In a rather ironic sign of how much the Russian opposition movement that has emerged in recent months has forever changed the country’s politics, many considered the latest anti-Putin protest, held on Saturday in downtown Moscow, a disappointment. That is, the rally—meant to publicize evidence of electoral fraud from the previous weekend’s vote and to call for people to engage with the small-bore building of a new Russian civil society—drew around 15,000 people or so; indeed, far less than the 100,000 people that had gathered for protests in December and January.
For much of the Putin era, when Russia’s earnest, admirable, but largely ignored opposition activists would try to put together a protest, a few hundred people would show up. The fact that some on the Novy Arbat on Saturday bemoaned that 20,000 and not 100,000 people had come out to express their dissatisfaction with the Putin regime shows how dramatically the country’s political and social order has changed in the last three months.
And those changes are unlikely to be undone: despite Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency and the likely end, at least for now, of large-scale street demonstrations, the events of the last several months have showed the country’s urban, professional class that politics is less of a distant, pointless game than they once thought, and that the Putin system may be more malleable and less omnipotent than many once feared. Now the question is whether the opposition can harness the energy and optimism of the last several months for the much more mundane, often anonymous work of building up the kind of civic architecture that could one day present an alternative to Putinism.
To be sure, nearly all of those involved in planning the protests that have erupted since December agree that a certain cycle has come to a close. For a piece for Foreign Affairs this week, Boris Akunin, a popular author of detective fiction who has emerged as a sort of moral conscience of the Russian opposition, told me that “the three-month euphoria” is over, along with “any illusion that this regime could be changed by peaceful protest alone.”
As such, the main attractions at Saturday’s protest were not the high-profile leaders of the anti-Putin opposition who have played big roles at earlier demonstrations. Indeed, Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption activist is perhaps the anti-Putin crowd’s biggest star, watched the afternoon’s speeches from the middle of the crowd. (As the protest was getting underway, he wrote on Twitter, “Down below, among the people, is cooler than on stage.”)
Instead, much of the day’s attention was on those everyday Russians who had volunteered to be election monitors at last Sunday’s vote and told of what they had witnessed. As I heard one observer from northwest Moscow tell the crowd, “There were so many carousels”—a reference to a ballot stuffing technique in which buses take hired voters around and around to multiple polling places—“that I thought I was in a theme park.” (For more on the level of falsification in the presidential election and how it differed in kind and scale from that in the December parliamentary elections, see my earlier Foreign Affairs article.)
Perhaps the group that got the most applause was made of up those who had run for—and won—seats on Moscow’s various neighborhood councils. That latter group included Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student, and Maxim Katz, a 27-year-old, shaggy-haired entrepreneur who says he makes his money from poker. The idea, as many in the opposition’s leadership now see it, is to focus attention on Moscow, to make the capital a sort of petri dish for piecemeal democratic and civic change, with the hope that such fine-grained attention on local regulations, courts, and municipal decision-making can create the foundation for a new form of Russian public life that could one day be grafted on to the country as a whole.
That’s not to say that those who came out to protest in recent months—the hundreds of thousands in the crowd and the organizers on stage—have completely diverted their attention from Putin himself. The goal, as I heard it explained many times on Saturday, is to still remove Putin from power and sweep away the corrupt, cynical system over which he presides. But now there is a growing understanding that that may be accomplished not by the mass politics of the street but by the quieter politics of individual neighborhoods. The answer to how long Putin can hold on, Akunin told me, depends “on the maturity of civil society and its ability to self organize.”