Kremlinology 2012

Vladimir the Unstable

For Putin, third time might not be the charm.

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.

In some ways -- indeed, in all the important ways -- it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the only lasting images -- and memories -- of yesterday's protest will be the blood and the brute force. And, in that, a line has been crossed. The protest movement, once festive and peaceful, then downtrodden but channeled into concrete, effective actions like election monitoring and contesting municipal elections across the country, has become one marked by and met with violence. It has, in other words, entered a period of radicalization, and here's a tell-tale sign: In the run up to Sunday, the organizers of previous rallies pooh-poohed the May 6 event or were on vacation, while the more radical figures in the movement -- like Udaltsov, a Stalinist -- took the wheel. And this, of course, plays right into the hands of Putin and company, who have been insisting for months that radical agents bent on creating chaos and bringing color revolutions to Russia, not the liberal middle class, are the core of the protest movement, and should be quashed like the enemies that they are.

The pattern that's emerging here -- the ossification of the Kremlin, the hardening of the opposition -- is one that we've seen a number of times in recent Russian history. It's also one that does not end well for Russia. The famously ruthless Bolsheviks who seized power in November 1917 had been radicalized by years of being forced underground by the repressive system of Nicholas II. In response to the social unrest born of rapid industrialization and an unresponsive political system, Nicholas cracked down and insisted on his divine supremacy. The political reforms he did allow -- a weak parliament that existed for barely two years -- was window dressing that only discredited the process of constructive opposition and political debate. It disillusioned both the establishment and the opposition. Nicholas's secret police and Siberian prison camps not only did not deter, they inspired. In 1902, imagining what the ideal revolutionary party would look like, Vladimir Lenin wrote that it should be run by a "few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as our security police." Josef Stalin, who escaped from tsarist prisons in Siberia seven times, made sure no one would escape from the ones he built to replace them. He populated them with anyone who could in any way be interpreted as being in dialogue with the state. By the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to gently reform the rusty Soviet state, the people who had pushed for "socialism with a human face" 30 years earlier had been so marginalized and criminalized by the state that they come to see it as an enemy -- which, of course, is exactly how the state viewed them. Consequently, they were not interested in its evolution; they were only happy to see it disappear completely.

What happens, in other words, is that a paralysis sets in: Those in power see compromise as weakness, while those forced onto the streets by its absence see it as selling out. And the more each side digs in, the less a constructive solution becomes possible. The only way out becomes a revolution and the complete destruction of the status quo. And, as the Russian experience of 1917 and 1991 showed us, striving for a clean slate and a fresh start has a very steep cost.

We saw the seeds of this process in the winter. Addressing a pool of Russian journalists on Dec. 24, four days after an estimated 100,000 Muscovites protested on Sakharov Avenue, an unprecedented number for the past two decades, Putin shrugged and said, "there's no one to talk to." In the preceding weeks, he had dismissed the protesters as U.S. State Department pawns, as provocateurs bent on violence, and as the howling, delusional monkeys in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. He even nervously admitted to mistaking the symbol of the protest -- a white ribbon pinned to the lapel -- for a condom. It didn't help, of course, when the protests kicked off Dec. 5, Navalny roared into the microphone with the promise that "we will cut their throats." Or that, in the two days of protests that followed, police arrested nearly a thousand people in Moscow.

As Putin puts his hand on the constitution and celebrates with a feast of duck and avocado puree and sturgeon steaks and the finest Russian crus, Russia will stand at a crossroads. The opposition can go the way of excruciatingly slow but constructive civic activism of past months, or it can splinter into the hard and the angry on one side, and, on the other, the majority that is turned off by their tactics. (And we've seen how that's worked out for Russia before.) As for the Kremlin, it seems to have staked out a clear and definitive position. Putin, with his diving for ancient urns and shooting tigers for the public's adoring gaze, seems bent on comic, sinister ossification, perhaps à la Qaddafi. And while the streets of Moscow filled with the spreading chaos of Bolotnaya, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was even more direct. "In my opinion, the police acted gently," he said in an interview with Dozhd television. "I would like them to be harsher." Hearing this, an opposition blogger tweeted: He wants them to be harsher, he wrote. "What are they going to do, shoot?"

Julia Ioffe

Kremlinology 2012

The Last Waltz

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