A new Russian Revolution?

Published in the Daily Mail (December 27th, 2011)

Mikhail had not been on a demonstration before. But on Saturday the 46-year-old property salesman joined tens of thousands of Russians in huge protests against Vladimir Putin, the former KGB chief who has held the nation in such a tight grip for 12 years. Ignoring the freezing weather, Mikhail was swept along in the sea of flag-waving demonstrators demanding an end to Putin’s rule. ‘You can feel that things are changing,’ he said. ‘We’re not afraid any more.’

Organisers claimed 120,000 people took part in the Moscow protest, which would make it the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Other major events took place across Russia — a handful of hardy activists even braved temperatures of -15c in one town by the Kazakh border.

These are the latest — and largest — in a wave of protests that have flared up this month following elections on December 4 which were rigged to give victory to Putin’s United Russia party.

The depth of anger and scale of the protests has shaken the Kremlin to its core, and rattled a leader who prides himself on his iron man image and rigorous control of the country. Inevitably, the sudden eruption of anger has drawn comparisons with the Arab spring.

Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and the movement’s most charismatic leader, told the Moscow rally this weekend that there were enough protesters to take over the Kremlin immediately if they chose to. ‘We are a peaceful force, we won’t do that — yet. But if the crooks and thieves continue trying to deceive us and lie to us, we will take power ourselves. It is ours.’

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent a message of support — and later called on Putin to quit. Other speakers included Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion; Alexei Kudrin, who recently resigned as Putin’s finance minister; and Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known as Russia’s leading crime writer under his pen name Boris Akunin.

Like many involved in this middle-class uprising, Chkhartishvili is new to politics but fed up with their posturing prime minister. ‘Putin is out of date, he is obsolete,’ he told me last week. ‘All of a sudden he looks ridiculous.’

He said the demonstrations were about decency and dignity — echoing two words I have heard so often this year in Libya, Syria and Egypt — rather than poverty or jobs. ‘The people protesting have everything but they are not happy. They feel insulted by the things going on around them.’What do they hope to achieve? ‘I want not to feel ashamed about my state and my government,’ said Chkhartishvili. ‘They lie, they cheat, they corrupt everything they touch. I have felt this for several years but now the whole middle-class feel the same.’These are courageous words in a country that still resorts to Soviet-style repression, with anti-Putin businessmen bankrupted, journalists beaten and dissidents disappearing in the middle of the night. So was he worried about the risk? No, he says. The authorities are in no position to fight this extraordinary groundswell of protest. ‘It would not make sense — it would be like breaking the thermometer when a fever is raging.’Like so many explosions of unrest that caught the world by surprise this year, there were warning signs: little-noticed flickers of fightback from ordinary people against the strong-arm tactics of a brutal, corrupt state. Increasingly, a new generation used the internet to circumvent Putin’s control of television.

Take Yevgenia Chirikova, a stylish mother-of-two who has emerged as another of the leading lights in the movement. An unlikely rebel, she focused on her family and thriving business like so many Russians in the booming economy under Putin — until she went for a walk in an ancient oak forest near her Moscow home four years ago.

After seeing red paint marks on the trees, she discovered much of her beloved forest was to be felled for a new road. So she became an eco-activist, organising protests and publicity to stop the bulldozers — little knowing the oligarch most-closely involved with the scheme was Putin’s judo coach and close friend.

As her campaign of civil disobedience took off, the supportive local newspaper editor had his car bombed, his dog killed, then was beaten so badly he lost a leg and was left brain-damaged. He remains in a wheelchair.

Earlier this year, in a chilling reminder of the savage excesses of the Soviet era, officials declared Chirikova an unfit mother. She was threatened with having her young daughters taken from her and placed in a state orphanage. In desperation, she posted a video online about her case, sparking such an outcry she saw off the danger and even won an apology. ‘People who were indifferent to ecological causes suddenly sympathised with a woman who’d been threatened with the loss of her children,’ she said recently.

Now a popular national figure, she has joined the calls urging fellow citizens to unite against ‘crooks and thieves’ — the nickname given to United Russia, Putin’s party. ‘It started with the view of the trees from my window and then I gradually began to understand that the authorities are behind all this. They are systematically stealing from us.’

Corruption, of course, is nothing new in Russia. But for many years the Russian people engaged in a Faustian pact with Putin: he delivered stellar, oil-fuelled economic growth, and while the emerging middle-classes bought the latest electronic goods and travelled abroad they ignored his kleptocracy and human rights abuses.

And anyway, most Russians had had enough of democracy after the chaos that followed the end of Communism, when living standards collapsed, criminals flourished, state assets ended up in the hands of a few oligarchs, and the former superpower looked a spent force.

Putin may once have been a senior KGB officer, who excused the agency’s role in Stalin’s purges and refused to read books by defectors since they had ‘betrayed the Motherland’, but he offered stability, prosperity and the restoration of national pride. It proved an immensely popular mix — until recently.

The first cracks in this unspoken concordat between the then-president and his people came with the economic crisis three years ago, when rich oligarchs such as Peter Mandelson’s friend Oleg Deripaska were bailed out by the state after their fortunes crashed. Ordinary people struggling through the downturn were furious.

Small incidents revealed a mood of growing dissent and defiance. Car dealers in the remote eastern port of Vladivostok, angered by heavy new tariffs that put up prices on cars they imported from nearby Japan, sparked big protests in the city.

Families began to fight back when ordinary people involved in car accidents with powerful officials ended up in jail — even when it was the officials who were clearly at fault, driving on the wrong side of the road or drunk. A television celebrity, seeing a Kremlin figure eating in an expensive restaurant, got out her mobile phone and confronted him over whether taxpayers were picking up the bill, then posted the video online.

Now there is this brewing storm. At the end of September Putin confirmed fears he intended returning to the presidency in next year’s elections after a job swap with his puppet Dimitry Medvedev, forced on him by the constitution’s limit of two terms on the presidency.

The generation that grew up and grew wealthy under Putin suddenly saw 12 more years of the same old corruption and political stagnation ahead of them. For all his reputed facelifts, Putin is now 59 — the age of male life expectancy in Russia — and appears increasingly outmoded, especially to the urban middle classes who now comprise about one-fifth of Russia.

Anger boiled over a month ago at a most unlikely venue — a martial arts tournament which staged a bout between two heavyweight ‘ultimate fighters’. Putin — who loves to present himself in the most macho light possible with publicity stunts such as swimming a Siberian river, shooting a whale with a crossbow and hanging out with Hollywood hardman Jean-Claude van Damme — went along to watch.

Afterwards, he took the microphone to congratulate the winner. But as he spoke, something unprecedented happened: the 20,000-strong crowd booed and jeered, blowing wolf-whistles as he stumbled over his words in shock. Such things don’t happen to Russian leaders.

The scenes were edited out on television, of course. But within hours they went viral on the internet — and with more than 50million users in Russia, this technology-obsessed nation has the biggest internet community in Europe.

Then came the rigged Duma elections at the start of this month. Crass frauds were exposed by journalists, bloggers and observers, often in video evidence posted online despite cynical cyber-attacks by the authorities that closed down many independent websites on the day of the ballot.

Putin’s United Russia party’s share of the vote fell from 64 per cent to just below 50 per cent — although, because of fraud, turnout seemed to be well over 100 per cent in some places. Analysts say the party’s true share of the vote was perhaps 20 points lower than this — but as Stalin once said: ‘It’s not the people that vote who count; it’s the people who count the votes.’

The following day, after fury erupted on the internet, a demonstration by 5,000 Muscovites ended in clashes with the police, hundreds of arrests and ringleaders jailed — including the charismatic protest leader and anti-corruption blogger Alex Navalny, who was given a 15-day sentence. The next day, there was another protest, with more arrests and more beatings.

Four days later came protests around the country that were too well-organised and too big to stop. Polite participants wore white ribbons — the symbol of the movement — and held witty home-made banners, such as ‘146 per cent of Muscovites are for free elections,’ alongside more direct messages saying ‘The rats should go.’

Typical among them was the young, American-educated boss of a successful marketing firm fed up with dishonest, tax-dodging competitors. ‘I was outraged by the fraud and obfuscation that comes down from the highest levels,’ he said. ‘I thought that if I am an honest person I had to go on the march.’

Putin’s bumbling reaction in a four-and-a-half-hour press conference, in which he trotted out the tired cliches used by desperate despots, such as saying the protests were orchestrated by the West and accusing those taking part of being paid, only fuelled fears he has lost his touch. Bizarrely, he even compared the protesters’ white ribbons to condoms — which led to lots of jokey banners and condoms blown up like balloons at the latest events.

Few things demonstrate the new mood better than Afisha, a lifestyle magazine that usually focuses on fashion and arts but has substantial coverage of the protests in its latest edition. ‘Everything has changed,’ said Yury Saprykin, 38, its editorial director. ‘Not necessarily in the sense of changing the political system but in changing people’s minds.

‘It is hard for people living in a country like Britain to understand, but for years people here became used to living free from politics. They built a wall between themselves and the state and didn’t think about politics because it wasn’t something they could influence.’ In a sense, this is a new Russian revolution, but it is not a repeat of 1917.

For one thing, the prosperous protesters freely admit they have too much to lose. Yet the Russian middle classes have woken up and are demanding to play a role in shaping their society — which leaves Putin in an unusually vulnerable position, with his popularity plummeting and his re-election looming in March.

Few doubt he will manipulate his way to victory. Already there are signs of a Kremlin fightback. First a surprising challenge emerged from a playboy oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, presumed to be a ruse to divide the opposition. Then came the leak of damaging tapped phone calls from veteran opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, in which he talked about his fellow anti-Kremlin leaders such as woodlands campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova in offensive terms and belittled his own supporters as ‘internet hamsters’ and ‘scared penguins’.

But regardless of the protests — and whether they fizzle out in the New Year or fire up into something far more disruptive depends as much on the Kremlin’s reaction as on the chaotic organisers — there seems to be something significant stirring in Russia: the start of genuine political debate and the opening up of civil society.

Ultimately, this could modernise Russia’s government just as all that gushing oil money modernised cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Indeed, the Kremlin offered some minor concessions before the weekend’s show of strength.

I met Boris Nemtsov and Chirikova putting on a display of unity at a place that symbolises this change: a funky television studio in a former chocolate factory filled with new media companies. It looked like the offices of a music channel, with giant pink lampshades dangling from the ceiling and a pony-tailed weather presenter, but this was Rain TV, Russia’s first independent news channel.

Launched last year, it was booted off the main cable network one week later but managed to re-establish itself with the tacit encouragement of Medvedev. Its editor-in-chief is Mikhail Zygar, a floppy-haired 30-year-old former war reporter, who admitted he was as surprised as anyone by the speed of the Russian awakening.

‘People want to speak out suddenly, to be respected in their own country,’ he said. ‘It’s not a revolution, but the atmosphere has changed. Now Putin knows everyone is watching him and he is not a sacred person any more.

‘He was once considered a tsar. But he knows now that people will not treat him like a tsar any more.’

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