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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting the Whip in Their Own Hands

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Maybe it's just sheer orneriness, but lately I've started feeling a little hopeful about Russia again.

Russia continues to cooperate with the United States on securing missile sites to prevent the theft of nuclear material by terrorists. Recently, work on 25 missile sites was completed two years ahead of schedule. Other nonproliferation projects, including radiation detectors at border crossings, are also ahead of schedule. Beneath all the flap, rhetoric and headlines, the serious work goes on.

Moreover, the idea of a constitution has begun playing more of a role in public discourse. During their uprising in 1825, the aristocratic rebels known as Decembrists had a battle cry of "Constantine and Constitution" -- Constantine being the tsar they preferred, while Constitution was taken by the common people to be his wife. In his memoir "My Century," the Polish poet Aleksander Wat describes being interrogated in Lubyanka during World War II and appealing to the admirably liberal Soviet Constitution. His interrogator opened his desk drawer, pulled out a rubber truncheon and said, "Here's the Soviet Constitution for you." But now in 2007, whatever unpredictable move Putin ends up making, he will make it in relation to the Constitution. Though it may be flouted, sidestepped or used as a smoke screen, the concept of a constitution is achieving some force and presence in Russia. And that's something.

The recent conviction of a few police officers for brutality is dismissed by some as no more than pre-election games, like freezing food prices. Others point out that several of the cases were opened well before the current political season. Callers to an Ekho Moskvy radio show on the subject were divided equally between those who thought the verdicts could influence other police officers' behavior in the future and those who felt it would not.

If the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky proved anything, it was that the judiciary will, if need be, serve the interests of the Kremlin regardless of the truth and the law. But Russian society today is authoritarian, not totalitarian. Not everything is or can be subjugated, and there is evidence that some people who have adopted the law as a profession actually believe in its precepts. Judges here and there have been displaying signs of independence. A Sakharov of the courts has to be one of the Kremlin's nightmares.

Traditionally, Russians viewed the law as another whip to keep them in line. But that could change if they got the whip in their own hands. The spontaneous motorists' movement against police corruption that began in Yekaterinburg illustrates that Russia can change in ways that circumvent politics. There are 28 million cars on the road, which is four times the level of 1991. People are protesting against being pulled over and forced to pay bribes. People now have property and possessions, something to lose and something to fight for. Without knowing it, the drivers' strategy is similar to the one used by the dissidents in Soviet times: not to try to seize power, but to force the powers that be to obey the laws on the books.

The Constitution also guarantees the right to strike, which is what some workers have been threatening to do lately in the Ford plant near St. Petersburg. And who knows at what moment the right spark and the right leader will appear. One day Lech Walesa is an unknown electrician, the next day he jumps a shipyard fence and lands in history.

There are indications of deepening resentment among the working class. The divide between the new rich and everyone else is too vast and glaring. As writer Viktor Strogalshchikov put it: In Soviet times, a big shot had a better car than a working stiff, but not 20 cars more. There is something fundamentally insulting in the discrepancy.

Grumbling can already be heard. And if there is one thing Russian rulers have always feared, it's the people.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred for Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."