People vs. Putin Power

The Russian Spring begins in winter.

Fred Weir

Russians rally in the streets of Moscow on Dec. 24, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fred Weir)

MOSCOW – The Russ­ian frost broke last month, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, as a sur­prise Decem­ber thaw brought the warmest tem­per­a­tures in more than a cen­tu­ry to Moscow and as two equal­ly unex­pect­ed mas­sive pro-democ­ra­cy street ral­lies fun­da­men­tal­ly chal­lenged the Putin-era sta­tus quo. Though win­ter will undoubt­ed­ly return, few believe the polit­i­cal cli­mate here will ever be the same again.

Iron­i­cal­ly, those who attend­ed the two protests to demand that an alleged­ly fraud­u­lent par­lia­men­tary elec­tion be over­turned were over­whelm­ing­ly the win­ners, not the losers, of the past decade under Vladimir Putin’s author­i­tar­i­an lead­er­ship. Call them the Putin Gen­er­a­tion: most­ly young, social media-savvy, high­ly edu­cat­ed and rel­a­tive­ly well-to-do urban pro­fes­sion­als who have until now accept­ed the Kremlin’s social con­tract,” which required only that they stay out of pol­i­tics in return for the chance to build their careers, enjoy their pri­vate lives, trav­el wher­ev­er they wish and safe­ly vent their feel­ings on the Internet.

Until last month, it seemed to be work­ing. Putin’s Krem­lin strate­gist, Vladislav Surkov, engi­neered the elab­o­rate polit­i­cal sys­tem that has been dubbed man­aged democ­ra­cy,” fea­tur­ing care­ful­ly-con­trolled elec­toral choic­es, a strait­jack­et­ed media and a civ­il soci­ety in which polit­i­cal­ly-active groups are either co-opt­ed into the state-run Pub­lic Cham­ber or suf­fo­cat­ed under tax inspec­tions, com­put­er anti-pira­cy laws or a vari­ety of oth­er pseu­do-legal pre­texts. In the 2003 and 2007 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, the pro-Krem­lin behe­moth Unit­ed Rus­sia was the clear victor. 

But in the Decem­ber 4 Duma elec­tions, Unit­ed Rus­sia bare­ly squeaked to a 49-per­cent win and even that, oppo­si­tion par­ties and blog­gers argued, was called into ques­tion by exten­sive fraud and shame­less vote-rig­ging. The first small post-elec­tion protests, involv­ing the usu­al lib­er­al and left-wing dis­si­dent groups, were bru­tal­ly put down by police. But then the unex­pect­ed hap­pened. Police grudg­ing­ly grant­ed oppo­si­tion groups a per­mit to gath­er on Decem­ber 10; at least 30,000 filled Bolot­naya Square. After police approved anoth­er per­mit for a Decem­ber 24 ral­ly, at least 60,000 swarmed onto bar­ri­cad­ed Sakharov Avenue to demand the elec­tions be can­celled and re-staged under fair rules and for Putin to aban­don his plans to run for a third term in pres­i­den­tial polls slat­ed for March 4. He is eli­gi­ble for two more six-year terms.

The oppo­si­tion par­ties that called the ral­lies appeared total­ly blind­sided by these turnouts. Sum­moned not so much by polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers as by viral social media mes­sages, the mul­ti­tudes sud­den­ly showed up with a stag­ger­ing vari­ety of indi­vid­ual signs and mes­sages. Most insist­ed that they had no polit­i­cal affiliation.

We’re tired of all the lies, the end­less cor­rup­tion, and feel like we are ready to par­tic­i­pate in mak­ing deci­sions,” said Vladimir Kuvshin­sky, a net­work admin­is­tra­tor in an IT firm, when asked his thoughts on the mood of the crowd.

We don’t want 12 more years of Putin’s dic­ta­tor­ship,” said Kse­nia Ataro­va, who described her­self as a writer and crit­ic. The peo­ple have wok­en up at last, and they want fair elec­tions and a chance to voice their resent­ment about a lot of things that are hap­pen­ing in this country.”

Protest orga­niz­ers promise to be back on the streets in Feb­ru­ary, as Putin vies with a lack­lus­ter field of oppo­nents in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions now like­ly to be under close pub­lic scruti­ny. Some experts argue that the real revolt is like­ly to begin in the spring. Many seg­ments of Russ­ian soci­ety haven’t been heard from yet, although pub­lic opin­ion polling sug­gests they too are upset – not only at the defi­cien­cies of man­aged democ­ra­cy,” but also by spi­ral­ing infla­tion and gov­ern­ment plans to reform” pen­sions and oth­er social benefits.

The real protests are yet to come,” says Boris Kagar­l­it­sky, a vet­er­an left-wing activist and direc­tor of the inde­pen­dent Insti­tute for Study of Glob­al­iza­tion and Social Move­ments. The vast major­i­ty of Rus­sians, who saw their lives improve in the ear­ly Putin years, have expe­ri­enced sharply wors­en­ing liv­ing stan­dards since the eco­nom­ic cri­sis began in 2008. Now [the street ral­lies] in Moscow have shown them that protest­ing is a pos­si­bil­i­ty. … We’re look­ing at a clas­sic rev­o­lu­tion­ary situation.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH