trip—the feeling that strength comes from endurance, the fear of chaos and thirst for any
sense of stability, the lack of faith in the ability to shape the future—are emotions and feel-
ings that may well be embedded in the Russian soul.
The Decembrists are remembered as some of the rare few in Russia's history to rise up
and try to break apart the system that ruled the day. They failed, and faced punishment
and exile. Yet, amazingly, not all of them felt unjustly treated, or felt that the chance to
change the course of history had slipped through their hands. Mikhail Zetlin quotes one of
the Decembrists, Yakubovich, who was writing in a journal in 1843, two decades after the
The 20th year of exile, of persecution, poverty and hard work is about to begin. Oh
God! Give me the strength to do my duty as a citizen and a man and to add my con-
tribution to the annals of sorrow of the Fatherland. Do not let this contribution be
sullied by pride and egoism, but let it find its expression in love and truth. I am a
very sick man. I am 59 years old . . . the end is approaching, the end that heralds
But what is the dawn in a place where someone believes it is his “duty” to contribute to
the “annals of sorrow” in his country?
Mikhail Shishkin, the great modern-day Russian novelist, struggles to see the dawn.
“To call people to the barricades in Russia is beautiful, but senseless,” he said in a
2012 interview with the Web site Russia Beyond the Headlines. “We lived through all this
already in the early '90s. All revolutions take place in the same way—the best people rise
up to fight for honor and dignity, and they die. On their corpses, thieves and bandits come
to power, and everything comes full circle. The same thing happened during the Orange
Revolution in Kiev. The same thing is happening right before our eyes in the Arab world.
Apparently, in Russia a new generation has grown up who want to experience the barri-
cades. All right. They will experience them. And they will be disappointed.”
But Andrei Grachev, a longtime adviser to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev,
isn't so sure. When I asked him about Russia's future, he pointed to August 1991. Hard-
liners in the Communist Party had carried out a coup, forcing Gorbachev from power.
Thousands of people took to the streets outside parliament, waving anti-Communist flags
in support of reformer Boris Yeltsin. Tanks were on the streets, but the military refused to
fire at the protesters—some soldiers placed flowers in the barrels of their guns.
Yeltsin came to power. But his efforts at reform are seen in Russia not only as a failure,
but as a big reason why people have such little faith in democracy. And yet, when I spoke
to Grachev recently, he refused to believe that what those protesters fought for is dead. As
he put it, “There is fire under the ashes.”