MOSCOW, Russia—It’s a late December night at Les Amis du Jean-Jacques Rousseau, known around here simply as Jean-Jacques or, more precisely, Zhan-Zhak, a tiny island of fake Frenchness in the center of Moscow. Christmas garlands fringe the bar. An accordionist is doing his best Brel. Wooden tables hold a mosaic of wineglasses, whiskey tumblers, and iPhones lighting up every few seconds with new bits of excitement. The bistro teems with revolutionaries.
Granted, they don’t yet know whether they can call themselves that. They use the word with a crooked little grin fastened to the last two syllables, as if apologizing to each other for being so pompous. All they know is that two weeks ago, on December 10, acting mostly through Facebook, they and a handful of friends had somehow managed to get some 60,000 people out on Bolotnaya Square to protest a parliamentary election rigged in favor of Vladimir Putin’s party. And come tomorrow, December 24, they’ll have to top themselves. Bolotnaya, as the December 10 rally is now known, was by an order of magnitude the largest public demonstration Russia’s capital has seen in more than a decade. It’s already being credited—overcredited, really—with instantly giving birth to a civil society and ending the era of corrupt complacency that marked the Russian aughts. Tomorrow’s gathering, on the larger Sakharova Square, needs to make an even bigger impact. Otherwise, the official narrative will call the protests a fluke.
“Fuck, I’m freaking out.” Ilya Krasilshchik, the editor of the biweekly arts-and-listings magazine Afisha (a sort of hipper Time Out) and one of the protest movement’s organizers, orders a Stella Artois. He is 24 and handsome in an NHL-goalie kind of way, complete with a severe bowl haircut. Zhan-Zhak is out of Stella. Krasilshchik asks for a Leffe instead. “No,” he says. “I’m not getting depressed unless there’s drastically fewer people. Like, half.”
“I think twice the number will show up,” says his friend Filipp Dzyadko, 29, the editor of Bolshoi Gorod (“Big City”), a magazine that used to trade in harmless municipal-interest stories and is now running cover lines like SEND BOTH INTO RETIREMENT. (You don’t have to explain to the Russian reader who the both are: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.) Despite having five years on Krasilshchik and a scraggly beard, the tall, lanky Dzyadko looks boyish. But he doesn’t sound convinced of his attendance prediction. “Or not. I don’t know.”
“Maybe 150 percent,” Ilya Faybisovich offers from the other end of the booth. Faybisovich, 25, is a translator and a London School of Economics graduate who happens to be the admin for the rally’s Facebook page. Bespectacled, dandyish, and intense, he is the zealot of the group. When the others talk about the protests, their speech still whiffs of a collegiate bullshit session. Faybisovich is dead serious.
“One hundred and fifty percent of what?” parries Krasilshchik’s wife, Katya Krongauz, 27, a petite tomboy with a perpetually amused mien. Krongauz is an editor at Bolshoi Gorod. (This technically makes her and her husband competitors.) All four share a nervous snicker. The Bolotnaya head count is still being debated.
The entire point of Putin’s Russia is that things like this December’s protests should not happen. After taking the reins from Boris Yeltsin, who had presided over a wild but pluralistic kleptocracy, the former KGB colonel methodically turned Russia into a tightly controlled, self-described “power vertical” with himself at the top. From 2000 to 2004, all major television networks went under state control. After 2004, governors and big-city mayors were no longer elected but appointed by the Kremlin. The formerly boisterous Parliament turned into a rubber stamp. And the ruling party, United Russia, assumed almost as much of a monopoly on the political process as the Communist Party used to have over the Soviet Union. Vladislav Surkov, a United Russia ideologue, dubbed this arrangement “sovereign democracy.” Everyday Russians quickly redubbed it “souvenir democracy.”
Putin’s regime has always tolerated a certain degree of dissent: not enough to matter, just enough so that Western journalists would have something positive to write about. A handful of puny alternative parties—the so-called systemic opposition—soldiered on as parliamentary window dressing. Glossy lifestyle magazines got away with more than newspapers because they weren’t read beyond the Westernized upper classes (the Russian Esquire, for instance, is a monthly anti-Putin screed with some fashion in the back). And the Internet remained wholly uncensored: Despite having penetrated over 42 percent of Russian homes by 2010, it was thought of as a toy of the elite. As a result, sites like LiveJournal and, later, Facebook and its local clone, VKontakte, began to function less as social networks in the Western sense than as alternative mass media.