MOSCOW — Last Sunday, tens of thousands turned out across Russia to protest rampant corruption in the upper echelons of power. It was a thunderous roar that Russians were not happy with President Vladimir Putin's government.
This Sunday, small crowds here and there joined in “protest promenades.” It was kind of a whimper.
At the rally point outside the walls of the Kremlin, hordes of media overwhelmed anyone who looked like a protester. A man carrying a Russian flag received significant media attention for “exercising my right to walk carrying a Russian flag in Russia.”
Another guy charged into the sea of cameras shouting, in English, “Putin my leader! Putin No. 1!” The small detachment of police on the square rushed over, pulled him out of the crowd and dragged him into a police bus.
At a square in Moscow that used to be a popular gathering place for opposition rallies, in the shadow of a monument to Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, about 30 people were detained when they tried to assemble.
There was a demonstration in St. Petersburg and another in Novosibirsk, but generally the country was quiet.
What changed in a week? Quite a bit.
The organizers this time were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the exoneration of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as well as the payment of compensation to the hundreds of protesters detained during the March 26 rally in Moscow.
But by the time social media sites were spreading the call for people to show up outside Red Square on Sunday, Putin had finally spoken out against the March 26 protests, saying that fighting against corruption was good but that inciting people to attend unsanctioned rallies should be punished.
Then documents appeared on Twitter that suggested authorities were planning to block social media sites announcing the rally, and the prosecutor general issued a warning against attending the protest. More than 1,000 people were detained March 26, so there was no doubt that authorities were ready to make good on their threat.
Last weekend's rallies clearly caught authorities by surprise. State television ignored them, and no one spoke about them until Monday, when Putin's spokesman called them “a provocation.” That word gets used a lot in Russian officialdom in the sense of “someone was trying to start something, but we aren't going to say what or who or why,” when, in fact, the obvious reason for the rallies was that people were upset about official corruption.
Nevertheless, the state went into counterattack mode. Educators across the country admonished students, who showed up in unusually large numbers March 26, against protesting. One history teacher told his charges that attending unsanctioned rallies would make them servants of the Anglo-Saxons.
A video of a violinist in an orchestra in the Volga River city of Cheboksary being detained during a rehearsal went viral. It also sent a signal: We'll get you where you work; we'll get you where you play.
And in Moscow, authorities closed the central square that was the heart of the March 26 rally, citing the need to repair the monument to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, according to the Moscow Times.
Perhaps another element missing Sunday was that of a leader. Navalny, whose report alleging that Medvedev had illicitly amassed $1.2 billion worth of property inspired the March 26 protests, told a Moscow newspaper that he had nothing to do with Sunday's protests, whose organizers remained anonymous. This time, leading opposition parties dismissed the whole thing as a provocation.
Navalny, who was sentenced to 15 days and ordered to pay a $350 fine for his role in the March 26 protests, presents an interesting problem to the Kremlin as a possible candidate in next year's presidential vote. He can obviously get people in the street and, given his mastery of social media, do it without access to state television, where most Russians get their news.
The Kremlin avoids mentioning Navalny by name, and while some officials have called for an investigation into Medvedev's alleged fortune, the prime minister's job is safe for now, argued Alexander Baunov in a report for the Carnegie Moscow Center. Firing the prime minister would lend Navalny clout that Putin can't afford him to have.
But Navalny himself faces a bigger problem. He was once popular enough to win 27 percent of the vote in a 2013 Moscow mayoral election reportedly slanted in favor of the Kremlin's candidate. But in the course of a week, I couldn't find anyone who would say they like him.
And it's not because Navalny has dabbled in unsightly nationalism in the past, endorsing Russia's war against Georgia in 2008, using racist epithets to describe Georgians (for which he later apologized), calling for the deportation of illegal immigrants (sound like anyone you know?). Those issues are actually kind of mainstream in today's Moscow.
The authorities, through state media, have cast Navalny as a stooge of Western elites, someone with no plans for how he'd lead and who issues slanderous videos to grab attention to raise his profile. And they've made sure that television viewers know he has been twice convicted in a fraud case he says is political.
The problem can be summed up in the words of a Russian colleague who asked not to be named because her employer would hate that she talked to me: “Right now, there just aren't any viable alternatives” to Putin.
It's not that this is necessarily true. It's that educated, urbane and well-traveled people like my colleague believe it. Until that's no longer the case, how many people are going to turn out for anonymous leaders and face the threat of very real consequences?