MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow's imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city's Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.
And so, on the eve of Tuesday's anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn't sure what to tell them. "This time I expect to be bad," she said. "So I'm sure it will be like Hair!"
Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow's boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they'd like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.
Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today's rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today's march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?
Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday's estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting "like minds" into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called "After Putin."
But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an "after" era. This week's Gestapo-like searches -- which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of -- showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn't seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. ("The government is a little confused. What are they against?" United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. "During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?") The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.