Democracy Lab

Swampland

One year later, Russia’s diminished opposition returns to Bolotnaya Square.

MOSCOW — It's a warm spring evening in Moscow, and a group of opposition activists are gathering for a strategy session in a small apartment. The room we're sitting in is sparsely furnished, decorated only by a few posters on the walls: portraits of friends who have been persecuted by the authorities.

The participants in the meeting are members of a new group called the "Party of December Fifth," a reference to the date of the first significant protest against the Kremlin in 2011. But they prefer to call themselves "the Decembrists," an allusion to the dissident movement that rose in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (and was brutally crushed by Czar Nicholas I in 1825). The new Decembrists are young and feisty, armed with a sharp sense of irony. As soon as they register their party, they plan to invite Vladimir Putin over to their crowded headquarters "to discuss a resignation plan."

Some of them are students at leading universities, while others are recent graduates. They're the future of the Russian elite. Right now they're debating key questions: How far should their protest go, and what potential price is each of them ready to pay for his or her political activities?

It's a discussion that has assumed fresh poignancy in the light of recent events. Sunday was a black day for the opposition movement. During preparations for a major anti-Putin rally on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, a volunteer worker was accidentally killed by a falling loudspeaker. After the tragedy, activists took to social networks for anguished discussions about whether to cancel the rally or to use it to pay tribute to their deceased supporter. Some Facebook comments sounded bitter, others superstitious. A few people suggested that the name "Bolotnaya" (Russian for "swampland") is itself mired in bad karma. The site, once identified with the most uplifting values of the Russian opposition, is freighted with negative connotations.

Bolotnaya rallies, Bolotnaya cases, Bolotnaya trials: These days the name of the square evokes above all a long string of violent clashes, arrests, and prison terms that have followed the huge, peaceful protest that took place on the spot one year ago. (That rally on May 6, 2012, was also permitted by the authorities -- something hard to believe in light of the current wave of repression.)

Despite the sense of demoralization, some 20,000 people turned up at Bolotnaya on Sunday to show support for the 28 activists who are currently facing prison terms for organizing last year's event.

A young woman's smiling face adorns a poster on the wall of the Decembrists' tiny headquarters. Anastasia Rybachenko, 20, spent five days in jail after last year's rally. After emerging from detention she spent some time living with friends, but then, after the arrest of her friend Sasha Dukhanina (who was 17 at the time), she decided to leave the country. Today Rybachenko lives in Estonia. Maria Baronova, a Party of December Fifth activist, is still waiting for her own trial. "I have no alternative," she says. "They can lock me in prison or even kill me." Charged for inciting last year's rally, she cannot travel outside of Moscow.

They believe the government has singled them out because they refer to Putin's United Russia party as the "Party of Thieves and Crooks," a phrase coined by opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny. The crackdown on dissent began on the day after Putin's inauguration in May of last year, and has continued throughout the country ever since. Many activists had to say goodbye to their careers and old friends, and so far, at least, there's relatively little to show in return for the sacrifice. The opposition has lost more than it's won. Navalny is on trial, facing up to 10 years in prison. Well-known liberal Gennady Gudkov has lost his seat in the Duma, the lower-house of Russia's legislature. His son Dmitry Gudkov remains a deputy, but the party he's supposed to be representing, the opposition Just Russia party, has expelled him from its ranks. Russia's most famous "It girl," TV star Kseniya Sobchak, once a representative of Putin's small inner circle, was punished soon after she joined the big anti-Putin demonstrations that brought together hundreds of thousands people last year. Three private Russian TV channels have refused to renew their contracts with her. Sobchak told me that the government's reprisals have forced her "to grow iron balls."

The threat of high cost does not stop the Decembrists. "We are the real patriots of Russia, and those in the Kremlin are the people's enemies," Baronova insists. She sounds much angrier than she did a year ago. Street protests are not enough, she says: "It's time for a tougher, more radical strategy."

Another party leader, Andrei Bystrov, knows that his work for the opposition could cost him his job. The bosses at the company where he works saw him on TV at the party's congress last December, but so far Andrei hasn't been fired. "To stay sane, I prefer not to think of what they can do to me," says Bystrov. "I prefer to work hard preparing for the enxt municipal elections, rather than thinking about the threats and feeling paranoid."

The warm evening is coaxing Muscovites outdoors. The coffee shops and restaurants outside the Decembrists' windows are filling up with people. Roller skaters circle the park. But the activists keep at their work. Five new members signed up today, and the arrivals are welcome: The Party of December Fifth is just a few shy of the 500 members it needs if it's to register as an official political party. "The government's brutal methods will lead to people beating ministers, like they did during the revolution in Kyrgyzstan," Konstantin Yankauskas, a party activist said. Working as a municipal deputy in Moscow, Yankauskas caught himself hating every representative of power. "People in the opposition feel depressed today," he says, "and this depression is explosive, more than ever."    

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

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