In the last week, I covered two big political rallies in Moscow: the first, a staged mass meeting for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Luzhniki, Russia’s largest stadium; the second, a hastily organized event, where opposition supporters held hands in a 16-kilometer human chain around the Kremlin.
On display were two radically different Russias.
Next Sunday, these two different tribes will collide in the nation’s presidential election.
TOP DOWN vs GRASSROOTS
The Great White Ring, the 16-mile human chain, was organized through a website: http://feb26.ru/
A couple of very 2014 guys married a Google map of central Moscow with a Facebook page. Visitors could virtually cruise Moscow’s Garden Ring Road and choose a protest spot by checking out who would be there — opposition leader, neighbors, cute guy, cute girl, etc. Social networks are making opposition politics very sociable.
At the appointed hour on Sunday afternoon, people gathered on sidewalks, holding hands or waving something white – a ribbon, a scarf, a household pet, an unused diaper. Since the demonstration was unauthorized by city officials, there were virtually no signs. Police did not interfere, contenting themselves with patrolling amiably. Drivers drove slowly by, honking horns in solidarity. Passengers waved cheerily out of car windows opened to the winter air.
For people driving around the Garden Ring, the combination of a Sunday traffic jam and an endless ribbon of people waving merrily gave the impression — visual at least — that Prime Minister Putin has lost the city of Moscow.
But Moscow Police, who just saw their pay doubled last month by the Kremlin, estimated the crowd at 11,000. This would have meant that people had pretty long arms to cover all 16,000 meters. Given the bunching of participants near metro stations, there were probably around 30,000 people.
Total organizational cost: $0.
On Thursday, the march of Putin supporters down a Moscow River embankment to the mass rally at Luzhniki Stadium turned out to be by invitation only.
I arrived at the appointed hour at the appointed march site only to discover that the march had started one hour earlier. Police were not allowing people to join the march, and were redirecting them to metro stations to go to Luzhniki.
Around Luzhniki, hundreds of chartered buses were parked, some from as far away as Ingushetia and Kalmykia – over 20 hours by highway. It seemed odd to ship in supporters, when about 10 percent of Russia’s population now lives in greater Moscow – 14 million people.
But just as pro-Putin organizers were not interested in neighborhood people joining (infiltrating?) their march, they were not interested in unaffiliated people wandering into the stadium. On arrival, people were asked which group they belonged and directed to their assigned block of seats. There were many reports of teachers and work team leaders checking off names on attendance lists.
The top down organization seemed very 1984.
As this demonstration was very much authorized, the stadium was filled with professionally painted signs and banners of support for candidate Putin. When he arrived, his speech was carried on three giant stadium screens.
But, presumably for security reasons, it was never announced that Prime Minister Putin would take part in the largest mass rally of his own campaign.
As a result, an hour before his speech, thousands of people drained out of the stadium, heading for the nearest subway station, apparently believing they had fulfilled their duties. There were many reports of people who agreed to attend in return for two days of vacation, outright cash payments, or, for state employees, simply to keep the peace at work.
Mr. Putin’s speech only lasted seven minutes. But it served the goal of Kremlin-controlled TV: providing sound bites with a mass crowd in the background.
Moscow Police generously estimated the stadium crowd at 130,000. This number is hard to reconcile with Luzhniki’s official seating capacity: 78,360.
Total cost of chartered buses, signs, screens and stadium rental: millions of dollars?
All political polls indicate that Mr. Putin will score an outright win in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, eliminating the need for a runoff.
But given the softness of his support as seen at Luzhniki, I can only wonder if his Silent Majority is really a Silent Minority.
INSECURE PEOPLE vs SELF CONFIDENT PEOPLE
Time and again, people at Luzhniki were shy about their support Putin.
One woman told me she was holding a Putin balloon only because she planned to take it home to her granddaughter. A man stacking pro-Putin signs in the back of a van declined to say why he supported Putin. His sign collection included a now popular slogan: “If not Putin, who?”
But that is a back-handed endorsement. The French call it “faute de mieux” – lack of anything better.
Along the way to the stadium, I fell into step with a long stream of people coming from chartered buses. One man, with a large droopy mustache, glared at me and refused to give any “informatsiya.” A man ahead of him turned out to be from the Caucasus and he talked non-stop for three blocks about his support for Putin. This prompted the man with the droopy mustache to lecture him not to talk to reporters.
In a sharp contrast, the White Ring participants have lost their fear.
Everyone I talk to at opposition protests gives me their names.
They exude self-confidence. They seem empowered.
At the White Ring protest, people ignored the men who walked up down the line, filming faces.
To date, all major protests have had Facebook sign up pages. Thousands of people have signed up to attend protest rallies, presumably knowing that the security services are compiling little lists.
But these lists must now run to hundreds of thousands of names. This may be another reason why people don’t seem intimidated by the list makers.
Near the pro-Putin rally at Luzhniki, I finally found one man who would give me his name, Nikita Vlasihin. Nikita and two friends were handing out pamphlets. Nikita, the 25-year-old owner of an Internet store, said he was happy to do a radio interview, adding that he could even do it in English.
I turned on the Marantz recorder, and held it up.
He immediately started to rant: “This is a corrupted and criminal regime!”
I took a second look at his pamphlets. They were from the opposition group, Solidarity. The front page title was: “Putin. Corruption.” Each came with a white ribbon, printed: “I drive my stake into thieving power!”
Nikita said that many participants at the pro-Putin rally quietly slipped his pamphlets into the pockets of their winter coats.