Reporting Revolutions: Egypt now, and Russia then

The centre of the capital city became a battleground. Tanks took the place of rush hour traffic. Shoppers and commuters passed soldiers warily peering around corners for fear of attracting sniper fire.

Two years after the advent of democracy, political opponents took up arms to settle their differences.

Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

This was Moscow in October 1993, two years after the end of the Soviet Union. The idealism, the euphoria, which had accompanied that huge and unexpected change in the summer of 1991 was gone, and it has never returned. Russian public life in the post-Soviet period has perhaps been best described by then President, now Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, when he spoke of the need to confront his country’s ‘legal nihilism’.

Two years ago, after Hosni Mubarak had been deposed as Egypt’s President, I met a number of Egyptian activists at a conference in London. Their optimism and idealism was infectious, but I was reminded of other twentysomethings I had seen in Moscow, twenty years before, celebrating the collapse of Communism. They did not, and have not, got the country they expected then.

The truth is that revolutions take a long time. They are not over in a moment, or even a year. Orlando Figes’ history of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, A People’s Tragedy, has as its subtitle ‘The Russian Revolution 1891-1924’.  A history of the end of the USSR would probably need to look at an equally long period before and after 1991. How long will it be before we can judge the consequences of the Arab uprisings?

This makes reporting them difficult. Not necessarily in the sense of day-to-day hard news: there is usually plenty to say, plenty of drama, plenty of human interest. The challenge lies in trying to interpret events that no one really understands – whatever politicians and expert analysts might say – in order to explain to audiences what the possible outcomes are.

Speaking about Egypt on the BBC’s Today Programme this morning in the UK, the Foreign Secretary William Hague used the phrase ‘strategic patience’: good for policy makers, perfect for historians – all but an unaffordable luxury for journalists facing hourly deadlines.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is to see the full picture. Reporters focused on the events as they unfold in capitals do not see the provincial towns and villages where populations may be less enthusiastic about radical change. Social media – credited with such an important role in Egypt that the events of 2011 have even been referred to as a ‘Facebook Revolution’ – do mean that more voices are much more accessible to journalists. In a country where only about a third of the population has access to the internet, how representative are they?

Russia and Egypt are different countries, their revolutions at different times in history. Yet there are parallels: a military/ security establishment reluctant to give up power, and a population yearning for some degree of economic stability, and prosperity. In Russia, that led to a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, being elected President in 2000. He holds that office today, and many other powerful men in Russia apparently share his background.

That was not what people were marching for in the early 1990s. It is what they ended up with.

In a BBC interview at the end of 2011, the year of the ‘Arab Spring’ the late historian Eric Hobsbawm said of those revolutions, ‘We know it won’t last.’

Russia’s young democrats found that in the blood and bullets of October 1993. President Yeltsin may have stayed in office, but innocent idealism was dead. The ‘Facebook’ revolutionaries look unlikely to get any real power in Egypt, however this current crisis develops. President (former President?) Morsi and his supporters may now feel it applies to them to.

‘We know it won’t last’ could be a good guiding principle for anyone reporting on a revolution.

 

 

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