Their challenge is clear: Last Sunday, Vladimir Putin won a six-year term as president with nearly 64 percent of the vote. Critics attributed that as much to efforts to prevent competitive candidates from running for office as to voting irregularities. The protesters know they first have to force their authoritarian system to allow fair competition in elections. Only then can they get choice on the ballot.
“Beginning Monday, no matter what, let’s start building a civil society,” said Vadim Korovin, who was arrested Feb. 29 as he took tents out of his car to give to would-be protesters. “Like you, I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we need a society that’s free and fair.”
Maxim Katz was elected as an independent last Sunday, along with a few dozen other young Muscovites, to neighborhood groups that offer advice to the city council and that have been dominated by Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Everyone had told him it was ridiculous to consider a run for office, even a minor one, he said. Now he has taken a first step into politics, however small.
“All of our lives people have been telling us it’s useless, useless, useless,” said Katz, long-haired and 27. “The fix is in. Parents, friends, grandmothers, grandfathers — all told us that. But just go and do what you believe should be done. You will succeed.”
The crowd shouted approvingly: “Katz for president!”
Police estimated the gathering at 10,000, but organizers put it at 25,000, still far less than the heady demonstrations of December, when 100,000 or more roared their disdain for Putin. People came and went in freezing but brilliant afternoon sunshine, making precise counts elusive. The numbers were large considering that many Muscovites had decamped for a long holiday weekend, which began Thursday on International Women’s Day. Wednesday night, the roads out of town were at a standstill.
Maybe the crowd was smaller, said Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and protest organizer, but just three months ago protest was unimaginable and politics repellent to most.
“We have new people on this stage,” he said, “people we’ve never heard from before. There are many of us, and we’ve learned a lot these last three months.”
Election observers were the day’s official heroes, applauded for being on the front lines of the fight to build civil society.
Konstantin Maslov said election work provided an opportunity to come together at the district level, with friends, family and neighbors. “Let’s build this from the ground up,” he said.