1. March 2012
When I arrived in Moscow, a week before the March 4 presidential election, it was below zero and winter was grinding to a close. At midday the downtown was completely tied up—lines and lines of cars were stalled in one of the city’s eternal traffic jams. The advancing tires slowly churned a black sea of slyakot—a tenacious type of slush—that splashed on BMWs and tinted-glass luxury cars, as well as on the capital’s poorer pedestrians’ boots. For security reasons, Lenin’s tomb on Red Square was closed; a single soldier in uniform paced back and forth in the snow. A few streets away, a piercing wind circled the Lubyanka, the former home of the KGB and now headquarters to its successor, the FSB—the Russian Security Forces—and still a working prison.
But beyond the season’s familiar features, there was a feeling of something unexpected in the air. In Moscow, every conversation I had began with a discussion of the last four months of large-scale demonstrations, initially called as a response to the highly contested December 4, 2011, Russian parliamentary elections. The most symbolic event had taken place on December 10, 2011, at Bolotnaya Square. This gathering was followed by some of the biggest political protests Russia had seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Muscovites said that something extraordinary had happened: during the winter they regained a sense of pride and solidarity. Crowds wedged shoulder to shoulder in the cold, or linked arms to create a human ring around the city and the Kremlin, participants wearing white ribbons to symbolize a demand for fair elections and a new era in Russian democracy.
These demonstrations were organized largely by a generation of activists in their twenties and early thirties. Having grown up after the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991, they are an internationally educated and well-traveled group. For them, the initial protests were a reflection of frustration that had been growing over the last ten years. Following a decade of relative economic stability and the rise of the internet, they felt it was time for Russia to start being a “normal” democracy. In the wake of the rigged December elections they had been able to assemble a movement quickly using social media. The December 10 Facebook initiative, “Saturday at Bolotnaya Square,” was attended by fifty thousand people.1
By the time the second major event had taken place on December 24, 2011, at Academician Sakharov Avenue, a number of spokespersons for the opposition [End Page 123] had begun to emerge. This included a mixture of new and familiar faces: Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov, and Garry Kasparov. Other speakers at that gathering included Kseniya Sobchak—daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak—and the writer Dmitry Bykov. Despite fears of police repression, these demonstrations unfolded without incident, and the absence of violence encouraged the activists. By the time of the third protest on February 4, 2012—which included a march from Kaluzhskaya Square to Bolotnaya Square under the banner of the “For Fair Elections” movement—there were 120,000 people.2
This said, despite the buzz of something important happening in Moscow—as well as in St. Petersburg and a number of other cities—before the March presidential election, the capital was also caught up in business as usual. In Russian politics, “business as usual” is shorthand for what both supporters and detractors call the “Putin System,” i.e., the extremely complex power structure associated with thirteen years of Vladimir Putin’s governance, including his first term as Prime Minister (1999–2000), his two terms as president (2000–2004–2004–2008), and a new term as Prime Minister (2008–2012). More generally it refers to the centralization and personalization of power—the “power vertical”—that has emerged, not only under Putin but during the country’s “transition to democracy” over the past two decades. No one underestimates the nature of this command structure: its far-reaching scope fuses political power and business interests in a Gordian knot. Yet...