It is unusually easy to point out when the New Decembrists’ politicization began: on March 2, 2008. This was the day Vladimir Putin, president since 2000 and constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, replaced himself with a hand-picked successor. Dmitri Medvedev was a mild, slight, puppy-headed technocrat, at five foot three even shorter than his patron. He handily won the election; the only people permitted to run against him were Communists, who are a useful bugaboo, and clowns. At first, everyone blithely if logically assumed Medvedev would be a Putin mouthpiece. But a year or two into his term, something interesting happened. The young and the successful began, slowly but surely, to like him.
Medvedev kept saying all the right words. Liberalization. Modernization. Court reform. The fact that little ever came of his rhetoric was almost beside the point. He was compact, presentable, English-speaking. He used Twitter! (Putin, meanwhile, kept vanishing deeper into his strongman image: riding horses bare-chested, tooling around in race cars, shooting tigers with tranquilizer darts.) By the summer of 2011, many of the “hip” mass media—most notably Bolshoi Gorod’scorporate siblings, cable channel Rain TV and business web portal Slon.ru—began positioning themselves as Medvedev’s base for his reelection campaign. The president’s personal visit to the Rain TV headquarters, in the trendy, meatpacking-like district Red October, sealed the deal. In the hypothetical matchup between Medvedev and Putin, Medvedev could increasingly count on the vote of the Small Deeds crowd.
All of this came to a rude end on September 24, when Medvedev got up in front of the Congress of the ruling United Russia party and simply announced Putin was coming back. There would be no competition from within the party, no campaign. There would be, for all intents and purposes, no real election. In March 2012, Medvedev would just step aside, revealing himself for the seat-warmer that he, it was now clear, had been all along.
The “Medvedev liberals” were crushed. No one felt more betrayed than the young people who had just allowed themselves their first-ever iota of political engagement in what turned out to be a farce. Social networks filled up with teens and twentysomethings calculating how deep into middle age they would be when Putin finally leaves his post. The fuse of indignation that would lead to December’s protests was lit that day.
On December 4, the day of the parliamentary election, the anger exploded. The electoral high jinks were many, crude, and—unlike in 2008—documented by myriad smartphone cameras. United Russia operatives were seen being bused from polling station to polling station voting multiple times, in a process called “carousel.” Institutions such as schools, army bases, and, in one infamous case, a mental hospital, delivered nearly 100 percent of the vote to Putin’s party. United Russia’s numbers magically swelled two- and threefold in hand recounts. Observers saw neat stacks of prefilled ballots shoved into boxes. Those who tried to point out the irregularities were shown the door.
One of those thrown out was Ilya Faybisovich. Fuming, he left the precinct, headed over to a book fair where most of his friends had congregated that day, and found everyone talking about the election. “By late afternoon, it was beyond obvious that we got swindled and that this time, there would be ample proof,” he says. “The Internet was full of video clips.” He went home and wrote an angry post on Facebook, tagging about 250 people in it, as many as he could manually do on an iPad. In the ensuing exchange, he found out that a friend of a friend named Roman Dobrokhotov (“I don’t even know his political affiliation,” Faybisovich says) had secured a permit for a December 5 rally at Moscow’s Clean Ponds park. This, it needs to be explained, is what Russian opposition organizers do. They randomly apply for rally permits, just in case, for weeks and months ahead. The permits then become a kind of commodity.
At 7 p.m., with polls still open, Faybisovich called Dobrokhotov. “Hi, I hear you have a permit. Let’s give it some PR,” he said. The Facebook event for the rally had already been created by yet another activist, Denis Belunov. Faybisovich got a hold of him, too, and asked to add him as the event’s administrator. They tried a personal approach. Instead of endlessly reposting stuff to one another’s walls, they sent out personal invitations to friends, asked them to do the same and even called a select group on the phone. “I don’t even know why we decided we’d be good at this, but there we were,” Faybisovich says. By the next afternoon, the rally had gone from 2,000 invitees and 180 RSVPs to 25,000 invitees and 2,700 RSVPs. VKontakte picked up the cause. Echo of Moscow, the radio station, did some last-minute outreach as well. Some 5,000 people showed up.