Russian women: “They were just tired” – lessons for Uganda

I know that change is coming to Uganda. But what kind of change: peaceful or bloody change; change from below or from above? Although some readers have distorted my message for whatever reason, I have consistently pleaded orally and in writing for peaceful change – to the discomfort of those who want war – so that every Ugandan lives in peace, security, equality, prosperity and happiness. I have encouraged mixing at all levels – political, economic, social and cultural – to minimize conflicts. But to make appropriate changes we need to know what is happening in our society first. It is reporting the findings of what is happening that has caused discomfort in some quarters. And from these quarters we are getting name calling, intimidation and distorted messages. But the impartial analyst has to report research findings. And that is what we have been doing in the great lakes region. Hopefully we shall all end up on the same page.

In order to have a peaceful change, I have been writing about different outcomes when change was resisted from above and when compromise was struck. Where change was resisted from above there was bloody war as in the French and Russian Revolutions. And I am pleading that in order to avoid bloody war in Uganda NRM and the opposition should reach a mutually acceptable compromise, bearing in mind that compromises please none a hundred percent. The experience of Russian women represents years of neglect by the Tsars (Czars) which contributed to the demise of the Romanov dynasty.

On February 25, 1917, Russian women who had been tired for a long time couldn’t take it anymore. They exploded. Unlike in the past they refused to go home without bread. These women rebelled not because they were revolutionaries: “They were just tired – tired of waiting for bread that never came, tired of watching their sons and husbands march off to die in war. They were tired of poverty – tired of seeing the carriages of the rich glide by while their own families huddled around grimy stoves in dark, crowded tenements” (D. C. Heath 1992). And what happened?

As noted above, the women refused to go home without bread. Instead they started shouting in the streets “We want bread”. They stopped traffic, forced passengers off streetcars, turned over some vehicles and threw stones at store windows. They were joined by workers from textile and steel factories. By the afternoon huge crowds had gathered in St. Petersburg streets. They shouted and sang and carried banners calling for bread, demanding end of the war and “Down with the Csar”. Czar Nicholas II who was more concerned about the war did not pay attention to the gravity of the situation. He reasoned that the police would contain the situation. Meanwhile the crowds increased and sang. Soldiers were inspired and some joined in the demonstration. Realizing that the situation was serious, Nicholas tried to return to the city but rail workers would not let him. He ordered soldiers to intervene, they refused. The Czar then called a meeting of his generals to discuss the way forward. Instead, they handed him a fateful decision: abdicate. Abdicate he did on his behalf and his son’s in favor of his brother Michael who, in turn, abdicated. The provisional government took over, ending the Romanov dynasty.

How did all this happen? It is a long story but the gist of it is the following. The Czars ruled autocratically and neglected the welfare of their subjects. At the start of the 19th century, Russia was still an agricultural country with more than 90 percent dependent on farming for their livelihood. More than 80 percent were serfs working for noble owners of large estates. Nobles had unlimited power over serfs. They could buy and sell them in open markets like cattle. They could beat them and exile them to remote Siberia. This was a moral outrage. Czar Alexander I who thought of freeing serfs suddenly died of fever before a decision was taken. His successor Nicholas I resisted freeing serfs because he needed the support of landlords. He imposed restrictions on freedom and established a secret police force to hunt down any Russian who dared question his absolute rule.

When Nicholas died, he was succeeded by Alexander II who accepted reforms to stabilize his empire. On March 3, 1861 he freed serfs and gave them half of the land but they had to pay for it besides other problems he created. For example, land was owned communally – not individually – so that freed serfs remained tied to the peasant community (mir) as they were tied to the landlord before. There was no relief in other areas. Peasants continued to bear many burdens. “They alone paid a poll tax. They alone were subject to the death penalty if found guilty of a crime. They alone were bound to their mir by a system that kept them from moving freely from one place to another. To add to their discontent, few peasants had enough land to support their families. … As a result, there were hundreds of peasant riots in the late 1800s”(D. C. Heath 1992).

On March 13, 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb thrown at his carriage by frustrated students. He was succeeded by Alexander III who placed his faith in absolute rule and completely rejected reforms. He limited publications and the secret police kept a close eye on secondary schools and universities. Teachers prepared detailed reports on each student. Anyone who questioned his absolute power, did not worship in the Russian Orthodox Church or did not speak the Russian language was regarded as a dangerous person. When Alexander III died in 1894, most Russians looked forward to better days. They were bitterly disappointed because Nicholas II, the new Czar, maintained the principle of autocracy.

The defeat of giant Russia by tiny Japan in the 1904/5 war humiliated the Russians. In anger they revolted and forced the Czar to make some reforms. He reluctantly created a legislature or national government (Duma) but made sure elections were rigged so that reformers were kept out. Opponents were arrested, others fled. The Russian people concluded the Czar was out of touch with the people and had bad advisers like Grigori Rasputin or were corrupt. The war was unpopular and soldiers raised many questions. On top of that were food and fuel shortages that triggered demonstrations which the Czar ignored and led to his downfall and the end of the Romanov dynasty.

What lessons can Uganda draw to avoid a revolution? First, absolute rule (or whatever other name you call it), corrupt and mismanaged government that ignores peoples’ demands is bound to fail. Second, a government that relies largely on police force, secret service and the military to stay in power is likely to fail. Third, reforms that do not go far enough are likely to disappoint the people and cause more trouble for the government. Fourth, autocratic rule does not prevent inevitable changes from happening. Despite restrictions, Russian students accessed and read about ideas (many of them revolutionary) of foreign thinkers. Russian thinkers and scientists made useful contributions that opened eyes and minds. Foreign investors invited by the Czar brought into Russia new ideas as well. Individually or in concert these developments prepared the ground for change. While the Czar remained out of touch, Lenin understood the suffering of the people. He promised to give them bread, land and peace if the Russian people accepted him. And they did.