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.
Now, there is talk in the capital of "tightening the screws," one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. "They're waiting for the opposition to make a mistake," says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. "Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down." In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov's phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB's successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.
And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.
Saturday's pro-Putin rally in Moscow -- and smaller ones across the country -- have to be seen in this context. If the opposition's strategy is to show the Kremlin that its sheer numbers demand more inclusion in the political process, Putin is answering in kind: there are even more of us. Which is why the official tallies of yesterday's protests in Moscow -- 138,000 for Putin, 35,000 against him -- were so bizarrely off. (Most observers, including police I spoke to on the scene, put the figures roughly in reverse: 30,000 for Putin, 100,000 against him in Moscow.) And why it was so important that, in every city where there was an opposition protest this weekend, there was a larger, mirror one in support of Putin, with titles like "Strong leader, strong nation."
Nor is it a coincidence that, just as people streamed home from the protests, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has turned his guns on his own citizens. Russia is not Syria, and it is unlikely that Putin, with his European pretensions, would crack down that hard. But his people do warn of blood flowing and, at the last meeting of the Valdai discussion club, in November, Putin spoke of Muammar al-Qaddafi's "gruesome" end. It has been rumored to be something of an obsession for him.
Thus the stonewalling, and what we're about to see: a real escalation by the opposition. If the protests in December were about new, fair parliamentary elections, the focus now is becoming Putin, and there will soon be only one demand: Putin has to go. This is, of course, the logical outcome for a leader who has so personalized Russia's entire dysfunctional political system, and who continues to preclude conceding more than an inch. But upping the ante is a risky game, especially if you lose it.
When Russians -- and those thousands of new election monitors -- go to the polls to vote for Russia's president for the next six years, it's by no means clear what will happen. Putin will likely win, but how? The possible scenarios do not promise a calm Russian spring. If Putin wins in the first round, but with just over the required 50 percent of the vote, few will see it as a legitimate victory, most likely because it won't be. "They've spent a decade building a system that, on every level -- teachers, local elites -- are incentivized to falsify the vote to deliver the right percentages," political consultant and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told me in January. "You can't just flip a switch, and expect the system to stop on a dime." If Putin forces a win in the first round, Pavlovsky added, "he'll assume the presidency for the first time in an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, and depression."
The problem is, by March, it will no longer be -10 degrees outside. If half a million, or even a million people come out -- and chances are, many will -- how will the security forces respond? Will they leave them to protest in peace, as they have in the last two months, or will they crack down, as they did on December 5? If Putin is forced into a second round of the presidential vote and then wins, he will still have less legitimacy than before, especially in his own eyes. "For him, it will be a psychological catastrophe," one government official explained to me. "We're screwed," the official said when I asked him for his assessment. He gave the current incarnation of the system two more years, tops.
But some in the opposition are not too optimistic for their own prospects either. "Everyone was so euphoric yesterday," says opposition leader and former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. "But I went home last night and thought about it, and, oh boy. We're stuck. We're at a dead end." Dead ends rarely end well in a country where dialogue with the other side is stigmatized, especially when the side with the power -- and the guns -- keeps warning of blood and chaos.
So far, however, those thoughts seem to be far from the minds of the tens of thousands who braved the bitterest cold for a purely political cause. "I had the choice to stay in my warm bed today," said one middle-aged woman in a floor-length mink coat. The strap of an expensive purse crossed her torso, there were Armani aviators perched on her nose. Her skin was clearly familiar with the salons of the city. A former businesswoman, she said she had missed the December protests. "I know I picked a crazy day to come out," she said about the cold. "But I just couldn't sit at home anymore."
Clearly, the times are changing. In the last two months, a surprising addition to the protesting crowds has been Ksenia Sobchak, the popsy, fashionable daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin's political mentor. She has long been part of the gilded, Kremlin-friendly elite, a sort of Russian Paris Hilton, and her joining the protests has been viewed with some suspicion. On Saturday, she weighed in on her Twitter account. "If the government doesn't see now that people are willing to stand out in the frost and defend their rights, that government will be overthrown."