According to a page on Facebook created for the event, some thirty-five thousand people are supposed to gather tomorrow afternoon on Moscow’s Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square to demand a re-do of Sunday’s crooked parliamentary elections and the release of people arrested in the three days of protests that followed.
If even half that number shows up tomorrow, it will be unprecedented for a regime that has become expert in disenfranchising, disincentivizing, and marginalizing anyone who disagrees with it—all without spilling much blood at home or jailing more than the occasional example victim. All it took, really, was distracting people with the trappings of Western prosperity: sushi bars, vacations abroad, cars, iPhones, and a semblance, however thin, of normalcy.
The events of the last few days have been utterly astonishing and radically different from anything Putin’s Russia has seen before: thousands of young, educated, middle class Russians who have something to lose have come out into the streets simply out of a feeling of being utterly fed up, in spite of that prosperity—and, quite probably, because of it. People who have either never cared about politics, or have been afraid to dabble in it; people who have businesses or who cannot be seen publicly engaging in opposition politics; and even people who had been complicit in cynically, opportunistically spreading the United Russia gospel—all feverishly discussing the protest, putting up white ribbons (the protest’s new symbol), and rallying their friends and family to come on Saturday. Tomorrow, we can expect to see not only the obvious faces—civil-society activists, liberally inclined journalists—but investment bankers and even bureaucrats. The spirit of the last week has been surprising and moving in a way that an objective reporter should not admit to being moved by. But even without rooting for either side, and with the full understanding that these protests may easily come to naught, one can’t help but marvel at the spontaneous, utterly organic outburst of civic feeling, and the fact that, for lack of a better term, a point of no return has very clearly been passed.
And, by the looks of things, the Kremlin is either in denial, scared, or both. Thursday, Vladimir Putin dismissed the protests, saying that they had been instigated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this after days of him and President Dmitry Medvedev pooh-poohing allegations of widespread, well-documented ballot stuffing and vote rigging. (The country’s top election official, who openly agitates for Putin and the United Russia Party, said the series of videos of electoral fraud circulating on the Internet were filmed in residential apartments fixed up to look like polling stations.)
Behind the scenes, there’s been a massive Kremlin effort to lean on the media. The liberal television project and Medvedev darling, TV Rain, has come under bureaucratic pressure for broadcasting Monday and Tuesday’s protests. (Worst of all, Medvedev unfollowed the channel on Twitter.) The F.S.B. has been pushing Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook and most popular social network, to block opposition sites. He refused, and today was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office. (In retaliation—and in another sign of who is manning the opposition’s barricades—opposition-minded computer whizzes have started hacking and shutting down loyalist sites, like the Web page of United Russia’s Duma faction.)
Further down the power hierarchy, the Moscow city government has spent days maneuvering to move the protest away from the symbolic Revolution Square, near the Kremlin ramparts and the site of massive protests on the eve of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. First, there was urgent plumbing work and excavation that needed to be done on the day of the protest. In the face of a public outcry, the mayor’s office backed down. The next day, there were reports of an ice theatre—“a little mouse, a frog, a little rabbit”—opening up, conveniently, on the square, also on the day of the protest. Finally, the mayor’s office thought of a better way. It offered the diffuse group of organizers the chance to move the protest to Swampy Square, and to allow all thirty thousand people to show up. This had the effect of instantly splintering the opposition, which descended into bickering and trading accusations of treason, collaborationism, and self-defeating idiocy. (The rift has been mostly patched up, with most everyone agreeing to compromise.)
All the government’s resources have kicked into panic mode, it seems. The police have leaked reports saying that the protests will be scoured for those dodging Russia’s military draft. Those arrested will also be drafted. Suddenly, Saturday has been made into a mandatory, full day of school for Moscow high schoolers. To ensure attendance, students will be given an important Russian test. (This after reports that students were forced to populate pro-United Russia protests on Tuesday instead of going to school.) Most bizarrely, the health minister has warned people to stay home lest they go to the demonstration and catch the flu.
There have also been more insidious forces at work. Twitter—the site of most of the discussion and planning—has been full of pro-Kremlin users conjuring up the spectre of bloodshed and civil war. An exceptionally well-produced YouTube clip has been released, explaining how (lots of dollars) and why (lots of oil) America goaded a vocal Libyan minority into provoking violence and imposing their views on a satisfied majority. This, tellingly, has been the exact language that United Russia officials have used publicly, as well as in conversation with me: Most people are satisfied; this is just a vicious and vocal minority that seeks to, yes, provoke bloodshed and, yes, impose its views on everyone else.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be the side threatening and provoking. Today, a memo detailing the ways to get a rise out of the opposition—to push them into the line of riot police, to push them out of public view—surfaced online. Putin’s press secretary promised organizers that anyone who showed up to Revolutionary Square, instead of Swampy Square, would be beaten so badly that their kidneys would fly off. Medvedev’s representative suggested that organizers would be held responsible for any bloodshed—you know, should there be any. Today, Kirill Schitov, a young parliamentarian in the Moscow city Duma and the man connected to this summer’s “Tear It Up for Putin” campaign, warned people reading his Twitter feed, “To those who have something to lose, do not give in to provocation and do not go to Revolutionary Square. Think.”
Perhaps because this is a generation that has not been inculcated with the fear of Homo sovieticus, and perhaps because they are, on the whole, very young—and the young, as we know, are always invincible—few seem to be falling for the bait. If anything, these attempts to stanch and divert the tide of anger, rather than doing the more difficult work of dealing with it head on, has served to galvanize—to say nothing of humoring—the people who are coming out of the woodwork and into the street tomorrow. And by all accounts, there will be a lot of them.
Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo.
“Tomorrow, They’ll Shoot Us” [TNY]