Sagra one night, and residents called the police. They never showed up. The gang did. And residents, including 56-year-old Viktor Gorodilov fought them off, swinging pitch forks and firing hunting rifles.

VIKTOR GORODILOV: (Through translator) You asked me the question who I protected, who I defended? So, I defended my family. I defended my children and my grandchildren and my family.

GREENE: But then came a twist of justice that's not uncommon in Russia. The government filed charges against Gorodilov and Sagra's other residents. They charged them with hooliganism. But Gorodilov wouldn't stand for it. He and others in town found a lawyer at a nonprofit and they got their message out on the Internet, insisting that the people of Sagra had been neglected by the police and were left to defend themselves against criminals.

I sat down with Viktor Gorodilov and his family and I listened as they spoke about taking truth to power. It was something I had rarely, if ever, heard while recording in rural Russia.

GORODILOV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: In Russia, Viktor told me, people in power live their own separate life far removed from most citizens. He thinks that might be beginning to change. Sitting across from him was his 39-year-old son, Andrei. He's a third-year graduate student in economics. And at first, you might expect he'd be jumping to join those protests back in Moscow, but the idea of revolution scares him. He watched Russia fall into this economic abyss after the Soviet collapsed.

ANDREI GORODILOV: (Through translator) Look at what's happening in Libya. That was our past in 1991. The Libyan people will live much worse than they used to live. They have social programs, they got apartments for free - now, this will stop. I already lived through those kinds of changes.

GREENE: And so, Steve, the point that really came through with Andrei, this man I met, is that it's not that he doesn't want more from this government, it's not that he doesn't want change, he's just very patient. He was happy to have played a role in standing up for the citizens of his village. As he put it, I've become an annoyance to our local government.


INSKEEP: Which is sometimes what citizenship is. Thanks very much, David. And David Greene's journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway is going to continue tomorrow. We'll try to get a sense as David heads east of Russia's future and what really holds this giant country together.

In the meantime, listeners can go to to see photos of the people and places that David's been talking about here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.