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A participant holds a placard displaying an image of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a protest demanding fair elections held in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. (Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters/Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters)
A participant holds a placard displaying an image of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a protest demanding fair elections held in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. (Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters/Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters)

On a cold night in Pushkin Square, Vladimir Putin prevails Add to ...

Sergei Udaltsov knows how a Russian revolutionary is supposed to behave. As the crowd of protesters around him started to disperse, the bald-headed leader of the radical group Left Front climbed onto the stone ledge of an empty fountain with a megaphone in his hand. “We’re not leaving! We’re not leaving!” he shouted. A few hundred others eagerly took up the chant.

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The problem was that most of the estimated 20,000 people who filled Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest Vladimir Putin’s imminent return to the Kremlin were indeed leaving. It was a Monday night, after all, and Tuesday morning means back to the office. Besides, it was cold and snowing and many hadn’t yet eaten dinner.

In that moment – as the bulk of the middle-class crowd filed out of the square, leaving a small number of protesters surrounded by a thick cordon of riot police – Russia’s rising political opposition quietly declared that it is not yet ready to challenge Mr. Putin or the police.

Shortly after they left, the police moved in, helmets on and batons at the ready. They arrested some 250 people, including Mr. Udaltsov and fellow opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and cleared the square of the remaining Muscovites who had decided that confronting Mr. Putin was a cause worth risking their health and livelihoods for. It took about an hour.

A protest tent city on Pushkin Square, just 1.5 kilometres from the Kremlin, never materialized. Police made those who wanted to join the protest crowd through airport-style metal detectors, and the tents never arrived. Most protesters were unaware that spending the night on the cold square was ever part of the plan.

The anti-Putin movement has tried to make a virtue of the fact it has no single leader or program. But on Monday it was clearer than ever that the opposition’s most prominent figures agree on little beyond their dislike of Mr. Putin. It was also clear that Mr. Putin’s main accomplishment – that Russians are far richer than they were when he first took power 12 years ago – shelters him from anger over rampant official corruption, censorship and repression.

Mr. Udaltsov and Mr. Navalny stayed on the square with their hard-core supporters knowing they were almost certain to be arrested. But other leading opposition figures – such as former chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and veteran activists Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov – merely urged the crowd to come back again on Saturday for another in a series of irregular protests that began in December.

“The protesters were scared and the police managed to break the crowd,” Liza Winnick, a 26-year-old public relations professional, told me. “If you ask me if I’m willing to fight and stay [on the square]longer, I am. But it’s not an individual decision. It’s a crowd decision. And for most people, this was just another protest.”

That doesn’t mean that the anti-Putin movement is finished. But the moment for a sharp challenge, one that could alter Mr. Putin’s plans to be inaugurated in May for a third term as president, has likely passed. Even Mr. Navalny, in a firebrand speech from the protest stage, suggested the movement needs to take a longer-term view. “Starting tomorrow, we will create a universal propaganda machine that will tell the truth; we’ll work harder than Channel 1 [state-owned television]” he shouted to the loudest applause of the evening. But he suggested that convincing those in the more remote regions of Russia that Mr. Putin and his inner circle are corrupt and illegitimate rulers could take “half a year.”

So Pushkin Square – a plaza named for a romantic poet who was shot dead in a duel – won’t be the new Tahrir Square, the hub of a fast-moving and dangerous revolution. But many Russian protesters see a better model in the weekly demonstrations that slowly but surely brought change to East Germany in 1989 and 1990.

“It would be nice if it happened earlier, but it will probably take four or five years,” said Inessa Rakhmanova, a 48-year-old artist who took part in the early, peaceful, part of the protest. “It’s not just hope. We’re sure we can change things.”

Ms. Rakhmanova stood in a snowbank for more than two hours holding a handmade sign that said, “Moscow doesn’t believe your tears, Putin!” It was a reference to the strongman’s apparent moment of emotion as he thanked a massive crowd of his supporters Sunday night as results rolled in showing he had won the presidential election with 63 per cent of the vote. Mr. Putin served two previous terms as president between 2000 and 2008 before moving to the post of prime minister for the past four years.

Mr. Putin has since denied that he had tears in his eyes – he claims it was just the brisk wind blowing in his face as he spoke outside the Kremlin walls.

But riot police aside, it did look as though the Kremlin was trying to show its softer side on Monday.

Hours before the protest began, President Dmitry Medvedev – who is stepping down to allow his long-time patron Mr. Putin to return to the top job – announced he was ordering a review of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s sentence. Mr. Khodorkovsky, who is an icon of defiance to some members of the opposition, has been in prison since 2003 and is not due for release until 2017.

He was convicted seven years ago on charges of fraud and tax evasion that materialized after he dared to challenge Mr. Putin politically. New charges of embezzlement, and another conviction, came in 2010 as the end of his first his first jail sentence drew near.

Mr. Medvedev also ordered an inquiry into why the opposition People’s Freedom Party, which is headed by Mr. Nemtsov and Mr. Kasyanov, had been denied legal registration.

The moves came from the outgoing Mr. Medvedev – rather than the real authority, Mr. Putin – but they may have been enough to convince some opposition leaders that reforms are on the way, and likely contributed to the split over whether to adopt more confrontational street tactics.

Mr. Medvedev’s orders also hint that the Kremlin knows riot police alone can’t win over a country that is slowly turning away from it. As he was taken away by police, Mr. Navalny insolently kept posting on Twitter via his mobile phone. “The policeman guarding me says he voted for [Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of Mr. Putin’s four opponents in Sunday’s election]” Mr. Navalny wrote. “He clearly doesn’t like what’s going on.”

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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