Two Russias Will Collide in Sunday’s Presidential Election

Posted February 29th, 2012 at 6:52 am (UTC+0)

On Moscow's Garden Ring Road, protesters taking part in 16-kilometer long human chain around the Kremlin wave white flowers to passing cars. The democracy movement picked white as a symbol of peace. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

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.


The Great White Ring, the 16-mile human chain, was organized through a website:

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.

Oleg Orlov, of the Memorial Human Rights group, brought his white cat to Sunday's ring around the Kremlin protest. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

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.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, walks on a stage after addressing a massive rally in his support at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow last Thursday. About 30,000 people, many in organized groups, marched along the Moscow River and then packed the stadium for a campaign rally in support of Mr. Putin, leader in all polls. Many attendees were state employees who came at the behest of their employers. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev

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.

Prime Minister Putin waves to the largest crowd during a campaign waged largely through television. He drew about 75,000 people to Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia's largest. AP Photo: Yana Lapikova

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.

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.

Friendliness and good cheer prevailed at the Great White Ring, the opposition's human chain the circled Moscow's core on Sunday afternoon. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

4 responses to “Two Russias Will Collide in Sunday’s Presidential Election”

  1. Rus says:

    There won’t be Orange revolution in Russia, despite articles like this.

  2. Gennady says:

    To Rus:

    1. I envy, you can post the pro-Putin comment from the comfort of your PC. As for me, I’m not that fortuned being an Internet dissident after the regime banned me from comments on the Internet and switched me off without any explanation. So I forced to seek any opportunity for commenting undercover.

    2. I wouldn’t be that scared by the article as you’ve been. The author presented his balanced and objective view on what was going in the rallies. He rightly pointed out the fact of two different tribes of people:
    a) one was TOP DOWN, the other was GRASSROOTS,
    b) one that probably cost millions of $, the other cost 0$,
    c) one was of INSECURE PEOPLE, the other was of SELF CONFIDENT PEOPLE,
    d) one was of people preferring stability/stagnation, the other was of people bravely facing the future.

    3. Who told you that there wouldn’t be a revolution in Russia? A bird or a Swiss bank account? It is clear in Russia what corresponds to the criterion of a revolutionary situation by Marxist teaching: people at grassroots don’t want the existing (dis)order with rulers being unable to go ahead as they used to.

    4. In one point I completely agree with you. The color of revolution if it happens to be won’t be an orange one. Maybe WHITE, eh?

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  4. Pyotr says:

    Now after the “election” I am loosing the confidence I have once gained by watching and reading about the free people on the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg on the Internet sites. I fear that Russias, both of them, are doomed from now on. It is sad, really sad. We are on the bus heading towards the chasm, and the driver is blind and crazy (but he’s got the parachute). One half of this bus is really enjoying the ride not aware of the future and trusting the shoeffer and the other half is left with only two options: to jump out of the windows asap or try to force the driver away from the wheel while it is not too late.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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