For the crowd on Sakharov Avenue, Vladimir Putin has passed his “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment.
So, faced with naked power, they offered him condoms.
Condoms inflated like balloons. A condom wrapped around his head like a grandmother’s shawl. A condom shaped like a rocket ship carrying a Putin image to outer space. A Putin-condom collage, marked: “Warning: Do Not Reuse.” And one speaker addressing the sea of protesters, dressed like a condom.
The condoms were a slap at Russia’s prime minister who joked on national television that he first thought the protesters’ symbols – white ribbons for peace – were condoms.
Joking aside, these condoms pose a fundamental question: will Mr. Putin ever again be able to govern Russia as before?
When an authoritarian leader loses the respect of a large portion of people in a nation’s capital – and when they lose their fear of him — the relationship between the ruler and the ruled either evolves — or ends.
Traditionally, opposition movements march under one banner. They wave similar signs, chant the same slogans and follow a recognized leader. For a ruler, it is easy to negotiate with an organized adversary.
But the key to understanding what happened on Sakharov Avenue Saturday was the proliferation of handmade signs. A myriad of individuals across Moscow dreamed up their own messages, and then fashioned them on kitchen tables, on office computers, or in copy centers.
Putin is not facing an organized opposition movement. He faces something worse: an atomized, but spreading mood of disrespect and rejection.
What do you do about a young woman who fashions a banner at home, carts it through the metro, trudges a kilometer across snow and ice, passes through police checkpoints, all to hold up her message in public: “Fly Away Botox Blimp”?
Going back to the long ago days when Russian politics seemed like a TV game show – actually only three months ago — Russia’s prime minister appeared with unnaturally smooth facial features. Amateur plastic surgery analysts speculate that Russia’s 59-year-old leader had undergone Botox de-wrinkling injections.
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, also took up the Botox reference. He dismissively told the crowd, referring to Russia’s ruling tandem of Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev: “They are pressed cheek to cheek, fresh from the recent skin-tightening, trying to get some warmth. But Botox does not make you warm. As for me, I feel heat radiating from you.”
Another protester took the flight image to heart. He took an enlarged copy of the steely black and white Putin image that served as Time magazine’s cover shot for its 2007 Man of the Year. He attached several balloons. And as photographers snapped, the Putin image floated up and over the crowd, roughly estimated to be near 100,000 people.
On Sakhavov Avenue, it was clear that many Russians do listen to their leaders. They just reject them.
As Russia’s agit prop legacy passes to the Halloween generation, several protesters came Harry Potter-style, dressed as wizards.
After Russia’s ruling United Russia Party officially won about half of the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote, President Dmitry Medvedev praised the national elections commissioner as a ‘wizard.’ Opposition leaders said that without fraud the real vote for the ruling party was about one third.
An elderly man held a white flower, the symbol of the protest movement. His inscription: “Election Results.”
In another Kremlin blooper, the President’s twitter account erroneously released a tweet that described protesters as sheep that provide sex.
In an initial reaction, a large bearded man attended the Dec. 10 protest holding a homemade sign. A big red X was painted over a reasonable depiction of a woolly lamb. The caption: “I am Not a Sheep.”
In another political misfire, Mr. Putin told millions of TV viewers that he felt like the powerful python from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” This wise reptile faced the Bandar-logs, an anarchic tribe of scatterbrained monkeys.
Surprise, surprise. Some protesters held signs: “We are not Bandar-logi.”
Navalny, the opposition orator, picked up the animal theme, referring to Mr. Putin’s appearances on state-controlled TV: “These days, with the help of the zombie-box, they try to show us that they are big and scary beasts. But we know who they are. Little sneaky jackals!”
Other protest signs carried a whiff of menace.
One homemade poster was photo-shopped to show Moammar Gadhafi and Vladimir Putin walking side by side, dressed in matching military uniforms. The caption: “Col. Putin and Col. Gadhafi, you are on the true path, comrades!”
The allusion was to Mr. Putin’s rank of colonel in the KGB. Lurking in the background, was Alexander Lukashenko, the long running dictator of Belarus.
Others protesters noted that the Kremlin sent condolences to Pyongyang after the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” but neglected to send condolences to Prague after the death of Vaclav Havel, the anti-Soviet activist and elected President of the Czech Republic.
On Sakharov Avenue, named after the Soviet-era dissident, elderly protesters carried black and white photographss of the late Czech President, with the inscription: “Havel Would Be With us!”
Other protesters took aim at Mr. Putin’s charge that the protesters were paid by foreign governments and activated by a secret signal from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Signs demanded: “Hillary, Where is My Money?” “Hillary, I am waiting for my money,” “Let’s bankrupt the State Department.”
One man held a sign announcing: “I am Here For Free.”
In the art department, one man went minimalist, carrying a tiny Putin cartoon image atop a long stick. Another went surrealist, showing a Putin face melting like a Salvador Dali clock. The caption: “Time is Running Out.”
Speakers and protesters had an eye on Russia’s political clock. Presidential elections are to be March 4. The opposition wants elections postponed for two months – and for the race to opened up to new faces and new parties.
Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, a veteran of Russia’s democracy movement, spoke of the sea change he felt.
“They used to say that we are few and they are many,” he told the crowd. “Now the situation is reversed: We are many and they are few, and we will only grow, because we have lost our fear.”
At the end of the rally, protesters walked toward the metro stations chanting: “We will come again! We will come again!”