Since Sunday’s elections, won by the ruling United Russia party with a reported total of just under 50 percent of the vote, a sense of disgust that had been gathering weight has found a public voice.
Unsanctioned — illegal — protests have broken out in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and elsewhere of a size rarely seen in Vladimir Putin’s dozen years in power.
Closing public squares
On Wednesday police sealed off Triumfalnaya Square, the scene of past protests. A radical party called the Other Russia said 70 members were detained on the way to the square in the evening.
The New Times magazine reported that the city was closing Revolution Square for reconstruction; that was to be the site of a major rally Saturday, and 20,000 people have signed up on Facebook promising to attend. The city later suggested that the work would be done by Saturday after news of the closure lit up the Twittersphere.
It could run out of steam. A few million voters turned against United Russia at the polls Sunday, and a few thousand, in a capital city of 13 million, have taken to the streets to protest an election deemed neither free nor fair. The vast majority of Russians are home in front of their big-screen TVs, seeing almost nothing of this activity because television news isn’t reporting it.
In January 2010, protests in Kaliningrad brought 12,000 to the streets to demonstrate against authoritarianism and economic policies, and government opponents hoped the discontent would fill streets across the nation. The movement slowly died.
Yet the events of this week have brought into the open a debate – on the Internet, in the newspapers and in countless apartments – that Russians hadn’t known they could have. Something has broken.
On Monday, 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets, and police detained 300. On Tuesday, United Russia brought in busloads of young supporters, with police escorts, and 600 protesters were detained.
Before Sunday, Russians were voicing increasing discontent with the perceived fix in the upcoming election. And now, quite suddenly, the public protests have upended the settled political expectations of the past decade.
“You told them that you exist,” anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny shouted Monday night before he was arrested. The crowd cheered. “They can hear that, and they are afraid.”
This is nothing like the last days of the Soviet Union, when hundreds of thousands marched for democracy and desperate coal miners went on strike.
“They were strong because the country needed their coal,” said Dmitri Gornostayev, a 23-year-old engineer, “and they lived like beggars. So they were willing to fight, and the authorities had to listen.”