Russians Rally in Defiance of Government

On December 4th, Russia held elections for the lower house of its legislature, the State Duma (akin to the US’s House of Representatives or the UK’s House of Commons). As typical of the nation’s grimy politics, there was a  widespread perception – by domestic and foreign observers alike – that the process was rigged in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, which has become almost inseparable from the state.

Despite this fraud, United Russia still received far fewer votes than in previous elections, which suggested that Russians were starting to tire of the corruption and autocracy that has defined Putin’s regime. Although not President, he is widely considered to be the true ruler of Russia, assisted by a network of thugs and lackeys that have previously kept a lid on any criticism or dissent. A few weeks prior to the elections, Putin had even announced his intention to run for President again, leading to some grumbles but little surprise.

So few people in or out of Russia expected the Russians to take to the streets in any meaningful way, much less in such great numbers. As the New York Times reports:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president 12 years ago.

The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. “We exist!” they chanted. “We exist!”

The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced. The leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.

Saturday’s rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Mr. Putin And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.

Indeed, some sources have claimed the protests to be the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian police estimate the demonstration’s numbers in Moscow alone are around 25,ooo, with some activists claiming anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 participants. In Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg, there are another 10,000 demonstrators, and rallies of various size are taking place in at least 88 more towns and cities throughout the country.
These all began as a coordinated and but largely spontaneous response to the electoral fraud and Putin’s consolidation of power, and there seemed to be no clear point other than expressing angst and indignation (as most such grassroots movements begin).
But the rallies have quickly escalated in their demands and grievances, including, as the Guardian reports:

1. Freedom for political prisoners

2. Annulment of the election results

3. The resignation of Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, and an official investigation of vote fraud

4. Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections

5. New democratic and open elections

This looks like the beginning of a full-fledged political movement, with comparisons to the recent Arab Spring abounding. Police have already arrested over a 1,000 demonstrators in Moscow alone, and Putin has responded by inciting his own pro-government factions to counter-protest in his favor (including the Nashi, a thuggish youth group compared to the Hitler Youth). Interestingly, a smaller number of people are have been detained in connection to these rallies than in previous ones – does that suggest sympathy on part of the police?

The domestic media, being largely state controlled, has of course avoided any meaningful mention of this event, not that it’s made much difference: as the Times noted, the savvy use of social media, in conjunction with the sheer scale of the protests, have made such sanctioned ignorance ineffective.

Dozens of Russian public figures – from celebrities to activists to politicians – have addressed the crowds and showed support. The Russian diaspora is starting to join in as well. Protesters have already taken on a symbol for their cause, the white ribbon, which is adorning cars, clothes, and other objects, and is the adopted motif of online protest sites (I’ve always said that a symbol is a significant sign of any movement’s maturity, especially since such things are much harder to kill off or suppress).

The movement has already made clear that if it’s demands are not met, follow-up protests will be scheduled for December 24th (alluding to their expectation that they’ll probably be broken up before then). Needless to say, I’ll be watching pretty close to see where this is going to go. It’s only been a couple of days, and already things seem to be escalating. Putin, though still pretty popular, has never faced anything on this scale or organization before , so who knows how he’ll react. The government is unlikely to acquiesce, however, and apparently doesn’t take the movement too seriously – so a confrontation of some kind is pretty much inevitable.

As a Russophile with a good amount of knowledge on the country (so I’d like to think), I’m in some ways surprised, in others way not. Russia has a history of popular revolts, revolutions, and popular movements, dating back to the first Tsars. At the same time, however, modern Russia has long been seen as a bleak and cynical place, where people became grudgingly complacent with what they felt was politics as usual. In fact, I had just read a recent report on Russia by The Economist, which found high levels of apathy, social exclusion, and pessimism all around, especially about the country’s future (to the extent that a large number of Russians expressed an interest in leaving; this may explain the high rate of brain drain and the low birthrate).

So the Russians have surprised everyone in breaking out of their bleak indifference and showing that they do indeed have a stake in their country’s future. While it’s too soon to call this a revolution or a “Russian Spring,” it may hopefully turn out to have some meaningful political impact, however dim the prospects are given the track-record. The negative precedent for positive change hasn’t yet dampened even the famously irreverent Russians.

Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has helped mobilize young Russians over the past year, sent an address from the prison where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting the police. Mr. Navalny was arrested Monday night after the first of three demonstrations.

“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need — dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” said the address, which was read by a journalist, Oleg Kashin. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth.”

“We are not cattle or slaves,” he said. “We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”

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