MOSCOW -- Olga Romanova, the Russian opposition leader, remained seated as the judge in a Moscow courtroom read aloud the verdict against her husband. She was frantically multi-tasking, text-messaging a crowd of supporters waiting outside even as she blogged about the proceedings on her laptop. Meanwhile, she and her spouse, Alexei Kozlov, carried on a whispered conversation about the recent arrests of their friends in the opposition. When the judge finally announced Kozlov's sentence -- five years in prison for fraud -- it came as no surprise to them. But the verdict undoubtedly sent a signal to the rest of the opposition, who are now struggling to come to terms with Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency after the election on March 4.
On a recent morning I visited Romanova in her home in Moscow's upscale Taganka neighborhood. She lives in a sprawling apartment, filled with antiques -- an abode characteristic of the new breed of middle-class dissidents that recently began taking to the streets. But her cheeks sagged and there were dark rings around her eyes -- all the telltale signs of a night without sleep. Always bright and optimistic in public in her hip outfits and colorful jewelry, the front-line activist Romanova looked more depressed than I had ever seen her. The night before I arrived, she learned her husband was going back to prison.
Moving like a well-tuned machine, Romanova cooked food for her three pets, fixed me a coffee, answered phone calls from politicians and journalists, and flipped through court appeals, newspaper articles, and opposition agendas that she had worked on at night. "Their plan is to lock him up for a few more years but I fear they might kill him on his way to a Siberian prison," she said in broken voice, lighting one more cigarette.
Romanova heads an organization called "Russia Behind Bars," for the relatives of businessmen who have gone to prison on trumped-up charges so that competitors can steal their companies. It's not a rare occurrence. Romanova set up the organization when her own husband was imprisoned a few years ago, and continued even after the Russian Supreme Court overthrew his case and released him last September. Instead of putting a full stop to her political life and going back to the Mediterranean resorts she used to love, Romanova actively promoted her fast-growing organization. Ask her why she goes on and she can only shrug her shoulders: "Stop the struggle? But what will I tell the 60,000 families of prisoners participating in my movement?"
During a few months of political spring last fall and winter, Romanova and her movement showed that Putin's power machine was rotting. Several of the group's appeals came through; some judges canceled their decisions. But after Putin won the election, the street protests weakened, and the grim reality of life as an opposition activist in today's Russia was already rushing back into focus for Romanova and Kozlov (who are shown in the photo above, entering the courtroom on March 13).
Romanova and her husband stayed up many nights discussing whether they should flee abroad or stay. A few weeks ago, Romanova and another sharp critic of Putin's harsh rule, parliamentary deputy Gennady Gudkov, submitted a list of 39 political prisoners to President Medvedev's administration. Now, after Kozlov's verdict, the list has grown longer by one name. "We still have a faint, tiny hope that Putin might take a reasonable, non-repressive course, but this hope is growing weaker," Gudkov said.