Demonstrations in the streets of Russian cities and towns Monday, directed against the rule and culture of President Vladimir Putin, contradicted the image and role of him and his government in recent relations with the United States.
The demonstrations, in an estimated 1,000 cities and towns across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east, were directed against Putin and the corruption and heavy-handed nature of his rule. He has been in power since 1999.
They were allegedly directed by Putin's best-known, relatively youthful opponent, Aleksei Navalny. On Monday he was promptly arrested, tried and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Nonetheless, analysts do not see Navalny either as the instigator of the widespread demonstrations or as a credible opponent to Putin in Russia's presidential elections next year.
So what lies at the base of the visible opposition to Putin?
Putin came to be riding high on the back of high oil prices. They didn't make everyone rich, but they did offer possibilities to more Russians than were prospering after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Secondly, Putin seemed to offer Russians a firm hand on the wheel. He was a former counterintelligence officer, he looked young and vigorous and, in particular, he stood out in contrast to his predecessor, the older, courageous but alcoholic Boris Yeltsin.
But it must never be forgotten that Russia is very hard to rule. It had violent political explosions in 1905, 1917, 1956 and 1991. These involved street confrontations, executions, exiling and, in general, fairly widespread suffering of leaders and of people. The regimes of Czar Nicholas II, Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev basically fell, all in a century. It is against that background that Putin rules and sometimes plays very rough.
The forces beneath the surface, and the regime's reaction to them, is what Russia, the United States and the world saw on Monday. There is no reason to believe that the demonstrators, Navalny or disorder will come to reign soon in Russia. But history and the nature of the country must be borne in mind in efforts to determine reasonable U.S. policy, or to traffic with the beast.