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.)