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.”)

A new generation of web-savvy civic activists has been building a participatory, non-ideological movement versus official corruption. “The forest uprising” which (temporarily) blocked the government’s construction of a highway through the suburban forest Moscow forest of Khimki, rode that growing wave of civic activism. Yevgenia Chirikova, the entrepreunerial 33-year-old mother of two who led the movement, believed that with organization, hard work and persistence, ordinary people have the power to effect change even in the absence of a functioning democracy, provided they focus on concrete issues close to their lives. Chirikova is now closely involved in today’s protests.

Some of these civic activists—bloggers, human rights advocates, environmentalists—gathered this past June at what was known as the anti-Seliger encampment, a 4-day training camp for activists designed to counter the Kremlin’s well-funded Seliger youth organizing gathering. Many who attended the camp are involved in today’s protests.

It’s interesting to note that Russia’s protesters, at least not yet, have avoided challenging the country’s obscene inequality, or attacking the oligarchical plundering that occurred on Yeltsin’s watch in the 1990s. (Considering that several of the leading protest leaders are neoliberals implicated in 1990s corruption—Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail [2 percent] Kasyanov, to name a few, this should not surprise.) Nor are there calls to repatriate the billions parked abroad in overseas bank accounts; nor are there demands to halt the rampant tax evasion and capital flight—estimated at $70 billion this year. The vast majority of protesters do not seem agitated about the crony capitalism or the corruption of Russia’s corporate and financial institutions. (The fact that Putin’s inept handling of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case—turning him into a political martyr—may be one reason why the protesters’ ire is fixed on the Kremlin, not the oligarchs. Or perhaps many see them as one and the same.)

One political 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 of the protesters are squarely middle class, even upper middle class by Russian standards, and have benefited from Putin’s economic steps. Yet, as the New York Times pointed out in an article, as was the case in Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, economic growth can unwittingly undermine authoritarian rule by creating an urban middle class that seeks new political reforms and rights. The demands, so far, are therefore more reformist: for electoral reform, not for dismantling electoral structures or the restructuring of the economic system. There are, of course, those in the independent labor movement and economic social movements who predict that the country will see protests more focused on economic and social conditions. In an interview in November, Zhenya Otto, of the Moscow Committee for a Workers’ International, warned that laws cutting social spending and healthcare were being postponed until after the election, and if implemented “mass protests will start then,” she predicted. And longtime left analyst and labor activist Boris Kagarlitsky believes the protests may well evolve, in certain parts of Russia, from a more liberal, reformist orientation to one more focused on economic conditions and structures.

Russia’s potent nationalist movement will also play a part in the days and months ahead. As we are witnessing across Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, conditions are rife for a resurgence of rightwing nationalism. Last month, on National Unity Day, Moscow’s nationalist “Russian March” gathered what some estimated to be as many as 20,000 ultra-nationalists and open neo-Nazi supporters in Manezh Square, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Many chanted slogans such as “Russia for Russians.” Navalny’s participation in the march confounded and infuriated many of his supporters. (His now-famous characterization of the Kremlin and its ruling “party of crooks and thieves” was largely drowned out by shouts to kill migrants and people from the Caucasus.)

Yet what is ironic about these protests is that while the allegations of voting fraud by Putin’s party are real, and call out for investigation (and not just by President Medvedev, who has lost support among supporters for his failure to implement any of the reforms or previous investigations he has called for), is it the case that this election was more fraudulent than previous ones held on Putin—or Yeltsin’s— watch? Probably not.

Many Russian commentators and political figures, including those now protesting these election results, know full well that the 1996 Presidential election between Yeltsin and Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyganov was rigged—and that massive infusions of oligarchical money and state resources determined the outcome. The difference—this time the fraud and ballot-stuffing was filmed, documented, and posted online.

Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens spread feisty viral videos on YouTube, “Zhivoi Zhurnal,” “VKontakte”, Russia’s Facebook equivalent, on ”tvitter” and a passel of other Internet outlets, which remain fairly free and open. The use of the new media was clear during the Parliamentary vote as electoral observers, opposition figures and ordinary citizens saw documented abuses for all the world to see. Unlike China, Russia’s government has left the blogosphere (and much of the print press) virtually untouched —while imposing strict control over state television. And until Saturday’s massive demos, most government TV channels, if they reported on the protests at all, tended to portray protesters as lawbreakers and troublemakers. As protests grew and became increasingly difficult to ignore—especially as reports ricocheted through the blogosphere—the three main government-controlled channels each led their evening broadcasts with reports about the protests. Notably absent was mention of Putin, but in candid street interviews people at rallies complained about their votes having been stolen and expressed a desire for new elections.

Another reason for state television’s startling shift in coverage may involve the Kremlin’s self-interest in displaying tolerance for peaceful protest in contrast to the nightly images (broadcast in what seems a virtual twenty-four-hour loop on Russian state TV) of arrests at Occupy Wall Street (and other encampments), of police brutality, pepper-spraying and evictions. Indeed, the fact that a massive and peaceful protest was taking place the same day Boston’s police arrested forty-six people and evicted Occupy Boston did not go unnoticed on Russian TV or among many commentators and protesters.

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One of the underreported stories of this election, and one virtually ignored by the US media, is that the Russian Communist Party is now the country’s leading opposition party. Its vote this election nearly doubled and the party increased its representation in the Parliament to ninety-two seats. Millions voted for the Communists as an opposition vote. The Party over the last years has brought out crowds of 35,000–50,000 in Moscow’s center; it has brought in younger members, though the US media would have you believe it’s just a bunch of Stalinist pensioners. Yet even after its showing in these elections, the US media show virtually no interest in analyzing the reasons for the rebirth and resurgence of a party it buried, figuratively, in 1991 after the end of the Soviet Union, and again in 1993 after Yeltsin’s attack on a sitting Parliament and again in 1996 after the Communist leader lost in a (rigged) runoff to Yeltsin. The Communist Party—not the partially US-funded GOLOS vote monitoring organization—had the most effective vote monitoring organization in precincts and provinces across the country. Indeed, its monitors claim that some 15 percent of its votes were stolen, or reallocated, by United Russia, and that if the count had been fair the Communists should have received 35 percent.

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What hasn’t changed is that Vladimir Putin will (likely) be elected president in March. Despite the growing and genuine public disillusionment with his rule, Putin remains—according to recent figures from the independent Levada Center— a very popular politician with roughly 60 percent support. And though his September announcement that he would run for president next year was not a surprise, it left many frustrated and with a sense of almost existential fatigue about the political system. In the time between now and March, however, the Kremlin will—no doubt learning from its experience with these elections—become more adept at using its “administrative resources”—state and Kremlin oligarchical money and control of state television—more effectively to make sure there are no setbacks in the 2012 presidential election.

In important ways, though, millions have had a change of political consciousness. Perhaps that change of sensibility and stance is best expressed in Alexei Navalny’s words, read by the journalist Oleg Kashin 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 infallibility Putin has enjoyed—and counted on —for the past decade is deflated.

Also gone is the nearly unconditional support most Russians had not just for Putin but for the system he has built and presided over in the past decade. That system, at least in the popular thinking, and according to legitimate polls, brought stability and prosperity after the chaos and poverty of Yeltsin’s 1990s. But for many Russians, especially younger ones, those days are a fading memory and the quest for political and free speech rights is sharpening. The involvement of so many young people in Moscow’s protests is, as one journalist put it, “a game-changer….All at once, a generation understood it has two options: to leave the country, or to start the struggle.”

In the days ahead, with another massive protest planned for December 24, several key questions arise: How will the protests continue, evolve and grow in numbers, diversity of focus and geographically? Will the authorities maintain restraint? Will the protesters remain peaceful and nonviolent? Will government-controlled television, where the majority of Russians continue to receive their news, continue covering protest and open the airwaves to a wider range of opposition voices? Will the unity of coalition around vote fraud—from Communists to liberals to nationalists—be sustainable? Will the Kremlin party, United Russia, be pushed to develop genuine coalitions with other parties in the new parliament? Will the rising demand for new elections—with the Russian Orthodox Church surprisingly adding its voice to the call—gain traction? Will Russia’s vibrant Internet remain a largely free and unregulated space, mobilizing young and old, exposing abuses and skewering authority? Or will we see the social media that nourished protests coming under pressure? (Already, a top official of the Russian Facebook equivalent “Vkontakte” said this week his company has been pressured by the Federal Security Service to block opposition supporters from posting.) How will President Medvedev pursue his promised, though quickly ridiculed, investigation into voter fraud? And how will workers in provincial cities and factory towns, many devastated by loss of jobs and opportunity, relate to these middle and professional class protests and engage with this new moment? And will the US government understand that it would be wise to cease issuing hectoring statements about Russia’s election, and in a step of ethical realism allow the savvy people of a great nation to sort out their own struggles? As my Russian friend e-mailed the other night: “This is only the beginning of a long and tough struggle. It is our struggle.”