Russia Day, on June 12, is the closest thing to Independence Day on the Russian calendar. This year, it may have been a turning point in my country’s history, because it also marked the first time that journalists, politicians and ordinary Russians of all political stripes united against the epidemic of lawlessness and official corruption. This day was the starting point of a new wave of Russian protests, driven by the controversial arrest and torture of reporter Ivan Golunov on fake narcotics charges.
Protesters took to the streets again on July 14, when the authorities denied ballot access to 57 independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma. When the disqualified candidates went to the Moscow mayor’s office for a dialogue, they were met by special police forces, who beat them with rubber houses and hauled them off to jail.
That crackdown, in turn, inspired the protests of the past few days, as thousands of citizens took to the capital city’s streets.
In a country where the act of protest comes with serious risks, the latest unrest feels profoundly different. Today, as the cries of those who took part continue to echo, the recent demonstrations feel like a tipping point in the struggle of the Russian people.
Authoritarian regimes are built to last. They don’t have to deal with pesky free elections, a free media or the rule of law. As a result, authoritarians often lull us into believing there is no alternative to their interminable rule. After President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, even American experts were convinced the Soviet Union would endure for another half-century or more.
But that’s when the black swans descended on us. I refer to the term coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who used it to describe unpredictable events with extreme results.
After Reagan skillfully drew the U.S.S.R. into a new arms race with his Strategic Defense Initiative, overwhelming us economically and technologically, oil prices — a pillar of the Soviet economy — collapsed. The old Communist Party elite began working against Mikhail Gorbachev, despising his reforms and liberal message.
Suddenly, it became clear that the regime was far more fragile than it had seemed. Boris Yeltsin, a new type of leader, startled the government with a surprise victory in the 1989 Congress of People’s Deputies elections. Not long after that, the U.S.S.R. was finished.
This year, the unexpected is happening again. Unrest ripped through the Arkhangelsk region in April, as residents protested a huge landfill that was designed to hold waste from Moscow. In May, thousands of people in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, took to the streets protesting construction of a cathedral in a popular city park.
Then, at the height of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — President Vladimir Putin’s signature annual event, often called the Russian Davos — authorities detained Golunov, a low-profile anti-corruption journalist. The wave of public protest that followed was powerful, impressive and profoundly threatening to the regime. Surprisingly, pro-government activists and even government officials joined opposition leaders, journalists, public figures and ordinary people in the streets.
With Russia Day fast approaching, the authorities faced the possibility of mass rallies, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Moscow. Golunov was unexpectedly released, thereby minimizing the crowds.
Instead of relenting, the candidates called on Muscovites to gather in unsanctioned protests outside City Hall. The night before, the police raided the apartments of many of the independent candidates, detaining them for interrogation on implausible criminal charges of “interfering with the operation of electoral commissions.”
The authorities hoped to intimidate the public, but their action had the opposite effect: Many thousands more Muscovites took to the streets on July 27. The riot police were waiting. This time around, they brutally beat protesters and indiscriminately dragged 1,373 people off to jail.
That did not deter the protesters, and they decided to take to the streets again on Saturday. This time the police arrested hundreds of them.
These latest protests have left the city of Moscow on edge. Unabashed public dissent is growing quickly. When Putin held his annual press conference recently, online viewers were shocked to see dislikes outnumbering likes by ten to one — as well as comments such as “when will you leave?”
More missteps by the Putin regime could provoke steady movement toward change. That’s because less flexibility means greater fragility. Today, as we Russians look to the sky, we can see more black swans circling.