Kremlinology 2012

Vladimir the Unstable

For Putin, third time might not be the charm.

Julia Ioffe
Julia Ioffe

MOSCOW — On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets. He’ll pass St. Basil’s iconic domes, and drive through the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin walls, step out of the limo onto a red carpet — the first proof that he was in that car at all — salute the guards and go inside, to a grand, chandeliered room, where he will take the oath of office. He will have performed this ritual for the third time.

There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon. We’ll see the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We’ll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people’s kidneys. We’ll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.

What the world won’t see is the peaceful, buoyant march down Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, just south of the Kremlin, which brought out at least 70,000 people on a day when many Muscovites had abandoned the city for the holiday weekend. They chanted "Russia without Putin!" and carried the witty posters that have marked this winter’s protest movement. It was a largely pointless event: Aided by fraud or not, Putin had already won, and won in a landslide. Everything he’s done and said in the last five months indicates that the man is not looking for an exit strategy. He will try his damndest to serve the full, six-year term — at least. During his recent address to the Russian parliament last month, his last as prime minister, someone asked Putin if it wouldn’t be a bad idea to strike "in a row" from the Russian constitution. That formulation is what necessitated the elaborate loop-de-loop of Putin stepping down to become prime minister for four years, while a seat-warmer named Dmitry Medvedev tried to make Russians and the rest of the world believe that he wasn’t really a seat warmer. "I think it’s reasonable," Putin said in response to the tee-ball suggestion. "We should probably think about it."

And yet on Sunday, people came out in droves. "I’d be ashamed not to go," one young woman told me. "My grandchildren will ask me, ‘And what did you do when this was happening in Russia?’ I had to go so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by my answer." An older woman, a semi-retired courier missing most of her teeth said, "If not me, who? You get it." The point was to show Putin that, on the eve of his sumptuous, champagne-soaked inauguration, as another young protester told me, "He may have won, but he didn’t win. He didn’t win us."

When the cheering, chanting, motley phalanx — of hipsters, nationalists, anarchists, pensioners, and the middlest of the middle class — finished its parade route, it found its way onto Bolotnaya Square — the site of the day’s rally, as well as of two previous such events — was blocked by a column of OMON special police, and a column of the radical Left Front activists. The corridor to get to Bolotanaya shrank steadily, especially when Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader and organizer of the protest, called for a sit-in with anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny. People didn’t have a chance to sit for long. In an instant, there was shoving and pushing and the people who had just been sitting were up, elbowing and screaming in panic. It was all downhill from there: the smoke bombs, the rocks, the glass bottles, the tear gas, the blood, the spreading of violence into the surrounding streets as nationalists and anarchists went chanting down the avenues, and the police chased them into cafes and metro stations to twist them into headlocks and into overflowing police vans.

It’s not clear who started the violence. There were smoke bombs streaking through the sky in both directions, and the protesters quickly lost their diversity: They became, almost uniformly, angry, young, and male, some of them wearing the signature masks of soccer hooligans. They resisted not only the calls of the police to disperse, but of the organizers to get them into a small camp of tents (an attempt to stay for days, as the protesters in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution did in 2004-2005). "Who is that guy in a blue shirt?" one of the protest organizers barked, pointing to a young man who kept stirring up those around him not to move an inch. "He’s a provocateur! Get him out of here!"

There were definitely provocateurs in the crowd, but whose? Dmitry Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the Just Russia party who has been active in the protest movement, said afterwards that he heard rumors of officers in the notorious anti-extremism wing of the police briefing a group of soccer hooligans — the state’s weapon of choice — in a café before the rally began. But that couldn’t be confirmed. He himself saw young men in black masks charge the police cordon during the sit-in. But he couldn’t confirm whether they were state-hired goons or simply the young men of which the nationalists and anarchists have plenty in their ranks, the young men, full of testosterone, who are only too happy to come out and rage against the machine.

In some ways — indeed, in all the important ways — it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the only lasting images — and memories — of yesterday’s protest will be the blood and the brute force. And, in that, a line has been crossed. The protest movement, once festive and peaceful, then downtrodden but channeled into concrete, effective actions like election monitoring and contesting municipal elections across the country, has become one marked by and met with violence. It has, in other words, entered a period of radicalization, and here’s a tell-tale sign: In the run up to Sunday, the organizers of previous rallies pooh-poohed the May 6 event or were on vacation, while the more radical figures in the movement — like Udaltsov, a Stalinist — took the wheel. And this, of course, plays right into the hands of Putin and company, who have been insisting for months that radical agents bent on creating chaos and bringing color revolutions to Russia, not the liberal middle class, are the core of the protest movement, and should be quashed like the enemies that they are.

The pattern that’s emerging here — the ossification of the Kremlin, the hardening of the opposition — is one that we’ve seen a number of times in recent Russian history. It’s also one that does not end well for Russia. The famously ruthless Bolsheviks who seized power in November 1917 had been radicalized by years of being forced underground by the repressive system of Nicholas II. In response to the social unrest born of rapid industrialization and an unresponsive political system, Nicholas cracked down and insisted on his divine supremacy. The political reforms he did allow — a weak parliament that existed for barely two years — was window dressing that only discredited the process of constructive opposition and political debate. It disillusioned both the establishment and the opposition. Nicholas’s secret police and Siberian prison camps not only did not deter, they inspired. In 1902, imagining what the ideal revolutionary party would look like, Vladimir Lenin wrote that it should be run by a "few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as our security police." Josef Stalin, who escaped from tsarist prisons in Siberia seven times, made sure no one would escape from the ones he built to replace them. He populated them with anyone who could in any way be interpreted as being in dialogue with the state. By the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to gently reform the rusty Soviet state, the people who had pushed for "socialism with a human face" 30 years earlier had been so marginalized and criminalized by the state that they come to see it as an enemy — which, of course, is exactly how the state viewed them. Consequently, they were not interested in its evolution; they were only happy to see it disappear completely.

What happens, in other words, is that a paralysis sets in: Those in power see compromise as weakness, while those forced onto the streets by its absence see it as selling out. And the more each side digs in, the less a constructive solution becomes possible. The only way out becomes a revolution and the complete destruction of the status quo. And, as the Russian experience of 1917 and 1991 showed us, striving for a clean slate and a fresh start has a very steep cost.

We saw the seeds of this process in the winter. Addressing a pool of Russian journalists on Dec. 24, four days after an estimated 100,000 Muscovites protested on Sakharov Avenue, an unprecedented number for the past two decades, Putin shrugged and said, "there’s no one to talk to." In the preceding weeks, he had dismissed the protesters as U.S. State Department pawns, as provocateurs bent on violence, and as the howling, delusional monkeys in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. He even nervously admitted to mistaking the symbol of the protest — a white ribbon pinned to the lapel — for a condom. It didn’t help, of course, when the protests kicked off Dec. 5, Navalny roared into the microphone with the promise that "we will cut their throats." Or that, in the two days of protests that followed, police arrested nearly a thousand people in Moscow.

As Putin puts his hand on the constitution and celebrates with a feast of duck and avocado puree and sturgeon steaks and the finest Russian crus, Russia will stand at a crossroads. The opposition can go the way of excruciatingly slow but constructive civic activism of past months, or it can splinter into the hard and the angry on one side, and, on the other, the majority that is turned off by their tactics. (And we’ve seen how that’s worked out for Russia before.) As for the Kremlin, it seems to have staked out a clear and definitive position. Putin, with his diving for ancient urns and shooting tigers for the public’s adoring gaze, seems bent on comic, sinister ossification, perhaps à la Qaddafi. And while the streets of Moscow filled with the spreading chaos of Bolotnaya, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was even more direct. "In my opinion, the police acted gently," he said in an interview with Dozhd television. "I would like them to be harsher." Hearing this, an opposition blogger tweeted: He wants them to be harsher, he wrote. "What are they going to do, shoot?"

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