Now Tsarkov says his phones are tapped, so he and his associates — those who haven’t been jailed or fled the country — communicate through more secure methods on the Internet. Many of his allies are under investigation. There are draconian new penalties for staging unauthorized rallies. And the sense of possibility that sent Moscow’s long-quiescent middle class to the streets last year has largely evaporated.
“With the help of repression, the authorities managed to scare people,” Tsarkov said one recent afternoon at a trendy, dimly lighted Moscow cafe where he frequently broke off the conversation to discuss plans for the protest with his allies. “They will be passionate, those who are not afraid.”
With tanks and military jets rehearsing in Moscow in recent days ahead of a Thursday commemoration of the end of World War II, few here doubt that power remains firmly in the hands of the authorities.
Quashing a movement
It was not always so. Protests electrified Russia’s two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, in December 2011, after frustration with electoral fraud blossomed into broader discontent with corruption and the country’s leadership. Thousands of people, many from the educated middle class, took to the streets for the first time to voice anger.
The culmination came at the end of that month, when tens of thousands packed a long street in Moscow, despite bitterly cold temperatures, to demand fair elections. The protests ranked among the biggest since the fall of communism. For a moment, Russia’s leadership seemed unsettled. Top officials vowed to enact anti-
corruption measures, even as they refused to back down from parliamentary elections widely derided as falsified.
By spring 2012, protests had spread into the provinces as local reform candidates challenged mayors from the Putin-affiliated United Russia party. The efforts achieved mixed success, but it was apparent that the potential for broader discontent existed.
Then came the fateful protest a year ago. Putin was hours away from his presidential inauguration, as he returned to Russia’s top office after term limits forced him to take a break as prime minister for four years. As thousands of protesters crowded into central Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, clashes between police and protesters erupted. Each side blamed the other for the violence. By the end, hundreds of protesters were detained and a new era in the opposition movement had begun.