Lines of riot police officers were shoving protesters down Tverskaya street and arresting people on Pushkin Square. Yet the crowd, largely teens and 20-somethings, kept surging forward toward the action, chanting, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia will be free!” Thousands had come out on Monday for an anti-corruption protest called by Alexei Navalny, who wants to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency next year. Cheers went up as young men scrambled up onto balconies and roofs to wave Russian flags.
The contrast between them and the crowd at the other end of Tverskaya, where a historical reenactment festival was being held, could hardly have been greater. Middle-aged couples and families with children watched men in helmets and chain mail swing swords at each other. Potbellied men dressed as secret police pretended to detain bandits from a famous Soviet film, oblivious to the very real arrests being done by real police a block away. They quickly departed when police swept the street, unlike the many boisterous young people willing to risk arrest.
The protest showed that the anti-corruption march that Navalny had called on March 26, when more than 1,000 people were detained, including me and other journalists, was not a one-off. He has solidified his image as the opposition’s main leader and Putin’s main nemesis. And his growing support comes from Russia’s youth.
On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denied that such demonstrations posed a danger to the Kremlin. He may be right. The president’s approval rating has not dipped below 80 percent since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. A poll by the independent Levada Center in May found that if the election were held tomorrow, 63 percent would vote for Putin and just 2 percent would vote for Navalny.
Given these numbers, the protests this spring may seem insignificant. In fact, they point to cracks appearing in the system that has crystallized under Putin. The regime is built on two bulwarks: faux opposition to lend legitimacy to the political process, and state television to spin the news in the Kremlin’s favor. These are both crumbling with age, as Navalny has revealed this spring.
The government often seems to be playing by outdated tactics even though the game has evolved. Police reacted to the June 12 demonstration with arrests, detaining more than 800 people in Moscow and more than 600 in St. Petersburg. But the fact that the second protest happened at all showed that this measure has failed to broadly intimidate protesters and only strengthens their resolve. “The road to revolution is always paved by the authorities, not the opposition,” historian Valery Solovei wrote on Snob.ru, remarking on the rough arrests he saw on June 12.