Archive for February, 2012

The Master and Mikhail

Monday, February 27th, 2012

On December 24, 2011, Mikhail Prokhorov—banking and mining billionaire, N.B.A. team owner, international playboy, and Russia’s third-richest man—set out to be among the people. A crowd of about eighty thousand had come out to Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue to demand free elections and to lambaste Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was a bitterly cold, gray day, but Prokhorov wore just a pair of light-washed jeans, a brown leather jacket, and leather gloves the size of skillets. Moving slowly among the protesters, Prokhorov chatted with friends and staffers, and pointed to the building where, in 1989, he began his finance career as a lowly data clerk at the Soviet International Bank for Economic Cooperation.

Prokhorov is running for President in an election that takes place on March 4th. Putin will surely win, and Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist, will likely come in second. The urban professionals who made up the core of the Moscow protests have come to despise Putin, and they generally dislike Communists. But they also don’t have much love for Prokhorov. To most of them, he is a Kremlin stooge, taking orders from Putin, his ostensible opponent. According to this theory, which Prokhorov denies, his campaign is roughly equivalent to what would happen if Barack Obama persuaded T. Boone Pickens to run as an independent, in order to siphon votes from the actual Republican nominee.

As Prokhorov moved down Sakharov Avenue, rubberneckers and picture-takers eagerly elbowed their friends and pointed in disbelief at the oligarch. Prokhorov is six feet eight, and is not hard to locate in a crowd. Nearby, radical young Communists heckled, “One billionaire—a million hungry!”

“Come closer!” Prokhorov shouted back at them. “I can’t hear you!”

Soon, he was so mobbed by the well-wishers, the critical, and the curious that he could no longer move. (“I can’t believe he’s not wearing a hat!” one woman, a retired librarian, said. “He’s going to get sick!”) He listened to people’s grievances and nodded, accepted flyers and business cards, and gave snappy replies to questions; he even managed a couple of media interviews via cell phones passed to him across the cluster of heads buzzing around his torso.

“Can you please tell me, is it possible to earn a billion honestly?” an elderly man asked, echoing the sentiment, common in Russia, that the oligarchs earned their fortunes through deceit and government connections.

“I think you can,” Prokhorov replied, his face radiating self-regard. “At the very least, I haven’t broken any laws.”

Someone else asked if he was a Putin patsy.

“I am not a Putin supporter,” Prokhorov said. “I have my own views.”

What was his election platform?

“Maximum freedom.”

This is Prokhorov’s second foray into politics, and he has admitted that he consulted with the Kremlin before embarking on the first. Did he get Kremlin approval to run this time, too?

“I think that, for any person, it’s very important to be able to come to agreements,” he said, adding that not all Kremlin employees are evil.

What of the fraudulent December 4th parliamentary vote in which Putin’s United Russia Party narrowly held on to power, setting off a wave of protests?

“If I become President, I will dissolve this Duma”—the Russian parliament—“and have new elections.”

What about the story, reported in the Russian press, that Putin called him and asked him to run as a decoy?

“I like these tall tales.”

Will he ultimately give his support to Putin?

“I’m not going to give anything to anyone.”

Nearby, a group of young protesters—members of a Web forum called the Leprosarium—jumped up and down, shouting, “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” Prokhorov ignored them, and went off to attend a ceremony that officially opened his campaign office. The protest organizers had not invited him to speak.

The last time a Russian oligarch entered politics, he did not fare well. About a decade ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and the richest man in Russia at the time, started working to get his allies into the Duma, angering Putin. In October, 2003, masked commandos stormed his private jet and arrested him. His assets were parcelled out to Putin’s friends, and he was sentenced to nine years in jail. In December, 2010, he was given another, fourteen-year sentence. The harshness of the punishment sent a clear message to Russia’s magnates: stay out of politics.

During Putin’s rule, his éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, built a system of what he has called “managed” democracy. Elections were rigged, and it seemed that Surkov allowed parties to exist only if they served a specific purpose or demographic. The statist, conservative United Russia supported Putin. The three opposition parties—the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the left-leaning Just Russia Party—have opaque funding and generally toe the Kremlin line. (They are justly called “the loyal opposition.”)

In early 2011, Surkov began working to create a new party for Russia’s urban middle class, which had become increasingly hostile to the government’s corruption and ineptitude. Rather than permit them to organize organically, however, Surkov resuscitated a moribund liberal party called Right Cause.

The project’s curators approached at least three members of the Kremlin élite, with no success. Then, on May 16th, Prokhorov announced that he would lead the Party. He insists that the Kremlin didn’t ask him to do so: he heard about Right Cause’s search in the papers, and some friends suggested that he get involved. After contacting the Party, Prokhorov says that he then approached the Kremlin and was given approval. He told me directly that he sought the counsel of the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and the Prime Minister before making his announcement. Why, I asked, did he need to talk this over with them? “If you are the head of a big company, you cannot be involved in politics,” he explained. But, unlike Khodorkovsky, he added, he had relinquished control of his business before taking up politics.

Whether the Kremlin had requested, or merely blessed, Prokhorov’s campaign was an important distinction. If Prokhorov was to lead a party for the urban middle class, he had to be independent. But, from the beginning, few people believed that he was. He had funded various Kremlin initiatives, like a summer training camp for several of Surkov’s pro-Kremlin youth groups. As a publicity stunt, he once spent a night in a tent at the camp. Worse, he completely avoided criticizing Putin after taking over the Party. And so the urban élite dismissed Right Cause as a “Kremlin project.”

Surkov seemed to do everything in his power to help Right Cause succeed, thereby sending another signal about its lack of independence. In early summer, Prokhorov appeared on all the federal television channels, which blacklist genuine opponents. During one appearance, he demonstrated his basketball skills by sinking a three-point shot. Moscow was blanketed with tangerine-colored posters featuring Prokhorov’s face, staring heavy-lidded at the city.

In August, Surkov began phoning Prokhorov to suggest people who would and wouldn’t work for Right Cause. Prokhorov told me that he promised he would take the Kremlin’s ideas into account, but he clearly chafed at the interference. Prokhorov had recently tapped Evgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug activist from Yekaterinburg, to join the Party. In early September, Surkov pressured Prokhorov to remove Roizman from the Party roster. When Prokhorov refused, Surkov organized a coup within Right Cause and had him voted out of power.

On September 15th, Prokhorov gathered a swarm of puzzled journalists and supporters at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the place where he had planned to hold a Party congress. When he rose to speak, everyone was sure that the public tension with Surkov in recent days was part of an elaborately staged show of independence. But Prokhorov delivered an uncharacteristically emotional speech about Surkov. “There is a puppeteer in this country who privatized the political system, who has misinformed the Russian leadership about what is going on in the political system, who pressures the media, plants candidates, and manipulates citizens’ opinions,” he said. “This puppeteer is named Vladislav Surkov.” He then called for Surkov’s dismissal. This was real. The project had clearly jumped the rails.

When I first met with Prokhorov, five days after the implosion of Right Cause, he was not his usual swaggering self. He looked pale, and he drooped over a white leather armchair in the rotunda of his Moscow office. A glass skylight flooded the room with the late-September sun. His desk was immaculate: a few stacks of paper and a tray of dried fruit. There was no computer in sight. Bookshelves were littered with mementos, statuettes, and a smattering of books. Tucked behind them was an old picture of him with Putin, who comes up to Prokhorov’s chest.

“No, no, I’m not wilting,” Prokhorov said, when I remarked on his posture. “I’m just catching up on sleep. I’m sleeping seven hours a night now! Before, it was four or five.”

There were less than three months until the parliamentary elections, and liberals were intrigued by his unexpected show of independence. But Prokhorov had exited Right Cause at the very moment that he had become appealing. He seemed to relish the irony of his situation, as well as the skepticism he had encountered. “If one of my friends or colleagues did this, I would think exactly the same thing,” he told me. “I’d have no illusions.”

His independent stance also carried a potentially steep cost. When Prokhorov assailed Surkov at the Party convention, everyone in the auditorium was stunned. Such a confrontation was unprecedented, and it was not expected to go unpunished. This may be why Prokhorov was at pains to downplay the incident. “I don’t really like to discuss what happened between two people,” he demurred, before conceding that the clash had made public a growing rift between the modernizing and the conservative forces in the Russian élite. “He’s inhibiting development,” Prokhorov finally blurted out. “That’s the essence of the conflict.”

Five days after we talked, Prokhorov was unexpectedly excluded from a Presidential commission on technological modernization. A month later, Putin’s office postponed the London I.P.O. of his gold-mining company, Polyus Gold. “It’s just an administrative delay,” Christophe Charlier, the deputy C.E.O. of Onexim, Prokhorov’s holding company, said. He added quietly, “In Russia, because of lack of transparency, people don’t believe in coincidences.”

Prokhorov’s parents, Dmitry and Tamara, were members of the Soviet upper middle class. Tamara was a materials engineer at the Institute for Chemical Machine-Building; Dmitry was trained as a lawyer. When Prokhorov was born, in May, 1965, Dmitry was handling international relations for the Soviet Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. As Prokhorov now puts it, his father “spoke for the red Soviet machine that beat everyone in sports.” Athletes often visited their small Moscow apartment. “There were sports in my life from childhood,” Prokhorov says. Like many Russian men of his generation, he spent most of his time outside “in the yard,” where he learned the ways of the patsan, or guy code. (This is the code that Prokhorov upheld in sticking by Roizman—loyalty—and the code he broke in going against Surkov.)

Prokhorov was, until the eighth grade, a middling student. “Boys in the Soviet Union got to work on their brains later; it’s a common story,” Prokhorov explains. Reading also came to him in adolescence, though he says it is something he quickly outgrew. “I just don’t like literature, because all of the experiences in it are redundant to me,” he says, adding that he has read mostly “specialized literature,” like books on chess tactics. “I have it all in my real life,” he goes on. “Literature I just don’t get at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can’t, by definition, like literature.”

Eventually, Prokhorov’s parents stopped chasing him out of the kitchen when friends gathered in the evening and discussed politics. Prokhorov remembers a wide range of topics, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Western culture and the ineffectiveness of a planned economy. “We weren’t discussing any plot against the state,” Prokhorov says. “We discussed mundane things.”

His need to clarify that his family wasn’t plotting against Brezhnev points to a key tenet of the Prokhorovs. Dmitry may have been discussing Solzhenitsyn in the kitchen, but during the day he worked in a highly sensitive branch of the Soviet apparatus: athletics were an important propaganda tool at home and abroad. He was allowed to travel, a rarity in those days. “He knew the Western world very well, and he would tell me about it, except very carefully, so that I didn’t give voice to these thoughts in school,” Prokhorov says, outlining a common Soviet public-private split. “At work, everyone was a strict Communist, but in the kitchen everyone was a dissident.”

“Our parents were thoroughly Soviet people,” says Prokhorov’s bookish older sister, Irina. She runs his philanthropic organizations, an erudite literary magazine, and a publishing house, and lives in a wing of his mansion west of Moscow. “They never fought against the Soviet state.” Dmitry and Tamara came of age during Stalin’s rule and knew better.

Prokhorov credits his mother with providing him with his cool temperament. “I’m a boa constrictor,” he says. “Calm, good mood. That’s like my mom. She could listen to people for a long time, and I can also listen.”

Prokhorov first made money as an undergraduate at the Moscow Finance Institute, which was a five-minute walk from home. He has developed a lofty mythology to explain his choice of profession. “Since childhood, money had a way of finding me,” he says. “I always found something in the sandbox. We’d be at the beach, and I’d find money. Money just found me on its own. I didn’t do anything for it.” This power is gone now, says Prokhorov, who is the thirty-second-richest person in the world. “I guess I don’t really need it.”

In 1983, after his first year at the institute, he did a two-year stint in the Army. “You had to fight at the very beginning, because that was part of the survival,” Prokhorov recalls. “People were always wanting to test you: are you real or not real? After a couple months, they understood that I was real, and no one bothered me anymore.”

Afterward, he returned to school and got to work. He organized his Army buddies into brigades that unloaded freight cars—potatoes, frozen beef, cement—and they earned in a day what a professor might make in a month. He handed over most of his money to his family.

In 1988, just before Prokhorov’s last year of college, Russians were allowed to own businesses for the first time in sixty years. He and another classmate rented a section of a laundromat near the institute and set up an operation for stonewashing jeans. The business was extremely successful, and soon all his friends—and their friends—were working for him. “I remember the last time I really got any pleasure out of money was when I bought a car, and I understood that I could take a girl to a café,” Prokhorov recalls.

At about this time, both of his parents died of heart disease. Prokhorov remained in their flat, which he shared with his niece and Irina, who had divorced her husband several years earlier. He became the breadwinner of the family. According to Olga Romanova, an opposition activist who was friendly with Prokhorov in college, this explains why he has never married. “This is his family; he doesn’t need another one,” Romanova says of Irina and her daughter.

In college, Prokhorov met Alexander Khloponin, who became his best friend. “Khloponin was the ringleader,” Romanova says. “Misha was the pensive serpent sitting next to the leader.” Khloponin introduced Prokhorov to Vladimir Potanin, who became Prokhorov’s business partner.

When he met Potanin, Prokhorov was working at the ailing International Bank for Economic Cooperation, where he had been assigned after college and where he’d quickly earned a series of promotions. In 1992, as Russia went through its first painful year as a fledgling market economy, Prokhorov and Potanin started their own bank, which they called MFK. That year, the management of the International Bank—whose fold Prokhorov had just left—sent a letter to its clients, encouraging them to transfer their holdings to MFK. Within six months, Potanin and Prokhorov had three hundred million dollars in assets. All the old debt was left at the International Bank.

The following year, Potanin and Prokhorov formed the United Export-Import Bank, or Uneximbank, for short. They divided their labor according to their talents. “He didn’t like to dig through the technical stuff, and I loved it,” Prokhorov says. “And he loved buttonholing people, being involved in politics, lobbying.” (Potanin declined to discuss Prokhorov for this article. Khloponin, who went into business with the two, is now the Kremlin-appointed chief of the restive North Caucasus region.)

Uneximbank soon became the authorized bank for a number of state organizations, including the Finance Ministry, the federal tax service, the state arms-export agency, and the city of Moscow. At the end of 1994, the second year of the bank’s existence, it had 2.1 billion dollars in assets, nearly seven times more than it did at the beginning of the year.

The partners’ next coup came in 1995. A resurgent Communist Party threatened to take down an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 Presidential election. Potanin masterminded a plan wherein he and the other oligarchs offered loans to the government, which couldn’t pay wages and pensions, and they asked for shares in state enterprises as collateral. After selecting the companies they wanted, Potanin, Prokhorov, and their compatriots bid on how much money they would lend the government for those shares. Should the government default on its loans, which was all but assured, Uneximbank and the others could sell the shares. When the government failed to repay the loans, the bankers kept the shares. Potanin and Prokhorov walked away with Norilsk Nickel, which was Russia’s largest platinum and nickel producer. At the time, Norilsk had revenues of three and a half billion dollars. Potanin and Prokhorov had given the government a loan of a hundred and seventy million dollars.

The loans-for-shares transactions, which made billionaires of Potanin and Prokhorov, remain highly controversial, and helped draw a connection in the Russian imagination between the crook, the businessman, and the Kremlin official. When asked recently on national television whether he had ever participated in corrupt dealings, Prokhorov shrugged and replied, “Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?”

In 2001, Prokhorov took over the management of Norilsk. He improved productivity, diversified the company, and, in the six years that he was in charge, Norilsk’s value increased elevenfold, owing in large part to a global commodities boom. He set up the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, run by Irina, which brought arts and culture to the icebound miners. He also took control of one of Norilsk’s less valuable but, to Prokhorov, more interesting projects: Moscow’s CSKA basketball team. Prokhorov gave the team a healthy budget, which allowed it to recruit top talent. The team won the European championships twice in three seasons.

In January, 2007, Prokhorov and twenty-five others—some of them young Russian women—were arrested at Courchevel, a French ski resort where Prokhorov has “a small house” and spends the Orthodox Christmas holiday. Prokhorov was detained for three days—which he spent shadowboxing and stretching in his cell—on suspicion of making prostitutes available to his guests. When I asked him about it, Prokhorov laughed off the incident and said that everything written about it was “absolute rubbish.” One of the people he uses to book hotels and cars for his guests happened to have gone through customs with a binder containing pictures of twenty girls. “Girls travel with me, and he had pictures of them in his bag—you know, to meet them at the airport,” Prokhorov explains. The French police got a different impression: that this man was a pimp. In general, Prokhorov is unapologetic about his predilections. (“How will I become president without a first lady?” he recently wrote on his Facebook page. “Let me tell you a secret: I had my first lady when I was seventeen.”) He can often be spotted at Moscow’s poshest clubs, surrounded by herds of young women from the city’s modelling agencies. Because neither he nor his friends are married, he says that, in Courchevel, “we didn’t even violate anyone’s moral code.”

Nevertheless, the arrests became an international incident. Potanin was scandalized, and Prokhorov was soon pushed out of Norilsk. In the spring of 2008, Prokhorov swapped his stake for a fourteen-per-cent share in Rusal, the world’s largest producer of aluminum, and more than seven billion dollars. Five months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, sinking world markets and commodity prices. Prokhorov, whose assets were now mostly in cash, was affected far less than any of his peers. The French, in the meantime, apologized and awarded Prokhorov a Légion d’Honneur.

For a while, he was the richest man in Russia. He signed on to reënergize and fund the Russian Biathlon Union. He bought the New Jersey Nets and made plans to move the team to Brooklyn. (His wedding present to the Nets forward Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian was a pair of his-and-hers Russian fur hats.) He created a glossy media empire. He began investing in high-tech and nanotechnology projects, which were being pushed by the Kremlin in its drive to diversify the Russian economy. One of these ventures is a Russian-made hybrid vehicle whose name, to the Russian ear, sounds like “Fuck-Mobile.” Putin gave it a spin last spring and praised it as “a totally new product” with an “attention-grabbing” name.

When I met with Prokhorov last October, he had just got back from windsurfing at his private resort in Turkey, and celebrating the season-closing bacchanal at Ibiza. He had doubled his daily exercise regimen, from two hours to four. “Basically, everything’s great,” he said, beaming. He gulped down a large teacup of an orange vitamin broth. The rumor around Moscow was that he and Surkov had made up and the two of them had drunk on it. Prokhorov denied this, but in November Surkov told a Moscow newspaper that he had no issues with Prokhorov.

On December 4th, Russia held its parliamentary elections, and Putin’s increasingly unpopular United Russia edged back into power. To many, this seemed a less than credible result, and video evidence of egregious voting violations circulated on the Web. People took to the streets, and the police cracked down, arresting a thousand protesters in two days. On December 8th, Prokhorov published a blog post in which he declared, “Like it or not, Putin is for now the only politician who can somehow manage to control the machine of state.”

On December 10th, an estimated fifty thousand people gathered in Moscow’s Bolotnaya, or Swampy, Square. Thousands of others protested in more than eighty cities across the country. Crowds of expats gathered at Russian embassies around the world. Russia hadn’t seen anything like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite official warnings of violence, the protest had the feel of a block party. Muscovites, who can seem like the rudest people on the planet, smiled and struck up conversations with strangers. The President, however, was silent, and so was Putin.

Two days later, Prokhorov held a surprise press conference in the center of Moscow. “Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re expecting of me, but I’ll try not to disappoint you,” he said, smiling. “This is probably the most serious decision of my life. I’m going to participate in the Presidential elections.” This time, he said that he would do it as an independent. The people in the room gasped, and the old question arose immediately: was this another Kremlin project? That night, the main national channel broadcast a long, glowing report of his candidacy. Shots of the press conference were interspersed with footage of grinning protesters at Bolotnaya.

Whatever credibility Prokhorov had built up by turning on Surkov in the fall quickly dissipated, in part because of the fawning coverage on state television. To make matters worse, an article in the magazine New Times declared that, on the evening before the protest in Bolotnaya Square, Prokhorov had taken a call from Putin and then told the friends he was with that the President had asked him to run. The story was based on anonymous sources, and Prokhorov immediately denied it. He says that Putin and Medvedev found out about his intentions from the press conference. His spokeswoman adds that the New Times account was “total fiction.” Nevertheless, given Prokhorov’s past, and the nature of Russian politics, the damage was done.

When I met Prokhorov two weeks after he had announced his candidacy, he had just spent two hours in the cold at the protest on Sakharov Avenue, and another two organizing the drive to gain the two million signatures necessary to register for the Presidential election. He had clearly enjoyed himself.

He had an elaborate, and decidedly wobbly, story about his decision to run. For two months, he said, he had been building a national support network. Two days before the big protests, Prokhorov says he “quietly submitted” his application to the Central Election Commission. “I won’t hide the fact that I have a friend, and I asked him not to leak anything,” Prokhorov told me, declining to name this apparently influential person. His blog post, in which he appeared to endorse Putin, was, he said, a red herring.

A few weeks later, his election prospects, though not his credibility, were given an assist when the Central Election Commission disqualified Grigory Yavlinsky, the traditional liberal candidate: nearly a quarter of his petition signatures were deemed fakes. Prokhorov, who had gathered two and a half million signatures in a mere two weeks—one of which was a national holiday—remained on the ballot.

Regardless of its origins, Prokhorov’s second political intervention seemed more promising than his first. In his parliamentary campaign, he had avoided even the slightest criticism of Putin. This time, he has attacked the Prime Minister, however mildly. “I have my own economic views,” he said, on NTV, shortly after his announcement. Putin’s economic program, he said, is “leading to economic catastrophe.”

Perhaps most promising for Prokhorov, Surkov was promoted out of his position three days after the protest on Sakharov Avenue. Instead of curating internal politics, he will now oversee the state’s modernization push. In a farewell interview, he scoffed, “I am too odious for this brave new world.”

Running for President is not a bad deal for Prokhorov, whose name is still associated with Courchevel. (A popular joke has him choosing his first lady, his second lady, his third lady, “and some whores.”) Sated and successful in business, he gets to try something new. “The fact that I’m useful to the government is obvious,” he said in a television appearance. “But why don’t we use the government, too?” Meanwhile, he seems to have grown even smoother as a candidate. He jokes with the press; he laughs. He has even got better at answering the same question—is he a “Kremlin project”?—over and over. “There’s nothing I can tell you that will convince you,” he’s said. “The only way is to keep working, calmly, and prove it with action.”

Prokhorov seems to relish the role of being the one man who’s allowed to speak truth to power. His platform, which he published in January, is full of commonsense proposals, like shortening the Presidential term of office from six years to four, and limiting the number of terms a President can serve. He proposes to force the government to sell its controlling stakes in media organizations. He wants to eliminate the Draconian registration procedures that Surkov invented to keep opposition parties out of the Duma. He has detailed economic proposals designed to boost competition and remove the state’s influence from the economy. Prokhorov’s first campaign promise was to free Khodorkovsky. He has also become bolder. When asked in a recent television interview about that infamous online comment that only Putin could run the current Russian state, he stuck by it. “But I don’t want to live in a country like that,” he added.

“I’m playing a long-term game,” he said on the evening of December 24th, after the protest. It was already dark, and a butler brought in tea and a tray of sweets. Prokhorov seemed energized by what he had seen that afternoon, and spoke of building a political party after the election. “The only thing is if people don’t support me at all,” he said of the coming election. “In that case, you can’t fool yourself. You have to tell yourself, ‘Apparently you have no political talent and you should do something else.’ I’ve only done things at which I’m at least somewhat better than others. The Presidential elections are a great test.”

On February 4th, with a month left before the election, some hundred thousand Muscovites came out for the largest protest to date, a march down Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square. The temperature was ten degrees below zero. Prokhorov had been gaining in the polls, with twenty per cent of the protesters supporting him. But his national share of the vote was still only about five per cent.

This time, Prokhorov was seasonably dressed, in ski pants and heavy-duty boots. A blue down jacket filled out his svelte frame, and a white fleece hat with a red zigzag on the forehead made him easy to spot in the crowd. Roizman, on whose behalf Prokhorov had abandoned Right Cause, was there with a delegation from the Ural Mountains. (He is now an adviser to Prokhorov’s campaign.) So was Prokhorov’s sister, Irina. She wore a leopard-print fur hat and clung to his arm in the crush of supporters wearing white scarves that said “Prokhorov.” They were a diverse but largely middle-class crowd, and they didn’t care whether Prokhorov had negotiated his run with Putin. “I agree with his platform, that’s it,” a middle-aged small-business owner from the Ivanovo region told me as we walked. Others said that it would be a good thing if Prokhorov were indeed a “Kremlin project”: at least he’d be able to get things done.

The tightly packed cluster around Prokhorov moved aimlessly through the larger crowd until Prokhorov took control.

“Right!” he called out over everyone’s heads. “We’re moving to the right!”

“Right!”

“Right!”

“Right!” his supporters echoed.

“Curb!” he called, stepping up over a pile of dirty snow.

“Curb!”

“Curb!”

Soon, the pack started chanting behind him: “Prokhorov for President! Prokhorov for President!”

“What are they saying?” he asked Irina.

He craned his head to catch what she whispered in his ear. Then he looked up and smiled.

The Master and Mikhail [TNY]

Moscow’s Big White Circle

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Because standing and listening to political speeches in the cold can be a little tedious the fourth time around, the organizing committee behind this winter’s opposition protests in Moscow decided on something a little different for their last protest before the March 4th Presidential elections: a big white circle. (I wrote about the elections, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the oligarch, Nets owner, and opposition contender—and occasional rapper—in this week’s New Yorker.)

The conceit is simple: come out to the Garden Ring, which girds the center of Moscow in ten miles of multi-lane highway, and hold hands. Oh, and wear your white ribbons, which have been the symbol of the protests. There is no permit to get, nothing to discuss with the authorities.

The result was stupendous. I got in a cab and did the full loop and filmed the denser sections, in three parts (the first is above): some stretches, especially in the north, were quite patchy. I also didn’t quite catch the clumps of pro-Putin kids holding red hearts reading “Putin Loves Everyone.” But if you watch the video, you’ll get the general idea. As you can see, traffic, despite the weekend, has slowed to a crawl. Cars are honking. Some have tied white ribbons to their windshield wipers and let them run: a robot-like answer to the grinning, waving people on the sidewalks.

You can also see that Moscow, especially in a coat of gray winter slush, is not the friendliest of cities—something anyone who’s been here can attest to—which made it that much more moving to see it as it was today, encircled with a ten-mile smile.

Moscow’s Big White Circle[TNY]

Prokhorov Raps

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

And here is Russian oligarch and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov rapping. A couple of weeks ago, Prokhorov, whom I wrote about for The New Yorker this week, appeared on “Projector Paris Hilton,” a comedy show on state television that allows itself some mild political satire. The show’s hosts handed Prokhorov a sheet of paper and asked him to rap along about his signature technology product, the ѿ-Mobile. Pronounced “yo-Mobilie,” it sounds roughly like the shorthand for Fuck Mobile to a Russian ear. It also makes for a fun, if corny, conceit for some stiff-jointed rapping.

Prokhorov Raps [TNY]

Tightening the Screws

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year’s holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?

“There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?” Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin — and then picked up by the loyalist information network — that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters — though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in — has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December’s events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop — if not utter silence — on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the “optimistic channel,” as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.

But that’s not what Shlegel was after. “When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could’ve helped Dozhd cover the protests,” Shlegel explained. I couldn’t quite follow his logic, but he went on. “Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue.” It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor’s office. “If you’re going to be the conscience of the nation,” he said, “why are they hiding where they get their funding?”

So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more — and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd’s owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December — the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 — this latest request naturally caused a stir.

But Dozhd isn’t alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy’s shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station’s board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. “This is a signal, certainly,” Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. “I don’t see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy.” And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of “covering me in diarrhea, from morning ’till night.”

Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin’s window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: “See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!” Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs — Venediktov and Sindeeva — are consummate players of Russia’s political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.

Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev’s new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.

But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn’t need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub — which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).

And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny’s account was “checked.” And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak — the daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist — finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, “State Department with Ksenia Sobchak,” was canceled after one episode. “I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “They paid for four shows — they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision.”

Maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn’t the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor’s office landed on Venediktov’s desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station’s editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel’s inquiry, too.

Sobchak, however, is not buying it. “I hope it’s connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they’ll relax a bit,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down.”

Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. “I don’t think it’s over. On the contrary, we’re seeing a well-defined trend,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. “I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election.” It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities — as well as American-style claims of “immoral” programming — to keep the media in line. “I don’t the system will be as personalized. It doesn’t need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points.” This means it won’t matter if you’re state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we’ve seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? “None of these are censorship.”

As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. “I just wanted information,” he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. “I’m always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn’t have found a better moment,” he said. “Of course, I’m being sarcastic.”

Tightening the Screws [FP]

Upping the Ante

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

MOSCOW – There were a few surprising things about Saturday’s opposition protest in Moscow. For one thing, the cold — a bitter -10 degrees Fahrenheit — didn’t seem to keep anyone at home. Nor did the fact that it had been more than a month since the last demonstration, leading commentators to worry that the protest movement against Vladimir Putin’s rule would lose momentum. If anything, more people came out than last time, some 100,000 in all.

Which makes the second thing a little less surprising. If the first big protest, on Bolotnaya Square, on December 10, was a mix of the politically active and the young and white-collared, the crowd that reconvened there on Saturday was extremely diverse. There were pensioners and office workers and a group of military history hobbyists wearing fatigues. (“We’re freaks,” one of them explained.) There were even veteran paratroopers, the saltiest of the salty earth and famous for their August holiday when they strip to their skivvies and frolic in city fountains. One does not expect to see them marching alongside iPhone-toting urbanites and democracy activists. And yet, there were paratrooper flags everywhere. “They think that our people don’t think, don’t see anything, and don’t understand anything,” one of the veterans, a 50-year-old named Sergei, told me. “It’s time for the country to be ruled by honest people.”

Beyond the sloganeering, there were signs this time of genuine political organizing in advance of the national elections on March 4 when Putin will run to resume the presidency he temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. Several booths had been set up to gather signatures for petitions to contest election violations in court. People recruited election monitors, part of a drive over the last few weeks that’s culminated in two projects to train over 20,000 volunteer election monitors: one by the blogger and opposition Alexey Navalny and another, called Voters’ League, formed by the creative types among the protest organizers.

I also met two men who had decided to run for office in the Moscow municipal elections in March. “We need normal people to get into government, so that the organs of the state work not for themselves but for the citizens of the district,” said one of the candidates, Konstantin Kolisnichenko, 36, who, surprisingly, works for a government bank. (Unsurprisingly, he’s had a near impossible time getting on the ballot.) It was a statement that sounded a lot different from the chants of “Putin is a thief” around us. It sounded suspiciously like normal political discourse.

Meanwhile, the pro-Putin forces gathered across town. More accurately, they were bused in, and many were paid for. There were a lot of them, though not nearly as many as the 138,000-person Internal Ministry estimate. And if the tens of thousands at Bolotnaya laughed and smiled, the people at the pro-Putin rally had little to be cheerful about. The message delivered to them as they stood in the frost was one of brimstone and fire: the country was on the verge of collapsing, revolution was around the corner. “They want to drown the country in blood,” television star Maxim Shevchenko shouted from the stage about the protesters gathered on the other side of Moscow.

This apocalyptic imagery is strange, given the peaceful nature of the opposition protests. It does, however, reflect the fear and incomprehension about the protests inside the halls of power. “Julia, do you have a pet?” Yuri Kotler asked me the other day. Kotler is a young member of the ruling United Russia party and was once an advisor to Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of the Duma. I had asked him how the slowly mounting protests were perceived in the Kremlin. Yes, I said, I do have a pet. A cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Are you sure it’s talking? You have to make sure. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and asking for something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it — or hoping it will all go away. “It’s a bureaucracy, and it works for itself,” Kotler told me. “It’ll take a long time for them to understand that they’re hired.”

But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin — that is, Putin — is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters’ League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition — and the federal television blacklists — on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin’s performance during his annual Q&A with the public.

Now, there is talk in the capital of “tightening the screws,” one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. “They’re waiting for the opposition to make a mistake,” says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. “Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down.” In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov’s phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.

And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Saturday’s pro-Putin rally in Moscow — and smaller ones across the country — have to be seen in this context. If the opposition’s strategy is to show the Kremlin that its sheer numbers demand more inclusion in the political process, Putin is answering in kind: there are even more of us. Which is why the official tallies of yesterday’s protests in Moscow — 138,000 for Putin, 35,000 against him — were so bizarrely off. (Most observers, including police I spoke to on the scene, put the figures roughly in reverse: 30,000 for Putin, 100,000 against him in Moscow.) And why it was so important that, in every city where there was an opposition protest this weekend, there was a larger, mirror one in support of Putin, with titles like “Strong leader, strong nation.”

Nor is it a coincidence that, just as people streamed home from the protests, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has turned his guns on his own citizens. Russia is not Syria, and it is unlikely that Putin, with his European pretensions, would crack down that hard. But his people do warn of blood flowing and, at the last meeting of the Valdai discussion club, in November, Putin spoke of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s “gruesome” end. It has been rumored to be something of an obsession for him.

Thus the stonewalling, and what we’re about to see: a real escalation by the opposition. If the protests in December were about new, fair parliamentary elections, the focus now is becoming Putin, and there will soon be only one demand: Putin has to go. This is, of course, the logical outcome for a leader who has so personalized Russia’s entire dysfunctional political system, and who continues to preclude conceding more than an inch. But upping the ante is a risky game, especially if you lose it.

When Russians — and those thousands of new election monitors — go to the polls to vote for Russia’s president for the next six years, it’s by no means clear what will happen. Putin will likely win, but how? The possible scenarios do not promise a calm Russian spring. If Putin wins in the first round, but with just over the required 50 percent of the vote, few will see it as a legitimate victory, most likely because it won’t be. “They’ve spent a decade building a system that, on every level — teachers, local elites — are incentivized to falsify the vote to deliver the right percentages,” political consultant and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told me in January. “You can’t just flip a switch, and expect the system to stop on a dime.” If Putin forces a win in the first round, Pavlovsky added, “he’ll assume the presidency for the first time in an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, and depression.”

The problem is, by March, it will no longer be -10 degrees outside. If half a million, or even a million people come out — and chances are, many will — how will the security forces respond? Will they leave them to protest in peace, as they have in the last two months, or will they crack down, as they did on December 5? If Putin is forced into a second round of the presidential vote and then wins, he will still have less legitimacy than before, especially in his own eyes. “For him, it will be a psychological catastrophe,” one government official explained to me. “We’re screwed,” the official said when I asked him for his assessment. He gave the current incarnation of the system two more years, tops.

But some in the opposition are not too optimistic for their own prospects either. “Everyone was so euphoric yesterday,” says opposition leader and former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. “But I went home last night and thought about it, and, oh boy. We’re stuck. We’re at a dead end.” Dead ends rarely end well in a country where dialogue with the other side is stigmatized, especially when the side with the power — and the guns — keeps warning of blood and chaos.

So far, however, those thoughts seem to be far from the minds of the tens of thousands who braved the bitterest cold for a purely political cause. “I had the choice to stay in my warm bed today,” said one middle-aged woman in a floor-length mink coat. The strap of an expensive purse crossed her torso, there were Armani aviators perched on her nose. Her skin was clearly familiar with the salons of the city. A former businesswoman, she said she had missed the December protests. “I know I picked a crazy day to come out,” she said about the cold. “But I just couldn’t sit at home anymore.”

Clearly, the times are changing. In the last two months, a surprising addition to the protesting crowds has been Ksenia Sobchak, the popsy, fashionable daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor. She has long been part of the gilded, Kremlin-friendly elite, a sort of Russian Paris Hilton, and her joining the protests has been viewed with some suspicion. On Saturday, she weighed in on her Twitter account. “If the government doesn’t see now that people are willing to stand out in the frost and defend their rights, that government will be overthrown.”

Upping the Ante [FP]

Protest and Pretend in Moscow

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Today’s opposition protest in Moscow drew more people than any of the protests that followed December’s rigged parliamentary vote. But not all of the protests since then have been anti-Kremlin. One of the many methods that the Kremlin has used in response to this unprecedented wave of civic bonhomie is to herd its own rallies. It’s a method the Kremlin has fallen back on for years: Pro-government youth groups, for example, regularly bus tens of thousands of kids into Moscow from the provinces for such events. Many of them can be spotted wandering the streets afterwards in their official T-shirts, swinging Zara bags: a free trip to the capital, with some pocket money to boot.

On December 6th, two days after the disputed elections brought thousands of angry Muscovites into the streets, these youth groups staged a massive counter-rally. They had pins and scarves and jackets and giant drums, which they pounded as the police surgically snatched nearly six hundred opposition protesters from the crowd and sent them off to jail. (They also had aggressive soccer hooligans keeping order, another hallmark of such gatherings.)
Four days later, on December 10th, a historically huge crowd of fifty thousand had come out to Bolotnaya Square to demand fair elections.

Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party—whose questionable victory was the reason for the ruckus—said it would bring out just as many people for a rally by the Kremlin walls two days later. But only two thousand people came out, if that. It was a thin crowd, which made for a strange counterpoint to one of the speakers, who went on about looking out from the stage and seeing a sea of United Russia supporters. Who were these supporters? One Russian journalist, armed with a camera, decided to find out by asking them why they came. Most turned away or ignored him. One of them, a migrant worker from Central Asia, could barely string together a sentence in Russian. (Many in the crowd that day, it turned out, were migrants—and not Russian citizens.)

There was a similar sham rally a few days ago, in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. This one, though, was in support of Putin’s candidacy for the Presidency and of the working class, which dominates the region. Many of the workers who attended the rally had been bused in from neighboring cities, industrial centers where life, even in Putin’s gilded era, is still not very pleasant. Several colleagues who went out there for the rally told me that people were very angry at Putin—the word “lynch” was used—but went to the rally in Yekaterinburg because their employers required them to, and because there was free vodka. This didn’t seem to add much to their mood, though: A video, which quickly went viral, showed a Duma deputy—formerly a worker from a nearby city—screaming “Urals! Russia! Putin!” He heard crickets in response. The protest, by the way, scraped together about ten thousand people, and police fined the organizers for having more people than the permit for the gathering allowed—an especially fine touch.

Today was the crowning moment of the Kremlin’s effort. As a hundred and twenty thousand opposition protesters marched through subzero temperatures—negative ten degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact—to Bolotnaya Square, buses across town brought in pro-Putin protesters to Poklonnaya Gora, the plaza commemorating Russia’s victory in the Second World War. The official police estimates of the size of each crowd were not believable. They put the pro-Putin number at a hundred and thirty-eight thousand, and fourteen-thousand five hundred at Bolotnaya. I was at the opposition rally, where there were clearly many, many more people than fourteen-thousand five hundred people. A smiling police officer confirmed this, adding that there were “significantly fewer people” at the pro-Putin rally. He seemed to be gloating.

I did, however, send my friend Albina Kirillova, a director with the hip opposition Rain TV channel, to Poklonnaya Gora. I asked her to capture the spirit of the pro-Putin rally, to find out if people were genuinely supporting Putin, if they had been bused in, or if they had been required to come by their employers, as has been frequently reported. Here’s what she found:

There were, as expected, people who had been paid to come; people who came out because of a work-place “initiative”; people who were less than fluent in Russian; and people who were less than sober. But there were also a lot of people who actually support Putin, either because they see no alternative to him, or because they really do like him. And they should, without a doubt, be able to gather and voice these feelings, just like the opposition.

But here’s the thing: when these protests are fake, when they aim to merely usurp and simulate popular sentiment in a controlled and controllable way, when the point is simply to mimic what the other side is doing, it’s downright destructive. People took to the streets in December and today because they’re tired of pretending that fake elections are real, that fake press is real, that fake protests are real expressions of anything. Responding with more of the same undermines the sand castle of Russia’s political system even further. It also just looks ridiculous.

Here’s another thing: these fake protests are expensive. Two days ago, the Russian franchise of Anonymous hacked the e-mail of youth minister Vasily Yakimenko. He is in charge of those Kremlin youth groups, and in charge of their fake protests. That protest with the pins and the scarves and the jackets and the drums? It cost the Russian federal budget—and the Russian taxpayer—nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Judging by the traffic the buses created near Poklonnaya Gora, Saturday’s protest probably cost even more, but the Russian taxpayer—a hundred and twenty thousand of whom were protesting exactly this kind of nonsense on Bolotnaya—will never know exactly how much. And what happens if more and more Russians start protesting as the Russian winter turns to spring, and—as is likely to happen—when Putin wins the Presidency in less than honest elections? Throwing money at things has been Putin’s preferred method for dealing with just about any problem, but this may be one of those times where this method doesn’t work.

And one more thing about today’s pro-Putin protest: Putin didn’t even show up. Instead, he commented on the show of support at Poklonnaya Gora and the fine for too many people showing up. “I’m positive that the organizers didn’t expect such a response,” Putin said. And he offered to pay the fine himself.

Protest and Pretend in Moscow [TNY]