This Christmas, Russians stopped fearing their government. Tens of thousands of people protested yesterday for free and fair elections on a central Moscow thoroughfare named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. In a collective suspension of disbelief, ordinary citizens watched cultural figures, civic activists and even a former finance minister attack the political edifice that Vladimir Putin spent 12 years building. The crowd, which filled a space as big as five football fields, paused for a moment of silence to honor the late leader of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel.
The Kremlin had ignored Havel’s passing last week while publicly sending condolences to North Korea after the death of dictator Kim Jong-Il. The omission was not only a postmortem retort to Havel’s criticism of the Russian leadership, but a reflection of Putin’s antipathy toward any kind of regime change that takes place on the street. As a KGB agent in East Germany, Putin witnessed how Soviet power was overthrown by crowds of peaceful citizens demanding their rights. The experience would become the most formative of his political career.
Yesterday Putin saw the ghosts of Christmas past float before him: 22 years ago, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed after he tried to put down a nonviolent protest by force; 20 years ago, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the USSR fell apart; seven years ago, Ukrainians went to the polls after successfully demanding a re-vote in a presidential election marred by accusations of ballot stuffing.
Putin bases his legitimacy as Russia’s supreme leader on official election results – and not on the way elections are actually conducted. It’s too late to cancel the outcome of the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections, as the new Duma is already in session and an annulment would amount to an admission of vote-rigging. The next problem is the March presidential election, which could motivate even more protesters to take to the street.
The last days of December often bring surprises in Russia. Twelve years ago, President Boris Yeltsin announced his early retirement on New Year’s Eve, automatically making Putin, his prime minister, acting president. The 2000 presidential election was then held three months earlier than planned, giving Putin the advantage over his opponents. Will Putin’s assistant, President Dmitry Medvedev, do the same this year to force an even earlier election? Or will Putin instead find a way to postpone the March vote and let the fragile opposition coalition crack and crumble on its own?
I arrived at the Komsomolskaya Metro station at 1 p.m., an hour before the scheduled start of the rally. In front of Leningradsky Station, from which trains to St. Petersburg depart, Russian nationalists were handing out czarist-era black-white-yellow striped flags to their followers. There were a few disinterested cops standing around, but nothing else hinted at the preparations for Russia’s biggest anti-government demonstration in 20 years on the other side of the railway viaduct. The usual collection of travelers, unlicensed cab drivers and vagrants trudged back and forth through the slush.
Sakharov Prospekt is a broad, multi-lane street that lends itself to large gatherings because it resembles a huge square. One side is bordered by the gargantuan, multi-building headquarters of VEB, the state development bank. When I got there, police had blocked off all the side streets with metal barriers and trucks.
The entrance was a line of 50 walk-through metal detectors. I was surprised by the politeness of the cops and how conscientiously they went about their work. (In Russia, metal detectors normally have a symbolic function.)
Volunteers were handing out white ribbons, white balloons and white roses to arriving participants. Others were collecting signatures for a petition appealing to the Supreme Court to nullify the December 4 parliamentary elections.
As I walked the more than 500 meters to the far end of Sakharov Prospekt, I wondered if the organizers would be able to fill it with the 50,000 participants they had received permission for. Despite the constant stream of people, the expanse of pavement seemed vast and empty. I passed another group of nationalists, recognizable from a distance by their flags. In their shorn heads and combat boots, they stood out from the rest of the crowd.
While a majority of the gathering participants were young people, all age groups were well-represented. The absolute ordinariness of the protesters was the most remarkable thing about them.
Somebody held a poster of Putin, his head wrapped in a condom like a babushka’s shawl. Another poster showed Putin and Gaddafi in uniforms with the words: “You’re on the right path, comrades.”
The closer I got to the stage at the end of the street, the more flags I saw: orange banners from the liberal opposition group Solidarity, the odd Soviet flag and – on the right flank of the growing crowd, a sea of nationalist tricolors. Somebody held up a homemade poster of Putin, his head wrapped in a limp condom like a babushka’s shawl. (In his first reaction to the December 10 protest, Putin compared the protesters’ white ribbons to rubber contraceptives.) Another poster showed Putin and Muammar Gaddafi in military uniforms with the words: “You’re on the right path, comrades.” A sign in English read: “Hillary, I’m still waiting for my money,” a reference to Putin’s assertions that the U.S. State Department was behind the protests and that demonstrators were getting paid.
One sign read: “Hillary, I’m waiting for my money.”
Compared to the first mass demonstration two weeks earlier at Bolotnaya Square, the organization at Sakharov Prospekt was exemplary. More than $100,000 had been collected via an internet account to pay for a stage with video screens, a professional sound system and rows of immaculate portable toilets. Volunteers took care of everything else from security and setting up a protest web site. At the December 10 rally, a feeling of apprehension over a police crackdown lingered until the very end. Yesterday’s rally began in a festive atmosphere, with rock music and rap blasting through the winter air.
* * *
The three MCs were liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, journalist Olga Romanova and sports commentator Vasily Utkin. Ryzhkov, who had expertly moderated the last demonstration, opened the rally shortly after 2 o’clock. He told the protesters to be on their guard for any troublemakers in the crowd. If need be, the police was on hand to “neutralize” them.
Boris Akunin, nom de plume for popular mystery writer Grigory Chkhartishvili, was the first speaker. Wearing a big fur cap, Akunin exuded a calm dignity that none of the following speakers would be able to match.
“We’re all different, so they thought they could split us up,” he said. “They failed because the feeling that unites us is bigger than what divides us.”
There has been a debate over what to call the protest movement, Akunin said. “Let’s call our movement ‘Honest Russia,’” he suggested. “Honesty is the most important thing now. We want to live in an honest state. We live in a state that lies and steals.”
“We’re all different, so they thought they could split us up.They failed because the feeling that unites us is bigger than what divides us.”
The political demands made at Bolotnaya Square were modest, Akunin said. “How did the government respond? Medvedev gave us nebulous promises and Putin answered with insults.”
Over the long winter holidays, people will have time to do their “homework” and talk to each other on how to send Putin into retirement and not back into the Kremlin, Akunin said. “A tough year awaits us.”
His speech ended with chants of “Russia without Putin!” resounding from the crowd.
Artemy Troitsky, rock music critic, was next, wearing a curious white jumpsuit with a red bow tie, black gloves and black boots.
“I wore this condom because I was concerned about the moral state of the country and its leaders,” Troitsky said, explaining his outlandish appearance.
Russia has two state secrets, he said: one, the size of Putin’s personal fortune, and two, his private life. Almost nothing is known about his two daughters, and his wife hasn’t been seen in public for years, Troitsky complained. Everybody is entitled to their private life – but not the person who runs a country as large as Russia.
“That person must be absolutely transparent and honest,” he said. “The people know that if the president isn’t doing ‘it’ with his wife, he’s doing ‘it’ to his country.”
“The people know that if the president isn’t doing ‘it’ with his wife, he’s doing ‘it’ to his country.”
“We know nothing about his real life as a human being,” Troitsky said. Putin lives according to the principles of a “sleeper agent,” thereby showing his disrespect for his own people.
The face of TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov flickered on the video screens in a prerecorded message. Parfyonov said that Putin was reaching the same point in his political career as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had toward the end of his 18-year rule – namely he had gone from being an energetic leader to the object of popular ridicule.
Poet Dmitry Bykov took to the stage, his wry smile dancing on his lips. “We’re told we have too many flags,” he said. “The difference between men and women is bigger than between communists and liberals, and still we somehow come to an agreement. That’s the only way the human race survives.”
“We also mourn for Vaclav Havel,” Romanova told the protesters, even if the Kremlin didn’t send official condolences to the Czech government. “For shame!” she shouted. “That’s not our Russia.”
Tens of thousands of people stopped talking to observe a moment of silence.
“The difference between men and women is bigger than between communists and liberals, and still we somehow come to an agreement. That’s the only way the human race survives.”
Enter liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Earlier in the week, tabloid news site lifenews.ru had published audio clips of phone conversations in which his inimitable voice could be heard cursing other protest organizers.
His speech at the rally was his standard anti-Putin polemic. The words dissipated as quickly as they were shouted into the microphone.
Sergei Udaltsov, in police custody since the first rally against vote-rigging on December 4, appeared on the video monitors in a recording from his hospital bed. The activist from the Left Front coalition was on hunger strike to protest his detention and was in poor health. Udaltsov spoke like a real revolutionary, and his rambling speech was deadly serious.
“Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, we can say ‘we’re the 99 percent,’” Udaltsov said. Addressing the government, he said: “You’re not the elite of the nation, you’re shit. The elite of the nation is on the country’s squares.”
The opposition must form a “committee of national salvation,” which could be the beginning of a transitional government, Udaltsov said. He called for the next demonstration to be held at the end of January.
“Like Occupy Wall Street, we can say ‘we’re the 99 percent.’ You’re not the elite of the nation, you’re shit. The elite of the nation is on the country’s squares.”
Udaltsov’s wife Anastasiya Udaltsova took the microphone and led a chant: “Freedom to political prisoners!” Ryzhkov said protesters should demand the release of Udaltsov, billionaire oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former business associate Platon Lebedev.
Ilya Ponomaryov, who has one foot in the protest movement and another foot in the new Duma, was the first speaker the crowd seemed to ignore. The deputy for social democratic Fair Russia was met with catcalls and whistles. Protesters were angry that he was denouncing the government but not turning down his parliamentary seat to protest the election.
“The government always promises thaws that always end in freezes,” said Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and fringe opposition leader. He called for a “Russian spring” to begin next year.
I last saw Kasparov four years ago, when he held a rally on Sakharov Prospekt to protest the strict party registration rules before the 2007 parliamentary elections. No more than a couple of thousand die-hard activists showed up at the rally, which was drowned out by noise from concealed loudspeakers. When Kasparov attempted to march to the Central Election Commission to hand in a petition, he was arrested and given five days in prison.
“The government always promises thaws that always end in freezes.”
After yesterday’s protest, I was amazed to see that state-run Channel One showed parts of Kasparov’s speech in its surprisingly even-handed report on the rally.
Kasparov was followed by a small, blond man unfamiliar to most of the protesters; he was Vladimir Yermolayev, the leader of the banned xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration. Yermolayev launched into his speech shouting into the microphone, barely pausing except when his voice cracked.
“Look at who’s standing next to you, then smile at them,” Yermolayev said. “Consider that this person could be the next president, prime minister, representative, mayor.”
Like Udaltsov, Yermolayev called for the establishment of a “committee of national salvation.”
“We need someone to lead us who we can trust,” he said.
Can the people trust Communist Gennady Zyuganov? Nyet, the crowd answered. Nemtsov? Nyet! Liberal Grigory Yavlinsky? Nyet again. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny? Daaaaaaaa!
“They’re trying to show what big and terrible beasts they are. But we know they’re little, cowardly jackals.”
The crowd roared when Navalny stepped up to the microphone. Virtually unknown a year ago, the 35-year-old lawyer had become a hero to many for the way he used the internet to uncover government corruption. The authorities only added to his popularity by throwing him in jail for two weeks after the first rally against vote-rigging on December 5.
“They’re trying to show us on the idiot box what big and terrible beasts they really are. But we know they’re little, cowardly jackals,” said Navalny, referring to Putin’s bizarre comment last week comparing his opponents to the Bandar-log monkeys in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Navalny said he and his cellmates had followed the Bolotnaya protest from jail and had been afraid it was a one-off event. When Navalny paused, a low chant rose from the crowd that got louder and louder: “We won’t forget and won’t forgive! We won’t forget and won’t forgive!” Navalny started repeating the words into the microphone.
“I read a little book called the Constitution. It says the people are the only source of power. We’re not appealing to the powers that be. We are the power.”
The slogan didn’t resemble anything that liberal Putin foes said at their rallies. In fact, the last time it was chanted in central Moscow was a little more than a year ago, when nationalist youth went on a rampage on Manezhnaya Square after a soccer fan was killed by migrants from the North Caucasus.
“I read a little book called the Russian Constitution. It says the Russian people are the only source of power,” Navalny said. “We’re not appealing to the powers that be. We are the power.
“Who’s the power? We are!”
Navalny, dressed in a dark wool coat, scarf and jeans, spoke forcefully and freely. He seemed to build his speech on the protesters’ enthusiastic response.
“We know why we’re here. Do we want special car sirens?”
“Do we want privileges?”
“Do we want to drink oil?”
“They stole our votes. We came here to say: give us back what belongs to us! They tell us to wait until 2013. Are you ready to wait two years?”
“Are you ready to wait a week?”
“Give it back right now! We’ll take it back ourselves! I see enough people here to take the Kremlin (seat of the president) and White House (seat of the prime minister) right now. But we’re a peaceful force. We won’t do that yet. But if those swindlers and thieves keep trying to cheat us and lie to us and steal from us, then we’ll take it ourselves! It’s ours!
“We’re the power here!” he shouted.
The crowd repeated the intoxicating words.
“We’re the power here! We’re the power here!” he shouted again.
“We know what we’ll do. We’ll go on the street until they give us what’s ours! Next time, we’ll see a million people on the streets of Moscow. Da or nyet?”
“Da or nyet?”
“We don’t want to scare anybody. We’re sure the government will change peacefully next year. Power to the people! Power to the people!”
“We’re peaceful people, but we can’t wait indefinitely.”
“I see enough people here to take the Kremlin right now. If those swindlers and thieves keep lying to us and stealing from us, then we’ll take back what belongs to us! It’s ours!”
“One for all, all for one!” the crowd repeated after Navalny. It was another chant heard at the nationalist riot on Manezhnaya Square last year.
“We don’t need a party. This is the party,” Navalny said. “We are the power!”
TV host Kseniya Sobchak, Russia’s equivalent of Paris Hilton, took to the stage to jeers and whistling. For years, Sobchak had represented the vacuous glam culture of Putin’s oil boom. Now she was appearing in her role as the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg and one of the authors of the Russian Constitution. (As mayor, Anatoly Sobchak made Putin his deputy, catapulting the former spy into politics.)
Usually cheeky Sobchak looked forlorn on the stage in her white down jacket. Her voice wavered. The current opposition wasn’t her opposition, she said. She wanted leaders like rock legend Yury Shevchuk and Akunin, not those who called for taking the Kremlin or civil war. The party that she could vote her doesn’t exist yet, she said. “Let’s not fight the government, let’s influence it.”
The crowd ignored her.
Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement, spoke next. As Nemtsov’s younger cohort, Yashin, 28, has been at the head of practically every anti-government protest over the past four or five years. He earned extra street cred among the protesters by getting detained together with Navalny after the first protest following the Duma elections.
Yashin makes up for his small stature with intelligence and a winning smile. He gave the smartest political speech of the rally, without any fulminating or baiting the crowd.
“Hey you in the Kremlin! We’re in the majority. We are the people. All resistance is futile.”
During his two-week detention, a lot of the policemen and wardens showed sympathy to the protesters’ cause, Yashin said. In fact, one of his guards had just written him a text message to say he was taking part in the rally.
“I want to greet him,” Yashin said. “I’ve always believed that the police is with the people.”
Yashin expressed contempt for a government that believed its own people were too immature for real democracy. He mocked Medvedev’s hurried proposals two days earlier to liberalize the election system starting in 2013. “Can a cannibal turn into a vegetarian in a week?” Yashin asked. Staying in power is a guarantee for the personal security of the ruling class, he said.
“Hey you in the Kremlin! We don’t want your blood!” he called. “We’re in the majority. We are the people. All resistance is futile.”
The crowd laughed approvingly.
“We’re honest, peaceful citizens. We don’t want blood or revolution. All we want is honest elections.”
“We’re honest, peaceful citizens. We don’t want blood or revolution. All we want is honest elections,” Yashin said. “I have a dream to wake up in a country without corruption and lies, and where the government defends peace and justice. Russia will be free.”
Others stepped up to the microphone. Yavlinsky, the liberals’ eternal candidate for president, gave an instantly forgettable speech. Environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova spared her words, simply thanking the people for attending the rally. “You can’t imagine how happy I am,” she said with a radiant smile. “Citizens have come out onto the street.”
The surprise speaker was Alexei Kudrin, the able finance minister who was forced out of government in September after Putin made clear that he would return to the presidency and Medvedev would most likely become his prime minister. The dispute arose after Kudrin said he couldn’t work in a future Medvedev government because of his profligate arms spending. The reasoning seemed strange, since Putin was just as much behind Russia’s defense build-up as Medvedev. Kudrin’s departure from government fueled speculation that he had harbored his own designs to become Putin’s prime minister next year.
Kudrin is one of the most ambiguous figures in Russian politics. On the one hand, he doesn’t hide his liberal political views, on the other hand he is a member of Putin’s inner circle. During his national call-in show on December 15, Putin said: “Kudrin never left my team. He is my very old and good acquaintance, I’d even say my friend.”
“Alexei Kudrin never left my team. He is my very old and good acquaintance, I’d even say my friend.”
Not surprisingly, the crowd had a mixed reaction to Kudrin’s appearance. He said he had come to the rally because he didn’t agree with the election results and, like the protesters, was demanding the resignation of Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov. Election violations must be investigated, and Churov should be replaced by someone who had all the people’s trust, Kudrin said, speaking in his monotone technocrat’s voice.
The protesters need more than slogans, he said. They need a group that can formulate demands for political reforms, which must take place before any new elections are held.
“I’m ready to participate and help with dialogue,” Kudrin said. He said he was for early parliamentary elections, but in the interim the current government should continue to function.
Vladimir Tor, one of the leaders of the annual, far-right Russian March, came to the microphone next. At the last rally on Bolotnaya Square, Tor had stood next to the stage in the audience, a megaphone over his shoulder and a czarist banner in his hand. Now, after dutifully attending organizational meetings for the December 24 rally, he was taking his place on the stage. Though Tor’s views were abhorrent to the rally’s organizers, their commitment to inclusiveness meant he would be allowed to speak.
Tor began his speech by excusing himself before “Russian people” for speaking after Kudrin. He was met with chants of “Go away!” and whistling that continued for the whole time he spoke.
“More than anybody else, Russian nationalists are interested in freedom and democracy in Russia.”
Tor’s speech was filled with pompous bromides. “Freedom will come to Russia, and with it will come a free and peaceful life,” he said slowly and deliberately. “More than anybody else, we Russian nationalists are interested in freedom and democracy in Russia, because we firmly know and firmly believe that in honest elections, power will go to the majority.”
Tor recalled the spontaneous protest of 5,000 nationalists below the Kremlin walls last year, when soccer hooligans battled riot police and attacked passers-by that looked non-Russian. “Without the heroes of Manezhnaya, there wouldn’t have been Bolotnaya,” Tor said. One-and-a-half thousand of his “brothers” were in jail, he said, more than all the dissidents imprisoned under Brezhnev.
The country now needs a Russian National Party, he said to boos and whistling.
“Thank you, right column,” Tor said to the nationalist toughs waving black-yellow-white flags near the front of the stage.
Ryzhkov tried his best at damage control. “How do you like ‘Russia for everybody?’” he asked the crowd, referring to the nationalist battle-cry of “Russia for Russians.” Ryzhkov repeated his version several times.
Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister during Putin’s first term as president, spoke next. His political career has been crippled since he fell out with Putin and went over to the liberal opposition.
“The plan is simple: don’t let up the pressure,” Kasyanov said in his resonant bass. The presidential elections must be pushed back to the end of April to allow independent candidates to participate, he said. “Morally, the government is already dead. Power is in our hands.”
“Morally, the government is already dead. Power is in our hands.”
Ryzhkov took back the microphone to inform the crowd that the entire length of Sakharov Prospekt was filled, and that people were still arriving. He asked the police to move the metal detectors back to accommodate the new arrivals.
In the meantime, Tor’s “right column”was starting to get restless. One of the flag-wavers appeared to have breached the metal barriers and stepped onto a platform reserved for TV cameras. Photographers and cameramen crowded around. One of the nationalist tricolors featured a lunging bear with huge claws and gnashing teeth and the words “Forward Russia.”
Ryzhkov announced that Gorbachev wasn’t able to make it because of health reasons, but that the former Soviet leader greeted the demonstration. Boos. “Pederast!” the nationalists chanted. They had raw, ruddy faces that didn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd.The nationalists were getting rowdy. Ryzhkov asked for the police to intervene – up to that point the cops had left stage security entirely up to the volunteers. A few policemen arrived at the scene and pushed back the photographers, telling them not to provoke the nationalists by taking pictures. I saw Ponomaryov at the barrier trying to mediate.
“Fascism won’t pass,” people in the crowd shouted.
One of the nationalists had smuggled a megaphone into the rally, but his words were incomprehensible. Suddenly an older man with a czarist tricolor banner materialized in the press pit. I wondered if the provocation everybody feared was now taking place.
A bald man I didn’t recognize appeared on the stage. “Friends, this is a peaceful demonstration, so let’s act accordingly,” he said. Somehow his presence defused the situation.
“We don’t fear whistling. Putin does,” he said, encouraging the crowd to whistle as loudly as they could. The nationalists were drowned out.
After a peculiarly political Grandfather Frost, with a long white beard and blue gown, led the crowd in anti-government chants, Ryzhkov took the stage one last time. He informed the crowd about reports that busloads of pro-Kremlin “Nashi” activists were on their way to Sakharov Prospekt. Again, he appealed for protesters not to give in to provocations.
“We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”
Ryzhkov then put up the resolutions of the demonstration up for a vote. The first five remained the same from the previous rally: the immediate release of political prisoners; the annulment of the December 4 elections; the resignation of Churov and an investigation of all incidents of vote-rigging; the registration of all political parties no later than February; and new, fair elections.
He added two new demands: the formation of a Moscow union of voters to investigate voting irregularities, and “not one vote for Putin” in March. The resolution appeared to pass unanimously.
“We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!” the crowd chanted with Ryzhkov.
“Russia without Putin!”
“We’ll be back!”
The rally was over. In the press pit I bumped into a Russian friend and colleague with whom I had worked closely during the eight years I lived in Moscow.
“I never imagined this could be possible, that ordinary people would just come out on the street,” she said.
Tears of pride were streaming down her cheeks.