Marching against Putin

After we shook hands and exchanged greetings, World Chess Champion and diehard Putin foe Garry Kasparov proved to be a vigorous walker, striding so rapidly with his two bodyguards that I had to break into a semi-trot or risk losing him in the crowd gathering on Pushkin Square. Within five minutes we reached the march’s ...

Photo By KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo By KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo By KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

After we shook hands and exchanged greetings, World Chess Champion and diehard Putin foe Garry Kasparov proved to be a vigorous walker, striding so rapidly with his two bodyguards that I had to break into a semi-trot or risk losing him in the crowd gathering on Pushkin Square. Within five minutes we reached the march's designated starting point on Strastnoy Boulevard, just a bit after the scheduled launch time of 2pm. Around Kasparov assembled his supporters, members of a group known as the United Civil Front, waving long droopy white flags; to our right was former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov; to our left anti-corruption firebrand Aleksey Navalny and his seemingly seven-foot-tall hoary-haired bodyguard; further to the left (both physically and politically), and amid a phalanx of youths bearing red flags, was Sergey Udaltsov, the indefatigable leader of the Left Front, in black shades and his characteristic black jacket. Tellingly, for the first time, he had not pinned the protest movement's symbol of peace -- a white ribbon -- to his lapel.

A megaphone-wielding organizer announced the beginning of the march, which was to proceed through central Moscow to Sakharov Prospekt, site of the authorized rally that on December 24 of last year drew more than a hundred thousand people, following tainted elections to the State Duma earlier in the month. Remembering the vicious cold of that day, I couldn't help feeling grateful for the mild weather we now enjoyed. But the march turned out to be far more taxing than I had expected. The pace was roughly a half-step at a time, which meant we were all bumping into one another and stepping on one another's heels. Quickly we began to sweat, and I found myself compelled to disoblige a polite, curious marcher who wanted to discuss the demerits of President Obama's Russia policy. The United Civil Front flags were strangely elongated, and kept flapping in our faces, which in my case obstructed the view of Kasparov's tweed-clad back.

A helicopter menacingly circled noisily above us, inciting shouts of "Putin uletay!" (fly away!). Inevitably a few marchers cracked jokes about the president's recent escapade, which had him piloting a deltaplane to lead lost cranes to a presumably better and more crane-friendly wilderness. Chants rang out: "Putin to Magadan!" (a bleak city that once oversaw Stalin's most frightful labor camps), "Down with Chekist power!" and "We are the power here!"

After we shook hands and exchanged greetings, World Chess Champion and diehard Putin foe Garry Kasparov proved to be a vigorous walker, striding so rapidly with his two bodyguards that I had to break into a semi-trot or risk losing him in the crowd gathering on Pushkin Square. Within five minutes we reached the march’s designated starting point on Strastnoy Boulevard, just a bit after the scheduled launch time of 2pm. Around Kasparov assembled his supporters, members of a group known as the United Civil Front, waving long droopy white flags; to our right was former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov; to our left anti-corruption firebrand Aleksey Navalny and his seemingly seven-foot-tall hoary-haired bodyguard; further to the left (both physically and politically), and amid a phalanx of youths bearing red flags, was Sergey Udaltsov, the indefatigable leader of the Left Front, in black shades and his characteristic black jacket. Tellingly, for the first time, he had not pinned the protest movement’s symbol of peace — a white ribbon — to his lapel.

A megaphone-wielding organizer announced the beginning of the march, which was to proceed through central Moscow to Sakharov Prospekt, site of the authorized rally that on December 24 of last year drew more than a hundred thousand people, following tainted elections to the State Duma earlier in the month. Remembering the vicious cold of that day, I couldn’t help feeling grateful for the mild weather we now enjoyed. But the march turned out to be far more taxing than I had expected. The pace was roughly a half-step at a time, which meant we were all bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s heels. Quickly we began to sweat, and I found myself compelled to disoblige a polite, curious marcher who wanted to discuss the demerits of President Obama’s Russia policy. The United Civil Front flags were strangely elongated, and kept flapping in our faces, which in my case obstructed the view of Kasparov’s tweed-clad back.

A helicopter menacingly circled noisily above us, inciting shouts of "Putin uletay!" (fly away!). Inevitably a few marchers cracked jokes about the president’s recent escapade, which had him piloting a deltaplane to lead lost cranes to a presumably better and more crane-friendly wilderness. Chants rang out: "Putin to Magadan!" (a bleak city that once oversaw Stalin’s most frightful labor camps), "Down with Chekist power!" and "We are the power here!"

An hour later we reached Sakharov Prospekt and confronted some of the seven thousand police deployed to keep order. Ten months have passed since the protests began, and the government has only hardened its stance, adopting laws that raised fines on demonstrators, turned libel into a felony, and required NGOs receiving funding from abroad to register themselves as "foreign agents." Yet around fifty thousand people had come out to make their voices heard — a sign that the protest movement is alive and well, despite the new repressive legislation.

A stage with a huge plasma screen had been set up; the final ten yards or so before the podium was cordoned off and reserved for the press. It was there that I managed to get a few minutes with Kasparov, away from the scrums of reporters besieging the march’s leaders.

"What’s next for the protest movement?" I asked.

Kasparov pointed to the URL (cvk2012.org — in Russian) on a banner beneath the podium. "We’re starting a coordinating council and are going to hold elections for it. This will be the organ that will represent the opposition’s demands to the government."

"And you’ll be running for it?"

"Yes."

"Will Putin finish his term in office?" I asked.

He chuckled dismissively. "He’s got one or two years left, maximum."

"How will you dislodge him?"

"The world is now in crisis, one that can only benefit Putin and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinajad by keeping oil prices high. When prices fall, they will take Putin’s regime with them" — a plausible eventuality, given that Russia relies on revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons abroad to finance half its federal budget, at the same time that the government is running a deficit.

The energetic youthful oppositionist Ilya Yashin took the mic and welcomed the crowd. The first speaker was Gennady Gudkov, the portly oppositionist deputy from the A Just Russia party; last week, the State Duma deprived him of his mandate on spurious grounds. At December’s gathering, Duma deputies who spoke were booed, but this time the crowd shouted plaudits and cheered. Calling Putin a "pakhan" (head of a gang of thieves), he warned the government that if it doesn’t agree to new elections, it will be overthrown. Also branding Putin a pakhan, Nemtsov demanded new elections, and introduced the social issue theme, calling for a freeze on (recently hiked) utility payments, and the right to strike. Kasparov proclaimed that Putin’s Russia was bucking the worldwide trend, cutting the budget for education and raising that of defense. "We will prevail," he chanted in conclusion, "because this is our country!" Navalny explained that "the destruction of corruption means money for each of us," and asked the crowd to nurture its fury at the regime and "do something every day" for the protest movement. Udaltsov thundered that he was dressed in black to show his "hatred for those crooks, hatred for those murderers," and said he had hidden away his wife and children so "they wouldn’t come after them." His beautiful, raven-haired spouse Anastasia had emceed earlier demonstrations, but not this one. As is now customary, police detained him after the march, but soon let him go.

All in all, less energy than expected flowed through this demonstration’s philippics, and backstage, I saw, Navalny looked tired. But the crowds attested to one thing: The protest movement is not going away. Putin himself, according to his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, didn’t bother to watch the demonstration online, but was instead down in Sochi meeting with Belorussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. He would do well to note that the once-grand "dictators’ club" is shrinking — a trend he won’t buck indefinitely, if Kasparov and his determined cohorts get their way.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and the author, most recently, of Murderers in Mausoleums.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at the Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic e-book. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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