Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy

Monday, August 6th, 2012

On the morning of February 21, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich walked up the steps leading to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shed their winter clothing, pulled colorful winter hats down over their faces, and jumped around punching and kicking for about thirty seconds. By evening, the three young women had turned it into a music video called “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” which mocked the patriarch and Putin. (“The head of the KGB is their patron saint,” they sang, by turns shrieking and imitating a church choir.)

The video went viral: it was two weeks before the presidential election and Putin, facing a wave of unprecedented protests, was feeling shaky. Three days later, a warrant was issued for the girls’ arrest. According to their indictment, their trial promised to be a decisive moment in the history of Christianity; officially, they were being tried for hooliganism, but the mumbling prosecutor clarified that they stood accused of “insulting the entire Christian world.”

Last week, on the day before the trial began, Petr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, and I met for coffee. We talked about Derrida and post-modernism, the construction of gender and about performance art, but also about international press coverage of the Pussy Riot case and the growing list of Western musicians—Franz Ferdinand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting—who had spoken up for the young women. “The state is doing everything to heat up attention for the case,” Verzilov said. “Someone’s putting on a show, as if, God forbid the New York Times doesn’t write about it.”

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova had met as students in the philosophy department of Moscow State University, and had been doing shocking performance art for years, first with a group called Voina, after which they founded Pussy Riot. (One of their first performance pieces, for Voina, involved having sex, together with a large group, in Moscow’s Biological Museum on the eve of Medvedev’s inauguration. Tolokonnikova was heavily pregnant at the time.) “Punk Prayer” was part of a series of performances that took aim at symbols of the regime, past and present: the Place of the Skulls, the execution spot on Red Square; luxury shopping malls, the Moscow metro. The Catherdal was chosen because it had, in Pussy Riot’s view, become a commercial center and because the patriarch had just told believers to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election.

Though Pussy Riot’s goal was to challenge Russian society through performance art, they were soon to discover that Putin’s state insisted on imposing its own distinct political aesthetic. “Of course, the indictment came down on Forgiveness Sunday,” Petr Verzilov said, referring to the fact that the criminal charge coincided with the day that Russian Orthodox believers ask each other’s forgiveness before the beginning of Lent. “The people in the Kremlin are obviously given to small acts of theatricality.”

THIS WAS PERFECTLY clear on the first day of the trial, which kicked off with statements from the defendants, read out by their lawyers. The young women, who sat in a cage of bulletproof glass (known colloquially as “the aquarium”) apologized to the Orthodox believers they had offended; Tolokonnikova called it “an ethical mistake.” Alyokhina, herself an Orthodox believer, apologized but also expressed her dismay at the lack of Christian forgiveness. “I thought the Church loved all its children,” she said in her written statement. “But it turns out it only loves those children who love Putin.”

And that’s where the loftiness ended and reality began to disintegrate. The judge overruled the defense’s motion to call any of its thirty five witnesses at the trial: the reason given was that it was too early, but she ended up rejecting the motion again and again throughout the proceedings. The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.

The defense counsel, for its part, seemed at this point to have already stopped listening; they were buried in their iPads and phones, live-tweeting the proceedings, as was Verzilov, who sat on a bench closest to the aquarium, as if they had decided that broadcasting the surrealism to the world was a better alternative than trying to make sense of it.

When the judge asked the girls how they plead, Alyokhina, a small, mousy girl with a poof of dirty blonde hair, said she wouldn’t plead at all as she didn’t understand what the indictment even meant. When this devolved into a shouting match with the judge—the first of many—Alyokhina demanded, “Why doesn’t the court take my words into account?” She was ordered to sit down.

The prosecution called its first witness, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who is caretaker of the cathedral’s candles, and who can be seen in the Pussy Riot video, her head covered with a white kerchief, trying to wave off the group’s video camera. She was testifying as one of the nine victims in the case, the Orthodox faithful who had witnessed the 30 seconds of blasphemy and had been suffering ever since. I had run into Sokologorskaya, a tall woman with a vague face, in the bathroom during a break and I asked her why she turned to a secular court to address her religious hurt. She flashed me a sudden, angry look. “Go ahead,” she snapped. “Go ahead. Why don’t you just say the word you’re dancing around?” Before I could understand what it was I was dancing around, her lawyer, Larissa Pavlova, a big woman with a malicious face, led her away.

On the stand, Sokologorskaya was all quiet pathos. One could barely hear her responses to the questions posed by the prosecutor. Was she an Orthodox believer? Did she celebrate all the holidays and keep all the fasts of the Russian Orthodox Church? What is god? What were the girls wearing? Was their clothing tight?

Yes, Sokologorskaya said, their clothing was mostly tight and bright and generally inappropriate for a holy place. She spotted a bra strap; one dress had bright stripes. The worst, though, was that they had fooled her: two of them, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, she said, had approached her and asked her which icons to pray to for various blessings. In the meantime, she realized, their co-conspirators were climbing the railing blocking off the steps leading to the altar, steps on which no woman is allowed to stand. Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”

“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.

The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.

“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled, as she would for most of the trial.

The question was struck.

“They raised their legs so high that everything past their waists, you could see,” Sokologorskaya almost moaned. “They were egging each other on, to see who could raise her leg the highest.”

The prosecution went on. Was the behavior of Pussy Riot acceptable behavior according to Church rules? Did it offend the feelings of Orthodox believers? Was it a crime?

“Yes.”

“In your view,” Pavlova asked her client, “what should the punishment be?”

“They need to be punished adequately,” Sokologorskaya said. (This elicited no objection from the defense about a witness testifying to something that was for the court to decide.) “They need to be punished so that they never want to do this again, under any circumstances. So that they’re scared.”

Because Sokologorskaya was claiming “moral damage,” one of the defense lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, asked her if she had turned to a doctor or a psychologist to address her suffering.

“I’m an Orthodox believer,” Sokologorskaya said. “The gracious power of the Holy Spirit is a million times stronger than any psychologist!”

“Then why didn’t the gracious power of the Holy Spirit assuage your moral suffering?”

“The question is struck!” snapped the judge.

“Have you seen the video of the punk prayer?” Polozov asked.

“Yes.”

“If the performance caused you such moral suffering, why did you decide to poison your soul again?”

The judge struck the question.

Did she hear the name Putin? Anything about the patriarch?

There was a long pause.

“I’m trying to remember, I’m afraid to get it wrong,” Sokologorskaya said, voice quavering. “It was just that I was intensively praying. It was enough for me to hear ‘patriarch.’”

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer, are you aware of what is going on around you?” asked Polozov.

The question was struck.

“Rephrase,” said the judge.

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer,” began Polozov, “can you hear what people are saying to you?

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“What did my client Tolokonnikova say on the dias on Februrary 21?” asked Mark Feygin, another of the defense lawyers.

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“Who told you the girls in the video are the same girls as the ones on trial today?” Feygin asked. “They were wearing balaclavas, as you recall.”

Struck.

The defendants were given the chance to ask questions through a small window in the aquarium. When it was Tolokonnikova’s turn, she asked how Sokologorskaya could determine the girls motivating hatred for Orthodoxy, to which she had just testified?

“Because you disturbed the peace in the cathedral,” Sokologorskaya said. “You used curse words.”

“Do you remember what I personally said on February 21?”

“I don’t want to repeat these words.”

“Do you remember what I said?”

Struck.

“She already answered your question,” said the judge.

“Is ‘feminist’ a bad word?” Tolokonnikova asked, referring to the part of the punk prayer in which they implored the Virgin to become a feminist.

“In a church, yes.”

“What dress was I wearing?”

“You know what your dress was like,” Sokologorskaya snapped. “It’s probably why you wanted to raise your legs.”

SOKOLOGORSKAYA WAS FOLLOWED on the stand by Denis Istomin, a young man with sun-bleached blonde hair and a taut, angular face. He rolled up to the witness stand wearing a pair of tight pants and an electric blue shirt.

“Is it fair to say you are an Orthodox believer?” asked the prosecutor. It was the first question he would ask every witness. “Do you celebrate Church holidays and keep all the fasts?”

When it came to the events of February 21, Istomin said he happened to be in the Cathedral on a Tuesday morning by sheer accident. “My parents gave some money to help build it and I feel it is our church, too,” Istomin said. It was his first time in the Cathedral. When he knelt down to pray, he heard women’s voices; when he looked up, he saw girls in colorful balaclavas dancing around on the steps to the altar.

“Did you hear what they were saying?” asked Pavlova.

“Yes,” said Istomin. “They were shouting insults at our god Jesus Christ. It was blasphemy. People in the cathedral were crying, some people were sick. There was no precedent for this.” Their clothes, he said, “did not conform to Christian tradition.” Their dancing was “dancing on the graves of our ancestors.” Sadly, this was to be expected. “Our country went twenty years without an ideology,” he said flatly. “A whole generation grew up without Orthodox values.”

“What did you do when you saw this disorder?” asked Pavlova.

“I tried to stop them,” Istomin said. One of the girls, Alyokhina, was held up by a church security guard who removed her mask. “Someone took her mask off. She looked at me, and I looked at her,” Istomin went on. “I recognize her today. I have a photographic memory.”

After Istomin, the accidental witness, has been asked to weigh in on the extent to which Pussy Riot had criminally offended all of Orthodox Christendom, Pavlova—or “Lawyer Pavlova,” as she preferred to refer to herself in the courtroom—tried a different line.

“Would you say that this was art?”

“What is art anyway?” smirked Istomin. “I don’t think this is art, but if some people consider it art, then it should be displayed exclusively in closed spaces and not be made available for wider public consumption.”

“You’re here as a victim,” Lawyer Pavlova went on. “Are you claiming any monetary compensation here today?”

“No,” said Istomin, lifting his hawkish nose. “I don’t need their money.”

“You heard the girls apologize this morning,” Lawyer Pavlova said with gravitas. “Do you think they were sincere?”

“I don’t see any repentance in their actions,” Istomin said.

“I have no further questions,” said Lawyer Pavlova.

The occupants of the “aquarium” were again permitted to ask questions. (All three had been taking furious notes throughout the testimony. A tattered paperback Bible lay on the bench where the girls were sitting.)

“When you held me up and led me to the door of the Cathedral, did I resist?” asked Alyokhina.

“I can’t say definitively, I’m not a person who holds grudges,” said Istomin. And, with a smile added, “Actually, all Orthodox people are like this.”

“What did you do after you led me out?”

“I went back to restoring order.”

“Tell me, were you here in this courtroom three hours ago?” Alyokhina went on.

“Yes.”

“Did you hear me when I apologized for offending the Orthodox faithful?”

“You know, a spoon is useful at lunchtime,” he scoffed. “We waited for this apology from you in the first days after your blasphemy. And, as Stanislavsky once said, ‘I don’t believe in your repentance.’”

“Tell me, please, what form does my repentance have to take for you to believe me?”

“I don’t know, use the Internet, like you did last time,” Istomin said, referring to the YouTube sensation. “Or go to church.”

“I can’t go to church,” Alyokhina said. “I’m in jail.”

Volkova, the defense attorney, began asking questions again. “What words did the accused say?”

“They were saying bad words,” Istomin said.

“Which words?”

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“Is holy shit an offensive phrase?” Volkova shouted.

“We already established that these words offend God!” the prosecutor shouted.

“The question is struck.”

Feygin, whose massive frame reminds one of an antique wardrobe, took his turn. “Is it true that you are part of the group Narodny Sabor?”

“Yes,” said Istomin.

“What does the group do?”

“It provides military-patriotic training for youth,” Istomin said. “It’s a good organization.”

“Did you know my clients before February 21?”

“Yes.”

“Were you also a victim in the court case against Erofeev,” Feygin asked, referring to another scandalous case, from 2006, when the Orthodox faithful filed suit against the curators of an art show in which contemporary Russian artists took on the theme of religion. The Orthodox faithful won.

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“We’re trying to establish that Istomin has participated in similar court cases,” Feygin pleaded.

“He’s a professional victim!” yelled Volkova. “Like a professional beggar!”

“The question is struck!”

BY DAY TWO of the trial, the trial had become an acknowledged embarrassment. Even the Putin loyalists were already cracking. After the first day, a member of the ruling United Russia party wrote in his blog that, even though he was offended by the Pussy Riot performance, “an indictment based on citations from sixteenth century Church cannon makes the country the laughingstock of the entire world.”

It was soon clear that the authorities were eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and shift the public’s attention to something that wasn’t quite so unexpectedly humiliating. And so the judge decided not only to prevent the defense from calling any witnesses or asking any questions; she also had no intention of keeping Russian courthouse hours. Rather than end each session at six, when the courthouse closed, she kept going. “We’ll be here till morning if we have to,” she said when the defense suggested adjourning for the day.

The main effect of the grueling twelve-hour sessions was the deterioration of the defendants’ health. On the third day, an ambulance had to be called twice for the girls (and for Volkova, who had worked herself up into a tizzy), but the paramedics determined they were fit to stand trial. Volkova started a shouting match with the judge: Her clients were not given time to sleep, and were not being fed. “When I asked the bailiff whether they’d eaten, he told me they’d been fed tea!” she shouted. The judge said it was not the court’s prerogative to deal with such things. When the defense team attempted to pass a bottle of water into the aquarium, every cop in the room lunged to intercept it. Afterwards, an attorney for the plaintiff, Lev Lyalin, himself a religious man who was representing three of the victims, told me, “You know, I’ve been an attorney for a long time, and I can tell you’ve never seen a court work at this clip before. Even I don’t feel well, and I’m not in prison.”

On top of this, the court was doing everything in its power to make the trial a black box. First, they shut down the live stream of the proceedings (ostensibly to protect the victims). On day two, they moved the trial to a tiny courtroom where not more than ten journalists could fit. When the journalists left on the stairwell mutinied, the trial was moved back to a bigger courtroom. The next day brought a ban on Twitter, which the press inside the courtroom to broadcast the insanity they were witnessing. When a higher court overruled them the same morning, they tried to introduce a ban on audio recordings.

The one thing that the authorities had determined was not negotiable was the verdict. That had been determined months ago: Shortly after the punk prayer became a viral hit, Putin spoke at a Church event, apologizing to the faithful for the harm done to them by the Pussy Riot performance. The court had received its signal from the Kremlin; now the only question was whether the girls would get the full seven-year sentence.

In that way, the trial became an inadvertent continuation of their performance piece, one that grew far past the boundaries they had envisioned for it and ended up becoming a monumental, historical work. The kangaroo court, the prison sentence, the martyr status—Pussy Riot didn’t expect any of it, but they had clearly hit a nerve and the state’s overblown, medieval response had became part of the show. And if Act I (the punk prayer) turned off some liberals with its edginess, Act II (the witch trial) was clearly a nation-wide hit and a liberal cause célèbre.

It was a prime example of a classic Russian genre: a bitter dark comedy depicting the absurdity of oppression. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich have audibly laughed their way through the proceedings, as have the defense lawyers, the journalists, even Alyokhina’s mother, forcing the judge to periodically scream at the courtroom. “Is this funny to you!” the judge cried at one point. “No, it’s quite sad,” Alyokhina said, barely stifling her laughter. By Thursday of last week, the burly enforcers stalking about the courtroom were threatening to toss out anyone who even smiled.

But how could one not laugh? How else could one react to a tall, greasy man who was called as an expert witness for the prosecution because he had seen the YouTube video and read an interview with PussyRiot? Sweating through his testimony, he described for the court how the girls had “pushed themselves into hell,” and that “to the Christian faithful, Orthodox or not, hell is as real as the Moscow metro.”

How else could one interpret a witness, a church treasurer, who walked into the courtroom with a frilly parasol, which she then lovingly hung off the edge of the witness stand before giving her testimony? “Excuse me,” she said when it clattered to the floor as she discussed how much offense she had taken at Pussy Riot’s performance.

How else could one react to a victim weeping through her testimony and, describing how one of the girls prostrated herself on the altar on February 21, uttered the nearly Biblical phrase, “and her butt was raised high and this butt was facing the altar”? To an altar boy who looked like he spent more time at the gym than in church? (“Do you think they could have been possessed?” Feygin asked the altar boy. “The question is struck!” said the judge. “He is not a medical expert!”) To the candle woman, the first victim, watching the proceedings from the gallery, angrily muttering her bewilderment, and repeatedly crossing herself?

How else to respond to the fact that the nine victims, all security guards and attendants of the Cathedral, felt confident in opining on theological, psychological, and jurisprudential matters, and in delivering their verdict on when the punk prayer crossed over from art to blasphemy? To the fact that all of them described in soaring words the depth of the Christian faith but that all but one could not find it in their hearts to accept the girls’ apologies?

To call this a show trial would be to understate its grotesque aesthetic. This was not a show trial, but it was a show—a sumptuous, tragicomic show, in which three twenty-something girls have unintentionally check-mated the regime.

On Thursday, as the girls were marched out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Verzilov called to his wife.

“Nadia!” he shouted. “Björk says hello!”

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy [TNR]

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

On Monday afternoon, Italian premier Mario Monti and Russian president Vladimir Putin convened a small press conference in the slanting, gold light coming off the Black Sea. They had just met to discuss the European economic crisis as well as energy (Italy is Russia’s second biggest gas client), but they also touched on the deepening conflict in Syria.

“We do not want the situation to develop along the lines of a bloody civil war and for it to continue for who knows how many years, like in Afghanistan,” Putin said, standing with his perfect posture in a slate-gray summer suit. “We want there to be peace.” Russia does not want to see the establishment and the opposition to simply switch sides and keep fighting, Putin went on. Russia’s position remains unchanged, commented the reporter of Channel One, the country’s biggest (and state controlled) television channel. “The only way out of the crisis is through negotiations.”

The insistent, demonstrative reasonableness of Putin’s quote was more than bluster; it was also a reflection of how most Russians, including the Russian press, understand their country’s role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

If the West has come to see Russia as the ornery spoiler in Syria, as the last ally of the cruel and increasingly embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia sees itself as the last sane person left in the room, the one geopolitical actor able to put emotion and cliché aside in favor of rational, balanced thought. Glancing at Russian press coverage of the Syrian conflict—and it is, in the Russian perspective a “crisis”—one will notice that it does not get nearly the same kind of coverage here as it does in the Western press. “Why does this peripheral country get so much attention?” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs exclaimed when we spoke. “It just is not considered something extremely significant here.”

The Western observer tends to split the Russian press into two camps: evil statists and martyrs. But for their part, members of the Russian press are convinced of their superiority over their Western colleagues, at least when it comes to Syria. Russian journalists aren’t under the illusion that they are more objective than their Western counterparts, but they are convinced of their ability to convey a more realistic, complex picture of the events in Syria.

“The essence of the conflict is portrayed differently here than in the West,” explains Lukyanov. “Here, it is not a picture of peace-loving freedom fighters against a secretive, repressive regime. The Western picture is highly ideological and primitive. They have a template that’s used for all countries, even though, when it comes to these revolutions in the Arab world, each country is more complex than the previous one. The situation in Syria is much more tangled.” And though you can find a great variety of views on Syria in Russia—anything from the conspirological view that America is arming the rebels and ginned up the uprising to begin with, to the pro-Western, liberal chagrin that Russia is once again backing the bad guys—you would be hard-pressed to find a news outlet that uses the term “Arab Spring.”

In large part, this is because the Russian point of view starts with the naiveté of the Western point of view, and its corollary: That Russians alone can glimpse the ugly truths that run the world. “The Russian press is more accurate than the Western press, because the West, in painting [the Free Syrian Army] as freedom fighters, doesn’t understand that these guys, are blood-sucking vampires and if they come to power there will be hell to pay, and for the Americans, too,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy editor of the foreign affairs section of the daily newspaper Kommersant, Russia’s largest and among its more liberal. (I should note that, in my three years reporting on Russia and befriending local colleagues, I’ve only ever previously heard the opposite: a refrain about the superiority of American journalism to the unprofessionalism of the still young Russian press.)

“The Americans came to terms with the Arab Spring because they think that this is something they can understand, that democracy works the same way in America as it does in the Arab world,” Yusin goes on. “But it’s not how democracy works in the Arab world,” he says, pointing out that, in Gaza, a democratic election brought Hamas to power. “Russians understand it better,” Yusin explains. “They understand that this is a conflict between the civilized world and the suicide bombers who cry ‘Allahu akbar!’”

Russians are happy to dish out this kind of straight talk, sweeping cultural sensitivities aside, because they consider such constructs to be artificial and twee—and therefore dangerous. In the Russian mind, geopolitics are a hard and serious business; they are not a proper venue for American idealism and, unfortunately, there are many bungled Western interventions to back the Russians up. “Many analysts are surprised that the West is supporting Islamist uprisings against secular regimes,” says Lukyanov. “What’s the end game? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya show that the Islamists win. In Russia, this causes alarm. The more Islamists there are in the Middle East, the more there will be in the Northern Caucasus,” he explained referring to the mountainous region in Russia’s south, which has been crippled by two Chechen wars and a ruinous and bloody Islamic insurgency for years. And so, while the New York Times wrung its hands over whether or not Assad would use chemical weapons against the rebels, Gazeta.ru, a very liberal online newspaper, led with a story about hundreds of Chechen fighters taking up arms in Syria.

On the whole, though, Russians—both the press, and their audience—just don’t seem to have much appetite for the story. Unless Assad falls, it’s unlikely to make it onto any front pages or to lead the nightly news. It is just one more shadowy battle between the world powers and their competing interests, and, much like in the United States, there is plenty to worry about at home: political instability, corruption, flash floods and official incompetence, and, perhaps, a looming economic crisis. A poll done this spring by the independent Levada Center found that the vast majority of Russians do not support more sanctions against Assad, and even fewer support armed intervention. Asked how they would describe the situation in Syria, most said they saw it either as a civil war or as “terrorists, abetted by the West” fighting a “legitimate government.” But the biggest share of all just didn’t know how to answer.

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy [TNR]

The Price of Opposition in Russia

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

At around 7 A.M. on Monday morning, someone rang the door at the Moscow flat of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Navalny and his wife were sound asleep: it was a long holiday weekend celebrating the day, in 1990, when Russia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. So Navalny and his wife kept sleeping, but the doorbell kept ringing. Finally, Julia (his wife) got up to check who was there. She looked through the peephole and saw seven men in uniform. “I thought it was either an arrest or a search, so I turned off the lights—as one does in such situations—and called my lawyer,” Navalny told me later. Then he went to shave, “because you never know when your next shave will be if they arrest you.”

Julia intercepted him in the bathroom with a game-changer: the people outside the door had started an electric saw. “She said, ‘You should probably open the door,’” Navalny recalled.

Seven officers from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation piled into the apartment while two of their colleagues, armed with machine guns, blocked the door to the building outside. (It would take Navalny’s lawyer two hours—and going on Moscow’s most prominent radio station to say he was being blocked from seeing his client—to get into the apartment, something the Investigative Committee quickly denied.)

Upstairs, the investigators read out a search warrant: Navalny was being investigated as a witness in the case that had been opened after the violent clashes between police on protesters on May 6th. He was not a suspect in the case, nor was he charged with anything, which made the aggressive thoroughness of the ensuing search seem rather disproportionate. The investigators took anything electronic or telephonic: every laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad, e-book, flash drive, D.V.D. player, D.V.D., disk, camera, memory card, and hard drive in the house. They checked the kids’ room and confiscated their laptop and camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you look at the pictures on the camera? You’ll see they were just taking pictures of each other,’” Navalny said. It didn’t help. They took the kids’ camera, too. And the ten thousand rubles (three hundred dollars) they found.

Investigators also visited the apartment of Julia’s parents, who were not at home and were not even witnesses in the case. Her eighty-five-year-old grandmother was at home, however, but was physically unable to get to the door when the saw started up. “It was a very tense situation,” said Navalny (his wife was on the phone with her grandmother). “We were afraid she would die of the stress.”

After a thirteen-hour search, the apartment looked like a hurricane had hit.

Meanwhile, investigators had also arrived at the apartments of other opposition leaders, including leftist Sergei Udaltsov (scion of a long line of Soviet statesmen), veteran opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak is a television celebrity who was once Russia’s scandalous “it” girl (its Paris Hilton, if you will), and she went over to the side of the opposition when a wave of protests broke out following the contested December parliamentary election. Since then, she’s dropped one boyfriend—a well-liked functionary in the mayor of Moscow’s culture office—for a more fashionable one: a young, but seasoned, opposition activist named Ilya Yashin … whom they found in Sobchak’s bed. Sobchak, still half-asleep and thinking she was opening the door for her cleaning lady, didn’t even think to check the peephole and so found herself, in only her négligée, facing ten investigators from the committee. (The flat of Yashin’s parents, where Yashin still technically lives, was searched that morning, too. Among the confiscated items: Mrs. Yashin’s recipe book.)

Sobchak fared worse than the Navalnys. Her lawyer was unable to get inside for four hours, and only knew of the proceedings because Sobchak had managed to squirrel a phone away somewhere and send a desperate text to her assistant. “It was ridiculous,” she told me later. “I felt like a spy.” The search went on for nine hours, and, at first, the investigators wouldn’t let Sobchak get dressed. They also wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. “They didn’t have a woman to go with me to the bathroom,” she told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “I had to do it in front of a man in a mask and with a machine gun.”

It’s worth noting here that Sobchak isn’t just your average opposition activist, or even your average Russian starlet. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, was Vladimir Putin’s close friend and mentor. Sobchak is even rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. (Sobchak says that the rumors are false.) Her going over to the opposition, though she carefully avoided direct criticism of her family’s friend, was the ultimate betrayal, and the search—pointless and humiliating—was a clear reprisal. Sobchak told me that she tried to go see Putin in early December in order to explain her reasons, but he wouldn’t see her. Most recently, when the independent television channel Dozhd TV—where Sobchak has a popular interview show—tried to accredit her for the massive St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, she was the only member of the Dozhd crew who was turned down. When pressed, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, is said to have replied that the name “Sobchak” is never to be uttered to him again. (Sobchak wouldn’t comment on this, and Peskov didn’t answer his phone.)

This is also probably why the investigative officer in charge of the group explained to Sobchak that none of this would have happened had she not gotten tangled up with the wrong people; she should have, he said, married “a dependable Chekist”—that is, agent of the secret police—and stayed home and had his babies.

Investigators took not only all of Sobchak’s electronics, but they also opened her safe where they found over a million euros, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and about that many rubles. (Sobchak explained the stash on Twitter: “My annual income is over 2 million. If I don’t trust the banks, I don’t have the right to keep money at home?”) The tax bureau has now opened an audit and the Investigative Committee is working out why the money was split up in several different envelopes—the preferred method of handing out cash in Russia. “Some people keep their money in envelopes, some people rubber band it, some people keep it jars, some people make little airplanes out of it,” Sobchak says. “I personally think envelopes are the most convenient way of storing money at home. Why am I obligated to explain this to the whole country?” (Photos of the money, neatly fanned out and next to a ruler for scale—that is, official photographs from the investigation—made it onto the tabloid LifeNews.com just hours after investigators left Sobchak’s apartment.)

Investigators also seized her passport, effectively banning her from leaving the country for any reason. So far, both of her petitions—to get back her money and her passport—have been rebuffed. Once a glamorous socialite, now Sobchak says she is broke and has had to borrow money from her mother. “At least they didn’t plant drugs on me,” she says. “I guess I should be thankful for that.”

Like Sobchak, Yashin, Navalny, and the others whose homes were searched on Monday morning were all handed a summons to appear at the offices of the Investigative Committee at 11 A.M. on Tuesday, which was conveniently just an hour before the start of that days’ anti-Putin rally where all of them were supposed to speak. They all showed up, and dutifully answered the same fifty-six questions about who organized the May 6th violence, how it was planned, and who financed it. Sobchak’s interrogators made her read aloud the statement she had prepared with her lawyer—she’d hoped to save time and make it to the rally—frequently asking her to slow down, rewind, and repeat.

“The whole point was to just keep me there the whole day, to keep me from going to the protest,” Navalny said of his time with his interrogators. He had very little to tell them since he’s now been jailed twice for his protest activity, and questioned extensively both times. “They asked, ‘Tell me about your work history since 2005,’” he said. “It was just a million pointless questions. Four hours of them, then a break, then more pointless questions. When they found out that the rally was over, they suddenly lost interest.” Then they took him along while they searched the office of his anti-corruption organization, RosPil. (Navalny was asked to come back again on Wednesday. When he did, he was asked for a handwriting sample, which he refused, citing the fact that he is just a witness in the case.)

The Investigative Committee has thrown over a hundred investigators on the highly-publicized case—twelve comparatively nameless people have already been arrested. According to Navalny, not many of the investigators seem to understand what exactly it is that they’re doing. “I can’t recall criminal investigations like this in Moscow, except for Nord-Ost,” he said, referring to the time, in 2002, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage inside a Moscow theatre. “And all because one police officer got a black eye on May 6th, for which he was rewarded with an apartment.” (Actually, over a dozen policemen were wounded that day; several have in fact been given apartments for their troubles.)

Why is the state doing this? Yashin has said that he thinks they are ginning up a criminal case against opposition leaders like him. More likely, it is a case of an overzealous machine seeking to please its master. If one reads the tea leaves—and that’s often all one can do in Russia—it is clear that Putin has had enough of the protests. Go out and protest for fair elections, but the elections are now over, and he won. Now it’s time to go home. But people don’t seem interested in that, and both protests, on May 6th and on June 12th, drew tens of thousands of people. (In fact, many of those I spoke to at the protest on Tuesday said that they had planned on skipping the rally but changed their minds when they heard about the searches.)

How to deal with them? Putin is no Assad, and at least so far he has shied away from a real crackdown. But he’s clearly unhappy with the situation and wants it to go away. In a country where the law is not a framework of protections and guarantees but rather an instrument used selectively for taking someone out, it helps when your friends or loyal minions are behind the controls of the legal system. Putin’s friend and classmate Alexander Bastrykin, for example, happens to be the head of the Investigative Committee, the same ostensibly independent government organization that harassed Navalny’s grandmother-in-law and chaperoned Sobchak to the bathroom. (A few hours ago, Bastrykin apologized to the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta for the harsh tone he took with Sergei Sokolov, one of the paper’s reporters. Sokolov had said that Bastrykin invited him on a drive, and then drove him out to the forest, where he proceeded to yell at and threaten him, which Bastrykin denied.) United Russia, the ruling party created to support Putin a decade ago, is doing its part in the Russian parliament: last week, they rammed through a law drastically upping fines and ordering restrictions on protesters and those found violating the peace. The Federation Council—the Russian equivalent of the Senate—was in such a rush to please that it passed the law all of twenty minutes after receiving it from the lower house.

And yet, thankfully, none of these zealous cogs seem ready to go all the way; they seem to pause at the critical moment. Protesters arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg, for instance, were not charged under the new law. And so far, Monday’s searches yielded little more than rattled nerves. Which is not to say that psychological warfare waged by a state against its own citizens is something to discount.

Navalny called me on Wednesday, just after he finished observing the Investigative Committee turn his office inside-out. He was his standard cheery, sarcastic self: the image he cultivates is of a fighter for truth who fears nothing. And yet even he was unsettled by Monday’s experience—despite having fought state abuses for a decade and having dealt with various reprisals, including a flimsy criminal case and two jail terms. “It’s very unpleasant,” he said, hinting obliquely that his wife’s nerves didn’t fare as well as his own. “Even if you’re ready for it, even if you know it’s coming, you can never be one hundred percent ready. It’s very stupid and infuriating because you know it’s stupid and yet you can’t do anything to stop it.”

Sobchak, on the other hand, is new to the game. She has been involved in Russian politics for only six months, and even if she saw it from backstage as the daughter of Putin’s mentor, she has yet to develop Navalny’s thick skin, the kind you need if you are going to become an enemy of the state. On Tuesday, the day after a humiliating and financially ruinous nine-hour search—and after six hours of questioning—she gave an interview to Echo Moskvy. “You know, it’s a nasty feeling when a strong person like me—and I’m a fighter—when you suddenly sit down and realize that your hands are shaking,” she said. “Yesterday, my hands were shaking because it’s the feeling that you can’t do anything, that these people who are walking around your apartment, that they can do whatever they want.”

The Price of Opposition in Russia [TNY]

Powder Keg

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]

The Borscht Belt

Monday, April 16th, 2012

According to Maksim Syrnikov, who has spent the past two decades studying traditional Russian cuisine, there is a reason that there is no agreement on the ingredients of a solyanka, a classic and very controversial Russian dish. Solyanka is generally understood to contain cabbage and maybe some meat, but even that’s in dispute: Is the cabbage soured in brine, or braised? Can you make solyanka with fish? And what is a solyanka, anyway? Is it a casserole, as Muscovites claim, or, as Petersburgers argue, a soup?

Apparently, it can be all of the above. Moreover, it is unclear whether the dish’s name comes from the word sol, meaning “salt,” or whether it has a different etymology. “Back in the day—say, for a holiday—everyone in the village would bring out whatever they had in the house, put it all in one big pan, and then bake it in the oven,” Syrnikov says, explaining an- other theory. “Which is why some people think the dish was originally known as selyanka, not solyanka, from the word selo”—which means village. Syrnikov—whose preferred version of solyanka comprises layers of shredded, smoked, and boiled beef alternating with braised sour cabbage, all doused in beef stock—is a short, plump man in his forties with the ruddy face of a benevolent village matron. When he cooks, he wears a chef ’s apron stretched around his belly, and his hair, long and graying, is messily bundled into a ponytail. He is extremely polite, which, for a moment or two, makes you forget that he is almost always correcting you. When he makes a point, his voice rises and breaks in excitement. Syrnikov is an exacting researcher: if he wants to discover how whitebait was fished in the northwestern Belozero region for centuries, he spends days out in the boats with the local fishermen. He was appalled when the editors of one of his cookbooks, unable to find whitebait in Moscow, substituted dried Chinese anchovies in a photograph, and he is still deeply embarrassed about it.

As a self-appointed guardian of authentic Russian fare, Syrnikov has a problem: Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. The tendency to find foreign food more desirable is a prejudice that goes back centuries—to a time when the Russian aristocracy spoke French, not Russian—and it was exacerbated by the humiliating end of the Cold War and Russia’s subsequent opening to the West. Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated.

Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots, because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.” He insists that real Russian food contained no potatoes, no tomatoes, few beets, and little meat. Instead, there were a lot of grains, fish, and dairy, as well as honey, cucumbers, turnips, cabbage, apples, and the produce of Russia’s vast forests—mushrooms and berries. Because of the climate, little of this was eaten fresh; it was salted, pickled, or dried for the long winter. Most of Russia ate this way until the twentieth century.

By exploring the Russian food that existed before potatoes, Syrnikov hopes to help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots, torn up during seven decades of Soviet rule, and to convince them that their national cuisine can be just as flavorful as anything they might find in a sushi bar. He spends his time travelling through the countryside in search of old recipes, trying them himself, and blogging about his experiences. He has written four books, including an encyclopedia of Russian cuisine and a cookbook that ties food to the fasts and feasts of the Russian Orthodox calendar. He makes frequent television appearances and conducts master classes all over the country, instructing everyone from restaurant chefs to hobby cooks in the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen. Often, he is brought in as a consultant on projects to make a restaurant authentically Russian. Recently, he hatched a plan for a user-generated database of folk recipes. “My idea is to send out a call across all of Russia,” he told me. “If you have a grandmother who makes shanishki”— disk-shaped pastries—“that aren’t made in any other village, but your grandmother still knows how to make them, go immediately, and take a picture of them, write down the recipe. To me, it’s absolutely obvious that, if we don’t wake up and find out from these old women and set it down on paper, in twenty years we won’t have anyone to ask. Russian culture will lose a very significant part of itself.”

A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes: it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house; it dried food; children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it. When the oven cooled, it even served as a bath: family members climbed inside and doused themselves with buckets of water heated in the oven. From a culinary point of view, it was also ideal for the peasant cook: stoke the oven with a cord of wood in the morning, put in an iron pot of solyanka, and, while you worked in the field, the slowly decreasing temperature of the oven would take care of the rest—a pre-modern Crock-Pot. This is why the central Russian method of preparing food is tomlenie, which is loosely translated as braising.

On a bright, chilly day last August, Syrnikov was working at a pech that he had helped construct, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Golden Rus, in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city just east of the Ural Mountains. Golden Rus is part of an entertainment complex called Galactica, whose owners had decided to rebrand the restaurant as a bastion of pure Russian fare. Syrnikov had been brought in as a consultant after a partner in the Galactica venture picked up his book “Real Russian Food.” Now Syrnikov, who lives in St. Petersburg, was finishing a two- week stint at Galactica, helping in the preparation of a trial banquet. The menu consisted of twenty-nine dishes, most of them unknown to the average Russian.

The process of turning Galactica into a showcase for Russian cuisine, however, had been complicated by the fact that a pech is hard to come by these days. In the Soviet era, the stove’s immense size proved ill suited to urban life styles and to communal apartments. A pech also consumes a great deal of wood, and Russia’s forests have thinned significantly. Moreover, a true pechnik, or oven builder, is hard to find: what was once a common trade is now a rare hobby. The man hired by Galactica did not have the expertise to include a heat-conserving labyrinth of vents, and he built the chimney toward the front of the oven, rather than over the fire. This arrangement used less wood and kept heat in longer, but all the food came out tasting smoked. Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for a frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots—fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms—and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen: Anatoly, with his blond mullet; Serezha, who had two gold incisors and a Russian Navy tattoo on his hand; and quiet, lanky Sasha. They worked twenty-four-hour shifts, sometimes consecutively. Periodically, one of them would climb down from the top of the pech, ruffling his hair and rubbing his eyes.

On the morning of the banquet, Aleksander Ladeischikov, the tanned and dandyish co-owner of Galactica, visited the kitchen. Syrnikov had just lifted a suckling pig, milk-white and puckered, from a vat of marinade: a bottle of vodka, water, and lemon. (Lemons, he explained, came to ancient Russia by way of Byzantium.) “He didn’t have a very long life,” Syrnikov said, laughing as he rubbed the piglet with paprika, salt, sage, and sugar. Ladeischikov gave a rueful smile. “Oh, I can’t even look at it!” he said. “And then I’ll have to eat this poor child!”

Ladeischikov walked proprietarily through the kitchen in white boat shoes and a white Yachting Class Club T-shirt stretched tight under a seersucker blazer. He peered inside the oven and smiled at everyone encouragingly. Then he noticed some cigarette butts in a makeshift trash can. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he asked, and looked at the three young cooks. “Guys, guys, let’s get this straight right now: we’re not going to smoke in the kitchen. Clear?” The boys shuffled their feet and carried on mincing and stirring. Ladeischikov’s upbeat charm returned. “I have some friends, who are also chefs, who want to come see what you’re doing here,” he announced. “I told them they could come watch.”

After Ladeischikov left, Syrnikov called to the head chef, a wry, wiry woman in her forties named Rita, and asked for some buckwheat kasha—a kind of porridge. It would be mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs as stuffing for the pig. Meanwhile, Anatoly and Serezha were preparing another kasha, made with semolina, known as Guryevskaya kasha. It was named for Count Dmitry Guryev, the Russian Minister of Finance during the Napoleonic Wars, who is said to have purchased the serf who invented the dish and installed him as the head chef at his own residence. Guryevskaya kasha consists of layers of semolina porridge alternating with layers of the chewy, caramelized film that forms on the surface of milk as it bakes in the oven. It is baked, then topped with nuts, dried fruit, and macedoine—a light syrup with skinned grapes that is a French import—and finally sprinkled with sugar and brûléed.

In the pech, a black iron pot bristled with fish tails. It would eventually become an ukha, a clear fish soup customarily made with three types of fish. In a different compartment were the tel’noe, a kind of fish cake made with cubes of salmon and perch, and mixed with raw egg and chopped onions. The patties had been arranged in a cast-iron skillet and covered with a mixture of sour cream and rassol, or pickle juice, a common way to add flavor in a climate where not many flavorful things grow. Soon, three small, fat carp would join them. In the neighboring compartment, a goose and a duck, their wings wrapped in foil, were turning a deep Cognac color.

Tucked in the back, near the coals, was a pan of grechniki, a buckwheat cake that is cut into squares—like brownies—and served with shchi, Russia’s traditional cabbage soup. Syrnikov considers shchi the most Russian food of all. Cabbage was a vital source of nutrients in a harsh climate that could support few fruits or vegetables. It was gathered in the fall, soured in brine, and stowed away for the winter in ice cellars. Shchi is made by chopping this soured cabbage, putting it into a cast-iron pot, and leaving it in the oven for hours. This breaks down the sugars in the cabbage, resulting in a sweet-and-sour taste similar to that of sauerkraut. A stock—fish, meat, or mushroom—is added after the cabbage has braised for a day.

Sutochnye shchi, or day-old shchi, gets its name from this process and can be found on the menu of almost every Russian restaurant in Moscow. These days, it is usually made more quickly, with sour cabbage tossed into the soup at the last minute to boil, but Syrnikov had braised his cabbage the day before. Shchi is very filling, and was central to the Russian peasant diet. Furthermore, the long cooking time became a characteristic aspect of the nineteenth-century culture of the traktir, the roadside inns that crop up so often in the writings of Chekhov and Gogol. When a coach driver stopped at an inn, he would have with him a pot of braised sour cabbage prepared in the pech of a previous inn. This would be mixed with a stock prepared at the new inn, and, while the driver ate and slept, a new batch of cabbage wilted in the pech for the next leg of the journey.

Syrnikov did not have a hungry childhood, but his parents did. His mother was born in Leningrad in December, 1941, at the start of the Germans’ siege of the city, in which more than half a million residents died of starvation and disease. “Throughout my childhood, they told me about what they ate during the siege,” Syrnikov recalled one day, as we sat in an upscale Italian restaurant in Chelyabinsk. “They told me how they boiled carpenter’s glue, and how the food warehouses burned down during the first days of the siege. My grandmother would go to the spot where they had stood—many people went and dug the earth where the sugar silo was. And then they would bring this earth home, wash it, and make syrup out of it.”

Before Syrnikov’s mother’s family came to the city, they lived in the countryside by Lake Seliger, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Peasants for generations, they lost their land in the forced collectivization of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the Soviet Union’s plans for colossal communal farms obliterated existing agricultural communities and led to food shortages that claimed millions of lives. The field where Syrnikov’s great-grandfather grew rye is now abandoned, but Syrnikov, who has built a dacha nearby, takes walks here with his six-year-old son. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, included a long line of cheese-makers, from whom his last name derives (syr is Russian for “cheese”). His paternal grandfather was arrested in the thirties and shuttled around the Gulag for nearly twenty years. Syrnikov is bitterly conscious of the miseries endured by the Russian people in the twentieth century. “My great-grandfather had eight children, and I am the only great-grandchild,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

Perhaps because of an acute sense of what his family lost to the Soviet regime, Syrnikov has made it his life’s work to reclaim the past. He refers to regions and cities by their pre-Revolutionary names, and to tsars as gosudar’, or lord. He is extremely devout, observing most Orthodox fasts and ignoring secular holidays. Nonetheless, his upbringing was in some ways typically Soviet. He served in the Soviet Navy in the early nineteen-eighties—Navy Day is the only secular holiday he acknowledges—and at university he studied the quintessentially Soviet subject of “culturology,” which attempted to examine the basis of culture scientifically. But by the time Syrnikov graduated, in 1991, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and in the economic chaos that ensued he worked various odd jobs to support himself.

Syrnikov began to travel around the country, sleeping on boats or in tents, exploring what remained of Russia’s peasant culture. There wasn’t much. Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In their place, the country’s diet was dominated by the bible of the Soviet kitchen, “The Book on Delicious and Healthy Food,” which was published in 1939. Through countless editions in the following decades, it helped Soviet cooks adapt to the growing dearth of the most basic produce. But it is also the source of the bland, greasy things that are commonly thought of as Russian food.

These days, few Russians have eaten the simple foods with folksy names that were once staples of the Russian table, such as kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes) and mazyunya (a fudgelike mixture of turnip flour and autumnal spices). Yet Syrnikov found that old women in the remote corners of the empire still remembered such things. Their mothers had made these dishes before the Revolution and had managed to pass on the recipes.

Syrnikov fleshed out his discoveries by hunting down pre-Revolutionary texts, accumulating an impressive library of culinary literature. (The oldest item in his collection is a Russian cookbook from 1790.) He also looked for clues in the Russian literary canon. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Chichikov eats nyanya, which, Gogol notes, is a “famous dish, served with shchi, consists of a lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs.” Syrnikov decided to re-create the dish, which he calls Russian haggis. He procured and cleaned a lamb’s stomach (“Not a very pleasant or easy task”), and then stuffed it with lamb shank and liver, fried onions, hard-boiled eggs, and buckwheat kasha. He sewed up the stomach with white thread, and, after it was baked and photographed for his blog and his books, ate it with shchi, just like Chichikov.

“Who, other than me, is making nyanya in Russia right now?” Syrnikov says. The same can be said of other literary dishes. He soaks and preserves cloudberries, an orange raspberry that grows in the north of the country and is a peasant delicacy that Pushkin is reputed to have asked for on his deathbed. He has re-created the recipe for sayki, buns made from a dense wheat dough which, in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the House of the Dead,” are handed out to prisoners.

The result of Syrnikov’s twenty-four years of investigation is outlined in his lushly illustrated books. They read like the description of an utterly foreign cuisine. This is because, while Syrnikov was recovering techniques and flavors from before the Revolution, the rest of the country was being propelled into the globalized world of the twenty-first century. The new urban élite has the leisure to think about food, and is able to travel widely. In response to this, restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun to focus more on the quality of the food they serve. In big cities, you don’t have to be an oligarch to get a grass-fed steak or chicken sous vide or an Old-Fashioned. Farmers’ markets are suddenly in vogue, and, last August, a food festival in Moscow attracted thirteen thousand people, despite the twenty-dollar admission fee and the fact that it was peak vacation time, which meant that the city was largely empty.

The festival’s organizer, Aleksei Zimin, edits a food magazine and owns a restaurant—Ragout—that wouldn’t be out of place in the West Village. He praises Syrnikov for restoring regional differences in a country that experienced decades of upheaval. For the most part, though, he sees Syrnikov’s project as quirky and anachronistic. “For me, food is alive—it’s what is here, now,” Zimin says. “Syrnikov is an archivist. There are people who spend years searching for something that was lost, like the fountain of youth, thinking that if they find it they will find some kind of truth in life.”

Others contend that the food in Syrnikov’s cookbooks is simply impractical for a modern life style. “You have to feed people according to contemporary standards of nutrition, and Russian food doesn’t meet these standards,” says Victor Michaelson, who leads the Slow Food movement in Russia, and describes himself as Syrnikov’s “antagonist.” “First of all, Russia was an agrarian country, where most people lived in villages. This means work outside, which, given the difficulty of the labor and the harshness of the climate, burned a colossal amount of calories and demanded a solid, peasant figure. But life has changed. Modern life means a low weight, fewer calories. Eating like a Russian peasant is no good for an urban life style. It’s good for an archeological restaurant.” Michaelson, whose slim figure presents an obvious contrast to Syrnikov’s, paused and added, “If you need proof, look at Maksim, and look at me.”

The first time I met Syrnikov, in Moscow, Russian television crew was about to film him as he made samogon— Russian moonshine. He had arrived that morning from St. Petersburg, carrying a twenty-litre jug of malted rye and a metal box—a still that his friend, an engineer at a dairy factory, had welded for him. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said, pausing to clarify that, while it is illegal to sell moonshine in Russia, it is perfectly legal to make it. He usually makes samogon from rye, the grain that grows best in Russia, but sometimes he experiments with things like rowanberries—hard, red berries common in the country’s forests. After the first frost, he gathers thirty or forty kilos of them, naturally frozen on the trees. After pressing out the juice, he ferments it for two months, and then distills it. “And what you get is a completely unique beverage,” Syrnikov says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of it. Maybe about two litres of this heavenly drink.”

The Russian fondness for drink was noted early. Travelling through Muscovy in 1476, the Venetian diplomat Ambrosio Contarini wrote, “They are great drunkards and are exceedingly boastful of it, disdaining those who do not drink.” Contarini, however, did not mention vodka. At the time, distilled spirits were a rarity still being introduced by Hanseatic traders through the Baltic. Contarini reported that Russians drank a much milder beverage: “They have no wines, but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.” Syrnikov occasionally makes this drink, known in English as mead and in Russian as myod (which is also the word for “honey”), flavoring a mixture of boiled honey, water, and yeast with hops and homemade cherry juice. The result is bitter, tart, and only mildly alcoholic.

Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuance-less spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the move as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine. Instead of making alcohol through fermentation, distillers used a new industrial method of synthesizing pure alcohol. To meet the centuries-old standard of forty per cent ethanol content, distillers simply diluted pure alcohol with water. The vodka historian Boris Rodionov compares the technique to making coffee by dissolving a caffeine tablet in water. “It will pick you up, clear your head, no question,” he said. “But the aroma, the taste, the things that make coffee have been stripped away.”

Preparing for the TV crew, Syrnikov put the metal tank filled with the malt on the stove and screwed on a metal cylinder containing the cooling coil. Then he attached two pieces of green hose, one to supply cold water to the coil, which would cause the evaporating samogon to condense, and one to flush the water back out. But there was a problem. A third tube, through which the samogon was to flow into a waiting bottle, was missing, as was the rubber seal needed to keep the hot malt from bubbling up into the cooling chamber. Without these parts, the whole process could go wrong. That morning, Syrnikov had searched nearby gas stations and car-repair shops for a piece of hose to use instead, to no avail. He decided to risk it.

When the television crew arrived, Syrnikov put on a traditional embroidered linen peasant shirt that he tends to wear on such occasions, and explained the intricacies of preparing malt and distilling it into samogon. First, he had soaked the grains of rye in warm water, drying them when they showed signs of sprouting, and then heating them until they did. Sprouting increases the sugar content of the grain, and more sugar means more alcohol. When the sprout was nearly the length of the grain, Syrnikov had rubbed handfuls of the rye between his palms to remove the chaff and the sprouts. Then he dried it, milled it, mixed it with yeast and water, and added some dried peas, which speed up fermentation because they have colonies of yeast on their surface. In about five days, Syrnikov had twenty litres of cloudy braga, or malt—enough to distill about two litres of samogon.

This malting technique is centuries old and subject to all sorts of variants. As Syrnikov poured the milky malt into the metal hulk of the still, he told the story of an old man he’d seen one spring in a village in the Vologda region, in the northwest, once the heartland of ancient, pre-imperial Russia. “ This grandfather makes it the way they made it two hundred years ago in that village,” Syrnikov said. “In spring, snow melts and you get a big puddle. So he takes a bucket of rye and tosses it in the puddle and leaves it. In two or three days, the rye sprouts. And when it sprouts he scoops it back out with the bucket and dries it in his oven.”

Behind Syrnikov, the still sat awkwardly on the stove. It wasn’t heating up fast enough. After a discussion of whether to turn on a second burner, Syrnikov decided to leave things as they were. He talked about a recent expedition to Belozero to fish for whitebait. The small fish were a crucial part of the Russian peasant diet during Church fasts. In the nineteenth century, the region had been a major exporter of whitebait to Britain. An hour passed. The crew was getting impatient. The cameraman mentioned how eager he was to have a taste. Suddenly, the room began to smell of bread. Someone noticed the first clear drops of samogon.

“A tear!” the crew’s driver said.


“The tear of a newborn!” Syrnikov said.

Then he realized that the reason for the smell of bread was that the still was leaking, just as he had feared. Panic set in. Someone tried to wrap the leaking tube in a towel. Syrnikov yelled for some rye flour and water to spackle the leak. (Because the malt was rye-based, this solution, he explained, would not ruin the taste.) The television reporter suggested putting an empty drawer under the bottle that awaited the samogon, in order to catch any liquid that went astray. The driver demanded a nail or a key to bend the spout down into the bottle, or else a wire or thread for the distillate to trickle down. In the end, the still was spackled, the spout bent. A glass bottle stood propped up on the empty desk drawer, ready to catch the samogon. “It’s not very pretty, is it?” Syrnikov said, sighing.

Once the leak was fixed, the samogon started flowing. When there was enough for a degustation, as Syrnikov called it, everyone tried a shot. It was still warm, and smelled of freshly risen dough. It had the alcoholic burn of strong vodka but none of the smoothness. This drink, with its distinct flavors of grain, cannot be mixed with cranberry juice, and it would make for a rather strange Martini, which is perhaps the point: samogon is specific and Russian, entirely different from the chameleon export that the West has come to know as vodka.

In the end, Syrnikov made around two litres of samogon, and we drank it all that night. They say that, unlike vodka, samogon doesn’t give you a headache the next morning. It’s not true.

Around noon on the day of the banquet, a Galactica administrator, a tall, middle-aged woman of distinctly Soviet aspect, sternly paced the kitchen, cross-examining the staff on their preparations. Then she came across a glass of toplennoe moloko, milk that has sat in a hot pech for several hours until it is the color of crème brûlée and has the faintest suggestion of caramel. She drank it down in a few long gulps. “Oh, that is so good,” she said, closing her eyes and wiping off the milk mustache with the back of her wrist. “That’s the taste of childhood.”

By the time Ladeischikov’s guests— two local chefs—arrived, activity in the kitchen had reached a frenzied pitch. One guest, a chef named Aleksander Kotenko, watched Syrnikov fashion a pastry in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The dough was made of butter, sour cream, and flour, and Syrnikov rolled it up with a filling of crushed walnuts, confectioner’s sugar, and honey from a local apiary.

“So,” Kotenko said in a tight, sibilant voice. “Is this going to be like a strudel?”

“No, not really a strudel, because strudel is made with a totally different type of dough,” Syrnikov said politely, as his big hands mashed the nuts into the honey. “And the filling is apples and raisins, if you’re talking about a classic Austrian strudel.”

Kotenko helped Syrnikov hoist the pastry onto a pan, and asked what kinds of crockery the ovens required. Did they have thermometers?

Syrnikov kept working, answering Kotenko’s barrage of questions as economically as possible. He reached into a pot and took out a section of risen dough. Part of it would be used to make garlic knots to accompany the borscht, the soup that Syrnikov regards as a Ukrainian interloper. (“They insisted I make it,” he said, sighing.) The rest he rolled out for a giant vatrushka, an open-faced pastry topped with farmer’s cheese mixed with egg, sugar, and raisins—my childhood favorite.

Sensing that he was in the way, Kotenko went to examine the pech. “Everyone’s going to be walking around covered in soot!” he exclaimed. Embroidered on his chef ’s whites was the legend “Mr. X,” the name of the restaurant-cabaret where he worked. The bottom of the “X” was a stockinged pair of women’s legs. “We serve all kinds of food,” he said. “Dorado, tiger shrimp, pizza for the kids, Bolognese, carbonara.” He cooks a few Russian dishes, too. “We also have a Guryevskaya kasha,” Kotenko said. “But, having seen how they make it here, I understood that it’s quite different from how I make it.” Unable to bake milk, Kontenko substitutes thick cream for the caramelized milk film, which, in Syrnikov’s version, gives the kasha a smoky flavor. “It’s the difference between making kebabs on a grill and making them in a frying pan,” Kotenko said. “As different as heaven and earth.” The heat in Mr. X’s conventional ovens isn’t the same—it’s not as dry. “My kasha came out kind of liquidy,” he said. He wondered again about the soot.

Hearing this, Syrnikov bellowed from across the kitchen. “All over the world, Chinese chefs make Peking duck in wood ovens!” he said. “All over the world, Italian chefs make pizza in wood ovens!” “And only Russians look at Russian ovens with horror: ‘Oh, how can we work with this! Oh, the soot!’ ”

Kotenko quickly conceded the point. But he had another question for Syrnikov: “Can you bake croissants in these ovens?”

By three o’clock, the kitchen had begun to send the dishes up to a dining room hung with disco balls. Syrnikov, Anatoly, Serezha, and Sasha started arranging the food on a long table covered with a mauve tablecloth. In one corner stood black cast-iron pots containing two types of shchi (one with meat, the other with mushrooms); the ukha, with its three kinds of fish; and the borscht. Stretching into the distance were the solyanki (one with fish—the Moscow version—and one with meat), the tel’noe, and the carp. There was buzhenina (garlicky roast pork, served cold with horseradish), a beef-and-liver stew, braised chicken hearts and kidneys, and quail, wrapped in bacon and baked in a rye crust. Beyond that were the goose, the duck, the suckling pig, and a sturgeon, which had been baked in a sea of pickle juice, a halo of a lemon slice gilding its head. At the end of the table were the pastry and the grain dishes: the Guryevskaya kasha, the kulebyaka, the vatrushka, the horseshoe pastry, and a kurnik, a gloriously golden dome of pastry stuffed with layers of chicken, mushrooms, rice, eggs, and crêpes. Syrnikov had topped it with a little dough chicken, in honor of its name, which means henhouse.

The staff milled about the table, craning their necks to see the dishes, afraid to touch anything.

“Can we start?” someone asked, after Syrnikov had explained what everything was.

“Yes, yes, of course!” he said.

Everyone swarmed the borscht. Second most popular were the goose and the pig. And the horseshoe pastry was gone in an instant; Russians are among the world’s biggest consumers of sugar.

Music from “The Godfather” played overhead. People ate quietly. Syrnikov disappeared into the kitchen with the three young chefs. “This can all be made at home,” one man said to no one in particular. “I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was Vladimir Maximov, the deputy head of the district. He was eating borscht. “Russian food is really bland,” he noted. “I like Georgian food better.” He said that he couldn’t see much difference between this food and food that wasn’t prepared in a proper Russian oven.

Ladeischikov and Sergei Efimenko, the partner in the project who had introduced Galactica’s owners to Syrnikov’s work, toasted with shot after shot of vodka. Ladeischikov was happy. He liked the duck, and was chewing on one of the ribs of the suckling pig, which had tugged at his emotions earlier that morning. His wife liked the Guryevskaya kasha—which came out sweet and subtle and creamy—and talked about their recent cruise in the Mediterranean and her daughter’s private school, in Geneva.

“She’s fluent in English,” Ladeischikov bragged.

Some dishes flopped: the quail tasted strange, tinny. The duck, which had earlier been deemed undercooked and returned to the oven, had ended up dry. The goose was better, but less succulent than the one Syrnikov had made the day before. The kurnik, despite its festive exterior, was dull. But the kulebyaka was a magical fluff of dough, full of the taste of salmon, mushrooms, and rice. The kalitki—little boats of rye dough stuffed with mashed potato and cream—were buttery, cheesy, chewy. The flavors of the solyanki (the smoky meat, the velvety fish) sparkled against the backdrop of the braised sour cabbage. The vatrushka, thick with sweetened farmer’s cheese, was the best I’d ever eaten. And the shchi, their smoky sweetness cut by a subtle tartness, were a revelation.

“They need to put thermometers in the ovens,” Kotenko said, as he enjoyed a bowl of borscht.

“We can do that,” Ladeischikov said. “Not an issue.” He asked for Kotenko’s opinion of the meal.

“The goose was undercooked,” Kotenko said. “The solyanka was good, but so unusual! The Guryevskaya kasha is good, but some soot from the logs must have gotten in, because there’s something crunchy in there.”

Efimenko called for silence and offered yet another toast. His face had reddened.

“To Russian cuisine!” he said. “The best cuisine in the world!”

“To our native cuisine,” Kotenko said. “The one we don’t even know!”

The Borscht Belt [TNY]

The Last Waltz

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city’s squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.

Many hadn’t come at all, either because they were tired of coming out — this was the sixth large protest in three months — or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.

“If I didn’t come today, it would mean that I deserve this government,” Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.

“Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don’t see a point in these protests,” said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.

“I think that it’s important not to lose what we’ve gained in these months,” a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. “Of course, we’re going to keep coming to these protests,” he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. “But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else.”

The rally’s organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. “I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended,” journalist and ring leader of the rallies’ organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. “There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We’re not going to organize them automatically.” Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month’s Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow’s Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.

And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of “the revolution,” the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters’ League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin — another central figure in this winter’s movement — declared the “romantic” period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their “professional” behavior. “I think people have understood that they can’t charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons,” Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. “Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections,” Akunin added.

If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections — or new parliamentary elections — and to chant the charged but useless slogan “Russia without Putin,” Saturday’s rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter’s giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees — the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin’s press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round — that is, over 51 percent — but no violations.)

Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had “saved” for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.

At Saturday’s rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city’s municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin’s campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. “Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?” she asked, referring to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats,” she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: “Good job! Good job!” When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin’s corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin’s United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.

“We’re at the beginning of a long and arduous journey,” said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. “We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We’ve already started, and no one, I don’t think, can take a step back.”

No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years — rather than quick and sweeping political change — may be just what Russia needs.

The scary unknown, of course, is Putin’s reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it’s hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you’re working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.

The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally — miting, in Russian — for a while, means the obituaries of the winter’s movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest — 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin’s era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Navalny told supporters when he left prison.

On March 5, Moscow’s protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn’t, as many put it, “wake up in a different country.” Estimates of Saturday’s rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally’s organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.

The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.

The Last Waltz [FP]

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

MOSCOW — When Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov left Pushkin Square Monday night, the crowd — estimated by the police at 14,000 — was just starting to disperse. They had stood for two hours in sub-zero temperatures, not 24 hours after Vladimir Putin wept after sweeping to victory in Sunday’s presidential race with 63.6 percent of the vote. They had listened to speeches from the whole gamut of the opposition — the leftists, the nationalists, Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Prokhorov, all had their turn at the microphone. They chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “We are the power!” They weren’t as cheerful as they’d been in past protests, but they were peaceful, despite the crowd of Putin supporters that had arrived from central casting.

Gudkov, who represents the Just Russia party and has been a central figure in this winter’s opposition protests, made sure to talk to the police officer overseeing the whole operation before he left for his appearance on opposition channel RainTV. Ilya Ponomarev, another Just Russia Duma deputy who has been a key figure in the movement, had announced from the stage that he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him at the fountain in the center of the square, a sort-of impromptu town hall. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who’s become the opposition’s most natural leader, and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov had announced that they weren’t leaving the square, period — an unlikely prospect given the temperature. “He told me, fine, let them stay and shout for a few hours,” Gudkov said, of the police supervisor.

It didn’t quite go down like that. Gudkov and his son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy from the same party, left Pushkin Square with a clear conscience. Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny’s bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. “Hey! Toss the next one!” one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight.

They got Udaltsov, Navalny, opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a Western journalist, and Ponomarev, who stood shouting into a loudspeaker: “Police! Stop breaking the law! This is a peaceful meeting!” (They quickly released him.) All in all, they got 250 people, including Alena Popova, a glamorous young media consultant and e-government evangelist who has linked up to Ponomarev and the opposition movement. She wasn’t so lucky, though: the police broke her arm.

Hearing about this, the Gudkovs raced back to Pushkin Square from the television studio. By the time they arrived, the riot police and the OMON special police had formed a chain and started to push everyone out of the square. There was plenty of room and not many people, but they managed to get into such a formation — a reverse cowherd — that people, many of them journalists with press badges in full view, started falling and getting trampled underfoot.

Gudkov tried to stop them in their tracks. “I’m a deputy of the Federal Duma!” he said. “I’m a Duma deputy!”

The police kept pushing.

“What the fuck?” Gudkov exclaimed, as the police nearly bowled him over. “Do you hear me? I’m a Duma deputy!”

Dmitry wasn’t having any more luck, even when he flashed his Duma ID.

“Motherfuckers,” he grunted as the police shoved him forward. “This is how you elect a fucking president?”

“Where is Gennady Yurievich?” the elder Gudkov growled when the pushing abated for a minute, demanding to see the police supervisor who had upended the contract. “Who is the commanding officer here? Who?”

The police were mute.

When Dmitry Gudkov tried to get through the line to find this commanding officer, he was immediately detained, but released when the officers waiting for him in the police van saw who he was.

Why did the police show such disregard for a government official, ostensibly a reprentative of the people, even when he showed them proof of his identity — and stature?

“Because we haven’t abided by the law here in ages,” Dmitry Gudkov told me afterwards, angrily adjusting his shearling. “I was just in Astrakhan, monitoring the vote. They wouldn’t let me into the polling stations. I was climbing over fences to get in, even though, as a Duma deputy, I have the right to walk into any government office without impediment.”

It was all a strange echo of the night of Dec. 5, when thousands of people came out to Chistye Prudy in central Moscow to protest the fraudulent parliamentary vote the day before. That night’s protest was peaceful and the cops stood respectfully by until a small faction tried to march down to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. That’s when the batons rained down and bodies were dragged kicking to the arrest vans, and the police made the colossal mistake of arresting Navalny, instantly turning a blogger into a leader of the movement. And instead of turning people away, the violence seemed to galvanize people: Five days later, a crowd of 50,000 showed up to Bolotnaya Square to demand free elections and the respect of their government.

On the eve of the presidential election, I wrote that, when faced with two options in a tense political atmosphere, Putin tends to pick the absolute worst option. The days since — from his paranoiacally armored, tear-filled victory speech when only a third of the votes were counted, to Monday’s crackdown– seem to continue to bear that theory out. Instead of letting the stragglers shout in Pushkin Square until they could no longer stand in ankle-deep snow, to let the protest fizzle away into the very insignificance that Putin claims they represent, the command come down to arrest the sons of bitches — and mint some new martyrs. (One lesson they did seem to learn from Dec. 5, when they jailed Navalny for 15 days: This time, they released him after charging him with a petty offense — organizing a protest, maximum fine $70.)

“It’s not clear what to do with the protests,” Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me a couple days before the election. “On one hand, they’re probably thinking, ‘enough leniency, let’s crack down.’ But if they do crack down, then the press is filled with images of contorted faces and police batons, and it’s a very unpleasant picture of Putin’s first day after the election.”

And Putin, it should be noted, cares about his image in the West. At an investor conference this fall, he courted Western capital and went on at length about what a European country Russia was. One of the last things he did before the election was to invite the editors of some of the most important European newspapers to his dacha for an interview, partly to talk to them about how Russian foreign policy would continue to be friendly — and business friendly — toward the West during a third Putin term. In May, three weeks after his inauguration, Putin will go to Chicago for the G-8 summit. How good can an alpha dog feel if his victory — which he clearly saw as an emotional, historical milestone — is marred by some roughed-up hipsters?

Already, the chidings are pouring in. Prokhorov, who had just met with a very welcoming, encouraging Putin Monday morning, issued a statement condemning the violence. “I’m outraged by the use of force against people who had gathered to express their civic position,” he said. “I am positive that the use of force and arrest of opposition politicians could have been avoided.” “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square,” tweeted Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia and close advisor to President Barack Obama, with whom Putin is to have a tête-a-tête in Chicago.

By 11 p.m., four hours after the protest on Pushkin Square had started, there were few people left. Dmitry Gudkov was trying to find out the whereabouts of Ponomarev, Navalny, and the others who had been arrested. A shocked Gennady Gudkov stood talking to a scrum of journalists — who had themselves been roughed up — when a cop with a megaphone walked by.

“Go to the metro,” the cop droned. “Stop your illegal actions.”

Gudkov did a double take.

“What illegal actions?” he said. “I’m standing in the square, talking to people. I’m not even shouting political slogans!”

I asked him how tonight’s crackdown looked for Putin, so jubilant and generous in his victory.

“Party’s over,” Gudkov sighed. “Party’s ruined.”

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’ [FP]

Cleaning Up in Moscow

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

MOSCOW – If you want to talk about trigger moments, you could do worse than the night of December 4. As the polls closed in Russia’s parliamentary elections that Sunday, the Kremlin’s polling firm FOM posted an exit poll on its website that gave United Russia, the ruling party created to support Vladimir Putin, 27.5 percent. It seemed a reasonable result: Moscow is a rich, highly educated city where United Russia, despite being backed by the full resources of the state, is virulently unpopular. By Monday morning, the exit poll had disappeared off the FOM website, replaced with an official result that bore no resemblance to the election day surveys: 46.6 percent. Moscow exploded in a rage that evening and many thousands of people came out to protest, something unheard of in the city for the dozen years of Putin’s rule.

A line had clearly been crossed. After this, tens of thousands of Muscovites — Muscovites who had up until then been indifferent to politics — started coming out into the streets in the largest political protests Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their demands — new parliamentary elections — were impossible, but the one thing you heard over and over at those first protests was a sense of offense: we are not idiots. “Politicians everywhere lie,” one young man in a beautiful shearling coat told me at the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square. “But in other countries, they do it with more finesse. It’s not as crass as here.”

Exactly three months and three mass opposition protests later, that lesson seems to have been utterly lost on the Kremlin — or, worse, rudely ignored. Going into the March 4 presidential election set to restore Putin to the office he temporarily swapped out of four years ago, the going theory among the Moscow political chattering classes was that Moscow itself would have a relatively clean election, that the Kremlin would decide not to pour fuel on the fire by avoiding really flagrant election fraud of the sort we saw in December — the ballot stuffing, the so-called carousels of voters herded on buses to vote again and again and again. After all, 82,000 of the 370,000 new election monitors who volunteered to make sure these elections were more honest than the last were in Moscow.

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

“Everyone expected a cleaner election in Moscow,” says Alexey Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption fighter and is the opposition’s most natural, if reluctant, leader. We sat in the information center organized by his latest civil society project, RosVybory, one of the many new election monitoring initiatives that sprouted up in this winter’s unrest. “But these were naïve expectations, because this would have led to a second round.”

Without a strong showing for Putin in Moscow, Navalny reckoned, the math just wouldn’t have added up and Putin would not have gotten over the 50 percent threshold required to win the presidential contest outright, without a second-round runoff, despite the weakness of his would-be opponents, perennials of the stage-managed opposition like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and oligarch newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov. Added Navalny, “If you want results, and they want results, you need to act firmly, without hesitation. There’s a sound file making the rounds on the Internet now of an electoral meeting with the governor of the Moscow region. He says absolutely clearly: our task is to get over 50 percent, do whatever you want. No one is going to punish the governor for falsifying the vote, but he will be punished for not delivering results.” (Indeed, several governors in whose regions United Russia did poorly in December’s elections were unceremoniously replaced by the Kremlin.)

And why did Putin not want a second round? “A second round is not cool,” Navalny argued when we talked. “If you win in the second round, then you’re just a politician who competes with Zyuganov. You’re not a cool guy…. In the political construct he’s created, you cannot show weakness. Which is why they haven’t carried out the demands of the protesters that would be easy to carry out – like firing the Central Election Commission chair, punishing even the small fry falsifiers. They clearly think that if you give the protesters a finger, they’ll take your arm. And a national leader doesn’t behave like this.”

In the meantime, Moscow filled with more special troops than I or most other people have ever seen. Special forces, interior ministry troops, military convoys at the entrances to Red Square, signal jammers, water cannons, soldiers walking around with ham radios strapped to their backs. Ostensibly, the massive presence was to secure the massive victory rally planned outside the Kremlin walls. It looked more like war, which given today’s tactics, the Kremlin is likely to see in tomorrow’s opposition protest on Pushkin Square: there’s just less and less patience for peaceful protest in an atmosphere turning increasingly toxic.

“The last time I saw water cannons in Moscow was in 1990, when there were big protests in the city,” recalls Yury Sparykin, the editor-in-chief of the media company Rambler-Afisha, and one of the organizers of the winter’s opposition protests. “That means it’s a good omen: only one year left.”

But what a year it could be.

When Putin finally took the stage at 10 p.m. he brought Dmitry Medvedev, who had served as his placeholder president for the last four years, with him. As Medvedev spoke of a clean victory, which no one could take from them, Putin stifled emotion. Only a third of the ballots had been processed, but his projected results steadily climbed past the 60 percent mark. A tear ran down his cheek. “We won in an open and honest battle,” he said, looking over a massive crowd that dwarfed any the opposition had ever summoned.

Back at the RosVybory headquarters in a bohemian café up the street from the Kremlin, Navalny mounted a small wooden stage with chessmaster-turned-opposition figure Garry Kasparov. “We have no legitimate government,” Navalny said. “We have no legitimate president. He who has declared himself president tonight is a usurper.” And then he called on the quiet, deflated crowd to continue their struggle.

Cleaning Up in Moscow [FP]

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset”

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

A couple of days ago, thirty-six Soviet immigrants were arrested in New York for plotting to bilk health-insurance companies out of a quarter of a billion dollars. The plot, according to a story in the Times, involved ten doctors, nine clinics, and a hundred and five corporations: “The ring sought reimbursement for so many excessive and unnecessary medical treatments that it had to set up three separate billing processing companies just to handle the paperwork.” What’s remarkable here is just how unremarkable the story is, coming, as it does, out of Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is famous not only for its gauche cabarets and Russian delicacies and grumbling, highly-inflected Russian of the provinces, but for its improbable concentration of insurance fraud. As the Times puts it, “Brighton Beach has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics. In fact, an analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates those two programs, shows that more health care providers in the Brighton Beach ZIP code are currently barred from the programs for malfeasance than in almost any other ZIP code in the United States.”

The article then goes into an intricate dance, dipping into a “Russian mind-set” that might draw Soviet immigrants to fraud—that’s from an unnamed law-enforcement official—and the to-be-sure-not-all-Soviet-immigrants-involved-in-health-care-are-criminals reminder:

Still, some experts in law enforcement and academia believe that the cumbersome Soviet system, with its thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life, effectively helped to groom a generation of post-Soviet criminals in the United States.

“Obviously, particularly in Soviet times, but even nowadays, Russia still has a large amount of red tape and bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes,” said Prof. Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime at New York University. “So from cradle to grave, they have been used to that.”

It’s not so much that “systems” in Russia are designed to make you pay bribes, it’s that they’re often designed on the back of an envelope—that is, not designed or thought-through at all. The effect—sometimes intended, usually not—is to make de facto criminals out of basically everybody. In contemporary Russia, you’ll meet many pristinely-educated, well-traveled, white-collar business people who will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that they’d prefer to have “white”—that is, clean—businesses, but that the laws are so contradictory that they would go bust abiding by them all. These people are not guys in tracksuits named Fat Misha. They wear nice suits and speak foreign languages and have great table manners. Their wives like diamond stud earrings and subtle lip gloss. They’re contractors and distributors and partners with big Western firms. And, for the most part, they’re not crooks by intent but because there are simply very few ways to make money legally.

Many, if not most, of the guys rounded up in this week’s operation, I assume, came to the U.S. before making money was even a legal option for them. They came from the Soviet Union, where commerce was illegal. Back there, back then, they could have been black marketeers and speculators. Or they could have been drones working boring Soviet jobs, making salaries that could buy them nothing because the economy was too inefficient—and state spending priorities were too rocket-oriented—to give them anything to buy. So everything, from clothes to canned goods to shampoo, had to be gotten by hook, crook, personal connection, or by buying them off a black marketeer. So it was not that “you’re looked upon as a patsy” if you were not “scamming the government,” as that unnamed officer told the Times, it’s that you’d die of hunger if you expected to get your food just by walking into a store with some money. (Plus, there was probably a line out the door and down the block.)

“These people deserve all the opprobrium in the world, but context is important. These are traumatized people, taking actions for which they remain fully responsible, but not because they’re evil—because you, too, might quite possibly act that way if you’d spent a lifetime living in the nightmare place where they lived,” Boris Fishman, a former fact-checker at The New Yorker who’s finishing a novel about a failed journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims, told me. (Boris is also a fellow Soviet immigrant.) “Even in these cynical souls it goes back to their inability to imagine a system where you get enough by acting fairly.”

The other thing about the “Russian mind-set” is that it goes back to pre-Soviet times, too. There’s a Russian saying, born of a history full of hard rulers and stupid laws spinning in distant corners of a very big and hard-to-regulate space: “The severity of the law is mitigated by its lack of enforcement.” So whereas someone of the “American mind-set” expects to be caught for breaking the law, someone of the “Russian mind-set” doesn’t. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets you close to the cultural context.

I was seven when my family came over from the Soviet Union. My parents largely avoided—and sneered at—the immigrant milieus like those of Brighton Beach. They were educated Muscovites; they did not party at Russian restaurants. They took us, their children, to the opera and the ballet. But being poor immigrants, and ballet tickets being ballet tickets, we often found ourselves sitting in the nosebleed sections only to scamper down to the parterre when the lights went out. (These shows were full of other Soviet immigrants, and so you’d find yourself clawing for velvet seats in the dark with someone just like you.) If you can do it and no one will catch you—hey, it’s dark!—why not? Though I should say that the greatest obstacle to moving down to the more expensive seats was the vehement resistance of my annoyingly law-abiding little sister—also a Soviet immigrant.

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset” [TNY]

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister’s office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column “Kremlinology 2012.”) Once Putin decided who was running — himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev — then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country’s only real voter.

In the year since, so much has happened — the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since — and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man — the same man — can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.

Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests — not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies — it’s become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.

But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin’s number shot up. “People are rooting for the winner,” Volkov told me.

On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he’s the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin’s two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors — it’s a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead — has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin’s most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the “we-love-Putin” camp and the “got-any-better-ideas?” camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.

Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor’s office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?

Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin’s political concessions in the face of these protests — the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures — have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?

And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin’s campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It’s a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age — anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

For now, it seems Putin can’t quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition’s demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally — without exception — said they didn’t mind the opposition protests. “Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? “It’s a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything,” argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It’s a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness.”

Increasingly, however, Putin’s rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People’s Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to “submit” to the choice of the majority and avoid “imposing” their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a “sacrificial offering” from its own ranks. “They’ll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government,” he said. This kind of talk doesn’t leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an “escalation,” and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine’s rigged 2004 presidential election — the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin’s obsession with “color revolutions” being plotted all around him.

The Putin I’ve come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” Putin’s chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin’s announcement. “We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious.” He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, “none of this would have happened.” And I think he’s absolutely right.

Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what’s hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: “I just hope he doesn’t send us to war with Tajikistan.”

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election? [FP]

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]

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]

Putin: A Used President?

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

guess you can say that it started with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s live question-and-answer session last Friday. This is a once-a-year extravaganza that lasts for hours and is Putin’s favorite—that is, utterly scripted—way to communicate with his subjects. He leans back in an Aeron chair, cocks one arm over its back, and confidently rains down figures and percentages and questionable numbers like heavenly manna. He solves housing shortages for Second World War veterans with a swift, manly snarl. He jokes, he zings—he is, in short, in his element. This year, however, Putin’s telethon came amid growing protests by the country’s middle class, which has had enough, over the crude, ham-fisted falsifications of the December 4th parliamentary vote. This year, he was nervous, and, despite his vocal unwillingness to discuss this wrinkle in the system, he had to keep coming back to the topic. When all else failed, he tried to ease off the theme by making a joke about the white ribbons protesters have been pinning to their chests. “To be perfectly honest,” he said,

When I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest—it’s not quite appropriate— but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.

Within minutes, the Russian-language Internet was overflowing with condom jokes, including a picture of a condom folded up like an activist ribbon, and a Christmas card from Putin, an unfurled condom hanging from his lapel. A joke started to make the rounds: a guy and a girl are getting hot and heavy, and, at the critical moment, she says, “Do you have a white ribbon?”

Russians have a long tradition of biting, bitter humor, a necessary steam valve when you live in a reality that could easily be mistaken for a joke. These days, with all the steam the system has built up over a decade of High Putinism suddenly billowing forth, humor has been front and center. KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter parody of Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter feed, has been especially active of late. “Putin,” one of the recent condom-themed tweets went, “is a used president.” (He had been President before, and intends to be so again.)

Saturday, up to a hundred and twenty thousand people came out to demand electoral reform—a record for the infamously indifferent Putin generation. Partly because the last massive protest, two weeks ago, was so peaceful, and because Muscovites are getting the hang of this, Saturday’s protest was, more than anything, a festival of such classically wry Russian witticisms. Below, some of my favorites.

(Photographs: Max Avdeev)

(Photographs, above and top: Julia Ioffe)

Putin: A Used President? [TNY]

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Going into today’s protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election’s heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance — three weeks — from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone — from police to journalists to the event organizers — that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd — its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 — was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia) today’s demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows (“You tell America,” one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, “that Russia will never be its colony!”) were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium (“Leper Colony”), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet’s stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage — though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue — were almost of secondary importance. It wasn’t about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn’t sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance — a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together — there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn’t even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that “now-now-now” euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures — tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the “loyal opposition” — to the beginnings of something that’s starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a “presidential filter.” (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin’s centralized — and now wobbling — political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country’s political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin’s power vertical. “People are tired of having their interests ignored,” Medvedev said. “I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them.”

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue — a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country — Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president’s chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn’t need a “presidential filter” after all, that maybe political parties’ own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin’s swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today’s statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. “It’s obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage,” said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are “simple” and “sincere” — a far cry from Putin’s assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. “I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country,” he said, pointing to the “ripeness of our political system.” Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won’t be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov — the odd and flamboyantly partisan “magician” in charge of the Central Election Commission — shows no signs of resigning (he’s a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there’s three months to go — and there’s still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month — 100,000, for Putin’s Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) — don’t fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin’s victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one’s political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin’s system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat “normal” — the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. “We’re setting a precedent,” said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. “The reason the word ‘politics’ always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we’re not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn’t have to get red in the face when he says the word ‘politics.'”

Won’t Get Fooled Again [FP]

The Condom-nation of Vladimir Putin

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government — and anti-Putin — protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin’s reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People’s Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain “signal.”

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin’s first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, “when I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest — it’s not quite appropriate — but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.”

Yes, that’s right: in case Russians hadn’t been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn’t been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn’t angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. (“Happy holidays, friends!” the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: “You’re the gondon.” In Russian, gondon is slang for condom — or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to “push it to the side,” or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, “a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies” that “doesn’t come out of nowhere” — like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia’s once and would-be future president pointed out that “there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it’s often pointless or impossible.” And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday’s 50,000-person protest — “fine, let them earn a little money” — even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin’s, to some extent. “I get paid for my time,” Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn’t get money from the U.S. State Department. “Why shouldn’t they?”)

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which “underestimates our nuclear rocket potential”), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who “has blood on his hands”), the one topic — the “red thread,” according to the host — that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday’s protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens’ rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, “will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It’s a question of political culture.”

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. “There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position,” he said. “If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m happy. I’m happy that these kinds of people are appearing.” He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki’s statement that those who came out across the country were “Putin’s generation,” a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which “Putin, resign!” rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. “For God’s sake, if it’s so interesting to you, then I’ll discuss it,” he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn’t the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren’t asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors — eliminated in 2004 — but only, as he put it, through “a presidential filter” (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president — him — will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections — which, of course, would be logistically impossible — but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin’s favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti — one Russian journalist called him a “random number generator.” For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state’s reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions — like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position — but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, “Putin, go fuck yourself!” Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, “I was not invited to these meetings, I don’t know. I’ll say honestly that I didn’t notice any panic.” He was, he added, busy. “I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey,” he said, referring to himself as “a cow on ice.” “I wasn’t really paying attention to what’s going on there. And I haven’t been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking.”

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin’s insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin’s snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it’s true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. “Come to me, Bandar-logs,” Russia’s ruler told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” The ones who chant “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful.” (“I’ve loved Kipling since childhood,” crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. “What say you, Bandar-logs,” one journalist quipped. “Shall we go prowling?

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin [FP]

Activists Get Connected

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Two years ago, Dmitry Ternovskiy, a Russian small business owner, blogger, and hobby photographer, had a dream: he is skiing, and he runs into Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The two men make each other’s acquaintance, at which point Ternovskiy asks the president for his autograph on the side of his camera lens. A week later, Ternovskiy found himself on the slopes above Sochi, where, he was told, the president also happened to be skiing. Intrigued by the coincidence, Ternovskiy made his way over to where Medvedev was passing and took a few pictures. To his even greater surprise, the president approached him, and Ternovskiy asked him to sign his camera lens. And, because things were already unfolding so bizarrely, Ternovskiy decided to take the opportunity to ask the president about something that had been bothering him for years: the pointless Soviet-era ban on photography in the Kremlin and Red Square. “Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] said this was stupid and within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that he had given the order to the head of the Federal Security Service [the Russian Secret Service] to lift this ban, which had been in place for 20 years,” Ternovskiy recalls, still marvelling at the cosmic strangeness of that day.

The run-in was not only broadcast on national television, it also provided the catalyst for a project Ternovskiy called A Country Without Stupidity. Chief among the inanities in his sights is something most tourists in Russia have encountered: the screaming security guard or elderly woman telling you that you cannot take pictures here, as if your photograph of that supermarket compromises Russian national security. Ternovskiy has used his blog to mobilise Russians to inform these guards and grannies that they are the ones in the wrong: by Russian law, photography is allowed almost everywhere. “Despite the fact that there is no legal basis to ban photography in all the places it’s banned, people will still tell you it’s forbidden,” Ternovskiy says, pouring himself a cup of thyme tea as we sit in a Moscow café. “It’s like a Soviet phantom limb. Back then, every person felt himself to be in the thick of a nest of spies, there were enemies all around, everything was banned. Unfortunately, we still see this alive and well in the minds of many people today.”

Using his blog and Twitter, Ternovskiy has declared war on this archaic mentality. In the year since he launched A Country Without Stupidity, he has taught a growing number of sympathisers what to do if a guard in a train station tells you to delete that picture you just took: call the police, have them write a report, then write an official complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office. Thanks to Medvedev’s modernisation initiative, he points out, you can now file that complaint online. “It’s very simple and it uses legal methods,” Ternovskiy explains. “You don’t have to fight anyone, you don’t have to pitch a fit and yell at the guards. Just go home, and calmly register a complaint.” To everyone’s surprise, the prosecutor’s office stopped ignoring these complaints and began answering them – and finding in the complainants’ favour.

This may seem like a strange fight, but in a country where abuse of authority and brazen shirking of the law has become an accepted part of the daily routine even in the smallest things, Ternovskiy’s battle is a novel attempt not to fall into the sort of complacency that makes this kind of grim reality possible in the first place. “It’s a small thing, yes, but Russians are so indifferent and so convinced that you can’t change anything here, that what we’re trying to show people is that sometimes you just need a little effort to change something,” Ternovskiy explains. “And then maybe the next time, when this person encounters a bigger problem, not just something stupid, he’ll know that he can act, and he’ll know how to.”

With more than 50 million users, the Russian internet has this year become Europe’s biggest internet audience and Ternovskiy’s initiative is one of several that has used the explosion of the web in Russia to do something unheard of in its history: the mobilisation of civil society. “For many years, there was no means for people living here to do anything that relates to the organisation of society in any way,” says Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian web and now the media director of SUP, the company that owns LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “In Russia, it was always the state that was in charge of dealing with social issues, never the people. It’s a situation that, on the whole, has lasted here for about a thousand years.”

The change came only recently, and only with the introduction of high-speed internet, first in the big cities, then in the countryside. Then came LiveJournal, which gave Russians a platform to discuss the things no longer being discussed in the state-controlled media. After that, the social networks – VKontakte, or Facebook for the urban elite – which Russians use more than any other people on the planet, connected like-minded citizens of a country spread across nine time zones. In the past year this trifecta – low-cost, hi-speed internet access, LiveJournal, and social networks – has given rise to a cluster of novel civic movements. One of the first was anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s RosPil, which used crowd sourcing to spot corrupt government tenders. Then, using Yandex.Money, the Russian analogue of PayPal, he launched an online collection of funds to hire young lawyers to help him fight corrupt state corporations in court. His goal had been to raise Rbs3m (£61,000). As of May this year he had raised Rbs6.5m. The next frontier in this movement is apps. Ternovskiy is currently working with developers to create an app that allows users to document and send a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office right from their phones. “We want people to act,” Ternovskiy says, explaining that, in the time it takes someone to come home and get in front of a computer, the desire to register an official complaint may easily pass. Another potential hit, given the talk of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, is RUGolos, an application that allows voters to register how and where they voted. The idea is that, given the penetration of smartphones in Russia, the app can collect enough data to serve as an independent counterweight to official election results.

Blue Buckets, another online movement, uses a different currency to achieve its aims: public shame. Loosely affiliated clusters of people have united in fighting the blue migalki, or sirens, which allow any car to which they are attached to circumvent all traffic laws. Predictably, they cause countless, often deadly, accidents, and given the sanctity of the car in Russia, they have become a major social irritant. Blue Buckets – named for the blue buckets activists tape to their car roofs as a spoof of these VIP sirens – gives people the means to fight back against the abuse of privilege. Drivers who capture this abuse – the VIP vehicle of a film director speeding in the oncoming lane, a bureaucrat turning on his siren to get to the dry cleaners – on camera, can submit the picture or video to Blue Buckets, which then disseminates it to its nearly 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to its LiveJournal page. Inevitably, this makes it into the news cycle, fuelling more rage. This summer saw a spate of such small but loud scandals over migalki, and Blue Buckets was behind most of them.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” says Petr Shkumatov, one of the Blue Buckets co-ordinators, and a marketing specialist by day. “Since we’ve started the group, people have stopped being as brazen. A year ago, you saw these migalki everywhere but now they are more hesitant to turn on their discotheques,” he says, referring to the whoop of the sirens. “Of course, they’re allowed to by law, but the fact that society has become so angry at them, and they see the anger, has clearly been giving them pause.”

The point of Blue Buckets is to disincentivise ostentatious prestige, which is still so comically common in contemporary Russia. “The problem of migalki is not solved through laws because the sirens play to a very natural desire to be above other people,” says Shkumatov. He sees the legacy of the Soviet Union at play here, too, and he and his co-conspirators at Blue Buckets have tried hard to keep the group as decentralised and organic as possible, in order to prevent it from becoming “an instrument for realising someone’s ambitions”.

“The Soviet Union still exists in Russia because people are still repeating old patterns,” Shkumatov explains. “As soon as someone joins an organisation, he wants to become the general secretary of the Communist party.”

In the past few days, the Russian blogosphere has proved to be a powerful tool in organising such sentiments. A day after disputed election results delivered both a victory and a defeat to the ruling, vaguely Soviet, United Russia party – it won a majority of seats in the Russian parliament, but lost 15 per cent compared with the 2007 electio7 – some 6,000 young people took to Moscow’s streets. As in the case of protests seen around the world, from Cairo to Zucotti Park, they had been brought there by Facebook and Twitter. And they were angry about what they had read on the internet, information that rarely makes it into the “official” Russian press. In absolute terms, it was not a large number – Moscow is a city of at least 11 million – but it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. Young Russians are thought to be apathetic and, even if they are not, rarely come out to protest, which they see as the realm of the shrill and the elderly.

The anonymous KermlinRussia duo, who write a wildly popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, recently teamed up with Zhgun, a graphic designer, to create a campaign ad on YouTube for a fictional party called “F****** Amazing Russia”. The premise of the party was to leave behind the bad guys – Putin, Medvedev, and their cronies – and to mobilise what one of the KermlinRussia writers called “the party of the internet.” Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube video, but nothing seemed to happen – until it suddenly did. “The internet is the new politics,” one of the duo told me. “It was able to organise the first serious protest in many years.”

Whether or not these protests continue as temperatures in Moscow drop is not clear, but they have already accomplished something very important: they have brought down the barrier between the online and offline worlds. When Navalny was arrested at the December 5 protest, thousands of his followers watched a live feed of the protest staged outside the police station where he was being held. At 4am on a weeknight, there were nearly four thousand viewers. When Navalny’s trace temporarily vanished, and when Navalny was brought into court and sentenced to 15 days in prison, it was Shkumatov who tweeted the proceedings to everyone who had not been allowed inside the courtroom: Shkumatov, too, had been arrested.

On December 10, around 50,000 of the young urban elite came out in Moscow for the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands protested in dozens of cities around Russia. Addressing the crowd, Shkumatov thanked them for coming out, “for showing them” – the Kremlin – “that you’re not cattle”. “You guys are so wonderful!” he said, while recording a video of the crowd with his phone.

Activists Get Connected [FT]