It’s hard to say how many people came out to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square today. Was it eighty-five thousand, like the protest’s organizers said? Was it twenty-five thousand, like the police said? Was it fifty thousand—the Russian media’s estimates? Whatever it was, it was definitely more than the thirty-five thousand that had R.S.V.P.’d on Facebook. The square was packed, a small pedestrian bridge studded with artificial trees hung with locks left there by lovers was packed to the point that police warned it would collapse into the river below. There were still more people on the other side. There were people in the trees. “Young man, come on down!” someone yelled. “We have a banana for you!”
The Russian word for a protest is miting—meeting—and, for once, this was the more apt word for it. There was speechifying and chanting—“Putin, resign!”—and demands for new elections, but the sound equipment didn’t have the juice to reach all those ears. And yet, people stayed, and instead of listening, they talked to each other. I chatted with a group of young Russians—who worked in finance, marketing, insurance, engineering—about who in the political landscape reflected their views. No one, it turned out, because most Russian political parties, to their minds, are fakes. A young man, a consultant, sidled up. “Excuse me, I heard you talking,” he said, the snow falling on his tweed and leather cap, “and I just want to say that today’s parties are marionettes because they know that it is more effective for them to deal with [Vladislav] Surkov”—the Kremlin’s Karl Rove—“than with the people.”
“You say [old-school liberal] Yabloko is a party of the system, but I have to disagree with you,” said yet another young man who happened to be squeezing past us. And off they went.
Throughout the gray afternoon, as the snow turned to hail and back to snow, people talked politics, and talked about them intelligently, with nuance, with substance, with facts and figures and names. It was a far cry from the conventional wisdom, often Kremlin-sponsored, of Russians’ apathy and disgust for politics. Today, it turned out that no one’s been apathetic, that everyone has been reading and watching and following. Today was just the first time that all of these people came out and discovered each other’s existence.
And for all the talk in recent days, mostly from pro-Kremlin forces, of bloodshed and chaos and violence, the protest felt more like a holiday. Women tied white ribbons—the protest’s symbol—in their hair; people carried balloons and flowers. (Some were even spotted on the dashboards of police cars in the area.) People laughed, they smiled at each other, they were polite and didn’t push and when this correspondent tried to move through the crowd, they were beyond accommodating. “The press!” one man said. “We’d carry you on our shoulders!” There were no injuries, no arrests, no disorder. Even the march of several thousand people from the protest’s old venue (on Revolution Square) was peaceful, and orderly. The police didn’t harass, they didn’t yell. They too were polite. Some smiled at the protestors, others looked shocked. They didn’t act, as they did on Tuesday, as if the protestors were their enemies. (Their work got a special report on state television, which, after ignoring the growing protests for days, finally showed the crowds, though without really saying what they were there for. State-controlled NTV finally acknowledged the protests, too—by showing live footage.)
At Monday’s protests, the organizers and the participants surprised themselves when six thousand people came out. Today, it wasn’t so much the numbers that shocked, or even the fact that thousands of people in cities all over Russia came out and voiced their anger over rudely falsified elections. It was the discovery, after a decade spent living in an atomized society, believing the worst about themselves and each other, that Russians weren’t so bad after all.
“You guys are so great!” said Petr Shkumatov from the stage. He is one of the coördinators of the Blue Buckets movement, which you can read about in David Remnick’s dispatch from Moscow, out this week in the magazine. As he spoke, he filmed the crowd with his phone. “Really! You guys are so great! Thank you so much for not staying home on your couches and drinking beer! Thank you for coming out, and showing them that you are not cattle. Thank you for coming out! You are all so wonderful!”
Photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko, Jr/AP Photo.
Snow Revolution [TNY]