Waves Of Russians Fill The Streets To Protest Putin

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow Saturday, shouting "We exist!" against Vladimir Putin's inevitable return to the presidency. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Julia Ioffe, Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent, about post-election protests in Russia.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow yesterday. They shouted slogans against the once and future president, Vladimir Putin, and chanted: We exist. It's been a week since parliamentary elections kicked off a wave of protests. Russians are frustrated by what domestic and international observers say was widespread electoral fraud on behalf of Putin's United Russia Party.

For more, we've got Julia Ioffe on the line. She's Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine and The New Yorker and she joins us from Moscow.

Good morning, Julia.

JULIA IOFFE: Hi.

CORNISH: So, begin describing the scene in Moscow yesterday.

IOFFE: It was tens of thousands of people, nobody is really sure how many. Even though most of them couldn't hear what was happening on the stage, and all of the slogans being shouted from the stage, they were smiling. They were talking to each other. They were having political discussions with each other spontaneously with people they don't know. And if you've ever been to Moscow, Moscow is a very aggressive city. People are very mean to each other. They don't really engage in conversations with people they don't know.

And moreover, we've heard for years that Russians are apolitical, that they don't care. Yesterday turned out tens of thousands of them care and they're tired of not having a say in it anymore.

CORNISH: What was the response from the police in Russia, because I understand it's unusual for Moscow to give permission for so large a demonstration in the first place?

IOFFE: What was incredible was that unlike the way the police behaved on Monday and Tuesday, which was rather violent when they arrested almost a thousand people, the police were extremely polite. There wasn't a feeling that the people who would come out where the enemies of the police or that police were their enemies.

CORNISH: What kinds of demands did you hear from the protesters yesterday?

IOFFE: The first was new elections. The second thing was that opposition parties, who have been blocked from registering as official parties that they be registered and be allowed to participate in the elections. And the final demand was that Vladimir Churov, who is the head of the Central Election Commission - he's an old childhood friend of Putin and is openly partisan - they demanded his dismissal. However, this morning, we heard that the Central Election Commission has dismissed that possibility of his being fired.

CORNISH: One thing that I was reading about, Julia, is this idea that Putin helped create the middle class; many of which are out there protesting now. And what part of that has played in this dissatisfaction with him politically?

IOFFE: This is a class of people that did very well in the last 11, 10 years. Putin has always talked about stability first; that we need stability, we need people not to be worried about where their next meal is coming from, or if they'll get their next paycheck or their next pension installment, and then we can think about political reforms, et cetera, at a later unspecified time.

You know, stability and cars and apartments are not enough anymore. People, you know, they're on to their next set of demands, and there's a sense that the Kremlin hasn't quite caught up with that.

CORNISH: And lastly, is there any indication that the opposition is strong enough to push for some significant change?

IOFFE: I don't really have that sense yet and nobody really knows what's happening next. In a week, there'll be more protests but it's not clear who's organizing them. We also have to see how the Kremlin will respond. So far, Putin's spokesman sent out a statement saying that, you know, we hear you and we will continue to listen to your demands.

But there is a sense that they're still trying to buy time, and that there is may be still hope in the Kremlin that this will all kind of fade and lose steam. People on the square yesterday were saying that this is the first time that I've come out, but it won't be the last; that if they don't listen to us, I'll come out again.

CORNISH: Julia Ioffe is Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker and Foreign Policy magazine. She was speaking to us from Moscow.

Thank you so much, Julia.

IOFFE: Thank you.

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