I’ll make a confession: the anti-government protests that broke out in Moscow a year ago really annoyed me. Like Vladimir Putin, I had completely different plans than to worry about middle-class Muscovites who, without any warning, suddenly decided to hold rallies at the onset of winter.
Only four months earlier, I had torn myself away from Moscow after eight years in Russia. In self-imposed exile, I was going to write a book debunking the widely-held notion of Putin’s invincibility. When the first protests started, I subconsciously hoped they would fizzle out so as not to disrupt my narrative. It was hardly any vindication that the demonstrations were proving my main thesis.
I must confess that the protests really annoyed me.
All the same, I realized that something huge was happening in Russia that couldn’t be grasped from abroad. So I followed my reporter’s instincts and returned to Moscow for the first mass rally on December 10. There I went into autopilot, rushing to and fro, talking to participants and scribbling down notes. When it was all over, I felt exhilarated and then depressed: I had no editor to call or headlines to dictate. I went to a party instead.
When I woke up the next morning, I started this blog. I didn’t know where it would take me at the time, but it was the fastest way to share my observations with the rest of the world. You are now reading the 42nd post.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve been accused of being everything from a Putin apologist to a Putin basher. I’ve felt obliged to dedicate a whole blog post to explain that I support neither the Russian president nor his opponents.
Over the past year, I’ve been accused of being everything from Putin apologist to Putin basher.
Of course I’ve criticized Putin, but that has less to do with any one thing he’s done than with my conviction that absolute power corrupts absolutely. While it would be ridiculous for me to deny my sympathy with the ideals of Moscow’s liberal opposition, I remain deeply skeptical of their most vocal spokesmen. I’ve never argued that any of them deserve to come to power or are particularly well-qualified to lead Russia.
For the moment, it’s still all about Putin. He built the “power vertical,” and he decided he was indispensable to Russia. I’ve often felt like a latter-day Kremlinologist, poring over his rambling essays, studying his websites and subjecting myself to hours of fawning news coverage on Russian state TV.
As the lone foreign reporter who accompanied him on trips to Tehran, Beijing and Delhi, I’ve been mostly interested in Putin as a historical figure. Unbound by the strictures of news reporting, I’ve tried to use this blog to combine eyewitness accounts with my experience as a former Moscow correspondent and lifelong student of Russia. The goal hasn’t been to predict events but merely to identify trends.
My conclusions have been published in this blog and elsewhere. Putin’s biggest problem is that maintaining the status quo will be hard enough. Last winter, he lost the young, urban middle class; in the March presidential elections, he lost Moscow. Russia’s smartest and most active citizens can’t be won back by new economic miracles or promises of reform. They demand nothing short of full political enfranchisement.
Putin’s biggest problem is keeping the status quo.
The protest movement isn’t dead, it’s just dormant. Without concrete results, strong leaders and a clear cause, large masses of people won’t keep on demonstrating. But that’s no reason for the government to celebrate, since none of the problems that sparked the protests has been solved. The anger remains.
Elections are the most vulnerable time for any government. The next big battles will take place for Moscow’s city council in 2014 and mayor in 2015 – unless Muscovites find a reason to take to the streets beforehand.