Mary Dejevsky: Regime change happens fast – so how stable is Medvedev?

What seems obvious with hindsight was invisible in 1917

When all else fails, seek a parallel in history. So it is that the Great Depression and the works of John Maynard Keynes have become fashionable reference points across the English-speaking world. But it is not only the stricken West that is looking for answers in earlier times. Russians, too, have been scouring the past in the hope of finding lessons for today.

Their period of choice, since Gorbachev's perestroika brought the Soviet system to its untidy end, has been the decade before the 1917 revolution. Tsarism had survived the uprising of 1905. Russia seemed to be moving towards constitutional monarchy. Social and economic change were rapid, what with rural reform, railway-building, urbanisation and the growth of a professional middle class.

Curiosity about those years only grew after the Soviet Union's collapse. Bookshops are stuffed with the works of early 20th century movers and shakers. It is as though Russians want to go back to where they were before modernisation was so crudely interrupted, and try to do it properly the second time around.

This helps to explain how Pyotr Stolypin, Nicholas II's Prime Minister between 1905 and 1911, took second place in a recent television poll for the greatest Russian of all time. (Alexander Nevsky, the medieval warrior prince, topped the poll, while Joseph Stalin – for all the horrified foreign reaction to his prominence – actually came in only third.)

Stolypin was the acceptable face of Russian reform. He tried to defuse peasant unrest by encouraging a new class of small land-owners. He was also a stickler for law and order, introducing summary justice to tackle a spate of assassinations and police killings. Some might describe him as the Vladimir Putin of his day, higher-born and more visionary, but with a similarly iron sense of purpose.

The positive light in which Stolypin and his reforms are now viewed by many Russians, however, negates another, more ominous parallel. The Stolypin reforms failed to turn the tide of unrest, which escalated not just in the countryside, but in cities and universities. The Prime Minister himself was assassinated, while accompanying the Tsar to a performance at the Kiev Opera.

What is more, in the years, months and even days before popular protest finally toppled the Tsar, no one realised that the whole established order was in its death throes. What seems obvious with hindsight was invisible to those for whom life would never be the same again. Something similar could be said of the last days of the Soviet Union.

That the system was in economic extremis was clear from the acute shortages of basic goods; that the leadership at almost every level lacked credibility was also clear. But that the end would come when and how it did – when the constituent republics declared their independence and the centre conceded that it could not hold – was no less of a shock to most Russians than it was to the outside world.

There is a legitimate question to be asked about how much regime-change really impinges on the lives of politically unengaged individuals. I once asked an elderly Russian museum curator in the deep provinces how changes at the centre had affected her. Of all the tempests that had buffeted 20th century Russia – the Bolshevik revolution, the civil war, Stalin's purges, the Thaw, perestroika, the end of communism – it was only when its young men started dying on the Second World War battle-front, she said, that her village felt the harsh winds from outside.

In the wider sweep of history, though, changes of regime do matter – and it is possible that the lessons Russians should be learning from their recent history are less about interrupted reforms, than about regimes that are doomed to die. I owe this thought to a contemporary Russian scholar, Vladimir Shlapentokh, who recently asked this surprising and provocative question: "Is Putin's regime less vulnerable than Monarchist Russia in 1916 or the Soviet Union in 1990?"

His point was not only that no one in those years saw the significance of the events unfolding around them but that the end, when it came, came very suddenly. Recent weeks have witnessed protests in many European countries; the causes were diverse, but linked by a widely shared dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Less widely reported has been the spread of protest in Russia. Four years ago impoverished pensioners rocked the government into improving benefits. This time the protesters represent a wider range of constituencies, they can be mustered by mobile phone, and the government has little money to placate them.

Putin remains popular. The new President, Dmitry Medvedev, still carries credibility. But incomplete reforms, disillusionment, joblessness and clumsy policing make for a volatile mix. Keep an eye on Russia. The downturn could yet be the making of Medvedev – but just remember how suddenly past regimes have unravelled.