Friday, December 9, 2011

A Russian Awakening?

Vladimir Putin - Caricature
Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

MOSCOW, Russia -- Shortly after seven on Tuesday evening, at the protest against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Moscow's central Triumfal'naya Square, about a mile north of the Kremlin, protesters chanted, "Down with Putin!" "Putin Get Out!" "Russia Without Putin!" and, most ominously in a country where the only real leader is a strong leader, "Putin is a Coward!"

Police in riot gear separated the 1,500 or so predominantly young demonstrators from members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who played drums and maintained an insistent (and unimaginative) chorus of megaphone counter-chants, mostly "Putin Russia!" and "Putin Medvedev!" At times, Nashi's leaders appeared to coordinate their movements with police, with whom they seemed to be on friendly terms. News of similar rallies in other parts of Moscow filtered quickly through social media and text messages. Within an hour, and more and more young people streamed onto Triumfal'naya from all quarters, shouting new refrains -- "Free elections!" "Count my Vote!" -- that bespoke what had drawn them onto the streets.

Triumfal'naya has been for years the locus of choice for anti-Putin dissidents in the capital, who have shown up, typically relatively few in number, to suffer the ritual of arrest and brief detention. This time (as well as the night before, at a rally on the same square that drew as many as 15,000), things were different -- and tellingly so. The faces in the crowd were new, the slogans spontaneous enounced, the reactions fearful and evasive ahead of phalanxes of burly charging police -- even to the appearance of police vans. Demonstrators turned and ran -- just what one would expect of neophyte protestors. With genuine outrage they berated the police ("Shame! Shame!" and "These are Your People!") who dragged and manhandled youths into the waiting vans. {Read on}