On December 10, in what one Russian blogger called “The Great December Evolution”—a play on the Bolsheviks’ Great October Revolution—tens of thousands of people protested peacefully in central Moscow. It was the most striking display of grassroots democracy and activism since the early 1990s. Police showed restraint, and Moscow’s mayor even provided free bus rides to protesters who had arrived at the wrong location. “Everything is flowing and changing,” a Russian friend e-mailed me Sunday night.
She had marched to Bolotnaya Square on December 10 in a group which included Communists, liberals, anarchists and nationalists, even members of the Russian Orthodox Church—a cacophonous coalition unified, for the moment, in demanding the immediate release of prisoners arrested last week in connection with the protests and the investigation of election violations. (Some, but not all, favor the scheduling of new parliamentary elections and the registration of opposition parties that have been unable to cross the threshold to win seats in Parliament or put forward presidential candidates.)
Moscow’s demonstration—and many of the others in sixty cities, from Saratov in the south to Siberia, with people gathering in below-zero temperature—also rallied unusual coalitions. Organizers sought to send a message of unity, urging the crowd to respect the diversity of speakers’ views. On the stage in Bolotnaya Square, the liberal “Yabloko” leader Grigory Yavlinsky, whose party failed to meet the threshold for Parliamentary representation, called for annulling the elections. One of the Communist Party’s young and photogenic leaders, 30-year old Andrei Klichkov, decried voting abuses by Putin’s party. And Oleg Kashin, a journalist who was savagely beaten by local authorities for his anti-corruption reporting, read a speech by the well-known blogger and whistleblowing activist Aleksei Navalny. (He is best known for having dubbed Putin’s party, “the party of crooks and thieves.”) The speech was smuggled out of jail—Navalny was arrested in last week’s demonstrations.
Dozens of speakers railed against voting fraud, and the abuse of the state’s “administrative resources”—state television time, pork barreling and intimidation—deployed to ensure United Russia’s victory. They also took delight in pointing out that such abuses could no longer be hidden. “The Internet has arrived,” one speaker announced. While I was in Moscow last month, a journalist friend told me of the many amateur videos exposing voting abuses that were already rocketing around the blogosphere. One of the most popular showed the city manager of Izhevsk telling local veterans’ organization that their funding would depend on how their district voted in the parliamentary elections.
For more than a decade, Russians appear to have quietly accepted Vladimir Putin’s system of “managed democracy.” Yet, under the radar and virtually unreported in the United States, a new civic activism has been emerging. In fact, Russia’s civil society today may be as engaged and active in ways not seen since the Perestroika and Glasnost period of 1986–1991, on into the early ’90s. (That may be one reason why former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of perestroika and glasnost, called for new elections; perhaps he sees the protesters as the “grandchildren of perestroika.”)