They did it. The organizers of December’s spontaneous anti-government demonstrations managed to bring out at least as many people onto Moscow’s streets yesterday as at the last big rally on Christmas Eve. Biting cold and visible cracks in the motley protest movement dampened expectations. But the massive turnout gave the demonstrators new momentum in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election.
Vladimir Putin had cause to rejoice as well. The police reported that 138,000 people had turned up at a pro-government rally at Moscow’s Victory Park yesterday, four times the official estimate for his opponents’ rally. “This is very important for me,” Putin said on state television last night, reiterating that he couldn’t continue working without the people’s support. He even promised to help pay the fine that organizers were charged for vastly exceeding the permitted 15,000 participants.
The opposition accused the authorities of inflating numbers and forcing state employees to attend the pro-Putin rally. There are no independent, reliable sources of information. But what really matters is that Putin regained his confidence. By hook or by crook the government can still mobilize tens of thousands of people. He won’t go easy.
At 11 a.m. I arrived at Oktyabrskaya metro station, located at the top of Lenin Prospekt. A towering statue of the founder of the Soviet Union still dominates the square, flanked by socialist-era high-rises, including the Interior Ministry.
The thermometer outside the metro station showed -18 degrees Celsius, just under zero degrees Fahrenheit. When I got dressed in the morning I felt like an astronaut preparing for a space walk: I put on four layers over my legs and torso, not counting a thin layer of cat hair that covered my entire outfit.
When it’s this cold, everything seems to move in slow motion. Traffic cops were diverting traffic from Lenin Prospekt onto the Garden Ring. A row of metal detectors blocked off Bolshaya Yakimanka, the thoroughfare cutting through an old neighborhood to the Moskva River and the Kremlin a little more than a mile away.
Originally the organizers had wanted to lead a procession along the Garden Ring to Manezh Square below the Kremlin walls. City authorities refused to grant permission citing security concerns and the gridlock such a rally would create. A significantly shorter march up Bolshaya Yakimanka to Bolotnaya Square, where the first big demonstration was held on December 10, was a compromise solution. The organizers had reluctantly agreed, but given the frigid temperatures, a short, brisk march probably ended up being to their advantage. Again citing security concerns, the police prohibited protesters from bringing thermos bottles with them. I even saw cops taking away plastic water bottles from people passing through the metal detectors.
I started walking up Bolshaya Yakimanka. The multi-lane street yawned into the distance. A few TV journalists were shooting their stand-ups. Policemen were unloading metal barriers in front of the French Embassy complex, where protesters had been instructed to gather.
I decided to send my first ever on-location tweet. When I took off my gloves, my fingertips lost their sensitivity almost instantly. The tiny buttons on my phone seemed to have contracted in the cold. The touch screen didn’t react, and my phone informed me that I had no connection. A bad day for a Twitter revolution. (Hours later, when I was finally behind my laptop again, I discovered that I had inadvertently but successfully posted a status update on Facebook.)
Not only did my phone fail me because of the low temperatures, but my camera kept complaining about a lens error and a depleted battery pack. Pencil and paper are still the irreplaceable tools of the journalistic trade.
By 11:30 the first activists began forming their ranks. The organizers had decided that the protesters would march in four groups: citizens without any political affiliation followed by liberals, nationalists and leftists.
Members of the Left Front, a fringe group that has become one of the engines of the protest movement, were raising their red flags in front of the Mexican Pancho Villa and the Japanese Ichiban Boshi restaurants. The liberals from the Yabloko party and Parnas movement were mustering in front of the French Embassy. A troop of nationalists marched past me, young men in black, shivering in their sneakers and training pants.
I walked between the groups. The nationalists were busy taking folded czarist era black-yellow-white tricolors out of a box and attaching them to plastic flagpoles.
The activists in the front row of the leftist column had unfurled a long banner with a hammer and sickle reading “Down with presidential autocracy.” “What is this, the Soviet Union?” a young woman muttered as she passed by.
As I was taking notes, a babushka in a blue coat and blue scarf scrutinized the press badge around my neck with her piercing blue eyes.
“What press?” she wanted to know.
I hesitated for a moment, it was a good question.
“I’m a blogger,” I declared.
“So, so,” she said. “Well, your main blogger guy, Navalny, I heard he’s a member of Yabloko. I also heard he’s a Jew. They’re all Jews.”
I’d heard my share of anti-Semitic rot over the eight years I lived in Russia. I knew better than to argue.
“I hope you’re not offended,” she said when she saw what must have been a pained expression on my face.
I laughed. “I’m American,” I said, letting the cat out of the bag.
“You’re completely under the Jews’ control,” she said with pity in her voice. She shook her head when I pleaded ignorance of this news, launching into a tirade against U.S. military interventions around the world.
An old man standing nearby looked at us skeptically. “He’s not American, he’s from China, can’t you see?” he said.
“Oh they’re all mixed up in America. How could a white country elect a black president? He’s a monkey! And a Jew!” the babushka exclaimed. “Hang in there, American! Just don’t touch Russia!”
The babushka trudged on, in search of the political grouping that best matched her beliefs. She was hardly representative of the middle class Muscovites filling up Bolshaya Yakimanka. She was just more talkative.
I saw another babushka who was selling portraits of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin for 20 rubles ($0.65) a piece. Yet another woman was handing out a densely-printed manifesto of an organization called the Great Russian Empire.
The protest organizers, as liberals and intellectuals, are determined to defend the pluralism of the movement, even if that means including views they personally find abhorrent. Right now the common enemy is Putin. Political differences will be sorted out in a future parliament.
A few brave gay rights activists marched by with rainbow flags and a sign reading “Queers will save the world.” A woman held a placard with a photograph of the late Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and the words “We need our Havel.” An old man was wearing a button displaying the portrait of Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar. A much younger man hoisted a sign with the words “Think for yourself.” A middle-aged woman bustled by saying “What if I don’t want to march with any of these people?”
Near the metal detectors I discovered a group of supporters of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets and the only fresh face among Putin’s four challengers for the presidency. They were all wearing white scarves with his name printed on them and held up a black-and-white banner depicting the towering magnate meeting with citizens.
An old communist was arguing with them. “You’re for capitalism? For the occupation?”
“No,” said a man with a gray goatee shouldering a painting of Jesus. “We’re for art.”
Nearby a couple of men were holding up a banner with the portrait of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, the hero of many young protesters. People kept standing in front of it to take their picture.
The procession wasn’t scheduled to start until 1:00, but just after 12:30 I noticed that the columns had started moving. I first caught up with the nationalists.
“A Russian government for Russia!” they shouted, a reference to the nationalist belief that Putin is a traitor because he’s sold out the country to non-Russian ethnic groups like the Chechens. “Forward Russia!” they screamed. Above us the sky was filled with the czarist tricolors. In front of me I noticed a fellow wearing a shoulder bag with a huge Union Jack on it.
On the side of the road a bearded man was trying to make a headcount of the nationalist pack. It was Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Moscow-based Sova Center which monitors hate crimes. I greeted him and asked him how many nationalists he’d counted. He estimated about 1,000.
A row of black-clad activists brought up the rear of the nationalist column, holding two banners that stretched across the street. One read “Boys of the ’90s, take off to America,” a clear message to opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov who came of age under Putin predecessor Boris Yeltsin. The second sign said: “Russians are the masters of Russia. Not the opposition!” I spotted Dmitry Dyomushkin, head of the banned Slavic Union, with his bushy beard.
I returned to the front of the column, where I found Vladimir Tor, another nationalist leader whom I had interviewed in the summer. “Are you the one writing these stories mentioning me together with Maxim Martsinkevich?” he asked me. I told him that Martsinkevich, a white supremacist with the nickname “Machete,” was recently profiled in the Financial Times.
“Ah, right,” said Tor. “You’re with The Moscow Times.”
“No, I’m writing a book and have a blog,” I answered.
Tor lightened up. “Oh, sorry.”
A young nationalist walked by with a solo chant of his own: “Russia without Yids!”
I crossed the 50-meter cordon sanitaire separating the nationalists from the liberals to catch up with the supporters of Grigory Yavlinsky, whose candidacy for presidency had been denied on a technicality. There were flags with his name on them, and somebody held up a sign saying “Yavlinsky is my president.” I didn’t expect so much support for a politician who’s been around for the past 20 years.
I was also impressed by the protesters’ sense of humor. “You don’t like my election commission? Then sue me in my courts,” read one placard. “Freedom for the galley slave,” proclaimed another sign, referring to Putin’s famous statement that he had slaved away for Russia as president.
A young woman held up a sign that said: “Today we bark. Tomorrow we’ll bite.” The words “Or maybe even…” were printed next to a picture of a poodle mounting the bear that is the symbol of Putin’s United Russia party.
When I reached the bridge over the Moskva at 1:30, I couldn’t believe my eyes. All of Bolotnaya Square, located on a banana-shaped island in the middle of the river, was already packed with demonstrators. Somehow I had gotten stuck with the freaks at the back of the procession; most of the protesters had already reached the finish line. At the last demonstration, a small group of nationalists had tried to storm the stage. This time they were prevented from even approaching it.
I decided to loop around the demonstration by walking up Kadashevskaya Embankment to the next bridge and doubling back to the stage. A police hovercraft passed below on the frozen river, while a police helicopter flew overhead. The entire embankment was packed with production vans from every Russian TV station, from the English-language Kremlin propaganda arm Russia Today to the military channel Zvezda (Star).
Even before the first speaker took to the stage, the organizers had accomplished their main mission of getting a similar amount of demonstrators out onto the street as they had at the last December rally. The actual stage show lasted less than an hour.
Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, the able MC at the last two meetings, was joined at this rally by Yevgeniya Chirikova, the grassroots environmental activist who gained national fame with her protests against a highway north of Moscow. Rock critic Artemy Troitsky got the crowd warmed up with the song “Lock up Putin’s gang.”
Troitsky was followed by the most extraordinary addition to the protest movement, a band started by two former paratroopers whose anti-Putin song “Freedom Landing” has gathered more than 1 million views on YouTube. Dressed in black down jackets and the aquamarine berets of the paratroopers, Mikhail Vistitsky and Stanislav Baranov launched into their lumbering song that mocked Putin as “a regular bureaucrat, not a czar nor a god,” who had ruined the army, bought palaces and made health care unaffordable. “Tyrant leave,” they bellowed as the banners of the paratroopers waved behind them.
The song is remarkable not because of its musical qualities but because of the demographic it represents: the Russian muzhik, perhaps a bit rough around the edges but in his heart of hearts an honest, decent, hard-working guy. Before the protests, the paratroopers were best known for getting drunk and swimming in the fountains at Gorky Park on Paratroopers Day every August 2.
Dmitry Bykov, who has taken on the role of the protest movement’s merry poet, was standing with other organizers in the background, waving a sign upside down that said: “Don’t rock the boat, our rat is feeling sick.”
The speeches were kept to a minimum, and few politicians spoke. The paratroopers were followed by short remarks by writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and disabled rights activist Irina Yasina. Ilya Yashin, a young leader of the liberal Solidarity movement, was by far the best speaker. He said he had recently bumped into an old schoolteacher of his who had been told she’d lose her job if she didn’t attend the pro-Putin rally. Yashin appealed to teachers, many who work in polling stations, not to participate in ballot-stuffing on March 4.
Alexander Belov, a bespectacled nationalist leader, took the stage next, a black-yellow-white scarf wrapped around his neck. It seemed to be his first appearance before such a vast crowd; he shouted so loudly into the microphone that it sounded like his lungs would burst. “Russia without Putin,” he screamed. Chirikova and Ryzhkov politely indicated that his time was up.
Journalist Olga Romanova, one of the main organizers of the rallies, and Gennady Gudkov, a parliamentary deputy and forceful Putin critic, repeated the first two demonstrations’ demand for the release of all political prisoners.
Left Front activist Sergei Udaltsov, who had been repeatedly imprisoned on flimsy charges over the last several months, mocked Putin’s suggestion that his opponents were funded by the United States. In fact, when Russians protested NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, he had been among the activists who pelted the U.S. Embassy with “shit” as high up as the fifth floor, Udaltsov boasted. “Where was Putin?” he asked. It’s Putin who’s working in America’s interests.
Udaltsov suggested that on March 4 at 8 p.m., groups of citizens gather at every polling station in Moscow and demand to see each precinct’s final vote tally so they can compare it with results published by the Central Election Commission. Udaltsov held up a portrait of Putin and tore it into little pieces.
Yavlinsky spoke a few words of thanks to the protesters. “For us, March 4 is the beginning; for them it’s the end,” he said. He seemed to get the loudest cheers of anybody up to that point.
Rock musician Yury Shevchuk, the lead singer of the legendary group DDT, closed the rally with an uplifting rendition of his song “Rodina” (Motherland). The demonstrators released thousands of white balloons into the winter sky.
It was just after 2:30. Ryzhkov thanked the crowd and announced the date of the next rally: February 26.