Democracy Lab

Kiev Envy

Pro-democracy protesters in Kiev are triumphant. In Moscow they're still taking it on the chin.

Moscow after the Olympics offers a study in contrasts. Unlike their counterparts in Sochi, where the security forces wore fun purple uniforms with a flowery pattern, the policemen in the Russian capital don't bother to put on disguises.

Outside the building that houses the Zamoskvoretsky district court in the center of Moscow, the OMON riot police, clad in green camouflage, formed a solid line, each with one hand on the next man's shoulder. Then they marched into the crowd. Groups of four or five officers seized individual protestors, then dragged them away to waiting police buses.

The news from inside the courtroom soon reached the people out on the street: the judge had just sentenced eight people to jail terms for allegedly attacking police during an anti-Putin rally in 2012. (One of eight received a suspended sentence.) "Shame!" the crowd chanted. "Freedom to political prisoners! Freedom of speech!" The police continued to load detainees into their buses. Those arrested included men and women of all ages; more than 200 were detained in less than one hour. Several times the crowd managed to push police away from Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Tolokonnikova's husband, Petr Verzilov. Eventually, though, all three were also dragged away into a police vehicle. Verzilov almost suffocated in a policeman's tight embrace.

Several women screamed as policemen beat them, sometimes hitting them in the face. Bystanders asked members of the security forces to stop the cruelty. "I don't understand why they're using such violence against women and even old people," said Irina Pavlova, a Moscow designer, her voice clearly revealing her shock. Sergei Badayev, an English teacher, knew the answer: "It's obvious. The authorities are afraid of the revolution in Kiev. But using this kind of violence and locking people in prisons will just provoke a bigger revolt." As we spoke, an old man climbed over a fence from a park on the other side of the road. He carried a sign that said "Maidan" -- the name of the now burnt-out central square in Kiev, the symbol of Ukraine's revolt. Several police officers grabbed the old man. He was still yelling something about peace and freedom as they pulled him away.

As the violence continued, I called Robert Schlegel, a parliamentary deputy for the ruling United Russia party, to see if legislators were aware of the law enforcement forces' aggressive actions on Tatarskaya Street. Schlegel didn't sound surprised: "The protesters must be detained for breaking the law, for their illegal actions," he assured me. "The Internet news that I read these days is boiling with aggression and even hate, and it's those aggressive moods that fill up the political space, while the rest of Russia is full of peaceful news."

Schlegel recently returned from Ukraine, where, he said, the pro-Russian part of society felt insulted by the pro-Western revolutionary victors demolishing Soviet monuments and voting to cancel the status of Russian as an official language of the country. Over the past few days, Ukraine has split even more radically into pro-Russian and anti-Russian positions. "We're disappointed with Yanukovych," Schlegel said. "Just a few days ago he still had the legitimate power, including the police and the army, to control the situation, but every decision he made was wrong. The Russian authorities don't want a civil war in Ukraine: if a real war begins, the victims will number in the thousands, not the dozens."

Over the past few days, I've seen the two different Russias that Schlegel was telling me about. The protesters outside the courthouse are part of the politicized, liberal part of society, consisting mostly of Moscow intellectuals and middle-class students and pensioners. Since the mass anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012, most of these people have become part of a solid liberal community seeking major change in Russia. They gather outside courthouses to demonstrate against "violence," "political repressions," "injustice," and "unfairness" -- the same motives that inspired the Ukrainian protestors I spoke with to stay in Kiev's central square despite freezing winter temperatures.

The night before coming back to Moscow, I took my last walk around the Olympic Park in Sochi, just a few hours before the closing ceremony. Crowds of happy and proud-looking Russian fans crowded into the park to celebrate Russia's long-desired victory. Traditional folk music mixed with the loud voice of Father Frost, Russia's Santa Claus (whose costume and singing of Christmas carols seemed out of place in the bright spring sunshine). A few children surrounded a big mascot bear in a puffy costume, while their parents snacked at a café or rested on benches as they watched the flame of the Olympic torch. Overwhelmed with emotion, one of the visitors couldn't sit still: Wrapped in a Russian flag, he jumped to his feet, chanting, "We won! We won! Russia! Russia!"

The fear of Islamist terror hanging over Sochi before Olympic opening was gone. Visitors felt safe inside what Putin called his "ring of steel." But the news from Ukraine echoed even in the Olympic Park. Retiree Svetlana Sergeyeva had come to Sochi from Rostov with her grandson. In order to bring him to the Olympics, which she described as one of the "best events ever," she had to spend months saving money from her $300 monthly pension. Sergeyeva didn't buy the storyline of democracy triumphing in Kiev: "Putin's leader Yanukovych robbed the poor and the new leader, America's leader, will keep them poor. I fear a revolution in Russia. It would be even bloodier than Ukraine's." Sergeyeva believed Russian state television reports that the power in Kiev was now in the hands of "terrorists" backed by the West.

The next afternoon, following the harsh sentences against their friends, Moscow activists were walking away from the courthouse with an aura of defeat. "Things are only getting worse," I heard one woman say, her voice breaking. Natalia Marenina was about the same age as Sergeyeva in Sochi. Moscow, she told me, isn't Kiev: The Russian opposition she knew wasn't ready to stand outside for months on end. The Russian government's brutal methods to contain the protests had worked. "Did you see how the police grabbed those protesters just now?" she said. "None of the Muscovites I know is ready to withstand that kind of violence -- especially when most other Russians are going to call us 'terrorists.'"

Democracy Lab

Patriotism and the Olympics

Why taking the wrong stand on the Olympics can get you accused of being a traitor to the nation.

There were no free tables at the Sochi gay club Mayak on Friday night. St. Valentine's Day ruled. The patrons expressed their feelings freely. Kissing couples cuddled around the bar. The dance floor grew crowded as the sound system pumped out the bouncy rhythms of Russian pop songs about love. The scene could have come from any Eastern European nightclub: rows of red, heart-shaped balloons, waiters in gothic leather outfits, visitors chatting in foreign languages. Nothing about the club's décor indicated that we were in Russia, nor was there anything that recalled the Olympic Games.

The absence of Russian flags or other state symbols was entirely intentional. "State flags at a gay club?" Andrei Tanichev, the club's owner, laughed. "The authorities might accuse us of violating some new law." He's one of the very few openly gay men in Sochi. "You never know what our lawmakers might come up with next, what they might decide to fine us for tomorrow."

Outside the club, crowds of young Russians, wrapped in their local and state flags, flooded downtown Sochi on their way back from a hockey game in the Olympic park. The names of the cities written on the flags -- "Astrakhan," "Baikalsk," "South Sakhalin" -- covered opposite corners of the country's geography. Several fans I spoke with had saved money for months to be able to travel thousands of miles to Sochi and demonstrate their genuine enthusiasm for sports in general and their country's athletes in particular. Russian patriotism was on the rise, and so were President Putin's ratings. (The photo above shows Putin meeting with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan shortly after Saturday's U.S.-Russia hockey match.)

In an attempt to counter the overwhelmingly negative foreign coverage of the Olympics, the authorities promised their support for a Saturday protest organized by the group Environmental Watch and attended primarily by people from Sochi. Mayak, the gay club, welcomed Putin's recent positive comments about the club and its owner, though the coverage didn't really make Andrei's life any easier. The Western press criticized Tanichev and his partner Roman Kochagov for doing the Kremlin's bidding, and accused them of building a Potemkin village designed to convince the world that sexual minorities are happy in Russia.

Tanichev told me that he was offended by "distortions" in the coverage: "I'm not a patriot," he said. "I could probably become more patriotic if the day were to come when my customers could feel comfortable giving interviews to Western reporters visiting the club, if people stopped throwing trash in the streets as they leave the stadiums wrapped in their flags, or if the Russian officials who like to scream what big patriots they were would stop taking bribes."

Russians have starkly differing views on what constitutes "patriotism." According to a poll [Rs.] conducted by the respected Levada Center last October, 59 percent of Russians defined patriotism as love for "the mother country." 21 percent saw it as "striving toward positive change in order to ensure a worthy future for the nation." And another 21 percent viewed it as "the readiness to defend Russia from any accusations and attacks."

Of late, the public discussions have been dominated by arguments over what makes someone truly "patriotic," pro-Russian or anti-Russian, pro- or anti-Olympic. On February 10, in the midst of the Games, television viewers suddenly lost TV Rain, Russia's only independent cable channel. The channel was ostensibly shut down as a result of a controversial survey the channel ran about the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. (The survey asked viewers whether the city, which endured enormous casualties during the prolonged siege by Nazi armies, should have simply surrendered, thus saving lives. Needless to say, Russia's immense losses during the war remain a highly emotional topic even today.) TV Rain's Editor-in-Chief Mikhail Zygar told me that authorities were planning to shut the channel down after the Olympics -- "but since they already had a good reason, they decided not to wait for the end of the Games." TV Rain is continuing its news coverage on the Internet.

The scandal developed into a vicious battle between liberals, backed up by the Union of Journalists, novelists, and various independent groups, and the ruling United Russia party, supported by state TV channels. Several other prominent opposition voices, including the well-known satirist and journalist Victor Shenderovich, have taken the debate a step further by comparing the modern Russian regime to Nazi Germany. In a post [Rs.] written for his blog at the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, Shenderovich saw similarities between the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The leader of United Russia, Vladimir Vasilyev, responded by calling Shenderovich's post "fascist."

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov noted that the current campaign against "traitors" is fueled by official anxieties about the turmoil in Ukraine (which many Russians view as the result of Western "meddling") as well as the general disarray of Russia's opposition movement (which creates an aura of vulnerability that Russian officials are eager to exploit). Russia's main state-owned TV is preparing to air a new film accusing pro-democracy activists of taking cash from the West for their efforts. This, Markov explains, is another part of the campaign.

"Society is split into fans of the Olympics and haters of the Olympics," Zygar said. "Even close friends fight over it: ‘Oh, you like the Olympics -- that means you're a traitor.' And vice versa." Critics who accuse the authorities of building a fake export version of Russia in Sochi hurt the feelings of Olympic fans. "By spitting on Putin, the opposition and the Western media spit on us, at our Olympics," said Vladimir Sergiyenko, a fan from the Urals, during our discussion of politics during the skating completions at Adler Arena this week.

Russians often tell me that the West is biased against their country. Russians often accuse Western media that publish negative stories about corruption and the dark side of politics of engaging in smear tactics. Some Russians argue that it's the mark of "a good citizen" to keep quiet and to show respect for politicians -- and not to demand alternative policies or to participate in building civic society. But there are others who believe that a true patriot is someone who criticizes the government. "In Russia, says Zygar, "society is deeply confused."