Last week Vladimir Putin recalled the heroic defense of Moscow against Napoleon’s invading army in an effort to rally supporters and cast his opponents as foreign agents. But it’s too late. Putin has already lost the Russian capital.
Of course Russia’s vast police force still physically controls Moscow. Yet as Putin positions himself for a third term as president, he no longer commands the hearts and minds of Muscovites.
Yesterday Moscow’s protest movement held a fourth and final mass demonstration before Sunday’s presidential election. Thousands of citizens formed a human chain around the Garden Ring road, a 16-kilometer beltway surrounding central Moscow. The Garden Ring is also the symbolic border between the fashionable, wealthy capital and the backward, impoverished provinces.
The people holding hands on the side of the road were only one half of the protest; the other half was the thousands of passing motorists who honked their horns and cheered in support. The cacophony and festive mood reminded me of the Belgrade student protests I covered 15 winters ago. That was the moment when Slobodan Milosevic lost the Serbian capital for good. Yet it took another three-and-a-half years before he was finally chased from power after rigging one election too many.
Yesterday’s protest, dubbed “The Great White Circle,” was a testimony to the protest movement’s originality. Unlike the previous three big opposition rallies, there was no central gathering place, no permission from the city fathers and virtually no organization. A simple web site featuring a Google map showed how many people were planning to stand at given segments of the Garden Ring and let new participants sign up for a spot via Facebook.
Even Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist from Siberia, had to concede that pedestrians standing side-by-side on the sidewalk don’t require any special permission. He warned that the police would interfere only if people disrupted traffic. He downplayed the protest as the work of a tiny minority in a city of 12 million.
More important than any numbers is the fact that Russia’s intellectual elite has abandoned its silent consent and gone over to active resistance.
Shortly before 2:00 p.m. I arrived at Paveletskaya metro station on the southern edge of the Garden Ring. Tiny flyers advertising the protest were scattered on the escalator, and the area in front of the station was filling up with citizens, many wearing white ribbons on their coats. A bunch of cops was standing near a production van from the state-run Rossiya channel. Around the corner I spotted a big white Ural police truck.
“Connie! Connie!” I heard a man say laughing. A woman had arrived with a black Labrador retriever with white ribbons tied around his neck. Putin has a black Lab named Connie, but this dog was quite clearly a Conrad.
“He’s a politically incorrect dog and no relation of Connie,” the woman explained to a man interviewing her with a hand-held video camera. “Anybody should be able to win this election, even Putin,” she continued. “But the opposition must tell the government that its power is not absolute.”
Half a dozen cars drove out of a side street and onto the Garden Ring, honking their horns. Activists from the liberal Yabloko party, whose presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky had been barred from the election, waved white party flags out of the window.
“For the homeland! Putler is kaput!” was written on a side window of a jeep in the convoy.
A woman was handing out stickers with the words “We’ll vote down Putin” printed below the date of the election. The slogan, which people plastered on their coats, cars and billboards advertising the election, could also be translated more literally as “We’ll take Putin for a ride.”
I started walking west along the Garden Ring. Along the way, Muscovites were lining the road, waving at honking cars whose occupants waved back from open windows.
All age groups were represented, from infants in strollers to stooped babushkas. Moscow’s urban culture in all its variety showed up: yuppies, hippies and hipsters, punk rockers, bikers and beautiful people. Whole families turned out wearing white ribbons on their clothes. People held balloons reading: “59… This year you retire!” or “Russia will eat up Putin.” A pot-bellied nationalist in a bomber jacket and combat boots strutted by like a five-star general.
The cars lending the protesters aural support were just as varied, from coughing Gazelle vans to Mercedes coupes and Lexus SUVs. Several cyclists braved the pond-sized puddles. A long-distance bus let out a long toot as it headed out of the capital.
When a young man at the side of the road saw my notebook, he thought I was taking a headcount. I told him I was a journalist.
“Write that ordinary Russian people came here!” he said.
“He can write whatever he wants,” said his friend.
“We pay taxes, and they use them to hold their ‘events,’” the first man said, referring to the giant pro-Putin rally on Thursday to which participants had been bussed or flown in from around the country.
The man’s name was Anton, 29. He declined to give his last name, saying he was getting pressured at work because of his participation in opposition rallies. When I told Anton that I’m American, he shouted: “Oh, from the State Department!”
His friends laughed and shook my hand, saying they finally wanted their money. Putin’s comment that demonstrators were Hillary Clinton’s stooges had infuriated Moscow liberals.
Anton’s friend,Timofey Andreyevsk, 39, is a translator of technical literature. He said he’d donated 500 rubles ($17) toward the organization of each opposition rally via the internet. I asked him why he had taken to the street.
“You have to do something,” Andreyevsk said. “In World War II there were guys who shot at German tanks with hunting rifles.”
He said it was too early to say the elections were a foregone conclusion. After all, the December parliamentary elections had produced surprising results as well, with Putin’s United Russia losing its absolute majority and winning less than 50 percent of the vote. Amid charges that even those results were inflated, the first anti-government protests began.
Andreyevsk said he would vote for Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire candidate running as an independent. “Maybe he’s not real, but at least he’s alive,” he said. I later saw a new campaign billboard for Prokhorov, his lean face next to the words: “To govern, not to reign!”
There were smiling faces all around me. Somebody was distributing strawberries. The good mood was contagious. I found myself smiling for no reason in particular.
Migrant workers from Central Asia stood in doorways, observing the spectacle of usually super-busy Muscovites standing in the dirty slush, holding each others’ hands and waving at drivers they didn’t know.
Thick snow was falling when I approached the complex of buildings that houses the Justice and Interior Ministries. Here the sidewalk was clear, except for some patrolling cops.
I saw three riot policemen take a whole handful of white ribbons with the words “Russia without Putin” from an opposition activist.
Several protesters were talking to some cops below the gold-domed chapel on the ministry grounds.
So far the police has dutifully obeyed its orders, breaking up unsanctioned protests with severity while displaying restraint, even courtesy, at permitted rallies. Moscow is aswirl with rumors about where the loyalties of the police force really lie.
The protest had been going on for just over an hour. I decided to cross town to see how the demonstration was going on the opposite side of the Garden Ring.
I rode the escalator down to the Oktyabrskaya metro station. Above ground there was cheering and honking and the harsh white light of a late winter afternoon. Moscow’s netherworld was muffled and somber, a place of folded arms and empty gazes. Wasn’t this the real Moscow?
I resurfaced at Sukharevskaya Square. I saw a middle-aged woman wearing a yellow and green striped scarf, which I’d just noticed on several other women in the metro. I asked her what movement she represented. She explained that yellow and green had been the corporate colors of an oil company called Yukos, which was nationalized after Putin threw its owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, into jail. I thanked her for this information.
I walked south. It was already 3:30, and it seemed that many people were wrapping up their protest. I passed protesters with white ribbons coming toward me on their way to the metro.
Meanwhile, the honking from the Garden Ring didn’t subside. When I stopped to take pictures, people leaned out of their car windows waving scarves. Someone held out a white scrubbing brush. I didn’t remember such an outburst of jubilation on Moscow’s streets since June 2008, when the Russian team upset Holland in the quarterfinals of the European soccer championship.
By the time I got to the Krasnye Vorota metro station, it was 4:00, the official end of the White Circle protest and the beginning of a second demonstration at Revolution Square. The opposition had been denied a protest on the square because it was already a designated site for Maslenitsa, the pancake festival that comes before the Russian Orthodox Lenten fast and marks the end of winter. Via Facebook, activists had called on protesters to gather anyway.
As I approached Revolution Square, I saw a scrum of cops, cameras and protesters on the other side of the street. A passerby said an effigy had been confiscated. A minute later, a few cops broke free from the crowd, frogmarching a hooded activist away.
I continued on my way, past the Bentley and Ferrari dealerships. Across from the Metropol Hotel about 50 activists had locked arms and formed a circle to defend a huge bunch of white balloons displaying the logo of the Voters League, an offshoot of the protest movement. All around them stood police buses, trucks and phalanxes of riot policemen.
I asked one young man in the human chain what their protest was about.
“This isn’t a protest, it’s an old Russian tradition!” he shouted, evidently referring to Maslenitsa, with its pagan origins as a sun festival.
A new distraction appeared: Boris Nemtsov, a rising star during the presidency of Putin predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Cameramen, photographers and iPad-wielding bloggers immediately surrounded him. Nemtsov has become comfortable in his role as the eternal oppositionist. He gleefully sparred with a young man who was grilling him about his meeting last week with President Dmitry Medvedev. Nemtsov had forgotten to take off his reading glasses, and they slowly slipped down his nose.
I walked on toward the metro station, where a large crowd had gathered. The little park behind the Karl Marx statue had been completely blocked off with metal barriers. Red food tents and women in folk costumes were stranded in the middle of it.
A tourist family speaking Spanish passed me. I heard a monotone female voice over a PA system offering bus tours of Moscow. On top of that came the bass of a police officer who was appealing to the opposition supporters to disperse.
“Citizens, end your unsanctioned demonstration. Let people through to the metro,” said the policeman. “Free up the exit to the metro. You’re obstructing citizens.” Several hundred people had gathered on the square.
The activists let their balloons into the winter sky. Suddenly chants of “Shame! Shame!” broke out. A group of athletic young men emerged from the crowd and disappeared. Later I heard reports that a group of soccer hooligans had tried to pick a fight.
“Russia without Putin!” the demonstrators cried. Again chants of “Shame!” Two riot policemen escorted a young man in a purple wool cap to a waiting bus. About a dozen arrests would be reported by the end of the day.
The atmosphere was more bizarre than tense. Lots of opposition sympathizers stood off to the side while unwitting visitors to the Maslenitsa festivities browsed in souvenir booths and munched on pancakes. A female dancer in a fur cap danced to folk pop on an elevated platform. Indian tourists and matryoshka vendors mingled with riot policemen and teenagers drinking alcopop out of cans hidden in paper bags.
Individual activists held spontaneous speeches, attracting clusters of listeners and TV cameras. “We want to live in a normal country!” shouted a young man with a backpack, concluding an emotional tirade. Later I saw an old man with a beard and cane holding up a cardboard sign with the words “Let there be a constituent assembly!”
I’d barely blinked when I found myself surrounded by a group of Don Cossacks, identifiable by their arm patches and blue pants with a thick red stripe. Some wore big sheepskin hats, others traditional blue visored caps.
I asked one of them, who vaguely resembled a walrus, if they’d come to support the opposition. “We were promised vodka and bliny. And here they’re just shouting ‘Putin, Putin!’” he said. It appeared he’d already had a drop to drink.
I tried to get a younger Cossack to tell me whom he would support in the election. He looked at me straight in the eye and said: “You really want an answer out of me, don’t you? Look, I’m from Moscow, I love my city. I just don’t want there to be blood.”
It wasn’t long before the Cossacks burst into song, led by a man with a shock of hair peeking out from underneath his sheepskin cap and rings on nearly every finger. A ceremonial dagger hung from his belt.
Maslenitsa began to take back Revolution Square. The riot police started retreating. “Bye, see you later!” a woman called out to them. “You are our people!”
The fur-capped dancer had come down from her platform and was now gyrating on the flagstones with a young man in a military cap and a stout girl in a blue overcoat. A couple of drunks joined in the fun, while a drummer kept the beat and a riot policeman looked on.
When I turned on the radio in the evening, writer Boris Akunin, one of the brains behind the opposition protests, was voicing the concern that Sunday’s rally may have been the last peaceful one.
The opposition plans to take to the streets again on March 5, the day after the election.