Romanova, who was a prominent business journalist, started on the road to rebellion four years ago when her wealthy businessman husband was arrested on charges of defrauding a partner in a deal to buy an artificial-leather factory in Moscow. Russians call it an ordered case — Romanova’s reporting apparently had antagonized someone powerful, who got her husband arrested in retaliation.
Today she’s a protest leader, and her unlikely journey illuminates how a deeply corrupt system and President Vladimir Putin’s tight controls — which protect it — have alienated large swaths of the middle class. The protesters launched their movement in December, set off by anger at allegedly rigged parliamentary elections. Since then, their numbers have dwindled, but a dedicated core remains, determined to develop a serious political opposition by the time Putin’s presidential term expires in six years.
Few know better than Romanova the immensity of that task. When her husband, Alexei Kozlov, was arrested in 2008, she said, he was told what had to happen. Romanova was to pay a $1.5 million bribe to an investigator to rescue Kozlov, through a general in the intelligence services. She sold the couple’s three-story house outside Moscow. But their adversary was too powerful, Romanova said, and the bribe-
taker stiffed her, taking the money without delivering, sure that the corrupt system would protect him. It did.
“Here you can pay and pay and pay,” said Yelena Panfilova, director of Transparency International in Russia, “and then someone else can pay more and you can forget about it.”
The case is as famous here as it is emblematic. Romanova undertook a legal and media campaign, in the few publications that would print her story, to save her husband. The Supreme Court eventually declared his trial unfair, but a lower court convicted him a second time.
He remains in jail. She was radicalized.
“I hardly recognize that naive woman anymore,” said Romanova, now a 46-year-old teacher at the Higher School of Economics.
A recent evening found her sitting in Solyanka, a smoky restaurant in the heart of old, winding-street Moscow, plotting the next skirmish. “We’re no longer ashamed to say the word ‘revolution,’ ” she said, her ever-present sunglasses on the table in front of her.
“I was, in revolutionary language, trolling the courts today,” she said, “submitting papers and making complaints about how peaceful Muscovites were attacked by people cynically dressed in police uniforms.”
Trolls on the Internet plant inflammatory comments here and there to set off discord. Russia’s oppositionists, nurtured on the Web, have become offline trolls, harassing the authorities, but with paper, pen and in-your-face encounters. You have to start somewhere, Romanova said, and why not skirmish with court officials instead of bribing them?