The protests have pushed the president into a reactive posture and given the protesters an unfamiliar sense of solidarity. “It’s growing from the bottom up,” said Grigory Okhotin, a statistician who has been analyzing the demonstrations. “We’ve never seen this before.”
The harbingers, though, are unsettling.
“The atmosphere is full of undemonstrated violence,” said Boris Dubin, a sociologist at the Levada Center, which documents public opinion. “The situation is unstable and alarming.”
His colleague, Denis Volkov, conducted surveys of protesters over the past year and summed up their opinions this way: “The system will never change from the top. We do not have enough strength to force change. But Russia can’t go on like this.”
Yet the activism has led the Kremlin itself onto uncertain paths — most particularly setting off a sudden explosion of criminal corruption investigations this fall, one of which has claimed a trusted Putin lieutenant, former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
This flurry of activity may be evidence that Putin is trying to get out front on corruption, one of the issues that has driven the demonstrations. Or it may be a sign that the “clans” immediately below him, under pressure from the streets, are turning on each other.
The protests erupted Dec. 5, 2011, as a call for clean elections and over several months turned into anti-Putin events. With no agenda, no specific demands, they have run their course for now (although another is planned for Dec. 15). But they served as huge meeting grounds, and from them, many smaller, local, specific actions have come about.
An activist, Yelena Tkach, won a seat in the spring on a district municipal council in Moscow and now spends her time canvassing residents to determine priorities for housing maintenance, organizing against illegal garbage dumping, mapping green space, trying to protect historic buildings from developers — and learning the complex nature of the city’s government.
Disdainful of the media stars who have risen to prominence in the opposition — and who have disappointed many of their followers by failing to get results — she said: “We have real tasks. Sooner or later, we’ll have real leaders.”
When Putin, then prime minister, announced in September 2011 that he intended to reassume the presidency, he characterized it as a way to maintain the status quo. But it was that decision that brought on the protests less than three months later. Trying to avoid change, Putin induced it.
“More and more people,” Dubin said, “are coming to understand that Putin’s slogan — ‘stability and order’ — isn’t working anymore.”