Unlike in international Moscow, demonstrators here are more susceptible to reprisals because more work for government-dependent agencies.
Activism, then a beating
Konstantin Troshin suffered more than a beating when he was attacked as he waited at a bus stop on his way to a demonstration — he had already lost his job as a history and science teacher, and his teacher parents had been punished, too. When Vyacheslav Yemelyanov, a 21-year-old student, helped plan a protest, police picked him up at home well before it began. He fears he’ll be kicked out of college.
Protests in 12 million-strong Moscow draw tens of thousands of demonstrators in a city with 10 administrative districts, each of them bigger than Ulyanovsk and half of them about twice as large.
But much of Russia’s population of 142 million resides in medium-sized cities not so different from Ulyanovsk, where about 600,000 people live on the high banks above the Volga River, the Mississippi of Russia. Here, the largest protest in December attracted 1,500 people, and a more common turnout is 30 to 50.
“Russia is different than Greece or France where people know what they want and express it,” said Gennady Antontsev, a city council member. “Here, even if people go out, they don’t know what to say.”
Still, the politically aware say change is inevitable, even if very slow in coming across the vast expanse of Russia.
“Nothing has changed,” said Antontsev, who belongs to A Just Russia, a social democratic party, “but the wind is different.”
Troshin, a 30-year-old Pepsi-drinking nationalist, helped found The Other Russia in Ulyanovsk, part of a national coalition of groups opposed to President Vladimir Putin, in 2006. One day, a police officer from the organized-crime unit visited his school, complained of his political activities — here in Lenin’s home town he had dared to join a Bolshevik party — and insisted on his dismissal. He has been unable to get a teaching job since.
In 2007 his father, an education professor, lost his university job. He works as a low-paid high school history teacher. His mother, a physics teacher, was demoted and now makes only $125 a month.
“We cannot say we have mass support,” Troshin said. “People have other problems than fighting for freedom and human rights. They are fighting to survive.”
On Dec. 10, he helped plan a rally for fair elections, along with a variety of civic and political groups, that brought out as many as 1,500 people. While waiting at a bus stop that morning, a young man jumped him and beat him up. Nearby traffic police watched without interfering, he said. When he complained to police, he said, they refused to investigate but asked him what kind of leaflets he was carrying. He did not make it to the protest.