December 10, 2011, was a historic day for Russia. It’s too early to say whether the massive anti-government demonstration in Moscow marks the beginning of a people-power revolution. But the peaceful rally, attended by tens of thousands of Muscovites, has set an important precedent. A new generation of Russians saw that protests need not be accompanied by fear and violence. The civic spirit of the gathering was a strong antidote to the cynicism that has poisoned public life in Russia for so long. Although the demonstration has no direct connection to the rallies of the Arab Spring or the “Occupy” movement, it also can’t be viewed in isolation of the global mood.
I attended my first rally in Moscow as a student in 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union’s existence. I remember standing in a sea of people near the Bolshoi Theater on Revolution Square. There were speeches and chants and lots of pushing. I hardly understood a word of Russian at the time, but I was thrilled to be a witness of history. As an American who has studied Russia for most of his life, I got that same feeling on Saturday.
What follows is a chronology of the day’s events as I saw them.
On Revolution Square. Dozens of olive-drab Interior Ministry trucks and police buses are parked along the street. Metal barriers and policemen line the way up to Lubyanka Square and beyond. Walk-through metal detectors have been set up next to the Metropol Hotel, limiting access to the small square, which has a granite statue of Karl Marx glowering at the Bolshoi Theater. Everywhere there are journalists, policemen and their auxiliary helpers, mostly middle-aged men in civilian clothes and red armbands. It’s around freezing and snowing lightly.
A policeman with a megaphone is walking near the entrance to the Metro station, informing anybody coming for the rally to proceed on foot to Bolotnaya Square.
A group of opposition activists had originally received permission to hold a rally with 300 participants on Revolution Square. But when it became clear that at least 100 times as many people planned to attend, the city agreed to allow the demonstration on Bolotnaya (Swamp) Square, located on a built-up island in the Moskva River across from the Kremlin. Several opposition leaders pledged to meet at Revolution Square anyway and then proceed to Bolotnaya, about two miles away. Police warned them not to shout slogans, unfurl banners or hinder traffic.
Muscovites were incensed after reports of vote-rigging filled the internet following the elections to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, on Sunday, December 4. Thousands turned up on Monday for a protest that ended in hundreds of arrests, including the detention of anti-government activists Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin. There were more arrests at a rally on Tuesday night. But rather than be intimidated, tens of thousands of Muscovites signed up for the Saturday rally on a special Facebook event page.
The country’s leaders only added insult to injury. President Dmitry Medvedev defended the elections as free and fair, calling the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, a “magician” for his uncanny ability to prognosticate election results. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting Monday’s protests.
A scrum of cameramen and reporters has gathered around Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the 1990s. He’s one of the “eternal” Putin foes who has turned his opposition to the government into a cottage industry. There’s no way of getting close enough to hear him, but he usually repeats the same stock phrases anyway.
Instead I pick up other words floating through the winter air. “Where are the 20,000? Where are the 20,000?” mutters a middle-aged man walking by. “Salaries were raised…” I hear one police auxiliary tell another. “… in Egypt…” is all I catch from three young men walking by. A policewoman is explaining to her less informed colleagues that Russia Today, the Kremlin’s foreign language propaganda arm, is a Russian channel. “Russia Today? That’s one of our stations. Don’t you guys ever watch TV? I don’t.” Three young people wearing Guy Fawkes masks walk past.
Suddenly I see Gennady Gudkov and his son, Dmitry, walking toward me along the predetermined route to Bolotnaya Square. I join them. Gudkov Sr. is one of the most interesting politicians in contemporary Russia. Like Putin, he served in the KGB during Soviet times. Now he’s a deputy chairman of the Duma committee on security and a leader of the Fair Russia party. He’s stood out for some time for his criticism of the government that seems to me to be grounded in a basic sense of decency. Dmitry is the head of Fair Russia’s youth wing. I became Facebook friends with both of them a while back and jump on the opportunity to introduce myself in real reality. Father and son are striding briskly toward Lubyanka Square, where the headquarters of the KGB – now the FSB – is located. It turns out we’re near the head of a long column of protesters walking to the main rally. Police line the side of the street.
I reach Dmitry first. He’s a tall, lanky young man. A white ribbon, the symbol of the protest movement, is pinned to his coat.
– What do you expect today at Bolotnaya?
– I expect many people to come. Even if it’s just 10,000, that would be great.
– What has changed? Why are Russians suddenly protesting?
“The people are angry. This was predictable; we’ve been saying this would happen all along. But they went ahead and falsified the election anyway.”
– The people are angry. We are citizens of this country. In Tambov they stole half of my votes. The people have decided to react to the lies on TV, to the humiliation. This was predictable; we’ve been saying this would happen all along. But they went ahead and falsified the election anyway.
– But accusations of vote-rigging aren’t new. They’ve accompanied elections in the past, too.
– The falsifications have become obvious to everyone, and that’s why so many young people are turning out. They pressured a friend of mine, and my wife miraculously got away from the police.
– What are your demands?
– Our first demand is Churov’s resignation, a parliamentary investigation into vote-rigging and the dissolution of regional election commissions. We’re even ready for new elections.
As we pass Lubyanka, protestors behind us chant slogans against Churov. Others blow on whistles. The Central Election Commission is located in a parallel side street. A cordon of police blocks off any access. We walk on, past Staraya (Old) Square, once seat of the all-powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party in Soviet times, now the home of the presidential administration. More whistling. One lane of traffic has been especially blocked off for the protesters. A huge stream of people is behind us. Just a week ago, such a scene would have been unimaginable.
I catch up with Gudkov Sr. He and his son have just come from a Fair Russia convention, where colorless party leader Sergei Mironov was nominated to run for president in the March 4 election. (Mironov already once ran against Putin in 2004, when he was seen as a mere “alibi” candidate. He’s since fallen out with Putin’s ruling United Russia party after he was ousted from his position as speaker of the upper house of parliament during the summer.) If Gudkov had any ambitions of his own, he doesn’t betray them to me. As for the protest, Gudkov says he expected it. “I warned the government that they shouldn’t treat the people like cattle,” he says.
“This is a grassroots process. The main thing is that all of the opposition supports it. Nobody is happy with the situation.”
Nemtsov suddenly appears behind me and thrusts his hand out to Gudkov in greeting. Nemtsov’s bodyguards shunt me to the side, and my interview is cut short. Sometimes journalists are treated like cattle. It goes with the territory.
“This is a grassroots process. The main thing is that all of the opposition supports it. Nobody is happy with the situation.”
We are approaching the Moskva River Embankment, from which we’ll loop around and cross the bridge to the island where the rally is being held. All along the way are cops and metal barriers. Everyone will later praise the Moscow police for their professionalism. The organization is perfect, but the huge police turnout – some 50,000 officers are on duty – shows the nervousness of the powers that be.
Ahead of me I see a red banner and the black-yellow-white czarist tricolor that’s become the symbol of Russian nationalists. A police helicopter hovers overhead.
We’re walking up to the bridge. Giant Ural police trucks and a line of cops stand between the procession and St. Basil’s Cathedral with its fairy-tale onion domes.
We’ve reached the island and are approaching Bolotnaya Square. A gigantic crowd has already gathered. Flags are fluttering in the wind – white flags from the liberal Yabloko party, orange flags from the progressive Solidarity movement, nationalist tricolors, purple flags from the pro-western Parnas party. Someone is holding a sign reading “Putin Go Away.” I follow the Gudkovs as they wade their way through the crowd to the stage. Gudkov Sr. isn’t a familiar face on TV screens, but a few protesters still recognize him. “Gudkov for president!” someone shouts.
I make it to the VIP zone behind the stage. TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov, who has had the balls to criticize the sad state of Russian television news, has just finished speaking. Chants of “Those weren’t elections! Those weren’t elections!” come from the crowd.
Nemtsov takes to the stage. “As long as we’re united, we’re undefeatable,” he shouts. Gudkov Sr. speaks next. “The ruling party isn’t worthy of being in the Duma and running the country,” he tells the crowd, which covers the mid-section of the island and the southern embankment of the Moskva River. A foot bridge is so packed that the organizers ask people to move off it. (The message doesn’t appear to get through, but there is no disaster.)
After Gudkov Sr. comes Gudkov Jr. One speaker follows the next, most of them relatively well-known Moscow liberals like writer Dmitry Bykov, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, Putin’s first prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Russian branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International. Sergei Mitrokhin, head of Yabloko, calls for everyone to gather at Pushkin Square in a week. Yabloko was the only liberal party to be registered, but it failed to pass the 7 percent barrier needed to get into the Duma – at least according to the official vote count.
“Putin publicly insulted the people when he said he was returning to the presidency. They took part in the elections to vote for anybody but United Russia.”
I’ve interviewed Kasyanov a couple of times over the past two years and pull him aside when he comes off the stage. After his falling-out with Putin in 2004, he’s been completely shut out of the political process. It’s impossible to know how successful he’d be as a politician on a level playing field. I ask him what’s changed since I last spoke to him during the summer.
“Putin publicly insulted the people when he said he was returning to the presidency,” he says. “People took that as a humiliation. And they took part in the elections to vote for anybody but United Russia.” He admits that the turnout at the rally is larger than he expected.
Next I grab Oreshkin. I often used to talk to him get his take on the political situation. He’s now involved with the Citizen Observer project, which encourages ordinary citizens to help monitor elections. Oreshkin says he’s still skeptical about what happens next. “I hope that during the presidential election we’ll be able to monitor twice as many polling stations. That will make vote-rigging even harder. People have woken up. We can take the initiative with the elections. I’m counting on the internet.”
Putin and Medvedev’s problem is that their approval ratings have halved since the Georgian War in August 2008 – down to about 35 percent today. “I don’t know how they can get their ratings back up,” Oreshkin says. “Their main problem now is how to rewrite the political agenda.”
As for the current rally, Oreshkin marvels that it represents all political persuasions and is at its heart a “citizens’ protest.” “People are going from being cogs in the machine during Soviet times to taxpaying citizens,” he says. “It’s a slow process.”
“People are going from being cogs in the machine to taxpaying citizens. It’s a slow process.”
At the edge of the stage are a group of protesters holding czarist tricolors. Sure enough, one of them is Vladimir Tor, one of the leaders of the now banned far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration. I interviewed him during the summer and wave to him. He doesn’t recognize me at first and raises a clenched fist in response. Tor – Vladlen Kralin’s nom de guerre, Russian for the Norse god Thor – belongs to the self-proclaimed nationalists who hold that Putin has betrayed Russia’s interests, in part by sending huge subsidies to the impoverished North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya. (Incidentally, jailed anti-corruption blogger Navalny turned up at a nationalist gathering on Bolotnaya Square in October to support a new cause called “Stop Feeding the Caucasus.”)
Tor comes up to the metal barrier separating us. A megaphone is strapped over his shoulder. I ask him what he thinks changed since we last spoke. “The people feel robbed,” he says.
“When people started asking each other who voted for United Russia and nobody knew anyone, they realized the scale of the rigging.”
“When people started asking each other who voted for United Russia and nobody knew anyone, they realized the scale of the rigging.” There is a nationalist protest scheduled for the next day on Bolotnaya – December 11 will be the first anniversary of a riot by 5,000 young nationalists and soccer hooligans below the Kremlin walls. Tor looks at me with a very serious face when I ask if he’ll be there. “Probably,” he says darkly. Why probably? “Because it’s not clear how things will end today.”
The speeches continue, though it’s not entirely clear if the vast crowd can hear them. When I made my way to the stage, the speakers were barely audible. It’s cold and wet, and the leaden sky is beginning to darken. But still the people remain, as far as I can see ahead of me and on the opposite embankment.
Panfilova, the anti-corruption campaigner, goes on stage and leads a chant: “Russia without corruption! Russia without corruption!” Another speaker goes up, I can’t always see the stage. “Putin resign! Putin resign!” he chants.
“People started thinking: why did they falsify the elections? To stay in power. And why do they need to stay in power? To steal.”
Panfilova is another Facebook friend I finally have a chance to meet. “In fact this is a demonstration against corruption,” she says. “People started thinking: why did they falsify the elections? To stay in power. And why do they need to stay in power? To steal.” I ask Panfilova if she’s happy with the turnout. “I’m worried,” she says. “This shouldn’t be for just one day.” At this point in our conversation, Tor, who’s not standing very far away, starts blowing on his whistle so hard that I can barely hear Panfilova. “Now the ball is in their court,” she shouts. “And it’s a big ball.”
In the meantime, Dmitry Dyomushkin, head of the now banned Slavic Union (in Russian its initials are “SS”), appears behind the stage. He stands out in a crowd because of his bushy beard. He smiles when I introduce myself as an American journalist: “Oh yes, Barack Obama paid me to come here today.” I ask him what the main demands at tomorrow’s nationalist rally will be. “We’ll also speak out for free elections and freedom of assembly,” Dyomshkin says.
“We also don’t like that these khans stay in power.” The conversation ends here, as there’s a small scuffle on the steps leading up to the stage. Security isn’t letting through Alexander Belov, another nationalist leader.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal politician whose political career has also been stunted by impossibly harsh registration rules, is taking a symbolic vote on the protesters’ demands: freeing “political prisoners,” i.e. the hundreds of demonstrators locked up earlier in the week; annulling the results of the parliamentary elections; the resignation of Churov and an investigation into his activities as elections chairman; the registration of all political parties; free and fair elections.
If the demands aren’t met within two weeks, the next speaker announces, there will be another rally on December 24. He says organizers will again use Facebook and Twitter.
Ryzhkov takes the stage again, leading a chant: “Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin! Russia will be free! Russia will be free!” He compliments the police for guaranteeing the security of demonstrators and “acting like the police of a democratic country.” He asks people to begin leaving the rally and not to give in to any “provocations.”
The speeches are over. Kino, the rock group that became the voice for young people growing up during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (rebuilding) era, blasts from the speakers.
After taking pictures from the stage, I walk toward the Metro station near the Tretyakov Gallery to speak with some demonstrators. A middle-aged man who identifies himself as Maxim is a Yabloko supporter who took part in the mass demonstrations in the early 1990s. For the opposition to be successful, there must be a split inside the governing elite, he says. I completely share this opinion. No people-power revolution has succeeded without defections from the ruling clique, including the state security agencies. At the moment, that still seems like a remote possibility.
One young man on the foot bridge held a sign that said “Putin burn in hell.”
As I cross the intact foot bridge to the south bank of the Moskva, I pass a group of young people, one of whom is holding a cardboard sign on which is scrawled: “Putin, burn in hell.” They are all students at the Moscow Aviation Institute. The young man holding the sign, Anton, 21, is the most articulate. “Putin is shipping our natural resources out of the country and channeling the proceeds to a small, limited caste.” Anton knows all about the Kremlin shenanigans this autumn that prevented oligarch (and New Jersey Nets owner) Mikhail Prokhorov from heading a liberal party into the Duma. Anton and his friends say they get all their news from the internet. “We’re the children of perestroika,” he says.
Outside the Tretyakov Gallery I meet a young couple. Viktor voted for the Liberal Democrats, the party led by nationalist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, while his girlfriend voted for the Communists. (Both parties made significant gains in their parliamentary representation. Although they also claim there was vote rigging, the two parties aren’t in favor of annulling the election results.) I’m surprised.
“We’re the children of perestroika.”
“Are you a convinced Communist or did you vote for them out of protest?” I ask.
“Why ‘protest?’ I like the Communists,” the girl answers. “You want the wall back?” I ask incredulously. An elderly man smoking nearby overhears our conversation.
“What wall?” he says. “Education, medical care, housing, it was all free.”
“But you don’t want to go back to the Soviet Union!” says Viktor.
“No, of course not,” the man and the girl reply in unison.