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.
Still, the public and the Putin government remained largely incurious about each other. To a people with still-fresh memories of Soviet oppression, disenfranchisement was a reasonable price to pay for full grocery stores, freedom of travel, and no street shootings. Meanwhile, however, a whole new class was growing up: those who barely remembered the Soviet Union at all.
Even the smartest and most active of Russia’s current twentysomethings matured into a world of total political apathy, where any kind of enthusiasm for the business of governance was seen as either extremely naïve or cynical. Many sublimated whatever civic urges they had into the so-called theory of small deeds. Originated by 1880s essayist Iakov Abramov and publicized by his rather unlikely heir, Vasily Esmanov—the founder of LookAtMe.ru, a hedonistic youth portal focusing on hipster street fashion—the theory posits that thinking Russians, instead of trying to influence the government, should devote themselves to small, local, achievable change. Things like the cleanup of the long-neglected Gorky Park and the founding of Strelka, a Cooper Union–esque design institute, were seen as points of national pride. A whole tribe of young Muscovites—many of whom would soon be on the streets, yelling for Putin’s ouster—contrived to live in a kind of ersatz yuppie New York: Starbucks coffee, Moleskines, the National in their earbuds, Gawker on RSS.
Krasilshchik, Krongauz, Dzyadko, and the other December activists all more or less belong to this group. The tribe’s birthplace was the Afisha publishing house, which puts out the eponymous biweekly and used to own Bolshoi Gorod as well. Everyone I’ve named above has come up through Afisha. All are heirs to notable families of Moscow intelligentsia, and all acquired their media megaphones at a remarkably young age. In the mid-aughts, Afisha’s masterminds, Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper and Yury Saprykin, gambled on the idea that youth-oriented publications can be edited by the very demographic they speak to. Krasilshchik became the editor-in-chief of the influential magazine, which has a 100,000-copy run, at 21; Dzyadko took the reins at Bolshoi Gorod at 25. Krongauz, Krasilshchik’s wife, has been a reporter since 12, when she rang the bell at Afisha’s predecessor Stolitsa (“The Capital City”) and said into the intercom, “I think you should have a children’s-affairs correspondent.” Even Faybisovich, not a journalist, used to freelance for Bolshoi Gorod. In other words, the protest was being brought to you by the same people you would have relied on, weeks earlier, for restaurant picks.
Faybisovich snaps open his laptop and checks the latest projections for tomorrow’s rally. The number of RSVPs had jumped from 35,000 to just over 51,700. He looks again in fifteen more minutes: 51,891. This is not a bot attack, of which they’ve had several. Different pattern. This is really happening. Faybisovich grows giddy. “Any of you guys having vodka? No?”
A number of these people, to be clear, are my friends. Whatever bias this may entail, Krasilshchik’s got it worse. “Tomorrow, I’ll have quite a conflict of interest,” he deadpans, pulling on his beer. On the one hand, he is one of the rally’s primary agitators. On the other, he’ll be live-tweeting the whole thing as a reporter for Afisha’s website. He’s not alone in this conflict: This week, dozens of Moscow journalists are finding themselves working in two capacities. Half of the rally’s self-created organizational committee, or Orgkomitet, consists of the kind of people who would otherwise be covering it. Their days and nights are split between plotting out the event’s logistics, promoting it in each other’s media, and running their own.
Today, for instance, had started with the final session of the Orgkomitet in a cramped conference room with chalky white walls. With hours to go before the protest, older opposition luminaries such as ex–chess champion Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov were still squabbling with the new kid, blogger Alexei Navalny, the wildly popular face of the movement who had wanted a nationalist faction to be represented onstage. Krasilshchik and Dzyadko, invited in an advisory capacity, hung back in slight disgust with both parties. “The old-school guys still think they’re the ones getting the people out,” Krasilshchik says. “But you have to feel for them, too. They ate shit off a boot for ten years. And now something’s finally happening, and they’re not controlling it.” A compromise was struck at the last minute. Next, Krasilshchik and Dzyadko met up with Faybisovich and guested on Echo of Moscow, a slightly stodgy liberal radio station, repping the new breed of protester there as well. The program’s co-host Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of Parliament, was firmly of the old school. “Ahh, hipsters!” he boomed, entering the greenroom where the trio waited. “I was promised hipsters. Are you hipsters?” The program itself was little different. The hosts interrogated the youths as if the latter were, as Dzyadko put it later, “from another planet.” Why are you doing this? was the recurring question. Krasilshchik: “Because being able to go to a good restaurant is no longer enough.” Afterward, as one does, they all retreated to Zhan-Zhak.
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.
The night became known as the Ruined Shoes Rally, because the protesters stood ankle deep in mud. There hadn’t been anything like this in Moscow for years: a pure show of grassroots solidarity, no leader, no clear demands. Its closest equivalent was Occupy Wall Street. Both groups had come together less to advance a specific agenda than to vet raw emotion. There were barely any designated speakers; Alexei Navalny yelled something about ripping out the bastards’ throats and promptly got arrested when the legal rally turned into an illegal march. With just one day’s preparation, however, the organizers felt that the protest hadn’t reached its full potential. That night, they found out that a hard-left activist named Sergei Udaltsov, by that point already in jail for another protest, was holding onto a gold mine of a permit: December 10, Saturday, a large central square. Perfect.
With anger over the election mounting, it was clear that the organizers would have to take the December 10 rally much more seriously. The Orgkomitet began to fall together. At first, it existed only online. A young man named Ilya Klishin, the editor of youth-politics portal Epic-Hero.ru, created an invitation-only Facebook chat devoted to the rally’s logistics. Faybisovich invited his stepfather, Sergei Parkhomenko, an influential editor and publisher, to join it. Ilya Krasilshchik joined too. So did Oleg Kashin, the reporter for the Kommersant daily famous for suffering a still-unsolved thug attack that left him without part of a finger. So did seven others. Over the next weeks, the twelve-member “secret revolutionary chat,” as Krongauz jokingly calls it, generated more than 11,000 messages. The chat, which I’ve glimpsed, reads like a brain scan of a collective adrenaline rush. Written in heartily filthy language (it’s an all-male group, Krongauz points out), the discussion veers from strategy to tactics, from gossip to frank back-channel communication with Putin’s and Medvedev’s staffers. “These guys have gone crazy,” Krongauz says, needling her husband, who is well within earshot. “They have wound each other up so much they think they’re these global puppet masters.” Then she gets serious. “Someday, it should be published as a book.”
The first offline session of the Orgkomitet, which now included famous writers and a sprinkling of actual politicians, was held at the Bolshoi Gorod headquarters. “We didn’t ask for permission,” says Krongauz. “We didn’t even tell [the magazine’s owner, Natalya] Sindeeva. If you don’t want to hear ‘No,’ don’t ask the question!” Krasilshchik’s Afisha published first-person screeds by its star writers and editors giving their personal reasons for going to the rally. Masha Gessen, the former editor of Snob and a frequent New York Times contributor, organized weekly meetings at Masterskaya (“Workshop”), a bohemian club, where people could brainstorm ideas for the rally: flash mobs, posters, slogans, stickers, performances. On December 8, with two days to go before the Bolotnaya rally, Vasily Esmanov called a sub-rosa meeting of Moscow’s editors-in-chief at Strelka. (He had by now renounced his Small Deeds Theory in a new manifesto called “The State As a Service”). The editors agreed to waive all photo copyrights for the day. Bolshoi Gorod and Openspace.ru, a culture website, pledged to set up a hotline for arrestees. (“Thank God, there were no mass arrests,” admits Krongauz, “because the six clueless girls on six phones that we were able to put together would have been totally useless.”) In the end, no phone rang. A 60,000-strong rally came and went without a single pair of cuffs on a single pair of hands.
The Orgkomitet had agreed on, and the crowd upheld by acclamation, five demands: freedom for political prisoners; forfeit of the election results; investigation of the head of the Central Election Committee; ability to freely register opposition parties; and a blueprint for new, fair elections at an unspecified point in the future. The most popular chant in the crowd was simply “Re-e-lec-tion!” A few people held up variations on “Down with Putin,” but they were in a minority. The rally’s real point was to broaden the movement’s appeal, and it worked. Self-described Fascists in black stood next to LGBT activists with rainbow flags, society ladies next to steelworkers. State-controlled television, apparently emboldened by what it saw, overrode its own internal censorship mechanisms and covered the protest in a neutral, newsy tone.
It was a PR defeat the Kremlin had not seen since the nineties. But it was also a rebuke to the “old” opposition: Kasparov, Nemtsov & Co. Nemtsov spoke from the stage that day, but the terrible PA system assured that no one beyond the first few rows heard anything. It didn’t matter. The people had come out to feel strength in their numbers, not to listen to leaders. Scandalous “National Bolshevik” Eduard Limonov, who tried to hold his own alternative rally, failed to get arrested, drove home, and wrote a bitter blog post.
“Oh, we’re all freaked out,” says Krongauz over tea and eggs in the tiny kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment she and Krasilshchik share in a Soviet block building above a low-rent beauty salon. Their son, Leva, 10 months old, crawls from the living room to the tiny kitchen and back, periodically crossing paths with Couscous, the family cat, and Fena the dog. “We at Bolshoi Gorod have been nagging on the same point for ten years—we have to respect ourselves, we have to respect our rights, blah blah blah,” she says, adopting a dorky hectoring voice. “And all of a sudden, you realize that people are hearing you and tens of thousands of people are on the streets. And you have no idea what to do, because the truth of it is, you’re totally comfortable just muttering about rights to yourself.”
It is ten in the morning on December 24, the day of the Sakharova Square rally. In four hours, the movement will either rise to a new level or begin its decline. Moscow is quiet and frigid; bluish winter light slowly comes up over the boulevards. The streets are deserted. Many people have left town for the holidays. Who knows how many more will stay in because of the cold.
We have donned our sweaters and gloves and hats and scarves. “This revolution has been sponsored by Uniqlo,” Krasilshchik quips.
Our first stop is to drop off the baby at Krongauz’s parents, an intellectual couple who pour us coffee and don’t say much, though their nervousness is palpable. Krongauz didn’t go to the December 10 rally because she wanted a guarantee that, should something terrible go down, Leva would not be left without both parents. This time there’s no such fear. The protest is, if anything, almost too sanctioned. The big question is whether the city government will provide protesters with cisterns of hot tea, as it’s promised to do. Krasilshchik worries that the rallies are becoming “protestainment.” “I was at Strelka the other day,” he says, “and I overhear this hipster kid telling a girl, ‘Turns out, going to rallies is so much fun! I’ll be going all the time now!’ ”
At quarter to one, the cab Krasilshchik is riding in enters the traffic jam he has helped create. With more than an hour to go before the official start of the rally, a couple of thousand people are already waving flags in front of the stage. The rock-concert-quality sound system, procured by Afisha’s Yury Saprykin, is banging out a playlist he has himself compiled: “Long Happy Life,” by cult punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona; “Freedom,” by St. Petersburg rock veterans DDT; “Uprising,” by Muse. I hear the familiar loping intro to “Change,” a perestroika-era anthem by my childhood idols Kino, and have to blink back a freezing tear.
The revolutionaries are taking Instagram snapshots of one another on the stage, backs to the crowd. Saprykin paces, glowing. Rain TV is broadcasting live from its own sleek platform, as if covering the Oscars. Kommersant FM is attempting to interview Oleg Kashin in his capacity as one of the rally’s organizers. “Guys! I’m your correspondent!” he says. At twenty minutes to start, the square is full. A brownish porridge of heads and hats stretches to the horizon, squeezed on two sides by monstrous Soviet architecture. The police are moving the line of metal detectors back to accommodate more protesters. There must be a hundred thousand people here. Nothing else needs to happen. This is a triumph.
But something else does happen—politics. The speeches start, and right away you can see the enthusiasm flag. The crystal-clear PA is, in fact, a liability. People are forced to listen, and they don’t like what they hear. Boris Nemtsov tries, and fails, to rile the crowd with chants. Aleksei Kudrin, Putin’s former finance minister who has bravely broken ranks with his boss to appear here, speaks mildly of incremental change and gets booed for his trouble. To the younger protesters, both are usurpers of the cause at best. Crime novelist Boris Akunin and public intellectual Dmitri Bykov do better (with the atrophying of Russian public life, politicians have lost all ability to relate to crowds—only entertainers have retained it). But the disconnect between the stage and the square reaches an apogee when a nationalist named Tor takes the mike to push the “Russia for Russians” line. He is met with jeers and whistles. More derision meets socialite journalist Ksenia Sobchak, who suggests a “dialogue” with the Kremlin. These are not the people or ideas Krasilshchik and his friends had in mind.
The biggest hit is Alexei Navalny. Fresh off a résumé-burnishing fifteen-day stint in jail, the blogger is in extreme populist mode. “There’s enough of us here to storm the Kremlin right now!” he yells. “But we’re not going to! At least not yet!” (Judging from the numbers of riot police around the square, he’s not the only one to whom this scenario has occurred.) His simple rhetorical refrain, “Yes or no?!!”, is pure crowd heroin. “Even I got this little thrill when Navalny was speaking,” Krasilshchik confesses later. “And I’m very skeptical about him.”
Backstage, Navalny is flanked by a trio of female activists, including Sobchak. A star may have been born on the square, but not here. “Lesha, are you fucking nuts?” they yell. “What the fuck are you talking about, storming the Kremlin!” Navalny laughs. “I don’t know,” he says. “It just kind of slipped out!”
Meanwhile, at the deserted Bolshoi Gorod offices, surrounded by half-eaten vending-machine detritus, Katya Krongauz is performing the journalistic equivalent of juggling chain saws. She is updating her magazine’s Twitter, Facebook, VKontakte, and stand-alone blog at the same time while watching the rally on a Rambler TV online feed. She hates what she’s seeing. “The people came out to the square in such numbers because they’ve been promised they won’t have to see the same old faces that always show up at these things,” she says. “Precisely because they’re not a political force but a civil force. On Bolotnaya, there were no heroes. Now everyone’s pushing his own line already.”
The protest is still wrapping up on Krongauz’s monitor when her husband arrives at the office. He is buzzing with the live energy of the rally; his wife sulks in response.
“All these politicians … ” she says.
“I dunno,” says Krasilshchik, scarfing down a vending-machine sandwich. “I also have this weird aftertaste left. I’d love to understand exactly what has just happened. Because I’m not sure I do.”
“Why is your voice so hoarse?” asks Krongauz. “Were you screaming?”
“Yeah, I was yelling ‘Go away’ at Tor,” Krasilshchik says meekly.
The revolution has an after-party. One by one, the group that had gathered at Zhan-Zhak the night before slowly recongregates at a communal table in Bontempi, an Italian restaurant a few doors down and owned by the same guy. At first, everyone excitedly recounts the events of the day over wine and grilled fish. Eventually, however, the euphoria wanes. “I’m worried about the nationalists,” Krasilshchik says. “There was no festive feeling this time around. Bolotnaya was a festival. This was a political rally.”
“I’m not going to the next one,” says Dzyadko.
“I can easily imagine our entire little group going out and voting for Putin,” says Faybisovich, “if he’s up against a Communist in the runoff.”
“Navalny’s the only one who knows how to work a crowd,” says Krasilshchik. “Which sucks, because I am now worried about him.”
“Well, yeah, he studied at Yale!” jokes Krongauz. “The Americans taught him!”
Just then, Navalny walks in, with his friend Oleg Kashin. Everyone at our table stops talking for a second. Then the din begins anew.
In the morning papers, the December 24 rally looks far more impressive than December 10. The head-count consensus is around 100,000. The Putin regime appears alarmed. Flacks begin to distance the prime minister from the United Russia party he created. Within two weeks, Putin will begin presenting himself as a liberal reformer, of all things: “We need to … stop the extremely repressive tendency [of the security forces],” he will write. This is the same man who once took visible pleasure in saying protesters should “get smacked upside the noggin with a truncheon.” Even more important, the message will appear on a brand-new, specially created website soliciting the electorate’s advice. (Before moderators scrubbed it, the highest-rated bit of that advice read “I strongly urge you to remove your candidacy from the presidential election.”) In a few more days, Putin will even express willingness to meet with Bykov and Akunin, the nonpolitician members of the Orgkomitet.
In the younger crowd, however, no one is celebrating. Many feel the movement has hit a wall. Faybisovich has grown dark. He is convinced he’s being watched, predicts arrests and purges, and tries to take the existence of the secret chat off the record. “I fear for the safety of the common cause,” he says over pasta carbonara at a restaurant called Mi Piace, dressed in a smart charcoal wool blazer. “Sorry I have to be talking like this.”
Afisha’s Yury Saprykin goes down with an unexplained fever. Among other things, he’s disillusioned by the old-school faces like Nemtsov and Kasparov horning in on the new movement’s momentum. “If Nemtsov calls me tomorrow and says, ‘Yury, could you organize the stage for us once again?’ I will not do it.”
The question of what’s next hangs over the group. Perhaps a rock concert! Rock for Clean Elections. Someone tries to contact Peter Gabriel and Manu Chao. Someone else suggests Pink Floyd. This does nothing to alleviate the main emerging problem: Revolution does not pay. “If this story goes long and gets real, with all the delegations and negotiations, it will become incredibly hard to do this part-time,” Faybisovich says. “And the only people ready to do it full-time are assholes.”
After December 10, a few editors at Afisha had indeed discussed quitting their jobs and going into community organizing, but in the end it just wasn’t feasible. Everyday lives are taking over. Filipp Dzyadko is getting married on February 4, the day of the next scheduled rally. And everyone is leaving town for New Year’s through at least January 10. It’s not clear how fired up one can remain after a trip to Bali.
“They had their own forgatherings: they, over the goblet of wine, they, over a glass of Russian vodka … for trenchant oratory famed, the members of this group assembled at unquiet Nikita’s, at circumspect Ilya’s.”—Alexander Pushkin, describing the 1825 Decembrists’ uprising
Beyond that, the future holds several possible scenarios. One is that the League of Voters, an organization into which the Orgkomitet is now mutating, begins a dialogue with the sitting government and gets it to address at least a few of the protesters’ grievances, under the threat of—what else?—more protests. Despite the help of Kudrin, the former finance minister, who has offered himself as a go-between, this appears unlikely. Even Putin’s offer to sit down with Akunin and Bykov was tinged with his trademark derision. The overwhelming odds suggest that, on March 4, Putin will be reelected president. Since the protesters are (at least officially) focused on “honest elections,” not the president’s ouster, a relatively clean win will leave the movement without an immediate unifying cause. Another scenario is that something goes very wrong—a protester dies in custody, say—fueling the opposition movement and opening the door to a wave of violent demonstrations and recriminations. Both the Kremlin and the protesters seem emphatically uninterested in this outcome. For the moment, anyway, Moscow does not appear destined to be the next Cairo or Tripoli. The most likely eventuality is a steady drip of incremental change over the next several years, patterned after the Soviet Union’s collapse and most of it improvised at the city or region level. Since Putin’s brand of oppression is built on a kind of systemic self-hypnosis—there were never any mass purges, just a handful of show trials and corporate takeovers after which everyone else has gotten the message—it is uniquely susceptible to the reverse process: people spontaneously deciding, en masse, that defying Putin’s will won’t cost them too much.
Late on Christmas Eve, the night of the Sakharova rally, I decide to walk back to the place I’m staying, a ten-minute stroll from Zhan-Zhak. As I’m ready to cross the Garden Ring, a vast avenue that circles and psychologically defines the city’s center, I see a multicar cortège make its way from the Kremlin to the Parliament. Traffic in all directions has been stopped by the police. It can only be Putin or Medvedev. Two years ago, I had the quintessential Moscow experience of getting stuck in the kind of power traffic jam these closures can cause, waiting for at least 30 minutes before that black G-class Mercedes whipped by. My cabbie suffered silently, muttering to himself every once in a while. So did everyone around us. Not tonight. As the presidential posse hangs a turn toward New Arbat, a vicious chorus of horns, pressed at once by seemingly everyone from here to the horizon, greets it head-on. A frozen symphony of hate and frustration hangs in the air. The traffic is not moving an inch, but at least there’s the noise.