Lucian Kim

Inside the Brain of Moscow’s Protest Movement

Now comes the hard part. The anti-Kremlin demonstration in Moscow that drew tens of thousands of citizens on Saturday took place within a week of parliamentary elections that were marred by reports of systematic vote-rigging. The outrage was fresh among people who only a few days ago wouldn’t have dreamed of going to an anti-government rally.

Time is on the side of Vladimir Putin. So is the weather. If protest organizers don’t succeed in gathering even more demonstrators at a rally called for December 24, they risk losing the momentum and critical mass to power their movement into the next year. Russians take a collective 10-day New Year holiday starting on January 1, when nobody does anything but make merry or flee to warmer climes. By the time the country gets back to work, the Russian winter will have set in.

At 7:00 on Tuesday evening I’m in the foyer of Dom Zhurnalista (House of the Journalist, just called “Domzhur”), a cultural center housed in an old Moscow manor house less than half a mile from the Kremlin, near the Arbat pedestrian street.

Earlier in the day, prominent supporters of the protest movement, including journalist Leonid Parfyonov and writer Boris Akunin, held a meeting at the editorial offices of the weekly Bolshoi Gorod (Big City) to discuss organization of the December 24 demonstration. (I tried to watch the live broadcast of the meeting on the internet, but the quality was so poor it was impossible to follow.) Now the organizers are opening up the planning process to anybody who wants to participate.

The foyer is filling up quickly. It’s a noticeably casual crowd for dressed-up Moscow – lots of baggy sweaters, backpacks, unkempt hair and scraggly beards. Conspicuous in a dark suit, pink shirt and blue-and-purple patterned tie is bespectacled nationalist leader Alexander Belov.

“We need a concrete program. That’s the most important thing right now.”

I grab Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the liberal Yabloko party, which was allowed to participate in the elections but failed to pass the 7 percent threshold needed to enter the Duma, and ask him what comes next. “We need a concrete program,” he says. “That’s the most important thing right now.”

Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy for the social democratic Fair Russia party, makes an announcement. He says the Marble Hall of Domzhur was reserved for 7 o’clock, but the door is locked and nobody from management is picking up their phones. He asks for people to wait until he figures out the situation. (It sounds like one of the usual hassles faced by “non-system” opposition leaders in Putin’s Russia who reserve a conference room or public auditorium, only to learn later that it’s closed for urgent repairs.) At 36, Ponomaryov has an intriguing résumé: a trained physicist, he’s also a high-tech entrepreneur with experience in the oil industry and a founder of Left Front, a coalition of alternative leftwing groups.

In the meantime, more familiar faces appear: Anastasiya Udaltsova, spokeswoman of Left Front and wife of Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader jailed after the first protest on the day after the elections; Yevgeniya Chirikova, the organizer of a grassroots environmental movement to stop a highway from going through a forest north of Moscow; Fair Russia deputy Gennady Gudkov; nationalist leaders Vladimir Tor and Belov.

A casual crowd for Moscow
Lucian Kim

As we wait, I take the opportunity to introduce myself to Chirikova. Petite and with a winning smile, Chirikova, 35, has become one of the symbols of Russian civil society. “Don’t forget that I’m Washington’s prostitute and work for the State Department,” she jokes.

An older man greets Chirikova, then leans toward her and asks in a hushed voice: “Are you going to share the same hall with Nazis and fascists?” He obviously has Tor and Belov in mind. Chirikova is adamant that anybody who wants to should be allowed to speak.

“Don’t forget that I’m Washington’s prostitute and work for the State Department.”

“All forces in society are here,” she tells me. “There are many different people, but we won’t go very far if we start asking who is who. We’re not fighting with Nazis now, but with swindlers and thieves.” (She uses the expression for Putin’s United Russia party coined by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The name has stuck so well that a Google search in Russian for “swindlers and thieves” turns up United Russia’s official web site as the second choice.) “This is a key moment,” Chirikova says. “If we can work as one team, we can beat them.”

A bearded man named Petya greets Chirikova – he’s from the “blue buckets” group, probably the most humorous civic movement to emerge in recent years. To protest the impunity of drivers of cars equipped with an official blue siren light, the group calls on ordinary citizens to attach blue plastic buckets upside-down on the roofs of their cars. Smaller buckets look uncannily like the real thing, while bigger buckets make a mockery of Russian officials’ self-importance.

“Oh, you’re the blue buckets. We’re the white ribbons.”

“Oh, you’re the blue buckets,” says a young woman standing nearby. “We’re the white ribbons.” She’s Mila Milavidova, a member of the first generation of Russians that’s been free to travel the world. Milavidova says she lived in Tunisia, Thailand and other countries; when she returned to Russia in September, she was greeted by President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement that he would step down in favor of Putin in the March presidential elections, opening up the possibility of another 12 years of Putin in the Kremlin.

Milavidova and others decided that by wearing a simple white ribbon, citizens could demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the political status quo and at the same time identify like-minded people. The movement has tried to make the white ribbon the symbol of Moscow’s protests, so far with limited success.

At 7:30 we’re finally let into a room, only it’s not the Marble Hall but a much smaller conference room. The crowd troops through an art gallery next to the foyer and crams into the stuffy room. In the end, there are about 150 people packed around an oval table, most of them standing pressed against the wall. I only see one TV camera, from Germany’s ARD channel. The proceedings are recorded by the camera on the organizers’ iPad.

“Whoever wanted to come is here. Nobody will be stopped from speaking. We’re here not as political parties but as social activists. Everybody here is on an equal basis.”

Ponomaryov opens the meeting. Before the December 10 demonstration in Moscow, internal debates over where it should be held led to confusion in the wider public, he says. For the next rally, it’s important to agree on who takes the decisions.

“Whoever wanted to come is here,” Ponomaryov says. “Nobody will be stopped from speaking. We’re here not as political parties but as social activists. Everybody here is on an equal basis.”

The first question is who will moderate the meeting. It’s not long before a chorus of “Chirikova! Chirikova!” decides that issue.

Human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, 70, who’s sitting between Ilya Ponomaryov (no relation, as far as I know) and Chirikova, gets up to present a paper he drew up in advance of the meeting. Copies are passed around the room – it’s a densely-worded manifesto printed on a single-spaced page with almost no margins. As Ponomaryov is speaking, Tor holds up his right arm at a 45-degree angle. I’m not sure if he just wants to speak or is making a fascist salute.

Chirikova lays down the ground rules: anybody who wants to has three minutes to speak. Nobody is allowed to personally insult anybody else, for example accusing them of belonging to the FSB secret police. A three-hour marathon begins.

Lev Ponomaryov's manifesto
Lucian Kim

Many of the participants are articulate and offer constructive comments. Others like the sound of their own voices or try to push their own agendas. While the atmosphere is free-wheeling and at moments chaotic, Chirikova, despite her small stature and soft voice, manages to keep a semblance of order. She and Ilya Ponomaryov seem acutely aware that they are only guides and not leaders. The will of the people is a mysterious and fickle thing to divine.

More than one speaker points out that it would be contradictory to start campaigning for the presidential election before the government meets one of the basic demands voiced at the December 10 rally: namely an overhaul of Russia’s electoral system to allow for free and fair elections. Somebody proposes gathering signatures at the next rally to present to the Supreme Court in a suit to annul the December 4 parliamentary vote.

“I insist on a radicalization of the demands and that accusations be addressed directly to the country’s top leaders.”

Anatoly Baranov, a bearded member of Left Front, criticizes Lev Ponomaryov’s resolution as too delicate. “They already told us where we can stick our demands,” he says. “I insist on a radicalization of the demands and that accusations be addressed directly to the country’s top leaders.” A young man in a business suit says the demands should be much tougher and that the rally must appeal to deputies from the three nominal opposition parties that made it back into the Duma – the Communists, Fair Russia and the nationalistic Liberal Democrats – to decline their seats and thereby force a new election. Simple, memorable slogans like “Swindlers and thieves out of the Kremlin!” or “Amnesty for political prisoners!” are needed for the next demonstration, somebody else suggests.

“We should look at our Arab comrades,” says Belov. “They had one demand: Down with Mubarak! Down with Gaddafi!”

“We should look at our Arab comrades. They had one demand: Down with Mubarak! Down with Gaddafi!”

Several participants also criticize the small circle of opposition supporters who met in the morning to discuss organizational issues. Politicians like Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister marginalized during Putin’s reign, are using the demonstrations for their “narrow political interests,” says one older man. “These guys are complete crap,” says another man at the back of the room. “I suggest we form an alternative organizing committee.” The suggestion is immediately met with boos and shouts. “You’re from the Kremlin!” somebody screams. Chirikova calmly repeats the ground rules. Denis Bilunov, an associate of chess champion and Putin critic Garry Kasparov, says the formation of an alternative committee would only play into their opponents’ hands. A rival committee could be accused of being usurpers just as the opposition accuses Putin of usurping power by returning to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.

Getting out a unified message is a major concern.

A man in a sports jacket says vote-rigging was the catalyst for the protests and “the colossus has begun to shake.” Now people’s attention should be focused on the March 4 presidential election as a way of keeping up the level of interest – especially if nothing else happens to restoke voters’ anger before then. From a strategic point of view, it’s the best suggestion made all evening.

Blogger Oleg Kozyrev, who is filming the meeting with a hand-held camera, says there should be three more big demonstrations: on December 24, in early February after the long New Year’s holiday and right before the presidential election. Maria Baronova, one of the few women to speak up, complains that at the last rally there was no real press service. Because a lack of information from organizers, the foreign press was quoting the Moscow police’s estimate of 25,000 participants all day long, while opposition activists were certain four times as many people had gathered.

Divisions in the ranks also become evident. Tor says he wants “different” human rights activists among the organizers other than Lev Ponomaryov, a well-known liberal. Another young man with a shaved head says that at the last rally, nationalists accounted for one-third of the turnout. Their voice should also be heard among the speakers at the next demonstration.

“These guys are complete crap. I suggest we form an alternative organizing committee.”

A member of Left Front says the protests should be made “All-Russian,” after all there is a “big potential” in the North Caucasus region. (In Chechnya, run by Putin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, United Russia won 99.48% of the vote on December 4, according to official results.)

Howls of protest come from Belov and Tor. When they quiet down, the man says it’s important for the protest movement not to exclude Russia’s Muslim communities.

One old man introduces himself as a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A much younger man identifies himself as an activist from the Communist Workers Party. A third speaker is wearing a green ribbon and a green button with Gaddafi’s unmistakable silhouette on it. I’m not close enough to read what the button says. A woman from the White Ribbon group says the protest movement should thank Mark Zuckerberg for giving them Facebook.

After one-and-a-half hours of discussion, people are leaving the room, and many of those who remain are checking their mobile phones for messages. Someone calls for a vote on how to come up with a list of speakers for the next rally. A cacophony of voices breaks out and doesn’t die down for a good five minutes. Ilya Ponomaryov takes control again. We agreed to speak, then vote, he reminds the participants. The talking continues.

“I heard that Putin wants there to be as many rallies as possible. The more the better.”

At one point Bozhena Rynska, the socialite-journalist who was briefly detained at a spontaneous rally right after the elections, appears at the front of the hall. She bears an important message: “I heard that Putin wants there to be as many rallies as possible. The more the better.” Somebody shouts: “Who are your sources?” More yelling. Chirikova calls for civility. Rynska marches out in a huff, saying she’d never betray her sources.

Later, one of the participants says the next demonstration will need a leader. The suggestion is shouted down immediately.

Yea or nay
Lucian Kim

At last Ilya Ponomaryov takes the vote on several key issues; those participants who sat it out this long simply raise their hands. First, the gathered agree to call themselves an “initiative group,” as opposed to an “organizing committee,” “coordinating council,” “forum,” “citizens’ assembly” or “Moscow veche” (1 vote).

Second, the gathered agree to compile the main speaker list by internet voting with the possibility of adding speakers at their next meeting on December 19. Lesser-known speakers can be nominated at that meeting, though anybody present will have a veto over additions to the main list.

Third, the gathered agree that the same four activists, including Udaltsova, who made the application for the December 10 rally, will negotiate with city authorities over where to hold the next demonstration. The assembled then agree on the heads of a dozen working groups to organize everything from the sound system and security to the press service and fundraising.

On Wednesday morning the decisions taken appear on the internet as a Google document.

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