The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seeking democracy on the streets of Russia

People attend a rally Aug. 10 to demand authorities allow opposition candidates to run in the upcoming local election in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — It was cold, but not too cold. The streets were cleared of snow. By the thousands, Russians gathered at the big statue of Lenin in October Square until finally they set off along the Garden Ring road to what was then called Prospekt Kalinina. A river of people filled streets made broad to give tanks room to maneuver.

We called them Soviets back then — it was February 1990, my first time in Moscow, the first time I would write a news story about Russians seeking democracy and a chance to live in what they always called “a normal country.”

Nearly 30 years later, Russians are still at it.

Protests in Moscow this summer were ignited when independent candidates for the city council in next month’s elections were stricken from the ballot for various implausible reasons. Demonstrators are calling for a genuine, democratic choice. Every weekend since mid-July, they have turned out to press their cause.

It’s a familiar story, though one that has taken on different hues over the past three decades. The marchers of 1990 were filled with disgust at the system, but not anger. A dominant group were middle-aged, typically well-educated Muscovites who remembered the thaw of the 1960s and still had hope for the brighter future it seemed to promise.

They were unembarrassed by their earnestness. I was squeezed in among them. I remember a particular sort of Soviet aroma, of wet fur hats and that pungent soap people used, and the smell of pickled vegetables on their winter breath. I stood out as a foreigner because of my eyeglasses; anyone looking down would have noticed my unmistakably foreign well-made shoes. It wasn’t quite a march, and it wasn’t quite a stroll. Everyone was talking.

Hundreds of thousands of people filled Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, on the speakers’ stand by the Moskva Hotel, read one of his poems.

Today he is dead, and the Moskva has been torn down and rebuilt, so it looks almost the same. Manezh has been turned into a shopping mall.

Those marchers won, in a way. The police let them be, the press and TV gave them extensive coverage, the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight the following year. Public opinion mattered, even in the U.S.S.R., especially given the cynicism and loss of faith in communist dogma that reached all the way to the top. Possessing neither ideals nor fervor, the Soviet leaders were pushed along by the crowd.

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Russia declared itself a democracy, and it took some years to find a way to hold on to the outward forms of a democratic system while hollowing out the substance.

But public opinion still matters. Until now, it has been the source of President Vladimir Putin’s success, because he has kept the majority of Russians on his side.

The crowds this summer have been younger, more raucous, edgier than in that long-ago time. Their clothes look like clothes the world over. They’re jaded, but angry. The police are a lot less sympathetic. Protesters I’ve spoken with are curiously pessimistic, yet committed. Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me they don’t expect the government to listen to reason, as that ’60s generation did. They’re looking to force change through numbers.

So where does Russian public opinion stand? Denis Volkov, of the independent Levada polling organization, told me that while support for the protests is strong in Moscow, they haven’t made a substantial impression on the majority of Russians.

Nationwide, nevertheless, support for the authorities has been trending downward. Putin’s party, United Russia, has less than 30 percent support, and some candidates for local office are running away from it.

Today’s protesters think in terms of the dignity of free elections and free speech. For a lot of other Russians, Volkov pointed out, dignity means a decent job and living wage, and they’re more apt to look to the government for help than to rally against it. Discontent can be complicated.

The demonstrators who railed against Putin in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, when he reassumed the presidency, never found the language that would let them communicate with the rest of Russia, and the protests petered out. And yet they pushed the Kremlin into reinstituting the election of governors, who had been appointed by Moscow. Elections can be rigged, of course, but Volkov said some governors are more popular in their regions than Putin is because they have to attend to their voters.

In 1990, I stayed at the brown and dreary Kosmos Hotel. The city, with no commercial signs, was astonishingly dark. Moscow’s dimness was literal back then.

There was something in the air, though.

The demonstrators, in their respectable Soviet coats, wanted to restore good sense and logic to their country. The newspapers were full of ideas. In Pushkin Square, strangers would argue over politics — lively, creative, passionate.

Public opinion was moving, and with it moved Russia. That’s the test now: Where will public opinion take this country?

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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