Twenty years to the week since the Soviet Union formally dissolved into autonomous republics, Russians are taking to the streets in massive protests not seen since the fall of the U.S.S.R.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, increased access to fax machines helped to fuel and coordinate the dissent. In 2011, as in other recent popular uprisings, it appears to be Russians' increased access to social media tools that is catalyzing the protests.
In the case of Russia, which has now experimented with some semblance of democratic politics for two decades, the protests indicate Russia may finally root out corruption and cronyism in favor of transparency and accountability.
Like other popular uprisings this year, such as those that ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, the vanguard of Russia's protests seems to be made up of well-educated students and professionals eager to have a more significant say in how their national institutions work.
When Russia began to open up its rigid centrally planned economy to globally competitive forces 20 years ago, the transition was rocky at best. Many economic experts advocated "shock therapy" for Russia, the idea that price controls, subsidies and government ownership should be rapidly replaced with competitive markets.
But unlike many formerly communist states in central Europe, Russia's massive state enterprises proved hard to unwind. Government monopolies devolved into monopolistic firms owned by so-called oligarchs. Black markets for distribution that had been in the grimy hands of criminal elements prior to the transition were legalized but never sanitized. Currency devaluations and domestic terrorism eroded support for the changes and fostered nostalgia for the perceived stability of communism.
Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party seemed to provide a form of stability for Russians. Under his presidency and his premiership, he ruthlessly stood down oligarchs and terrorists while promoting nationalistic pride. And although there seemed to be a heavy hand on the scales of Russian justice, one could reliably predict that Putin's interests and allies would prevail.
So was anyone really surprised that Putin engineered a clever way around Russia's presidential term limit? Or was anyone really surprised that parliamentary elections designed to get him back into the presidency were rigged?
What did surprise, however, was the spontaneous response by those opposed to the false stability of venal authoritarianism. Young Russians under Putin may have enjoyed access to more goods and services than their parents, but what they yearn for is the genuine stability that comes from transparency, accountability and the rule of law. And although in an earlier time they may have felt isolated in their concern, today they have reinforced one another through their social networks.
Consequently, today's protests signify an important maturation of Russian democracy. Instead of rallying behind some new figurehead, Russians are rallying behind the idea of lasting institutional reform that provides greater access to the levers of power.
And if there is a hero in the current protests, it is not the wily strongman, but instead the savvy blogger. Case in point: Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old commercial lawyer, married with two children who blogs and tweets in the evenings. Navalny has created a mass anti-corruption movement that bypasses state-controlled media. The more than 60,000 subscribers to his blog and nearly 120,000 followers of his Tweets regularly overwhelm government agencies with complaints when he identifies irregularities or bribery. Putin's cause was not helped when Navalny was jailed for peacefully protesting earlier this month.
Like so many of this year's uprisings, it is too early to predict how Russia's protests will conclude. But our great hope is that its initial spontaneity and idealism will carry the day and help root out corruption and strengthen the rule of law, and hence lasting stability, for Russia's 138 million citizens.