Here at the revolution, it’s looking like a double-espresso night.
Olga Romanova drinks hers down and turns a caffeinated gaze on her two young confederates. “We’d better eat here,” she said, perusing the cafe menu of hummus, Caesar salad and gourmet pizza, “in case we’re arrested later.”
Romanova, who was a prominent business journalist, started on the road to rebellion four years ago when her wealthy businessman husband was arrested on charges of defrauding a partner in a deal to buy an artificial-leather factory in Moscow. Russians call it an ordered case — Romanova’s reporting apparently had antagonized someone powerful, who got her husband arrested in retaliation.
Today she’s a protest leader, and her unlikely journey illuminates how a deeply corrupt system and President Vladimir Putin’s tight controls — which protect it — have alienated large swaths of the middle class. The protesters launched their movement in December, set off by anger at allegedly rigged parliamentary elections. Since then, their numbers have dwindled, but a dedicated core remains, determined to develop a serious political opposition by the time Putin’s presidential term expires in six years.
Few know better than Romanova the immensity of that task. When her husband, Alexei Kozlov, was arrested in 2008, she said, he was told what had to happen. Romanova was to pay a $1.5 million bribe to an investigator to rescue Kozlov, through a general in the intelligence services. She sold the couple’s three-story house outside Moscow. But their adversary was too powerful, Romanova said, and the bribe-
taker stiffed her, taking the money without delivering, sure that the corrupt system would protect him. It did.
“Here you can pay and pay and pay,” said Yelena Panfilova, director of Transparency International in Russia, “and then someone else can pay more and you can forget about it.”
The case is as famous here as it is emblematic. Romanova undertook a legal and media campaign, in the few publications that would print her story, to save her husband. The Supreme Court eventually declared his trial unfair, but a lower court convicted him a second time.
He remains in jail. She was radicalized.
“I hardly recognize that naive woman anymore,” said Romanova, now a 46-year-old teacher at the Higher School of Economics.
A recent evening found her sitting in Solyanka, a smoky restaurant in the heart of old, winding-street Moscow, plotting the next skirmish. “We’re no longer ashamed to say the word ‘revolution,’ ” she said, her ever-present sunglasses on the table in front of her.
“I was, in revolutionary language, trolling the courts today,” she said, “submitting papers and making complaints about how peaceful Muscovites were attacked by people cynically dressed in police uniforms.”
Trolls on the Internet plant inflammatory comments here and there to set off discord. Russia’s oppositionists, nurtured on the Web, have become offline trolls, harassing the authorities, but with paper, pen and in-your-face encounters. You have to start somewhere, Romanova said, and why not skirmish with court officials instead of bribing them?
“We’re starting to confuse them,” she said. “They don’t understand how we all got together and why we’re not afraid of the paddy wagons.”
The day before, on May 16, riot police had broken up a small encampment at a park called Chistye Prudy in an early-morning raid. Romanova had joined the protest after spending the evening with an organization she had founded called Russia Behind Bars, an advocacy group for relatives and friends of the falsely accused that claims 60,000 members. She had also stopped in at a 75th-birthday party for Yuri Schmidt, a human rights lawyer who defended Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He’s the former oil tycoon who has been in prison since 2003 after antagonizing Putin.
Romanova stayed at the park until about 4 a.m., just before riot police arrived and dragged off about 20 protesters. By 8 a.m., she was bearding police officers and court officials, trying to find out who had been arrested and how they could be freed. By the end of the day, with a long night ahead, she would need that espresso.
One of the documents she filed that morning complained that the police stole three generators and 19 orange blankets and did thousands of dollars in damage to the Chistye Prudy grass with their heavy-duty boots. She confronted a police officer who appeared a bit too well fed. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “Eating your prisoners?”
At the park, she had marched up to several riot police officers and pressed her phone number on them. “If you switch sides,” she told them, “we’ll help you find better-paying jobs. We have a mad oligarch who will help you.”
Later, police raided another encampment. Protesters said they took away all the food and water, along with a cash box containing the equivalent of $8,000.
Romanova laughed uproariously at the suggestion that she could file a claim to get the money back from the police. “That’s a very American idea,” she said. “They’re not police. They’re a scary gang of criminals.”
Only a few months ago, no one would think of talking like that.
Even so, real change can seem a long way off. Putin has been busily drawing trusted allies around him, apparently interested in preventing change rather than embracing it. Parliament is working on legislation that would impose a fine of up to $48,000 on protesters who violate laws pertaining to demonstrations.
That’s all too late, Romanova said.
“We have already changed,” she said. “There’s no way we can return to our old selves.”
Yet building a new Russia will not be the work of her generation, she said.
“It’s theirs,” she said, nodding at Konstantin Dikhtyar, 29, and Nikolai Belyaev, 26, sitting at the Solyanka cafe with her, online and ready to go. “Their brains work differently. They are citizens of the world.
“It’s their revolution.”