MOSCOW — On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles -- his cavalry -- sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets. He'll pass St. Basil's iconic domes, and drive through the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin walls, step out of the limo onto a red carpet -- the first proof that he was in that car at all -- salute the guards and go inside, to a grand, chandeliered room, where he will take the oath of office. He will have performed this ritual for the third time.
There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin's inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon. We'll see the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We'll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people's kidneys. We'll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.
What the world won't see is the peaceful, buoyant march down Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, just south of the Kremlin, which brought out at least 70,000 people on a day when many Muscovites had abandoned the city for the holiday weekend. They chanted "Russia without Putin!" and carried the witty posters that have marked this winter's protest movement. It was a largely pointless event: Aided by fraud or not, Putin had already won, and won in a landslide. Everything he's done and said in the last five months indicates that the man is not looking for an exit strategy. He will try his damndest to serve the full, six-year term -- at least. During his recent address to the Russian parliament last month, his last as prime minister, someone asked Putin if it wouldn't be a bad idea to strike "in a row" from the Russian constitution. That formulation is what necessitated the elaborate loop-de-loop of Putin stepping down to become prime minister for four years, while a seat-warmer named Dmitry Medvedev tried to make Russians and the rest of the world believe that he wasn't really a seat warmer. "I think it's reasonable," Putin said in response to the tee-ball suggestion. "We should probably think about it."
And yet on Sunday, people came out in droves. "I'd be ashamed not to go," one young woman told me. "My grandchildren will ask me, ‘And what did you do when this was happening in Russia?' I had to go so that I wouldn't be embarrassed by my answer." An older woman, a semi-retired courier missing most of her teeth said, "If not me, who? You get it." The point was to show Putin that, on the eve of his sumptuous, champagne-soaked inauguration, as another young protester told me, "He may have won, but he didn't win. He didn't win us."
When the cheering, chanting, motley phalanx -- of hipsters, nationalists, anarchists, pensioners, and the middlest of the middle class -- finished its parade route, it found its way onto Bolotnaya Square -- the site of the day's rally, as well as of two previous such events -- was blocked by a column of OMON special police, and a column of the radical Left Front activists. The corridor to get to Bolotanaya shrank steadily, especially when Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader and organizer of the protest, called for a sit-in with anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny. People didn't have a chance to sit for long. In an instant, there was shoving and pushing and the people who had just been sitting were up, elbowing and screaming in panic. It was all downhill from there: the smoke bombs, the rocks, the glass bottles, the tear gas, the blood, the spreading of violence into the surrounding streets as nationalists and anarchists went chanting down the avenues, and the police chased them into cafes and metro stations to twist them into headlocks and into overflowing police vans.
It's not clear who started the violence. There were smoke bombs streaking through the sky in both directions, and the protesters quickly lost their diversity: They became, almost uniformly, angry, young, and male, some of them wearing the signature masks of soccer hooligans. They resisted not only the calls of the police to disperse, but of the organizers to get them into a small camp of tents (an attempt to stay for days, as the protesters in Ukraine's Orange Revolution did in 2004-2005). "Who is that guy in a blue shirt?" one of the protest organizers barked, pointing to a young man who kept stirring up those around him not to move an inch. "He's a provocateur! Get him out of here!"
There were definitely provocateurs in the crowd, but whose? Dmitry Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the Just Russia party who has been active in the protest movement, said afterwards that he heard rumors of officers in the notorious anti-extremism wing of the police briefing a group of soccer hooligans -- the state's weapon of choice -- in a café before the rally began. But that couldn't be confirmed. He himself saw young men in black masks charge the police cordon during the sit-in. But he couldn't confirm whether they were state-hired goons or simply the young men of which the nationalists and anarchists have plenty in their ranks, the young men, full of testosterone, who are only too happy to come out and rage against the machine.