People attend a rally to protest against what they say were violations at the parliamentary elections, in St. Petersburg December 10, 2011. The stickers read "No voice (vote)". REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk 

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 against fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections. 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 that night.

She had marched to Bolotnaya Square in a group that included Communists, liberals, anarchists and nationalists, even members of the Russian Orthodox Church—a cacophonous coalition unified, for the moment, in demanding the release of protesters arrested days earlier.

Moscow’s demonstration was echoed by smaller protests that day in some sixty cities, from Saratov in the south to Siberia, with people gathering in below-zero temperatures. The Moscow organizers sought to send a message of unity, urging the crowd to respect the diversity of speakers’ views. On the stage in Bolotnaya Square, liberal democratic leader Grigory Yavlinsky, whose Yabloko Party failed to meet the threshold for parliamentary representation, called for annulling the elections. One of the Communist Party’s young, photogenic leaders, Andrei Klichkov, decried voting abuses by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. And Oleg Kashin, a journalist who was savagely beaten by local authorities for his anti-corruption reporting, read a speech by well-known blogger and whistleblowing activist Alexei Navalny, best known for having dubbed Putin’s party “the party of swindlers and thieves.” (The speech was smuggled out of jail—Navalny had been arrested in the previous week’s demonstrations.)

Dozens of speakers railed against the government’s abuse of “administrative resources”—state television time, pork-barreling and intimidation—to ensure the victory of United Russia (though the party lost nearly a quarter of its votes from the 2007 election, when it received 64 percent, compared with this year’s 49 percent). Speakers also took delight in pointing out that such abuses could no longer be hidden. “The Internet has arrived,” was a point made to me repeatedly in Moscow when I was there in November.

For more than a decade, Russians seemed to passively accept Putin’s “managed democracy.” Yet under the radar, and virtually unreported in the United States, a new civic activism has been emerging. There are more than 650,000 nongovernmental organizations in Russia, and although many of these groups are not involved in electoral politics, they challenge government decisions and authority in such arenas as environmental protection, labor and human rights. In fact, Russia’s civil society may be engaged and active in ways not seen since Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost reforms of 1986–91. That may be one reason Gorbachev has called for new elections; he may also see the protesters as the “grandchildren of perestroika.” (For more reflections by Gorbachev and others on the end of the Soviet era, see the articles starting on page 11 of this issue: Gorbachev’s ’“Is the World Really Safer Without the Soviet Union?”; “The Soviet Union’s Afterlife,” by Stephen F. Cohen; and “Back in the USSR,” by Vadim Nikitin.)

A new generation of web-savvy civic activists has been building a movement against official corruption but has so far avoided challenging the country’s obscene inequality and the oligarchical plundering that occurred on Boris Yeltsin’s watch in the 1990s. (This should not be surprising, considering that several of the protest leaders, including Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail “2 Percent” Kasyanov, are neoliberals implicated in that era’s corruption.) Nor are there street calls to halt the rampant capital flight—estimated at $70 billion in 2011—or to repatriate the billions parked abroad. On the other hand, the protesters do seem agitated about the corruption of Russia’s corporate and financial institutions. Putin’s handling of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case—which has turned him into a political martyr—may be one reason the protesters’ ire is fixed on the Kremlin, not the oligarchs. Or perhaps many see them as one and the same.

One commentator on Moscow’s leading opposition radio station, Ekho Moskvy, put it succinctly: “This is not a protest of empty pots…. The people coming onto the streets of Moscow are very well off. These are people protesting because they were humiliated…. They were just told, Putin is coming back.” Indeed, many are squarely middle class, even upper middle class by Russian standards, and have benefited from economic growth under Putin. Some in the independent labor and other social movements, such as longtime left and labor analyst Boris Kagarlitsky, support the protests against electoral fraud, even though workers are not involved, because they have “finally brought people into the streets. The silence has ended.” Yet they also believe the protests need to evolve from a liberal, reformist orientation to one more focused on economic conditions. “These demonstrators didn’t participate in pensioners’ protests in 2005,” Kagarlitsky points out. “They remained quiet or grumbled softly when education and healthcare programs were pilfered, and they didn’t understand the word ‘solidarity’ when Ford employees at a Russian factory staged strikes.”

Russia’s potent nationalist movement will also play a part in future developments. As in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, Russia has recently seen a resurgence of right-wing nationalism. On National Unity Day in November, Moscow’s Russian March drew an estimated 20,000 ultra-nationalists, including some neo-Nazis, to Manezh Square, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, where chants of “Russia for Russians” were joined with shouts to attack migrants and people from the Caucasus.

One irony of the December protests is that this election may have been less fraudulent than previous ones held on Putin’s and Yeltsin’s watch. According to Gordon Hahn, a respected analyst of Russia and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the final results of the election did correspond to the most reliable pre-election and exit polls. (Indeed, some of those polls predicted an even higher share of votes for United Russia.) Many commentators and political figures, including those now protesting, know full well that the 1996 presidential contest between Yeltsin and Communist leader Gennady Zyganov was rigged—and that massive infusions of oligarchs’ money and state resources determined the outcome. The difference this time? The fraud and ballot stuffing were widely documented and posted online. Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens spread feisty videos that went viral on YouTube, VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook equivalent), “Tvitter” and other outlets. Unlike the regime in Beijing, Russia’s government has left the Internet (and much of the press) almost untouched, although it has imposed strict control over state television. But even on state TV there was a big change: until the massive December 10 demos, most government channels, if they reported on protests at all, tended to portray demonstrators as lawbreakers and troublemakers. But as the latest protests grew and ricocheted around the web, the three government-controlled channels led their evening broadcasts with informative reports, including interviews with people complaining that their votes had been stolen and demanding new elections.

Another reason for state television’s startling shift may be the Kremlin’s interest in displaying tolerance for peaceful protest, as a contrast to Russian state TV’s near constant images of arrests and police brutality at the Occupy Wall Street encampments. Indeed, the fact that a massive and peaceful protest was taking place in Russia the same day that Boston police arrested forty-six people and evicted Occupy Boston did not go unnoticed in Russia, either on state TV or among protesters.

One of the underreported stories of this election—nearly ignored by the US media—is that the Communist Party is Russia’s leading nationally organized opposition. Its popular vote nearly doubled from the previous election, increasing its representation in Parliament to ninety-two seats, out of 450. In recent years the party has organized crowds of 35,000–50,000 in Moscow, and it has attracted younger members, though the US media would have you believe the party is just a bunch of Stalinist pensioners. Yet even after the Communist showing in these elections, the American media express little interest in analyzing the reasons for the party’s resurgence. The Communists had the most widespread vote-monitoring organization in the country; according to a top Zyganov aide, Leonid Dobrokhotov, some
15 percent of Communist votes were stolen by United Russia, and if the count had been fair the Communists would have received 35 percent. In an interesting step after the December 10 protests, the party announced that “in the event of a Communist win in the presidential elections, the party guarantees the holding of early, new and honest parliamentary elections.”

What hasn’t changed is that Putin will likely be elected president in March. According to recent figures from the independent Levada Center, he remains popular, with roughly 60 percent support. Between now and March, the Kremlin will—no doubt learning from its experience with these elections—seek ways to split the anti-Putin vote, largely to assure that it does not go to the Communists. That may explain why Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire oligarch and owner of the New Jersey Nets, who recently announced he was going to challenge Putin, is considered valuable to the Kremlin, since he could divide the opposition vote.

In important ways, though, millions have had a change of consciousness, perhaps best expressed in Alexei Navalny’s words, read at the December 10 rally: “Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need—dignity, the feeling of self-respect…. It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth…. We are not cattle or slaves. We have voices and votes, and we have the power to uphold them.”

The air of inevitability that Putin has counted on for the past decade is deflated. Also gone is the nearly unconditional support most Russians felt not just for Putin but for the system he has built. While that system brought stability after the chaos and poverty of Yeltsin’s 1990s, for many Russians, especially the younger generation, that decade is a fading memory.

As we go to press, another demonstration is planned, for December 24. Will the protests grow, spreading across Russia? Will they remain nonviolent? Will the authorities maintain restraint? Will state-controlled TV continue covering the demonstrations and open the airwaves to more opposition voices? Will Russia’s Internet remain a largely free space? How weakened will Putin be in the March elections? Will the US government understand that it would be wise to stop issuing hectoring statements and allow Russians to sort out their own struggles? President Dmitry Medvedev went so far as to warn President Obama that such broadsides were endangering the already imperiled “reset” in US-Russian relations. As my Russian friend e-mailed the other night, “This is only the beginning of a long struggle. It is our struggle.”