In Russia’s parliamentary elections on December 4, 2011, United Russia – the party of President-turned-Prime Minister-turned-current-President Vladimir Putin – won the majority of seats in the Duma, the Russian Parliament, amid cries (and video evidence) of widespread election fraud. On December 5, Russians took to the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Over the course of the next three months, tens of thousands – though the exact figure differs depending on whether protestors or politicians give the figure – of Russians, nationalists, and liberal intellectuals alike stood out in the freezing cold to protest not only the corruption that consumed the December 4 legislative elections, but also the power of Putin, the man who had used the position of Prime Minister to remain in charge while the de jure president, Dmitri Medvedev, filled his chair. On March 4, 2012, despite the thousands of dissenters and numerous protests (or “meetings,” as they are called in Russia), Putin was once again elected president of the Russian Federation.
If one looks at the protests – at the movement referred to by some as “the Snow Revolution” – as a response only to the December 4 parliamentary elections against Putin, one could view them as a failure. After all, Putin was still reelected president. Election corruption and fraud were rampant – even in Moscow, the heart of the protests, where some had suspected that they would be curtailed. On March 4, Putin gave a surprisingly tearful victory speech in which he employed his usual rhetoric. He announced that the elections were the cleanest and most honest in Russian history, as if saying it would make it so. He included language of a stronger and better future that had journalists drawing parallels to Soviet-era speeches – most notably, Joseph Stalin’s proclamation that “Life’s getting better, and happier, too!”
But if one thinks of the elections in the context of the entirety of post-Soviet history, the story becomes almost as complicated as securing a protest permit in Russia. The significance of this round of dissident activity should not be evaluated solely within the context of the 2012 presidential election. Thinking of this movement as an action taking place across the much larger backdrop of a Russian political system that has been evolving, devolving, and stagnating since Boris Yeltsin – the second democratically elected leader in Russian history – reveals an even broader historical significance. After all, Yeltsin was elected to the then-new position of president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and later the first post-Soviet president of Russia only 21 years ago.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many believed that democracy might finally come to Russia. There was the law passed in 1991 that guaranteed freedom of the press and the first trial by jury. But the dismal economy turned the former first-among-Soviet-equals into the “Wild East.” Privatization was a new, difficult, and, for many, impossible concept, since there was little to no money with which to finance private ownership, leading to an exchange of Russian corporate ownership for political friendships and favors.
Despite a Constitutional referendum in 1993 that increased presidential powers, Yeltsin could not overcome a series of economic and political crises – for himself, much less for democracy. The issue was not just that the average Russian’s per capita home income decreased by 75 percent during Yeltsin’s reign or that the capitalism he introduced was riddled with corruption; the larger issue was that Russia’s confidence in its stability and pride in its strength had vanished.
When Yeltsin stepped down in 1999, power was passed to his chosen successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Putin further increased the strength of the central government (its role in both civic life and the private businesses world), returning stability to Russia at the expense of civic freedoms. The Russian people tacitly assented to the belief that this was the preferable course for their country – that Putin and stability, not democracy, was right for Russia. Bystanders announced that the bell had tolled for democracy in Russia.
This assent via apathy on the part of the Russian people did not just continue; it increased. Businessmen who tried to get involved with opposition politics were imprisoned after sham trials presided over by judges under pressure from those very higher courts to which the defendants could appeal their verdicts. Such was the case for oil-tycoon-turned-anti-corruption-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who took possession of Yukos Oil Company and made a fortune in the 1990s, only to champion democratic reform. This led to an accusation of theft from the president with whom he had once struck deals; he is currently serving a 13-year combined prison term. After Khodorkovsky’s sentence was extended in 2010, the clerk of the judge who found him guilty confessed that the judge had been under pressure from the higher court to which Khodorkovsky’s attorney had said he would appeal.
Putin, having exceeded his consecutive term limits, found a seat-warmer in former law professor Dmitri Medvedev, and continued to run the Russian show under the guise of Prime Minister.
The quality of life in Russia continued to worsen. The Russian population was aging the Russian youth were emigrating at higher rates, and the country was becoming still more economically dependent on oil. Yet the people did not seem to care; political involvement was limited to bikini car washes on behalf of United Russia, often through its youth party, Nasha. In August 2011, Julia Ioffe, a prominent Russian-born American journalist living in Moscow, published a piece for Foreign Politics about the reduction of Russian electoral campaigning to photo-ops for and by Medvedev and Putin. “Finally,” she sardonically signed off, “there are no more politics in Russia.”
And yet, on December 10 of last year, Ioffe wrote, in a piece titled “Snow Revolution” for The New Yorker, of a protest at which tens upon tens of thousands of people were present: “It wasn’t so much the numbers that shocked, or even the fact that thousands of people in cities all over Russia came out and voiced their anger over rudely falsified elections. It was the discovery, after a decade spent living in an atomized society, believing the worst about themselves and each other, that Russians weren’t so bad after all…”
The people refused to be lied to so blatantly. They stood in the snow; not once, but again and again, from December through March. Moscow’s new intelligentsia – young people who are predominantly employed by news organizations – used their power to more effectively and efficiently organize protests. They were joined by other self-proclaimed intellectuals, nationalists, ordinary city residents, and the middle class, which some believe was created by the very stability that Putin created and champions. They all turned out in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Over 1000 of them were arrested at protests in early December, and yet they came back, again and again. They obtained permits and stood in a circle around Moscow’s central ring. They flooded Twitter and Facebook. They held up signs condemning Putin. They saw some small sign of satire return to their papers. They convinced a journalist that, indeed, there was – is – such a thing as politics in Russia.
That the protestors did not stop Putin’s reelection was unsurprising. As it was, there was no clear opposition leader. The most prominent figure of the opposition was arguably Alexei Navalny, a fiercely nationalistic blogger who deemed United Russia “a party of crooks and thieves.” The authorities made the critical mistake of arresting him at the first protest in December, which garnered much media attention for the protests. Navalny has declared Putin’s presidency illegitimate and has said that he will fight until a legitimate president sits in the Kremlin. However, he is uninterested in – and, with his lack of political experience and divisively nationalistic rhetoric, unsuited for – the position.
In fact, there was not even a clear opposition group. That urbane liberals and radical nationalists will join together for a protest does not mean that they will join together in determining a new direction for their country. Putin himself has pointed out as much. Billionaire (and New Jersey Nets partial owner) Mikhail Prokhorov, the thirty-second richest person in the world – who has spoken out (albeit cautiously) for reform and said he ran on a platform of “maximum freedom” – placed third in the national presidential election. He was suspected of playing for the Kremlin’s team, having previously been selected to lead a pro-Kremlin party in support of democratic and economic reform. But Prokhorov resigned, saying that certain individuals in the Kremlin – by which, he specified, he did not mean Putin or Medvedev – were trying to direct his show, although he himself has articulated that he is nobody’s puppet. Prokhorov is also widely distrusted for his elitism; he has asserted that being elite is a good thing for the leader of a massive country.
There also remains the possibility that the protestors, if they indeed continue to be seen as one group, will change tactics entirely. On April 1 in Yaroslavl, a provincial city to the northeast of Moscow, a city councilman, Evgenii Urlashov – who had previously quit United Russia after he received censure for criticism he had made of local authorities after Yaroslavl’s entire hockey team died in a plane crash in September of 2011 – ran for mayor. Campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, Urlashov handily defeated the pro-Kremlin (that is, pro-Putin) candidate, despite the fact that the latter, Yakov Yakushev, was appointed to the position of deputy mayor in March in order to make him a more credible candidate.
Over 1000 activists from Moscow came to Yaroslavl to work as registered observers on behalf of Urlashov. Urlashov was ahead of Yakushev in the first round of voting. However, it was the behavior by authorities in the run-off campaign that is thought to have garnered the city councilman so much support. Authorities raided Urlashov’s office for financial records, distributed fake extremist campaign materials in his name, and fired the television editor who gave him airtime. In Yaroslavl, as in Moscow and St. Petersburg during and after the December elections, it was the flagrant disregard for public approval and legality alike that awakened something long-dormant in a portion of the population.
Members of the opposition – or some portion thereof – purportedly hope that this will usher in a new wave of opposition candidates across the country, eroding the Kremlin’s power outside of Moscow. Even if enough candidates do come forward, however, and even if they are popularly supported, regional governors – who have been appointed by the Kremlin since 2004 – remain an obstacle. Before 2004, these governors were elected; the switch to appointments, like many other changes made by the Putin administration, served to further strengthen the power of the president. Although the Kremlin has agreed to let voters choose governors in 11 of the 83 regions this year and next, a strong precedent exists for the Kremlin to replace, in one way or another, elected officials who refuse to walk the party line. In one such incident, Medvedev fired the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, in 2010 (though at the time this was seen as an assertive act by Medvedev), and in another, Evgenii Dushko, mayor of the small city of Sergiiev Posad, was shot dead in August of 2011 after alleging corruption.
In addition, there is the reality that the majority of Russians still see Putin as the only viable option imaginable. Some also fear that Putin will never step down, as doing so would be to surrender his lifestyle and power and render himself vulnerable to arrest (or worse).
But nobody spoke of opposition groups, much less a plurality thereof, before December 4. Nobody bothered wasting his or her breath on the topic of Putin stepping down – or, if they did, their musings did not have an international audience. Putin did not care to hear what the rabble had to say. For three months, the rabble made him hear it anyway.
On March 4, Putin gave a victory speech. “I promised you we would win. We have won! Glory to Russia!” he shouted. “We’ve won! We’ve really showed that no one can impose anything on us! No one and nothing!” (“No one” could here refer to either the protestors or the United States and Hillary Clinton, and may very well have referred to all three, as Putin referred to them all as usurpers and ill-intentioned, agenda-driven meddlers in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.) He assured the audience – and, presumably, himself – that the elections were “clean, clean, clean.” He spoke of a better, stronger future.
The better future, as those who lived through the 1990s hoping for democracy know all too well, may not come in one six-year term. It may not be the future envisioned by Putin or the protestors. But whatever it is and whenever it comes, it will be hard-fought and hard-won. The three months of protests do not exist out of time and space, but in a post-Soviet history, the writing of which the Russian people have decided to again contribute to. Speaking at Columbia University in 2002, Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet head of state and the man who introduced openness (glasnost’) and restructuring (perestroika) to Russia, said simply, “Remember, America’s democracy evolved over 200 years. We need time to succeed.”
On March 5, the day after the presidential election, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Russians – accompanied by approximately 10,000 police – protested in Moscow. They were deflated and defeated. They were tired. They were disappointed. They saw their protest devolve into arrests and chaos. They went on record stating their uncertainty of what would, or could, or should happen next.
But somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people were there. Standing in the fallen snow.
They will have time to succeed.