Vladimir Putin now knows this much: freezing temperatures are not enough to halt the protests in Russia calling for fair elections, an end to corruption and – not least – his own departure.
At the latest Moscow rally this weekend (4/2/12), tens of thousands of protesters bundled up warmly and again turned out to show their opposition to election fraud and express wider political frustrations – the third time Muscovites have taken to the streets since December 10.
Like the first two demonstrations – in Russian called “митинг” (meeting) – the event was peaceful, good-humoured and humorous, with costumes, mock horses’ heads, witty home-made banners and a green dragon made of balloons that constantly threatened to tangle up protesters walking alongside. Unlike the first two, this one – as my two daughters and I can testify – was toe-numbingly cold. As the photo below shows, the rally started at Oktyaberskaya (close to Gorky Park’s massive Soviet-era entrance) at -16 degrees celcius, and by the time we reached exposed Bolotnaya Ploschad (the final rallying point on an island in the river Moskva opposite the Kremlin), the temperature was nearer -20.
Of course, while we weedy Western Europeans wouldn’t usually dream of spending two hours pacing slowly along a street in sub-zero temperatures, Russians are pretty blasé about the idea, particularly when there’s a need to prove a political point. In case anyone was thinking of wimping out, one supporter of the demonstrations had posted an encouraging picture on her Facebook page urging others to turn out:
Hmm. Anyway, it worked: there were tens of thousands of people on the street, though as always with demonstrations the world over the numbers are disputed. It’s never possible to gauge the size of a moving crowd accurately from within, and I wouldn’t try, but it’s safe to say the police figure of 30,000 demonstrators is much too low and the organisers’ figure of 120,000 too high, and that the numbers were certainly sufficient to fend off suggestions that the protests would lose momentum. Most they were in their thirties or forties, or older – there were fewer much younger, despite the widely-held view that the protests have mobilised a previously apolitical twenty-something generation, but a fair sprinkling of grandparent age.
The atmosphere was calm, cheerful – even jolly – we could almost have been heading for a literary or music festival. But faces were purposeful, too, as we queued to pass through a line of outdoor airport-style security gates (the police made me open my flask of tea, but let me keep it). A couple in their early 40s behind me – English-speaking, educated and typical of many of the demonstrators – explained their reasons for coming along to all three protests. “It’s obvious,” said the man, his black puffa jacket adorned with a white ribbon reading: “For Russia without Putin”. “We’re sick of seeing corruption, tired of the elections being abused; we don’t want a Russia like this. At first, when everything was changing fast in the nineties, people accepted this kind of government to keep things stable, but now they have looked around them and the times have changed – they don’t want it any more.”
“Ten years ago, there was a kind of deal with Putin,” added his partner, tightly wrapped in her scarf. “The idea was, we would give him a lot of power, and he would sort out the mess of the health service, education, the social system, the infrastructure. He kept the power but never sorted out those problems.”
This couple, like many people we saw at the rally, were not representing any party, or wearing anyone’s colours; only expressing personal, if shared, discontent. The number of home-made banners reflects the same lack of affiliation – something that is both the strength and weakness of the protests. Do-it-yourself placards make it harder for the authorities to claim the demonstrators are simply mouthpieces for domestic or foreign critics, rather than exasperated individual voters, but they emphasise the lack of formal, united political opposition. The various opposition parties with their many-coloured flags and banners are there too, of course, but polls show none comes close to challenging the Putin-supporting United Russia (which wheeled out a rival rally in the low tens of thousands in Moscow yesterday). Translating this rainbow alliance (everything from the Bolshevik Party to neo-fascist nationalists) and myriad of individuals (agreed on what they don’t like but not necessarily on what they want) into coherent political opposition will take significantly longer than the four weeks left until the Russian presidential elections on March 4. Putin may be rattled by what has happened on the streets, but no one here expects him to lose, and so – if he keeps his patience – the ball remains in the protesters’ court to maintain public interest and faith that reform is possible. There have been some concrete achievements – there will be cameras in polling stations and a network of volunteers to watch out for malpractice – but there will be no re-run of the Duma elections that sparked the protests.
At the rally, though, the placards raised spirits, prompting fellow demonstrators to de-glove long enough to take snapshots. Here are a few my daughters and I liked:
The”meeting” ended with speeches from artists and politicians – brief, in deference to the icy temperatures, a rock song and the release of hundreds of white balloons. The mood remained friendly, chatty and positive throughout – I saw more conversations between strangers than I’ve noticed in 18 months here. In Bolotnaya Ploschad, two men of around 40 sharing a bottle of Coke with added brandy jokingly teased us: “On the one hand it’s great you’re here; on the other it just means the authorities can say the demonstrators are all funded by foreign governments…”
Both worked in marketing – one selling White Birch vodka (Russia’s second biggest brand, though he claimed he privately advised friends – and particularly cocktail-swigging westerners – simply to buy the cheapest brand since all vodka was pretty much the same). His friend, meanwhile, was frustrated at the soft-focus photograph on an election poster for presidential candidate and oligarch Michail Prokhorov, arguing he should “take a look at the way Yeltsin did it”. In Russia, as anywhere else, politics is nothing without its images.