The election victory of Vladimir Putin in March was meant to signal the end, or at least the transition, of Russia’s protest movement. Organizers talked of smaller and less frequent large-scale demonstrations, and instead of more focused work, such as following through on particular lawsuits against the state or sending election monitors to watch the vote at certain local races. To a large extent, that’s happened: No protest has matched the 100,000-strong crowd from this winter, and politics have taken on new life in the regions and cities.
That said, demonstrations in the streets of Moscow have lasted longer and with greater numbers than many predicted. Both Putin supporters and detractors expected that a so-called “March of Millions” on May 6, the day before Putin’s inauguration, would draw a conspicuously small crowd. Instead, tens of thousands turned out. But this protest, unlike those in the winter, turned chaotic and violent. A standoff between demonstrators and the police led to clashes that left hundreds arrested and dozens injured. It appeared that the protest movement had taken a darker, perhaps uncontrollable turn: The protesters could become more radical, the police less patient and quicker to use force.
The next day, when Putin again took office as Russian president, the streets were largely empty. The police had cleared the center of Moscow of nearly everyone, protesters and supporters alike. But they would not stay that way for long: In what would soon become called “people’s strolls,” groups of people—as few as a hundred, as many as a couple thousand—began taking walks around Moscow’s cities and squares. These are overtly non-political affairs, though the political subtext is clear: the desire to be out in the center of the capital with like-minded fellow citizens was message enough. An Occupy-style camp has formed at Chistye Prudy Park, which has become something of a headquarters for Moscow’s ad-hoc, almost ephemeral protest movement. Two important questions loom—one, how long the Kremlin will tolerate the camp in the center of Moscow, and two, what practical effect it may have on the Russian government, now taking shape under Putin’s new term.