After a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of "the revolution," the final anti-Putin rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation.
MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city's squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.
Many hadn't come at all, either because they were tired of coming out -- this was the sixth large protest in three months -- or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.
"If I didn't come today, it would mean that I deserve this government," Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.
"Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don't see a point in these protests," said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev -- gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.
"I think that it's important not to lose what we've gained in these months," a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. "Of course, we're going to keep coming to these protests," he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. "But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else."
The rally's organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. "I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended," journalist and ring leader of the rallies' organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. "There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We're not going to organize them automatically." Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month's Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow's Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.
And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of "the revolution," the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters' League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin -- another central figure in this winter's movement -- declared the "romantic" period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their "professional" behavior. "I think people have understood that they can't charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons," Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. "Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections," Akunin added.
If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections -- or new parliamentary elections -- and to chant the charged but useless slogan "Russia without Putin," Saturday's rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter's giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees -- the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin's press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round -- that is, over 51 percent -- but no violations.)
Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had "saved" for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.
At Saturday's rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city's municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin's campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. "Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?" she asked, referring to Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. "I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats," she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: "Good job! Good job!" When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin's corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin's United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.
"We're at the beginning of a long and arduous journey," said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. "We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We've already started, and no one, I don't think, can take a step back."
No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years -- rather than quick and sweeping political change -- may be just what Russia needs.
The scary unknown, of course, is Putin's reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it's hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you're working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.
The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally -- miting, in Russian -- for a while, means the obituaries of the winter's movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest -- 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin's era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. "I went to jail in one country and came out in another," Navalny told supporters when he left prison.
On March 5, Moscow's protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn't, as many put it, "wake up in a different country." Estimates of Saturday's rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally's organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.
The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images