On Saturday, protesters came in defiance of Moscow authorities who denied permission to gather at Lubyanka Square in front of headquarters of what was once the KGB, of which Putin was once an officer. They came despite risks that have increased significantly since they began the wave of protests a year ago.
Shortly after Putin was inaugurated in a pomp-filled ceremony in May, he instituted laws that pushed fines for illegal protest to about $9,000 for individuals, up from $60, and as much as $48,000 for organizers, up from $1,160. The average yearly salary in Russia is about $20,700.
Co-opting the issues
“What authorities are doing with the protest movement, they are making it more radical,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “With the first wave subsiding, we have a paradox. The open movement is dwindling, but a general mood of fury within the protests is growing.”
Authorities have pursued criminal charges against top opposition leaders, the newest of which were filed on Friday against Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and blogger who has been able to bridge divides between right-wing nationalists and die-hard leftists. Navalny was accused of embezzlement along with his brother.
On Saturday, he spoke very briefly to protesters before he was bundled into a police van and detained until after the demonstration was dispersed. Three other organizers — Ksenia Sobchak, Ilya Yashin and Sergei Udaltsov — were also detained, with police saying they had called on people to participate in an unsanctioned event.
Putin has derided the protesters, but he has also made moves to co-opt their main issues, including firing his defense minister over accusations of corruption and telling top officials last week that he will take steps to limit their ability to keep money in foreign countries, a favorite way to hide illegally earned money and dodging taxes.
Saturday’s protesters were a mixture of old and young, prosperous and less so. And many acknowledged that they had little sense of how to proceed. Last month, Navalny started an online service to complain about unfixed problems in Russia’s vast stock of government-owned apartment buildings, an issue that has political overtones. Many at the square said they welcomed that new initiative, but that they also hungered for bigger change more quickly.
“In normal life, when you’re mad, you have it out and then you’re quiet. It’s harder to keep it going,” said Dmitri Titov, 50, an information technology specialist whose face was ringed with a fur-lined hood. “If we fail, we’ll have to start again from scratch,” he said.
A committed core of demonstrators, marked by the past year, say they will show up to fight no matter what. But few know where the next year will lead.
The government is “squeezing us into a smaller and smaller space,” said Korobtsova, the translator. “Maybe something will happen here, a change for the positive.”