They call it Russia’s Great December Evolution — a peaceful counterpoint to the Great October Revolution of 1917.
Civility, friendliness and unity in disgust with Russia leadership were the hallmarks of Moscow’s mass meeting to protest what was called blatant election fraud.
Nationalists with Czarist flags marched next to Communists, next to aging dissidents — all amidst a sea of seemingly unaffiliated, first time demonstrators. With the exception of the ruling United Russia Party, the whole Russian political soup was there. They stood together in the cold of the first winter snow.
Everyone I approached was happy to openly vent into a VOA microphone.
Anger was high over widespread corruption. Humiliation was clear over the announcement last September by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin of their choreographed job pirouette. In retrospect, that job swap plan may have been a bridge too far.
Igor Khodorov, a 33-year-old employment agency worker, said he had not been to a demonstration since he was a student, in the 1990s. Corruption was on his mind as we marched in the tight crowd across a Moscow River bridge, with the red walls of the Kremlin fading into the snow, and the demonstration site, Swamp Square, nearing in the half light. Massive riot police trucks ground past, but he spoke his mind bluntly:
“The leadership of Russia is so corrupt that stealing millions of votes is no harder for them than picking someone’s pocket in this crowd.”
After a decade, the magic spell of Putinism has been broken for many Russians.
For a decade, Vladimir Putin successfully ran Russia by wrapping himself in the flag of political stability. Stability is deeply desired by many Russians who feel burned by their two 20thcentury revolutions – the rise of Communism in 1917, and the fall of Communism in 1991.
To remind Russians of the benefits of Putin-provided stability, state-run Russia 24 news channel begins every hour with a 60-second round up video of recent street violence from around the world – looters in London, anarchists in Athens, police wrestling with Occupy Wall Streeters in New York.
So, last week, when Russia’s election protests spread like wildfire over the internet, Kremlin Cassandras loudly warned of the worst. When protests hit the streets, police cracked down hard, arresting hundreds. Detainees reported being beaten – before and after being thrown into prison wagons..
Faced with a mass demonstration called for Saturday, the Kremlin let it go ahead, but only after surrounding protesters with a Hollywood style military operation that seemed designed to contain bomb-throwing anarchists.
Protesters marched between long lines of police. On leaving, everyone walked past a long line of riot policemen wearing Robocop armor. Long lines of gray metal prison trucks waited on side streets.
But, by the end of the day, there had been no violence, no detentions. Not one window was broken. Not one line of graffiti was sprayed.
Across Russia, similar protests were held in dozens of cities. Overwhelmingly, they too were peaceful.
Anton Krasovsky, an NTV political talk show host, posted on his Facebook page: “To all those who were yelling that there would be blood, who hoped for bodies, for provocations, what did you get?”
A Kremlin ideologue once told me that Russians only respond to the red flag and the black flag. In this paternalistic mindset of the Kremlin, Russians do not yet have the political maturity to elect their own mayors and governors. (Unlike the Brazilians and the Indians).
But, in this “Father Knows Best” world view, the children proved themselves on Saturday to be adults. Russia’s fast evolving middle class showed that political protest does not mean tacking a red flag or a black flag to a baseball bat. The new byword is peaceful dissent.
Aleksei Navalny, the most popular opposition leader, sent Saturday’s gathering an address from jail where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting police at the first post-election protest, on Monday night.
“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need ― dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” he said. “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.”
Building on Saturday’s peaceful rally, organizers now are using social networking sites to organize a second one in Moscow, on Dec. 24. Their goal: 500,000 people.
The terms of Russia’s political debate are changing fast. On Saturday, a popular chant was: “New Year’s Without Putin!”
Now, the world asks this question for Russia’s leaders: Can they evolve fast enough to keep up with their citizenry?