Putin cracks down on Moscow's protesters before the victory tears are dry on his face.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
MOSCOW — When Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov left Pushkin Square Monday night, the crowd — estimated by the police at 14,000 — was just starting to disperse. They had stood for two hours in sub-zero temperatures, not 24 hours after Vladimir Putin wept after sweeping to victory in Sunday’s presidential race with 63.6 percent of the vote. They had listened to speeches from the whole gamut of the opposition — the leftists, the nationalists, Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Prokhorov, all had their turn at the microphone. They chanted "Putin is a thief!" and "We are the power!" They weren’t as cheerful as they’d been in past protests, but they were peaceful, despite the crowd of Putin supporters that had arrived from central casting.
Gudkov, who represents the Just Russia party and has been a central figure in this winter’s opposition protests, made sure to talk to the police officer overseeing the whole operation before he left for his appearance on opposition channel RainTV. Ilya Ponomarev, another Just Russia Duma deputy who has been a key figure in the movement, had announced from the stage that he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him at the fountain in the center of the square, a sort-of impromptu town hall. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who’s become the opposition’s most natural leader, and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov had announced that they weren’t leaving the square, period — an unlikely prospect given the temperature. "He told me, fine, let them stay and shout for a few hours," Gudkov said, of the police supervisor.
It didn’t quite go down like that. Gudkov and his son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy from the same party, left Pushkin Square with a clear conscience. Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny’s bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. "Hey! Toss the next one!" one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight.
They got Udaltsov, Navalny, opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a Western journalist, and Ponomarev, who stood shouting into a loudspeaker: "Police! Stop breaking the law! This is a peaceful meeting!" (They quickly released him.) All in all, they got 250 people, including Alena Popova, a glamorous young media consultant and e-government evangelist who has linked up to Ponomarev and the opposition movement. She wasn’t so lucky, though: the police broke her arm.
Hearing about this, the Gudkovs raced back to Pushkin Square from the television studio. By the time they arrived, the riot police and the OMON special police had formed a chain and started to push everyone out of the square. There was plenty of room and not many people, but they managed to get into such a formation — a reverse cowherd — that people, many of them journalists with press badges in full view, started falling and getting trampled underfoot.
Gudkov tried to stop them in their tracks. "I’m a deputy of the Federal Duma!" he said. "I’m a Duma deputy!"
The police kept pushing.
"What the fuck?" Gudkov exclaimed, as the police nearly bowled him over. "Do you hear me? I’m a Duma deputy!"
Dmitry wasn’t having any more luck, even when he flashed his Duma ID.
"Motherfuckers," he grunted as the police shoved him forward. "This is how you elect a fucking president?"
"Where is Gennady Yurievich?" the elder Gudkov growled when the pushing abated for a minute, demanding to see the police supervisor who had upended the contract. "Who is the commanding officer here? Who?"
The police were mute.
When Dmitry Gudkov tried to get through the line to find this commanding officer, he was immediately detained, but released when the officers waiting for him in the police van saw who he was.
Why did the police show such disregard for a government official, ostensibly a reprentative of the people, even when he showed them proof of his identity — and stature?
"Because we haven’t abided by the law here in ages," Dmitry Gudkov told me afterwards, angrily adjusting his shearling. "I was just in Astrakhan, monitoring the vote. They wouldn’t let me into the polling stations. I was climbing over fences to get in, even though, as a Duma deputy, I have the right to walk into any government office without impediment."
It was all a strange echo of the night of Dec. 5, when thousands of people came out to Chistye Prudy in central Moscow to protest the fraudulent parliamentary vote the day before. That night’s protest was peaceful and the cops stood respectfully by until a small faction tried to march down to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. That’s when the batons rained down and bodies were dragged kicking to the arrest vans, and the police made the colossal mistake of arresting Navalny, instantly turning a blogger into a leader of the movement. And instead of turning people away, the violence seemed to galvanize people: Five days later, a crowd of 50,000 showed up to Bolotnaya Square to demand free elections and the respect of their government.
On the eve of the presidential election, I wrote that, when faced with two options in a tense political atmosphere, Putin tends to pick the absolute worst option. The days since — from his paranoiacally armored, tear-filled victory speech when only a third of the votes were counted, to Monday’s crackdown– seem to continue to bear that theory out. Instead of letting the stragglers shout in Pushkin Square until they could no longer stand in ankle-deep snow, to let the protest fizzle away into the very insignificance that Putin claims they represent, the command come down to arrest the sons of bitches — and mint some new martyrs. (One lesson they did seem to learn from Dec. 5, when they jailed Navalny for 15 days: This time, they released him after charging him with a petty offense — organizing a protest, maximum fine $70.)
"It’s not clear what to do with the protests," Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me a couple days before the election. "On one hand, they’re probably thinking, ‘enough leniency, let’s crack down.’ But if they do crack down, then the press is filled with images of contorted faces and police batons, and it’s a very unpleasant picture of Putin’s first day after the election."
And Putin, it should be noted, cares about his image in the West. At an investor conference this fall, he courted Western capital and went on at length about what a European country Russia was. One of the last things he did before the election was to invite the editors of some of the most important European newspapers to his dacha for an interview, partly to talk to them about how Russian foreign policy would continue to be friendly — and business friendly — toward the West during a third Putin term. In May, three weeks after his inauguration, Putin will go to Chicago for the G-8 summit. How good can an alpha dog feel if his victory — which he clearly saw as an emotional, historical milestone — is marred by some roughed-up hipsters?
Already, the chidings are pouring in. Prokhorov, who had just met with a very welcoming, encouraging Putin Monday morning, issued a statement condemning the violence. "I’m outraged by the use of force against people who had gathered to express their civic position," he said. "I am positive that the use of force and arrest of opposition politicians could have been avoided." "Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square," tweeted Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia and close advisor to President Barack Obama, with whom Putin is to have a tête-a-tête in Chicago.
By 11 p.m., four hours after the protest on Pushkin Square had started, there were few people left. Dmitry Gudkov was trying to find out the whereabouts of Ponomarev, Navalny, and the others who had been arrested. A shocked Gennady Gudkov stood talking to a scrum of journalists — who had themselves been roughed up — when a cop with a megaphone walked by.
"Go to the metro," the cop droned. "Stop your illegal actions."
Gudkov did a double take.
"What illegal actions?" he said. "I’m standing in the square, talking to people. I’m not even shouting political slogans!"
I asked him how tonight’s crackdown looked for Putin, so jubilant and generous in his victory.
"Party’s over," Gudkov sighed. "Party’s ruined."