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?"