This is a break with the national political tradition in at least three key regards. First, these men and women may be the first generation of civil leaders in Russian history who do not define themselves by their position vis-à-vis the state. Instead, they view the state as an equal partner -- without awe, fear, unconditional devotion, or hatred. Second, as virtually all of them told me, it is not the regime that is the main problem, but a civil society unable or unwilling to control the executive branch. It is the shortage of mature, self-aware, and confident citizenry that is responsible for where Russia is today. As such, it is the creation of such a citizenry, not yet another regime change, that is the overarching goal.
With the exception of Yevgenia Chirikova, who has become prominent as an emerging leader of the Russian protest movement, the men and women I talked to have not been heard about in the West. Most live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg and don't often engage in hand-to-hand clashes with the regime as do, for instance, such elite groups as "Strategy-31." Yet, it is they and thousands like them who are making Russian history by laying a foundation for a new, post-authoritarian country.
They could be described as the "opposition"; a more precise and inclusive term might be the "civil rights" movement. They have different short-term causes -- from environmentalism to historical preservation to honest elections to lessening corruption -- but the overarching goal is equality before the law and control over the government. "Make the authorities listen to us!" one of them said to me.
No historic parallel is perfect, but it is hard not to hear echoes of the civil rights movement in the United States. Of course, the differences are enormous. One of the most obvious among them is the deeply religious, mostly Southern Baptist, elements that provided the moral foundation of the U.S. movement. By contrast, after nearly five generations of state atheism and with the Russian Orthodox Church deeply compromised by its cooperation with the totalitarian regime, faith can hardly be expected to provide inspiration for the remaking of Russia.
Yet the similarities are just as stark. Just as with its U.S. counterpart more than half a century ago, the Russian movement's ultimate goal is equality before the law and the end of disenfranchisement. (Yes, unlike the Jim Crow blacks, the Russian middle class may vote, but their votes don't count. This is the realization that, after the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, triggered the wave of protests.) And just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, Russia's new activists seek to effect vast political and social change through a personal and deeply moral effort. Both reject violence in principle. Both establish no time limits to the achievement of their goals, displaying quiet but unyielding determination and patience to persevere as long as necessary. Most of all, like the civil rights movement (also led by the middle-class intelligentsia), its Russian counterpart seeks the dignity of democratic citizenship.
But though they may be prepared to work their entire lives to remake their country, Russians may not be able to wait that long. Twenty years after the Soviet Union's demise, the moral and political outrage is back on the streets. And the moral has become political, just as it did at the end of the Soviet period -- and as it always is at the outset of great modern revolutions.
Answering my questions without a shade of fear or reticence and with remarkable thoughtfulness and self-awareness, this brave and deeply moral vanguard revealed, time and again, a deeply personal, passionate commitment to dignity in liberty. In the selections from the interviews that follow, I have tried to convey the honesty, the courage, the passion, and the depth of their beliefs. I hope I have succeeded, for these were among the finest men and women I've met in my life.