Yesterday’s demonstration in Moscow marked the half-year anniversary of Russia’s anti-government protest movement. Despite police raids on the homes of protest leaders, a new law raising fines for demonstrators and violence at the last big rally, tens of thousands of Muscovites once again took to the streets to vent their anger with Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term.
The movement has been faulted for failing to come up with a unifying leader or a program of political action. Yet considering the cynicism and resignation that characterized Russian public life for the past decade, the transformation is nothing short of incredible. After crowds marched two kilometers through central Moscow to attend a three-hour rally and rock concert, I overheard colleagues saying the protest was “boring” and that “nothing” had happened. Demonstrating against the government is no longer a novelty.
It’s true that the disparate protest movement consisting of liberals, leftists and nationalists is still struggling for coherence. But as I have argued in the past, Russia’s rulers face much bigger challenges. Having deprived itself of feedback mechanisms such as free and fair elections, independent TV networks and a vibrant civil society, the government has lulled itself into a false sense of security. Even now, Putin confuses the passivity of Russia’s apolitical majority with consent to rule.
One could argue that it’s enough for the opposition just to wait for the authorities to shoot themselves in the foot again. A series of repressive measures that followed the May 6 rally encouraged even more people to take to the streets. Utility price hikes planned for later this summer, combined with unresolved economic imbalances, could bolster the ranks of a protest movement that so far has been Moscow-based and middle-class.
At the last possible moment, city authorities granted permission for an opposition demonstration on Russia Day, a national holiday to mark Russia’s declaration of sovereignty on June 12, 1990. Protesters were allowed to march along the boulevard ring – a string of tree-lined avenues where the city walls used to stand – to a demonstration on a thoroughfare named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. (On the other end of the same street, Muscovites had gathered for a gigantic rally on Christmas Eve.)
I arrived at Pushkin Square at noon. Despite a downpour, the air remained heavy and close all afternoon. People were streaming across the square – the scene of mass arrests following Putin’s March 4 election – to the beginning of Strastnoi Boulevard, just beyond the gargantuan Rossiya movie theater. Compared to previous demonstrations, the police presence was light, almost invisible.
In front of the metal detectors, young people were hawking the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement. “Free tickets to the paddy wagon!” they called. In the days following Putin’s inauguration, wearing a white ribbon had been enough to get detained by police. I saw one middle-aged man in a T-shirt with a picture of Gandhi wearing boxing gloves.
Beyond the metal detectors, demonstrators were finding their respective political groupings. On the far, left side of the boulevard, I could see the red flags of the Left Front, the red-and-black banners of the anarchists and the rainbow colors of Moscow’s repressed LGBT movement. On the right side nationalists were mustering under black-yellow-white czarist tricolors.
And in the park that stretches down the middle of the boulevard, citizens without flags were gathering. There I spotted writer Boris Akunin, who had called for a “walk with writers” along this same route following the May 6 crackdown. Thousands turned out for that protest.
The nationalists made for the most interesting spectacle. Initial fears that they would hijack the protest movement were unfounded, because of divisions and disorganization among far-right forces. Yesterday they looked more comical than threatening.
A bearded, middle-aged man dressed in black shouted orders to the young men bearing czarist flags and the orange banner of an organization called Great Russia.
“Thirty paces forward!” he commanded, as a couple of men in black provided a drum roll. They all marched behind a short man in a black, Nazi-inspired uniform, complete with cap, armband and boots.
“Russian power for the Russian people!” the crowd chanted on command. “Moscow is a Russian city!”
A couple of fellows standing off to the side had their own, less ambiguous slogans: “Russia for Russians! Moscow for Muscovites!”
The boulevard was filling up before the official start at 1 p.m. The head of the procession was gathering near the statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved Russian bard who had spoken truth to power in Soviet times.
In comparison to the winter demonstrations, there were far fewer homemade signs with humorous sayings. The first burst of enthusiasm was over, and now people were only left with their anger that nothing had changed. Most demonstrators simply wore a white ribbon or a white article of clothing to show their support. Some young men wore T-shirts with a red-line through Putin’s face, a tiny crown slipping off his head. I saw a prim and proper girl with a button on her bag that said the Russian equivalent of “F…k off, Volodya.”
As the protesters waited in the steamy heat for the march to begin, activists from obscure movements were busy handing out leaflets. By the end of the day, I would collect densely-printed flyers from the Forum of Leftwing Forces, Red Front and the Emergency Committee for the Prevention of a Coup d’Etat and the Restoration of the Constitutional Power of the Russian People.
Three young men with crew cuts and draped in czarist flags crossed the park separating the right flank from the left. “The LGBT are over there,” one said. The unwieldy English abbreviation, which few Russians knew even a few months ago, effortlessly rolled over his tongue. Persecuted, banned and silenced in the past, gay and lesbian rights activists now march down Moscow streets under the protective umbrella of the protest movement.
In fits and starts, the giant mass of people began marching down Petrovsky Boulevard. “Russia without Putin!” they chanted. “Putin is a thief!”
As during previous protests, a broad cross-section of Moscow turned out: young and old, dressed-up and dressed-down – and all gradations in between. A middle-aged Russian man wearing the orange robe of a Buddhist monk over his clothes passed by, beating a drum. When a police helicopter hovered overhead, some protesters waved, others flipped it the bird.
After dipping down to Trubnaya Square, the boulevard ring makes its steepest ascent past the Rozhdestvensky Convent. As I turned to look behind me, I saw a crowd stretching as far as the eye could see.
The police were keeping a very low profile, and those cops who lined the way were wearing their dress uniforms for the national holiday: white shirts with dark ties. We passed the Munich Pub and Beverly Hills Diner.
Where the boulevard ring intersects with Sakharov Prospekt, there was a line of riot police and police trucks – but only enough to delineate the route of the procession. It was at the intersection that I found Gleb Pavlovsky, a former government adviser who fell out with the Kremlin last year when he publicly pushed Dmitry Medvedev to declare his candidacy for a second presidential term.
Pavlovsky stood alone and a bit forlorn, apparently looking for somebody. He wore a white ribbon on his shirt.
I asked Pavlovsky if it was his first rally. No, he said, he had attended all of them. So maybe it was about time he held a speech? No, no, no, Pavlovsky laughed. He had once spoken at a demonstration in Luzhniki Stadium in 1989, and that had been quite enough for him.
I asked him what the opposition must do now.
“They need an agenda,” Pavlovsky said. “The organizers have a very weak political approach. They don’t differentiate between slogans and a political agenda.”
I suggested that Pavlovsky was now free to share his advice with the opposition.
“There’s nobody to advise,” he replied. The multifariousness of the protest movement has made the appearance of one leader impossible.
“The organizers have a weak approach. They don’t differentiate between slogans and an agenda.”
It was 2 p.m. Slowly but surely the wide thoroughfare, the length of five football fields, began to fill up.
Before too long, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, eternal oppositionist Boris Nemtsov and Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov appeared on the stage. Udaltsov, wearing aviator sunglasses, his trademark black jacket and blue jeans, flashed the victory sign. Chirikova, one of the MCs, was in a dark dress. Nemtsov wore a black short-sleeved V-neck, looking ever the aging playboy. Gudkov, the second MC, had on a smart leather jacket.
Udaltsov and Nemtsov stared purposefully into the crowd from the big screen next to the stage. Other leaders of the opposition movement – liberal activist Ilya Yashin and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny – were absent, since they had been summoned by investigators at exactly the same time as the rally.
Udaltsov, who has never been afraid of confrontation or arrest, spoke first. The righteousness of his cause and the treachery of the authorities have prevented him from ever cracking a smile in public – a serious handicap for anyone seeking a career in politics.
“I should be with the investigators right now,” Udaltsov said. “But I decided to be with you. The investigators can wait.”
Now is the time to formulate demands, he said, as if the opposition hadn’t voiced any at the very first demonstrations in December. He rattled off a familiar list: freedom for political prisoners, political reforms, live air time on national TV, free elections.
“I should be with investigators now, but I decided to be with you. The investigators can wait.”
“Those are our demands. Nobody can say we don’t have a program,” Udaltsov concluded.
Pavlovsky was right. Besides a few slogans, the opposition still hadn’t moved to a concrete program. It’s far easier to get arrested than to form a political party.
The only interesting thing Udaltsov had to offer was a hint at the protest movement’s plans for after the summer: a rally on October 7, Putin’s 60th birthday, accompanied by a nationwide strike.
Nemtsov was up next. Although he is fondly remembered in the West as a young reformer under President Boris Yeltsin, most Russians I’ve met associate him with chaos and dirty deals. Any new political party with Nemtsov at its head would be doomed to failure.
Poet Dmitry Bykov, the mirthful poet who has become the voice of dissent, couldn’t help but joke about the raids on opposition leaders on the eve of the rally.
“They frightened us by searching homes,” Bykov said. “But searches can be very useful. You can find things you thought you lost long ago.”
Bykov was followed by speakers from a range of grassroots civic and environmental organizations. There was a nationalist wearing a T-shirt in the colors of the czarist tricolor and a former cop from the provincial town of Voronezh. A pony-tailed scientist, a historical preservationist and an opposition activist from neighboring Kazakhstan.
“The time of slogans has passed,” Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov announced. “We need to move ahead. We need a united plan. We need to stop talking and become the government.”
Ponomaryov summed up his position with a new slogan: “Power is not a word. It’s action.”
“House searches can be very useful. You can find things you thought you lost long ago.”
Towards the end of the rally, Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov took to the stage. Together with Ponomaryov and son Dmitry, fellow members of the Fair Russia party, Gudkov Sr. had tried to filibuster the new law on protests during a marathon Duma session last week. The crowd met him with cheers of “well done.”
Since I interviewed him in March, Gudkov’s private security firm has run into licensing problems, which formally have no connection to his political activities. Though not particularly well-spoken, he commands respect with his no-nonsense decency. I think he would make an interesting presidential candidate exactly because he doesn’t display the vanity so common among politicians.
“This is our country,” Gudkov said. “And we won’t give it up to anybody.”
Because protest hero Navalny was still tied up with investigators, Chirikova said that he would deliver a short recorded message. Navalny appeared on the big screen in a video clip of an earlier speech that had been edited into an anti-government rap.
Finally, Chirikova read out the so-called Manifesto of a Free Russia for approval by the crowd. Putin’s continued grip on power was “mortally dangerous” for Russia, she said. The country had already become a “resource appendage” of the West and China. Russia’s citizens are called upon to come out and help save Russia from dissolution and chaos. A coordinating council consisting of all political forces is needed to organize future demonstrations.
Chirikova listed the manifesto’s seven “measures”: Putin’s resignation; a new law on elections; the dissolution of the Duma; early parliamentary elections; a referendum on a new constitution limiting presidential powers; new presidential elections; and a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system.
“We are one people. We are the 99 percent against the 1 percent usurping power!” Chirikova said.
The speeches were over and a concert could begin. One rock group after the other showed its support for the opposition, even as a downpour persuaded most of the demonstrators to seek shelter or go home.
After more than an hour of music, opposition leader Yashin briefly appeared on the stage. He had come straight to the demonstration from the investigators’ office, where he had been questioned for six hours as a witness to the violence at the May 6 rally.
Yashin, a western-style liberal, said that he had told the investigators that nobody had helped to bring people onto the street more than the investigators themselves, the ruling United Russia party and Putin.
“A smart, responsible government fights against the reasons for protest,” said Yashin. “A stupid, irresponsible government fights with protesters.”
“A smart government fights against the reasons for protest. A stupid one fights with protesters.”
Yashin was mobbed by journalists behind the stage. He said that when the investigators heard that the number of protesters had reached 100,000, they were most concerned if there was enough riot police to protect the Kremlin.
Yashin’s iPhone kept on ringing. Then a group of young women asked for a photograph with Yashin. Dmitry Gudkov, holding an umbrella, waited impatiently for him.
It was 5:30 p.m. The two young opposition leaders left together.
I headed off in the opposite direction.
A light-blue racing bike with pink rubber handle covers was leaning against the steps to the stage. It had razor-thin wheels, one gear and no brakes.
A fitting metaphor for Moscow’s protest movement.