The Temperature’s Dropping for Russia’s Opposition

Vladimir Putin is back in the saddle, and the weather is getting chilly again for Russia's protest movement.


MOSCOW — Olga Romanova, the Russian opposition leader, remained seated as the judge in a Moscow courtroom read aloud the verdict against her husband. She was frantically multi-tasking, text-messaging a crowd of supporters waiting outside even as she blogged about the proceedings on her laptop. Meanwhile, she and her spouse, Alexei Kozlov, carried on a whispered conversation about the recent arrests of their friends in the opposition. When the judge finally announced Kozlov’s sentence — five years in prison for fraud — it came as no surprise to them. But the verdict undoubtedly sent a signal to the rest of the opposition, who are now struggling to come to terms with Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency after the election on March 4.

On a recent morning I visited Romanova in her home in Moscow’s upscale Taganka neighborhood. She lives in a sprawling apartment, filled with antiques — an abode characteristic of the new breed of middle-class dissidents that recently began taking to the streets. But her cheeks sagged and there were dark rings around her eyes — all the telltale signs of a night without sleep. Always bright and optimistic in public in her hip outfits and colorful jewelry, the front-line activist Romanova looked more depressed than I had ever seen her. The night before I arrived, she learned her husband was going back to prison.

Moving like a well-tuned machine, Romanova cooked food for her three pets, fixed me a coffee, answered phone calls from politicians and journalists, and flipped through court appeals, newspaper articles, and opposition agendas that she had worked on at night. "Their plan is to lock him up for a few more years but I fear they might kill him on his way to a Siberian prison," she said in broken voice, lighting one more cigarette.

Romanova heads an organization called "Russia Behind Bars," for the relatives of businessmen who have gone to prison on trumped-up charges so that competitors can steal their companies. It’s not a rare occurrence. Romanova set up the organization when her own husband was imprisoned a few years ago, and continued even after the Russian Supreme Court overthrew his case and released him last September. Instead of putting a full stop to her political life and going back to the Mediterranean resorts she used to love, Romanova actively promoted her fast-growing organization. Ask her why she goes on and she can only shrug her shoulders: "Stop the struggle? But what will I tell the 60,000 families of prisoners participating in my movement?"

During a few months of political spring last fall and winter, Romanova and her movement showed that Putin’s power machine was rotting. Several of the group’s appeals came through; some judges canceled their decisions. But after Putin won the election, the street protests weakened, and the grim reality of life as an opposition activist in today’s Russia was already rushing back into focus for Romanova and Kozlov (who are shown in the photo above, entering the courtroom on March 13).

Romanova and her husband stayed up many nights discussing whether they should flee abroad or stay. A few weeks ago, Romanova and another sharp critic of Putin’s harsh rule, parliamentary deputy Gennady Gudkov, submitted a list of 39 political prisoners to President Medvedev’s administration. Now, after Kozlov’s verdict, the list has grown longer by one name. "We still have a faint, tiny hope that Putin might take a reasonable, non-repressive course, but this hope is growing weaker," Gudkov said.

Politically, winter is setting in again. Over the past few weeks the police state has reasserted itself. Several anti-Putin art and music activists were arrested. Police raided the offices of the bank that finances the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and froze its accounts. In February, the editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station — virtually the only one in the capital that still dares to air critical reporting — was removed from its board of directors by Gazprom, the state-controlled corporation that owns two-thirds of the company’s shares. Meanwhile, prosecutors have investigated whether privately owned Dozhd TV, one of the few independent television broadcasters left, covered recent mass protests in Moscow with the help of Western funding. Those euphoric moments when the opposition was celebrating its new-found strength, just a few weeks ago, suddenly seem far away.

Not that long ago it was highly unusual for Russian businessmen to risk getting involved with anti-Putin movements. Before forming her support group for prisoners’ families, Romanova, a former television journalist and editor in chief of the Russian edition of Business Week, featured primarily in a starkly different world: that of the pampered wives of Ryublovka, the road outside Moscow famous for its prestigious gated communities. It was her family’s personal catastrophe that transformed Romanova, who drives a Mercedes and frequents luxurious beauty salons, first into an activist, then into one of the protest movement’s most charismatic politicians. She admits that just five years ago she "could not think of sitting at the same table" with opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov, the chess master. In her "clichéd opinion," she recalls, they formed a marginal minority that the moneyed classes would be embarrassed to deal with.

Life pivoted after her husband’s first arrest. Now she directs her energies to "Russia Behind Bars," raising money online through a Russian version of Paypal to help finance street protests. Before her husband’s legal troubles, Romanova sported a chic bob, wore a string of pearls around her neck, and used expensive makeup. These days she’s a nervous chain-smoker with a constant air of exhaustion, and admits that she has few occasions to look in the mirror.

In 2009, a Moscow court sentenced her husband Kozlov to eight years in prison, accusing him of fraudulently acquiring shares in an industrial leather tannery. Kozlov argued that his former business partner, a Russian senator who is himself in exile in Israel, had framed him. After the sentencing, Romanova says openly that she paid more than a million dollars in bribes to free her husband. When that failed, she put her skills at publicity to work and formed Russia Behind Bars to join forces with other wives in similar circumstances.

Two years later she was able to declare victory. The Russian Supreme Court overturned Kozlov’s sentence in September 2011. But the system did not let him go. Soon enough he was under investigation again, and the prospect of a second trial overshadowed Romanova’s activism. At the time of the crisis, a close friend of her family, the economist Irina Yasina, urged Romanova to draw energy from the implicit threat. Today, after her husband was sentenced for money laundering and fraud once again, police took him from her side in the courtroom and escorted him off to prison. Her eyes full of tears, Romanova then spoke soberly to members of the opposition and the press. How can a woman remain a human rights defender, stay politically active, or even think of anything else but the lonely years ahead of her on the day husband is sent off to jail?

Yasina, for her part, says that this is when, in fact, "the dissent ripens inside you." Yasina, a former deputy of the now imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who once ran his charitable foundation, Open Russia, recalls her own experience. Around the time her philanthropic career was falling apart and her boss was being turned into Russia’s most famous prisoner, the beautiful and intelligent Yasina, the daughter of a minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government, was brought to ground by a fast-developing multiple sclerosis. She soon wound up in a wheelchair. But she remained an active figure in civil society, marked by her determination to improve living conditions for the disabled.

On a bitterly cold weekend earlier this month, Yasina’s wheelchair rolled onto the stage of an opposition rally. Pushing the chair was Romanova, dressed in knee-high boots and a girlish hat decorated with white ribbons, the symbol of Russia’s protest movement. When it came time for her to address the crowd of more than 100,000, Romanova yelled into the microphone: "Prison is the place for those who steal now! They tell us we are losers for not stealing enough? Putin is the loser!"

The prospect of prison for her husband rescued a marriage that was falling apart, Romanova has said. A few months before he was arrested for the first time, Kozlov marked her birthday by promising that he would make a billion of dollars by the age of 50. She found his business aspirations crass. "Imagine, not a moon from the sky but the boring billion," she says, shaking her head. But it was the ensuing struggle that brought them together. During the euphoric protests of the past two months, it seemed that no accusations or criticism could dent her optimism — whether it was the pro-Putin youth activists who abused her for meeting with Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador, or the broadcasts on state TV hinting that activists like her work for American money.

Now, just a few weeks after her appearance on that stage, comes the far more brutal reality of her husband’s imprisonment. The moment the judge pronounced the crucial words — "isolation from society," legalese for imprisonment — Romanova jumped to her feet, now less the crusading social activist than a wife despairing over her husband’s fate. "Damn this court!" she yelled. It’s a sense of frustration that is undoubtedly echoed, these days, by many like-minded members of Russia’s beleaguered opposition.

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola