Foreign Policy: Russia's Decemberists No one's quite sure what's going on in the streets of Moscow — or what to call it — but it's growing and powerful ... and could all end badly. Foreign Policy's Julia Ioffe takes a closer look at the unrest in Russia.
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Foreign Policy: Russia's Decemberists

Police officers escort an opposition activist who was detained for an attempt to hold an unauthorized protest, just outside the Kremlin in Moscow, on Dec. 4, 2011, during the parliament election. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Police officers escort an opposition activist who was detained for an attempt to hold an unauthorized protest, just outside the Kremlin in Moscow, on Dec. 4, 2011, during the parliament election.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Julia Ioffe is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

Tonight is the first night without protests here since some 6,000 young people gathered Monday night to express their frustration with the electoral fraud in Sunday's parliamentary elections and, more broadly, the institution of Putinism. They came out again Tuesday night, where they were met by thousands of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth activists. And again on Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested, and many of them — including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, a political rising star since he coined the phrase "Party of Crooks and Thieves" to describe Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia — are still in jail. Moscow is filled with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops and armored personnel carriers, and the city's skies crackle with the sound of helicopter blades.

But what's next? In short: No one knows. Sure, the Russian blogosphere is deep into planning the next protest, scheduled in Moscow for Saturday and which, according to the Facebook group created for it, more than 30,000 people are planning to attend, and Yandex, the Russian search engine, has posted a map pinpointing the addresses and times of protests scheduled all over Russia. But, meanwhile, the Western press is scrambling to tag this phenomenon with something, anything — the "Slavic Spring," "OccupyKremlin," or "White Revolution" for the white ribbons organizers are handing out — to make it digestible, classifiable, understandable.

Neither the scope, nor the trajectory, nor the efficacy of the growing wave of protests is clear, and predicting, or even gauging, their success is still impossible. What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is that whatever is happening now is very real, and very different from anything that has happened in many, many years. Something, in short, has changed — essentially overnight — and there is no going back to the day before.

At least nominally, the protests are about contesting the outcome of Sunday's elections. There is some substance to this, as each day brings more and more eyewitness accounts of electoral fraud, of carousels, of ballot stuffing, of dead souls voting. There is a sense that, were it not for such tricks, United Russia would not have gotten even the paltry 49.5 percent of the vote that the authorities claim. In Moscow, according to an exit poll by FOM, a Kremlin-friendly pollster, United Russia got 27 percent, a far cry from the national average. Moreover, the people who came out on Monday night — surprising both the Kremlin and the protest's organizers — were people who had participated in those elections. For many of them, it was a concrete issue (feeling duped) rather than an abstract one. Perhaps this is why the numbers were so shockingly large by Moscow standards, which has up until now seen only sparse and largely radical or elderly crowds of a few hundred. (Though it should be said that protests over other tangible things, like foreign car imports or monetizing pensions, were always well populated.)

So what changed? It wasn't simply that people were afraid to get involved and now aren't. The axiom that people felt that it was pointless to protest was, in large part, true. For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don't want to, or because they're disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design. So, too, was the official Kremlin line, which boiled down to this: After the chaotic and ruinous 1990s, the country needed stability and material comfort, while democracy and other such nebulous things could come at a later, unspecified time.

Ironically, the problem, at least for Putin now that he seeks to return to the presidency he first assumed on New Year's Eve 1999, is that he did provide the promised stability and economic benefit to many people, both intentionally — by raising pensions, for example — and unintentionally, as commodity prices took off during his initial tenure as president. This flooded state coffers, lined his friends' pockets, and at least some of it trickled down. For people who experienced the penury of the 1990s, these rivulets — small as they were compared to the billions the new Putin set of oligarchs was making — were nothing to sneeze at.

Yet it also meant this: Stability worked in ways Putin might now be paying for. As Robert Shlegel, a young Duma deputy from United Russia and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, told me a few days ago, "We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice." That may sound like straight out of a political theory textbook, until you consider what he said when I called him on Thursday to ask about the growing protests. He recalled a conversation with a friend who said he planned on going to Saturday's demonstration. "I said to him, 'What is the problem? You have a job, you have an apartment, you have a car. What else do you need?'" Shlegel recounted. Why, in other words, are you suddenly violating your end of the social compact of the 2000s: You get richer and buy cars and take vacations, but leave the politics to us.

What else do you need? As could be seen at the week's mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what Shlegel said they needed: dignity and justice. And not the lofty definitions of those words that one often hears in Washington. I mean something more basic: a state that trusts and respects its citizens, a state that sees its people as citizens rather than as bydlo, or cattle — as the common saying goes in Russia. When Russians describe their political system today, the phrase they most often use is ruchnoe upravlenie, or manual control — which, of course, implies an utter lack of both those things.

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