So what do members of Russia's opposition movement want? First and foremost, an end to corruption (a demand embodied by the anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny). They want their votes to count, meaning that they want more of a say in how things are run. And they want to be treated like adults. (Remember, the real starting point of the protest movement was Putin's high-handed declaration in September of 2011 that he had decided to return to the presidency. A few weeks later he was jeered at by spectators at a sporting event.)
The leaders of the protests have said that they want to achieve their aims through non-violent activism. This presupposes, in turn, that the current system is reformable. It would be great if that assumption turned out to be true. But it sounds wildly optimistic.
The system that reigns in Russia today is a highly adaptable form of authoritarianism. The regime is a hybrid of the post-Soviet secret police and organized crime. The current powers-that-be don't need Brezhnev-style 99-percent election results; a simple majority is enough to give them the sheen of legitimacy. They haven't closed the borders, and they show little inclination to waste time legislating morality. (Just the opposite, in fact -- witness the Putin camp's gleeful use of sex in campaign advertising.) And, in stark contrast to the Chinese, they feel comfortable enough in the saddle that they don't see a rationale for unleashing thought police against the internet. Keeping all the national TV stations in state hands works fine.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of sound empirical evidence to suggest that Putin remains popular among many Russians. (Indeed, it's worth noting that Medvedev, long regarded as the regime's stalking horse for "modernizing" reform, has a much lower approval rating.) In stark contrast to the Boris Yeltsin years, the governments of the Putin era have always taken care to keep up social spending, including paying out salaries and pensions on time -- vital in a country where so many people are still dependent on the state.
It's these people who make up a big part of that 81 percent. (See, for example, this piece by Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times, one of the few reporters to pay substantive attention to this slice of the electorate.) The members of this passive majority might not be happy about everything that's going on in Russia, but their deep-seated doubts about the virtues of radical change mean that they can be counted on to keep giving their votes to the incumbent for many years to come. Perhaps the rise of middle-income entrepreneurs will ultimately stymie this bloc, but I wouldn't bet on it any time soon.
All this gives the current regime plenty of safety valves. Until late last year, Russia's rulers weren't prepared to tolerate public demonstrations. The fact that they did for a time evinces a notable degree of tactical flexibility. Now that Putin is back in office, he and his cronies appear to be reverting to old form by cracking down. So far, at least, the protest movement isn't really fighting back.