MOSCOW – There were a few surprising things about Saturday's opposition protest in Moscow. For one thing, the cold -- a bitter -10 degrees Fahrenheit -- didn't seem to keep anyone at home. Nor did the fact that it had been more than a month since the last demonstration, leading commentators to worry that the protest movement against Vladimir Putin's rule would lose momentum. If anything, more people came out than last time, some 100,000 in all.
Which makes the second thing a little less surprising. If the first big protest, on Bolotnaya Square, on December 10, was a mix of the politically active and the young and white-collared, the crowd that reconvened there on Saturday was extremely diverse. There were pensioners and office workers and a group of military history hobbyists wearing fatigues. ("We're freaks," one of them explained.) There were even veteran paratroopers, the saltiest of the salty earth and famous for their August holiday when they strip to their skivvies and frolic in city fountains. One does not expect to see them marching alongside iPhone-toting urbanites and democracy activists. And yet, there were paratrooper flags everywhere. "They think that our people don't think, don't see anything, and don't understand anything," one of the veterans, a 50-year-old named Sergei, told me. "It's time for the country to be ruled by honest people."
Beyond the sloganeering, there were signs this time of genuine political organizing in advance of the national elections on March 4 when Putin will run to resume the presidency he temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. Several booths had been set up to gather signatures for petitions to contest election violations in court. People recruited election monitors, part of a drive over the last few weeks that's culminated in two projects to train over 20,000 volunteer election monitors: one by the blogger and opposition Alexey Navalny and another, called Voters' League, formed by the creative types among the protest organizers.
I also met two men who had decided to run for office in the Moscow municipal elections in March. "We need normal people to get into government, so that the organs of the state work not for themselves but for the citizens of the district," said one of the candidates, Konstantin Kolisnichenko, 36, who, surprisingly, works for a government bank. (Unsurprisingly, he's had a near impossible time getting on the ballot.) It was a statement that sounded a lot different from the chants of "Putin is a thief" around us. It sounded suspiciously like normal political discourse.
Meanwhile, the pro-Putin forces gathered across town. More accurately, they were bused in, and many were paid for. There were a lot of them, though not nearly as many as the 138,000-person Internal Ministry estimate. And if the tens of thousands at Bolotnaya laughed and smiled, the people at the pro-Putin rally had little to be cheerful about. The message delivered to them as they stood in the frost was one of brimstone and fire: the country was on the verge of collapsing, revolution was around the corner. "They want to drown the country in blood," television star Maxim Shevchenko shouted from the stage about the protesters gathered on the other side of Moscow.
This apocalyptic imagery is strange, given the peaceful nature of the opposition protests. It does, however, reflect the fear and incomprehension about the protests inside the halls of power. "Julia, do you have a pet?" Yuri Kotler asked me the other day. Kotler is a young member of the ruling United Russia party and was once an advisor to Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of the Duma. I had asked him how the slowly mounting protests were perceived in the Kremlin. Yes, I said, I do have a pet. A cat. "Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking," Kotler explained. "First of all, it's a cat, and it's talking. Are you sure it's talking? You have to make sure. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it's talking and asking for something. It's a shock. We have to get used to it."
Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it -- or hoping it will all go away. "It's a bureaucracy, and it works for itself," Kotler told me. "It'll take a long time for them to understand that they're hired."
But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin -- that is, Putin -- is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters' League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition -- and the federal television blacklists -- on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin's performance during his annual Q&A with the public.