MOSCOW — The political protests that suddenly began a year ago seemingly accomplished little concrete change in Russia: The Kremlin is still fully in control of the parliament, police and courts — and not at all bashful about deploying them against its foes.
Yet the past 12 months have shown for the first time here how people can organize themselves to take action and demonstrate broad dissatisfaction with the government of President Vladimir Putin.
The protests have pushed the president into a reactive posture and given the protesters an unfamiliar sense of solidarity. “It’s growing from the bottom up,” said Grigory Okhotin, a statistician who has been analyzing the demonstrations. “We’ve never seen this before.”
The harbingers, though, are unsettling.
“The atmosphere is full of undemonstrated violence,” said Boris Dubin, a sociologist at the Levada Center, which documents public opinion. “The situation is unstable and alarming.”
His colleague, Denis Volkov, conducted surveys of protesters over the past year and summed up their opinions this way: “The system will never change from the top. We do not have enough strength to force change. But Russia can’t go on like this.”
Yet the activism has led the Kremlin itself onto uncertain paths — most particularly setting off a sudden explosion of criminal corruption investigations this fall, one of which has claimed a trusted Putin lieutenant, former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
This flurry of activity may be evidence that Putin is trying to get out front on corruption, one of the issues that has driven the demonstrations. Or it may be a sign that the “clans” immediately below him, under pressure from the streets, are turning on each other.
The protests erupted Dec. 5, 2011, as a call for clean elections and over several months turned into anti-Putin events. With no agenda, no specific demands, they have run their course for now (although another is planned for Dec. 15). But they served as huge meeting grounds, and from them, many smaller, local, specific actions have come about.
An activist, Yelena Tkach, won a seat in the spring on a district municipal council in Moscow and now spends her time canvassing residents to determine priorities for housing maintenance, organizing against illegal garbage dumping, mapping green space, trying to protect historic buildings from developers — and learning the complex nature of the city’s government.
Disdainful of the media stars who have risen to prominence in the opposition — and who have disappointed many of their followers by failing to get results — she said: “We have real tasks. Sooner or later, we’ll have real leaders.”
When Putin, then prime minister, announced in September 2011 that he intended to reassume the presidency, he characterized it as a way to maintain the status quo. But it was that decision that brought on the protests less than three months later. Trying to avoid change, Putin induced it.
“More and more people,” Dubin said, “are coming to understand that Putin’s slogan — ‘stability and order’ — isn’t working anymore.”
Nonetheless, Putin’s United Russia easily swept regional elections in October. The opposition did not get itself organized for the vote. But, Dubin said, the result was more a reflection of uneasiness about the unknown than a positive endorsement of the ruling party. And in much of the country, the airwaves are still under the total control of the Kremlin’s supporters.
Since his return to the presidency in March, Putin has relentlessly demonstrated his determination to quell dissent.
In an apparent attempt to scare off demonstrators, 17 protesters are being prosecuted for their part in a May 6 rally on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, accused of attacking police officers. One has already been sentenced to 41 / 2 years in prison.
A newly passed law defines treason so broadly that some Russians are afraid that even associating with foreigners could put them at peril. The penalties for slander and violations of rules governing rallies have been toughened. As of Nov. 21, nongovernmental organizations that receive money from abroad must register as foreign agents. The Moscow Helsinki Group and others say they will defy the law.
One by one, opposition leaders have come under intense pressure. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger, has been charged with bribery in a recently resurrected three-year-old case. Sergei Udaltsov, a socialist leader, has been charged with plotting mass disorder.
One of his associates, Leonid Razvozzhayev, accused Russian authorities of abducting him in Ukraine, where he was seeking asylum. On Nov. 22, Russian investigators said they would not investigate the case because Razvozzhayev had not presented convincing evidence that he had been spirited out of Ukraine.
In September, Gennady Gudkov, like Putin a former KGB agent, was stripped of his parliamentary seat after he aligned himself with protesters. Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent who along with Mikhail Gorbachev financially supports an independent newspaper, was charged with hooliganism later that month for taking a swing at a fellow guest on a raucous television talk show a year ago.
The same charge of hooliganism put members of the punk band Pussy Riot into prison for two years after they took to a church altar to perform an anti-Putin song.
In recent days, Moscow officials denied permission for a rally protesting political repression on the Soviet-like reasoning that the Russian Constitution prohibits such repression and therefore it cannot exist.
Putin used to portray himself as the leader of all Russians, above the party fray. But now, the Kremlin is driving a wedge into society, demonizing the opposition, dividing Russians between “ours” and “not ours.” That strategy, though, has driven the three strands of the protest movement — leftists, nationalists and liberals — closer together when many expected a rupture, said Sergei Davidis of a group called Solidarity.
Protesters who met at the big rallies have banded together to collect clothes for the homeless, to defend exploited immigrant workers who have been forced into servitude, to organize a children’s hospice, to play a role in relief efforts for flood victims. This is nearly unprecedented, Davidis said, and in some cases, these actions have forced the authorities’ hand.
Dubin, the sociologist, is among many who worry that a much stronger crackdown is on the way. But there is strength in numbers, as a young protester named Daniel Beilenson pointed out in an interview. “A year ago, every activist had his own cop watching him,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”