In Russia, the police officers arrive before the demonstrators. Over 51,000 of them — soldiers in blue and gray camouflage fatigues, police peering out beneath black ushankas — flood Moscow before the Dec. 4 national elections, bracing for citizen protest.
A dozen clump together outside every metro stop, occasionally responding to the squawks from their walkie-talkies. They line up, shoulder to shoulder, blocking nearly every entrance to Red Square. They blockade a narrow Moscow street, forcing pedestrians to duck through a convenience store to get by.
Fifty Russian cops in full riot gear run past on the sidewalk. One cop mutters something in Russian and slaps his baton against his open palm. Somewhere unknown — despite the massive show of force, despite the danger of being arrested — Russians are making their voices heard.
In a year when Time magazine named “The Protester” its person of the year, when millions of citizens in Tripoli, Athens, Cairo, New York and elsewhere took to the streets to condemn their governments, Russia is finally having its moment.
Until a few days earlier, I didn’t know I’d be in Moscow on the night of the country’s elections. But when my globetrotting girlfriend, who now teaches in Russia, offered to host me there, it gave me the perfect excuse to cross the country off my always-wantedto-go list.
For a journalist, political junkie and history major, the thrill was unbeatable. This wasn’t a museum tour — it was real history, happening live in the present.
Russians were reacting to the rule of the United Russia party. This is the party of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB chief who served as the country’s president from 2000 to 2008. When Putin term-limited out, his replacement, Dmitry Medvedev (also of the United Party), made him prime minister. Putin is widely expected to re-assume the presidency in March, with the backing of the party.
But there are cracks showing. United Russia lost ground in the Dec. 4 legislative elections that I witnessed — even despite widespread reports that they stuffed ballot boxes with ordered, perfectly stacked United Russia ballots.
Many Russians are, understandably, cynical. This was 28-year-old Moscow resident Alexander Redolent’s first time voting. He says that Putin behaves like a dictator, and that he voted for the liberal Yabloko Party — though he wanted to vote against them all.
“I do not know any one person who voted for [United Russia],” Redolent says. “No one.”
Nearly 1,000 Russians were arrested immediately after the election for demonstrating in Moscow, including famous anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. And on Dec. 10, on the day I left Russia, about 50,000 gathered near the Kremlin to cry foul on the election results. They carried thousands of handmade signs, covered in propaganda-poster parodies, obscenity, Internet memes and puns. (Some carried balloons with slogans that, in Russian, mean both “I am cheated” and “I am inflated.”) “The feeling is wonderful,” Redolent says. “Nothing will be done with this Duma [the lower house of Russia’s legislative body] and Putin as a leader. But we won, as we saw that a lot of people want to live here and they will continue their fight. The elections that took place on [December] 4th will never repeat.”
The Dec. 5 rally supporting United Russia seemed small by comparison, with about 500 flag-waving supporters enced into a small space to seem more imposing for the cameras. From the stage, a simple painting of a slightly smiling Putin looked benevolently down on the crowd.
Two young women gladly handed us their tiny United Russia flags. Even they weren’t pleased with Putin, saying they thought he’d done absolutely nothing. With such tight government control, apathy has been common among Russians. But this shady election, says Redolent, the 28-year-old first-time voter, were the last straw. Now, Russians care. Redolent — like so many protesters, in Egypt, Iran, New York — organized with his friends on Facebook to attend the protest. He joined the throng protesting the corruption.
But the protests in Russia — and in the Middle East — are cries for something fundamental: freedom. They’re protesting for the right to protest. They’re protesting because, they say, the most basic mechanisms of democracy are broken.
“We see now that protests work,” Redolent says. “Today, our president [Dimitry Mededev] told on TV that all the freedoms will be returned.”
Of course, it’s still Russia. Does Redolent really believe his president?
“Do you believe your politicians?” he asks.